Click here to learn more about this conference.

Volume 12 No. 3 • April/May 1998
Positioning and Marketing Academic Libraries to Students
by Rae Helton and Stuart Esrock

Complicated and scary: This is how some students view academic libraries. It's no different on our campus. Students have varying impressions of libraries based on their personal experiences, what they've heard, pictures they've seen, or even worse, stereotypes depicted on TV and movie screens. Our dilemma was how to break away from the stereotype and, at the same time, help students become more aware of our services here at the University of Louisville Libraries.

The U of L Libraries consists of four professional-school libraries, the University Archives, and the Ekstrom Library, the largest library on our main campus. The University of Louisville is a large, urban institution and we provide services to a diverse group of users, including 22,000 students. A large number of these users are nontraditional students who commute, work, and have families.

One of our first attempts to alter our image involved creating a friendlier physical environment in our libraries. Lighting was improved, additional portable computer connections were added, areas were painted, and comfortable seating was added. To help bring more users into the library, we opened a gourmet coffee bar in the lobby of the Ekstrom Library last fall. A vacant information desk was transformed into a haven for coffee lovers. Faculty, staff, and students now come to the library for information, biscotti, and espresso! But given many years of being seen as "just another institutional library," we knew it would take more than a few tables and a couple pots of coffee to get potential users to view us in a new light.

In an attempt to improve our services, we reorganized our library faculty and staff into teams. The new team environment allows us to maximize talents and resources. We've also adopted a customer service philosophy system-wide so that we can be more responsive.

But, back to the original problem: What else could we do to create a fresher image for the library so that our services would be used on a more frequent and thorough basis? Here at the University of Louisville, we believe the answer lies largely in capitalizing on the increasing prevalence of electronic information sources. But, first and foremost, we believe we need to look at how we think about our users.

Think Like a Marketer—Segment Your Audience

It's not always easy for librarians to think of programs and services as if they were consumer products (like income tax returns, athletic shoes, or even automobiles). Limited time and funding often push marketing to the bottom of the priority list. But for those with a professional background in marketing (and we both fall into that category, although one of us [Helton] is now a librarian and the other [Esrock] is now a professor), it is almost inevitable to think about practically everything in those terms. However, any information professional who listens to and acts on the unique needs of users is thinking like a marketer. Indeed, library services can be packaged and promoted like almost any other product. The first step in such thinking is dividing your user base into target audience segments.

As many of you already know, it is not wise to lump together all the potential users of your library and promote services to this mass audience in exactly the same way. Each group in our society has different wants, needs, values, motivations, influences, language, slang terms, etc. Likewise, each library has different types of clientele. If we wanted to motivate these different groups to use our library services, we could use a be-all-things-to-all-people approach. While this "shotgun" approach is commonly implemented in public institutions, it typically results in a sterile, unexciting image and is often not very helpful. Remember that we want to motivate people who may not realize they want or need us! The key is to make our library services relevant to each group of potential users.

In so doing, we "segment" our library clientele into user groups (i.e., senior citizens, kids, business users), create services that meet their specific needs, and then try to motivate each group in a different fashion. Our library can still retain a core image (perhaps user friendly or high technology) that is promoted to all groups. But segmenting the mass into narrow target groups allows us to position our library and services so that they have more relevance to the lives of these individual groups.

Here at the University of Louisville, the audiences we needed to address were faculty, staff, and, of course, students. The student audience was by far the largest and most prominent, and we needed to persuade them to make more extensive use of our library services. If you think about this situation, it should make perfectly logical sense that what would motivate a student to use the library would be far different than what would motivate a faculty member.

First, we needed a product to promote that would meet the unique needs of this student audience.

Information Literacy Is ...

We began formalizing the idea for an Information Literacy Program (ILP) 2 years ago to help potential users learn how to access and interpret information. Of course, teaching and instruction are far from innovations for academic libraries. Traditional bibliographic instruction relied on professors bringing their classes into the library. This grew from its simplistic roots as an orientation to the library into a more proactive act of teaching research and information-seeking skills. Library instruction, as it was taught previously, stopped at the point of finding the needed piece of information.

Information literacy, on the other hand, broadens the scope to include not only identifying the need for information and learning where to find it, but also how to evaluate, manipulate, and synthesize the information. Still, many people confuse information literacy with computer literacy. While technology will continue to change rapidly, strategies for information literacy (including critical thinking skills) are much more stable. The proliferation of electronic information and publishing on the Web has created an increasing need to not only master search strategies, but also to gain an understanding of the value of information in everyday life.

The phrase "information literacy" has great meaning for information professionals and educators. It has little meaning, however, in the busy life of students. Because of the changing nature of our information-oriented society and the increasingly crucial nature of these skills, we felt we could not afford to wait for students to come to usCwe had to get the information literacy message to them. Consequently, ILP became a key part of our libraries' strategic plan to call student attention to this important arena, to change the way students view libraries, and to position the program in a way that was meaningful to them.

