Context Book Report: Seth Godin’s Tribes

Source: Sameer Mathur (2015)

Seth Godin’s (2008) book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us is an interesting one to relate to library service. “A tribe” he explained, “is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea” (p. 1). Acknowledging our very human, millions-of-years history of congregating in tribes, as well as our intrinsic desire to break free from the bonds of rule-bound, humdrum sameness, he calls readers to take up the reigns of leadership. Godin warns readers not to confuse leadership with management; this is no top down method for allocating resources. Instead, Godin’s tribal leaders function more as guides on the side, presenting opportunities for the tribe to speak, and choices for action rather than instructions to follow. Web 2.0 and other technologies amplify the voice of a tribe allowing them to break free from the constraints of local reach. Effective tribes spawn meaningful change; they start movements.

Meaningful change is needed in public libraries today. Faced with continuous reductions of operating budgets and competition from the user-driven market, the demand for new services is evergreen. To this conversation, User Experience Consultant and MLIS Lecturer Aaron Schmidt (2010) adds:

The pervasive concept of library as commercial content provider is preventing us from adapting and evolving. Libraries will have to build a new foundation if they are to recover from these economic hard times—a foundation of valuable services, of user experience, not just free content (para. 1).

The call for constant and rapid change may seem overwhelming, improbable and risky for libraries. This perspective is easy to adopt if librarians rely only on themselves to generate ideas and results. Godin’s concept of tribes presents an opportunity to incorporate the creative powers of our users and our non-users, thereby ensuring our future library is relevant and exciting for everyone. Isn’t this our aim? Godin’s approach reflects Casey and Savastinuk’s (2007) Library 2.0 model, in which libraries embrace constant, purposeful change, and participatory, user-driven services.

Stephens’ (2011) message in “The Hyperlinked Library” echoes Godin’s Tribes. Both are centered on the importance of human connections, conversations and user participation. Both value how modern technology as a tool can expand our reach to the non-local community, gain momentum and provide meaningful, ongoing change.


This leads me to a practical example and personal ah-ha! moment of how these pieces come together in the real library world. About three months ago, I was setting up audiovisual equipment for a library program when a familiar face appeared in the doorway. “Diane!” I squealed, (we’ll call her ‘Diane’), “…haven’t seen you in a few months; where have you been?” Diane said she had discovered our non-fiction eAudio collection. She felt badly that she hadn’t been into the physical library in some time, but ecstatic that we had such a stellar collection of titles for small business startups.

“I just download them and listen through my Bluetooth.” Diane pointed to the hands free wireless earpiece she was wearing. “Doesn’t matter if I’m cleaning house or making a grocery run, I’m always learning something new about being a smarter business owner. It’s empowering!”

Let’s pause here to highlight two key points:

  1. I was in the library, setting up an event for people in the library, using technology designed to communicate to local audiences only.
  2. My patron, who was still a library lover, confessed she was no longer coming to the library but connecting remotely and feeling a bit lonely out there.

A chorus of library leaders’ voices champions me along the path of connecting this revelation back to Godin’s Tribes:

  • Schneider (2006): “The user is not ‘remote.’ You, the librarian, are remote, and it is your job to close that gap.”
  • Casey (2011): “The participatory library is open and transparent, and it communicates with its community through many mechanisms.”
  • Stephens (2012): “Technology extends human reach but participation requires engaged participants who feel welcome, comfortable and valued.”
  • Kenney (2014): “After all, some users—like committed digital readers—may never visit their local library or meet its staff…. It could be a decade before they stop by the library, if ever.”

To recap, Godin’s (2008) definition of a tribe is “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea” (p. 1). For my library, Diane was telling us that we were still connected to our remote users by an idea, but we needed a new way to link her, the library, and other members of the community together. Once that communication path is available, a library leader can encourage the tribe to use the platform in ways that are meaningful to them—show them that they will be rewarded, not ostracized, for being creative, nutty, and vocal.

One way we could build the tribe in this case is to support digital collections platforms that allow customer-driven reviews and thought sharing. Our competitors, for example, already permit this feature. But even this remains within the realm of the status quo. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to have some FUN! So I’ll throw it out to you, readers: where can we go from here?

How to start a movement:



Casey, M. (2011). Revisiting participatory service in trying times.

Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We need you to lead us. New York, NY: Penguin.

Kenney, B. (2014). The user is (still) not broken.

Schmidt, A. (2010). Services before content.

Schneider, K (2006). The User is Not Broken.

Stephens, M. (2011). The Hyperlinked Library.

Stephens, M. (2012). The age of participation.

2 thoughts on “Context Book Report: Seth Godin’s Tribes

  1. Amanda, I am impressed with your analysis and the way you connect the book with library service via a personal anecdote. While I haven’t read the book (yet!), I agree completely with its premise. Although the internet has made it easier for tribes to exist and grow, it does not necessarily provide leadership. Leadership still requires individuals willing to take on that role. After all, as Godin says, “You can’t have tribe without a leader-and you can’t be a leader without a tribe.”

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