BCLA Perspectives

‘The Competitive Landscape’: Conversations at VPL’s inaugural Librarian Roundtable Initiative

The topic of competition is not a new one for libraries. For decades, libraries have confronted questions about the effect, if not the threat, of new social, cultural, and technological developments on the services that libraries provide. From the first computers to the birth of e-books, librarians have become accustomed to that loaded little question: “So what will this mean for libraries?”

How often do we really think, in a critical way, about this question of the competitive landscape for libraries? Better yet, how often do we proactively consider who, or what, the next big “competitor” will be in the area of information and public service provision? What can libraries in the 21st century do (or keep doing) to meet the evolving needs and interests of our users?

Beginning the Conversation

To address these questions, the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) gathered more than 80 librarians together in October, 2015, to discuss the concept of competition relative to public libraries in more detail. We wanted to open up a dialogue about the nature of competition for libraries, the library’s position within the “competitive landscape,” and possible strategies and approaches that the library can adopt now and in the future.

The basis for this conversation came out of a VPL initiative called the “Librarian Roundtable” – a new internal VPL program aimed to give librarians across the organization the opportunity to meet in one room and discuss significant issues within the library sphere. Facilitated by a team of librarians, the Roundtable provided a perfect opportunity to discuss complex issues such as the library’s competitive landscape and to get librarians engaged in a topic of critical importance to their everyday work and practice.

The Roundtable

When the big day finally came in October, facilitators opened the discussion with a short presentation that asserted one critical starting point: The reality is that libraries do have competitors. In fact, libraries now have many different forms of competitors, from ”direct” (Amazon) to ”indirect” (Starbucks), and even future competitors that we have not yet seen emerge, but could imagine (storytimes led by holograms of Sharon, Lois, and Bram in neighbourhood parks?). In all cases, the library is competing with other entities for the time and attention of patrons. It is important that we understand these competitors and our place relative to them if we are to continue to grow and evolve in our service and program provisions.

To give the discussion some critical grounding, the facilitators introduced the concept of the Gartner Magic Quadrant—a qualitative tool for analyzing competitors — and asked participants to group competitors such as Amazon, Netflix, Goodreads, and coworking spaces within the four Gartner-style quadrants. Adding to the challenge, participants were asked to consider hypothetical competition scenarios and to imagine what the library might do in response — create a partnership, design a new service development, etc.

What happened next was truly inspiring. More than 80 librarians engaged in lively conversations, constructive debates, and hopeful brainstorming about competition and libraries. Some librarians were drawn to strategies moving forward, including “renewed focus on partnerships,” “heightened community presence,” and “marketing to non-users.” Others were drawn to affirming the characteristics that make libraries unique in the market today: “free services,” “quality children’s programs,” “welcoming community spaces for all,” and “no focus on selling something.” Conversations continued long after the roundtable session, with librarians taking their thoughts and ideas back to their branches and workspaces to share with other staff members as well.

Looking Forward

The VPL librarian’s roundtable on “The Competitive Landscape” provided librarians with a unique opportunity to think critically about the notion of library competitors and what the library can do moving forward. The focus was not on panicking about competition (as we sometimes do), but rather thinking seriously about what our competitors are offering, the landscape of programs and services available to our users, and what we do and can do to continue supporting our communities of users.

The Librarian Roundtable will continue once a quarter at VPL, with new topics brought forward for discussion and consideration. Stay tuned for Winter 2016 when VPL librarians tackle the always provocative topic of “The Digital Divide.”

Christie Menzo is a Community Librarian with the Vancouver Public Library in B.C.