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Selling to Libraries: The Changing Landscape

Those of you who make a living selling to libraries may be worried about the current financial situation in the United States and across the world. Selling to libraries, as any good sales representative knows, isn’t like selling to small businesses, government agencies or big corporations. Libraries rely on a mixture of public funding and donations to stay afloat, and as the financial crisis deepens, both of these sources are on the wane — and libraries may be going with them.

Don’t panic just yet; selling to libraries isn’t about to go the way of buggy-whip manufacture or rotary phone repair. But the landscape is changing, and it’s important for salespersons to know what’s going on in their customers’ world.

In the early days of America, libraries were private; churches, colleges, and even local doctors and clergymen had small libraries that they made available to the public. Because they were private and maintained entirely by their owners, most of these libraries enjoyed little in the way of preservation or maintenance, and often faded away when their owners died or closed their doors. In those days, selling to libraries was generally no different from selling to individuals.

But as times changed, so did libraries, and in 1742 Ben Franklin established the Library Company of Philadelphia — the first in the fledgling United States. In the years to come, libraries became more and more popular.

But recently, the Philadelphia Public Library — the direct ancestor of Franklin’s Library Company — was nearly forced to close its doors forever.

The library — the sixth largest in the United States — was threatened with closure due to lack of state funding. Fortunately, Pennsylvania’s state legislature, in what the Philadelphia Daily News called a “photo finish,” approved budget relief to keep the library open. But the threat was still there, and anyone whose job involved selling to libraries in Pennsylvania is probably still wiping sweat from his brow.

The threat faced by libraries in Washington, D.C. is less dire, but frustrating nonetheless; a whopping 11 percent budget cut forced all public libraries in the nation’s capital to drastically abridge their hours of operation. Selling to libraries there just got a little harder, as the reduced hours may mean fewer members coming to borrow materials.

Even as some libraries face challenges and potential closures, though, others are finding new ways to adapt to the shifting economic and technological playing field.

The library at Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts college-prep school, is discarding all its books. Every one. In their place, the library is spending about $500,000 to create a new “learning center” with huge flat-screen televisions, laptop ports, and electronic book-display tools similar to Amazon’s Kindle.

And while Cushing Academy’s library isn’t public, it may serve as a model for other libraries in the future. If Cushing’s experiment is successful, look for other libraries to begin eliminating books, microfilms and other classic materials in favor of other, higher-tech tools. Selling to libraries may begin looking a lot like science fiction.

As technology and the economy changes, the field of library science will change with it. Libraries will adapt to new developments in systems management, information technology and publishing, even as they deal with waxing and waning models of public funding. As a salesperson selling to libraries, it’s your task to keep track of these developments.

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