Our team recently started reading the book Start with Why by Simon Sinek. I’m a fan of the book, and was first introduced to it years ago in a similar context to that of today. Back then, we had little in the way of extra funding, we were building programs and services from scratch, and our tiny library and museum was beginning to put together the beginnings of a strategy to market ourselves to the rest of our rural community. We were in uncharted territory.

Today, we’re facing many challenges due to COVID-19. We’re cutting back on some services to make sure we can provide others. We’re reducing our programs, and those that we continue to offer will be online instead of in person. We’re beginning to look to an uncertain future and knowing that we’ll be building a strategy to market ourselves to our community. It’s a good time to read Start With Why.

Sinek’s thesis is straightforward. Early in the book, he lays out his “Golden Circle,” which show an organization’s WHY at its center surrounded by two rings: HOW and WHAT. He explains in his Ted Talk in the video below:

Sinek’s argument relies on a few examples taken from private industry. All organizations know WHAT they do. Some organizations know HOW they do it. But only a very few organizations know WHY their organization truly exists. But when it comes to getting people to engage with your organization, people buy your WHY more than they buy your WHAT.

As I’m re-reading the book, I’m focusing in on the message of the book as it pertains to libraries. What’s our WHY? And does it align with how we’re marketing ourselves and our services? To be sure, many libraries have a strong sense of purpose. We see our libraries as havens for the downtrodden, guardians of enlightenment, temples of learning and access to ideas, and protectors of democratic ideals. But I must admit that when we speak of the library, we tend to focus much more on WHAT we do instead. We offer great reference services. We run terrific children’s programming. We catalog and classify our collections, making them findable.

A great deal of Sinek’s thought is prescient for how we market ourselves. It’s in the communication of the WHY that people align themselves with the organization and desire to participate in what it’s doing. Sinek’s best example is Apple, Inc. Apple doesn’t just sell computers. It sells a vision, to think differently and be different. Their HOW is through their sleek design and user-friendly interface. Their WHAT is their product. Focusing on their WHY in the message significantly changes things — it broadcasts a vision that people can tap into. It creates loyalty, a lasting connection beyond the transaction. The proof is in the pudding: Apple’s customers will stand in line for hours for a new product release, and have a deep emotional connection to the brand.

Getting back to libraries. The key, I think is marketing. Are our libraries marketing their institutions instead of just focusing on our programs? There’s certainly a need for more robust programmatic marketing, but I suspect we’re lacking in this area. Our communities have a die-hard segment that deeply cares for the library. But do our libraries have a deeper connection with the community at large? Do people want to be a part of the library family?

There’s more to this question of our WHY, too. What is our role, exactly? How do we balance demand from the patrons with our “higher calling”? Libraries can bill themselves as guardians of democracy, but sometimes patrons just want Breaking Bad DVDs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but we need to clearly understand and articulate how we get from point A to point B. I think libraries don’t suffer from a lack of WHY… I suspect we suffer from too much of it! Too many ideals, not enough time or energy or funding to make them all a reality. We’ve allowed a fantastic amount of scope creep to seep into our libraries. We now have librarians doing everything from IT maintenance and solving computer help to notarizing documents and running citizenship classes. Patrons have come to expect everything, and we’ve done very little to disabuse them of the impression that they can get it all at the library. But today, in the wake of a worldwide pandemic, we can’t offer all those things anymore.

And so we’re left to get back to basics. What is our WHY? How do we communicate it? Can we disentangle ourselves from the many, many WHATs that we provide and agree on a single marketable message? If we can, we might be able to unlock greater levels of success than we’ve had in the past.

I highly recommend Start With Why, if nothing else for the thought-provoking ideas in the book. Let me hear from you in the comments below: what’s your library’s WHY? And how do you communicate it?