Building an Information Literacy Program

At the core of the ILP is our instruction facility, the Collaborative Learning Center (CLC). The CLC is a multimedia classroom with 25 workstations that allows students hands-on opportunities to use databases and other resources. We offer a variety of research classes that have been tailored to meet the unique needs of students. "Jump Start" classes are drop-in mini sessions designed to cover the basics. Web Research is our most popular class. We've also created an ILP Web site ( that has a separate section for students.

When building the ILP, we tried to allow for variations in student preparedness. The Jump Start classes have given us a way of providing learning opportunities at a variety of levels. Our curriculum has included instruction on e-mail, databases, the online catalog, and the Web. Students who need additional research assistance beyond our reference desk can schedule a personal consultation with a reference librarian through a service called "Research One-on-One." Customizing our curriculum was a good first step toward positioning the ILP, but there were other strategies that were possible to involve and promote the program to students. We decided to implement an idea to make them even bigger stakeholders in ILP.

Promote the Product—Students Selling Students

We reasoned that if we wanted to promote the ILP to students we needed to ask students what they liked and didn't like about the program, and what might motivate them to use it. Ultimately, if the ILP is to be widely utilized, students have to buy into the importance of information literacy in their own lives. They're more likely to do so if they understand how it relates to their future success, and fellow students were the obvious source to articulate that concept. Beyond that, we also decided to use students to help create the marketing support materials that would be used to promote the program to the important student target audience. Who better to communicate with students than students?

Esrock asked his desktop publishing class in the U of L Department of Communication to work on this project as an integral part of the course. First, students discussed their images of the library and what might motivate them to use the facilities. Next, they were introduced to the parameters of ILP, the potential audiences (including students, faculty, staff, administration, and the general public), and the desired image of the new program. In learning about the program and about information literacy, the students discussed and articulated its relevance to their education and future careers.

The students' first assignment was to design a logo, letterhead, and business card for ILP, applying their knowledge of desktop publishing, design, and the information they had accumulated about their new "client." The task revolved largely around designing a logo that would be acceptable to all ILP audiences, yet would communicate the desired image of friendliness in a technology-oriented setting. After a couple of weeks of development, each student presented his or her work and selling rationale, detailing what they had done in their design and why. After careful consideration of all the entries, we chose the logo. It was a most difficult choice as some of the students were extremely creative in meeting the design challenge, although others went overboard with cute graphic representations of computers, mice, and other peripherals.

Next, the desktop students were challenged with a second task as the final project for the classCdesigning a tri-fold brochure that would provide the first formal public identity for ILP. The brochure was to speak to the unique wants and needs of students.

We wrote and edited the basic brochure copy for the desktop students. The text, however, provided creative leeway to the designers. After a meeting to discuss the copy, the purpose of the brochure, the importance of focusing on the student target audience, and the desired image, the desktop publishing students began. In preparation, many decided to implement additional research, learning more about ILP and the attitudes that U of L students had about the library. A number of the designers visited the main Ekstrom Library with cameras in hand, snapping a variety of photos to include in their projects.

The creative themes and brochure designs that were presented by the desktop publishing students during finals week were as varied as the student body here at U of L. While many designers took a serious approach to their work, a number incorporated humorous or whimsical thematic concepts that were totally antithetical to a traditional, conservative library image, but were highly appropriate for this promotional campaign. The decision was difficult but eventually we selected a design and theme for the student brochure of the ILP. The winning theme spoke to the feelings of information overload expressed by many students. The reaction of both the desktop class and the other students suggests that the theme and design of this bright and humorous brochure speak well to the unique needs that students have for the Information Literacy Program here at the University of Louisville. The brochure is in the final stages of production as we write this article, and a version of it is also being placed on the Web.

Where Do We Go from Here?

This project offered a win/win situation. ILP received the input of students on how best to promote the program while the desktop students gained a different view of libraries, learned more about the ILP, and received experience working with a real client. Soon we'll begin to actively promote this program to our student audience, and then we'll also start to design marketing support materials for ILP that will specifically target faculty and staff.

Ultimately, we will be able to determine the success of this program based on how much the ILP is utilized. We remain convinced that the best way to market an academic library in the burgeoning electronic information era is to capitalize on the potential marriage of information technology and customer service, and then to speak to the unique wants and needs of users. We'll soon know if we were right.

Rae Helton, M.L.S., is director, Office of Information Literacy, at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. She has given presentations nationally and internationally and has 12 years experience in marketing communications and product development in the information industry. Her e-mail address is

Stuart L. Esrock, Ph.D, is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Louisville, teaching courses in advertising, desktop publishing, and emerging media technologies. Previously he worked for 9 years in advertising/public relations and broadcasting. His e-mail address is

• Table of Contents Marketing Library Services Home Page