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Culture, reputation and branding in libraries

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Niels Ole Pors, The Royal School of Library and Information Science, Copenhagen, Denmark

The concept of culture as a new management approach

Just a couple of years ago the concept of culture entered the scene as a new management approach. We all know when we have visited libraries that we like some more than others. This is often the case even if the libraries are equal in relation to staff numbers, objectives, finance and services. Normally it would be hard to analyse this reaction using only quantitative data. The culture of the library can be part of the answer of how different instituions develop even if they have the same objective conditions.

What do we understand by the term "culture" in a management context?

But what do we understand by the term "culture" in a management context? In an organizational context culture can be defined as common and shared basic assumptions. These assumptions are developed through adaption to the environment and through mechanisms of integration internally. They work and are considered valid, and they are used as tools of socialization for new employees. They have the status as the appropiate way to perceive, think and feel.

The three levels of culture

The culture works at three levels. First, it is the visible level or visible organizational structures and processes. This level is easy to identify but difficult to interpret. It consists of phenomena like architecture, language, dress, rites, modes of expression, feelings and sentiments, ceremonies, modes of communication and stories about the organization.

All institutions have a set of explicit or visible values. They will often relate to strategies, objectives and a certain philosophical basis. These visible values include explanations for some of the phenomena in the above-mentioned level. They also includes statements about expressions of the policy in the institution. There are, of course, possible discrepancies betwen stated values and actual behaviour. Examples can be statements from the manager about the necessity of a broad development of staff competencies, but in reality he gives money only to IT-based development of competences.

The next level of culture consists of basic assumptions and values. They are often about professional perfectionism, defined services, assumptions about equality and so on. They often work at an unconscious level, and they direct our behaviour.

Important questions for libraries

The culture becomes extremely important in times of rapid change. One of the consequences of change in the library sector is that libraries are repositioning themselves in the information market. They are trying to change or create a given reputation, and some are starting to "brand" themselves. Both of these phenomena are part of a process of identification. It raises several important questions for libraries in their transformation process:

  • How does one broaden a library's identity to embrace its expending area of services?
  • How does a library create a strong reputation?
  • What do we need to communicate to create or strengthen a given reputation?
  • Is branding relevant for libraries?
  • How do libraries determine the difference between credible expressions of themselves and self-illusions?

These questions, and of course others, will influence the culture in a library and its way of delivering services. It would be interesting to know of experiences in libraries which have started to work with developments like reputation and branding.