Sunday, August 26, 2007

Creating the Customer-Driven Library: a review

Jeannette Woodward begins her book by comparing libraries to bookstores and examining why people enjoy spending time at bookstores. She then makes suggestions for libraries based on these comparisons. She has some great points about making libraries more useful and relevant to patrons. Many of her suggestions are related to design (I'm glaring at you, Seattle Public Library) but she also makes a number of helpful suggestions that existing libraries could implement:

-expanding hours
-eliminating overdue fines
-including more information in library catalogs that is helpful to patrons, such as reviews, and excluding a lot of the MARC data which is not helpful
-having a cafe
-marketing the library
-creating effective displays
-when budgets are strained, taking resources from areas that are not visible to the public

Many libraries have had success with these innovations and have added cafes and comfortable furniture and increased displays and signage. At least one library has integrated their catalog with LibraryThing. When a patron searches for books at the Bedford Public Library in Texas the record contains recommendations for similar books, links to other editions of the title, links to reviews and excerpts, and tags which are more patron-friendly than LC subject headings. All of these make the library a more pleasant place to visit and more relevant to what the public wants.

Although this book is filled with some creative and helpful suggestions, it also contains some unfair generalizations about libraries and patrons.

For example, Woodward says that library patrons are middle-class white women over the age of fifty, and that patrons are homogenous. I think I actually laughed out loud at this. Is this based on actual data, or on her experience in libraries in her area? This doesn't come close to describing the patrons at my library, and I don't think we are an anomaly.

In addition - and this is my big gripe with this book - she has an unrealistically optimistic view of how much control librarians have over their libraries. She says that librarians "lay the blame on their city and county administrators" and "What they seem to forget is that they got themselves into these messes with their eyes wide open."

There is a reason why librarians lay the blame on the city - the city ultimately has control of hiring, budgets, and many other aspects of management. Woodward contrasts public libraries with college libraries by pointing out that public libraries are not beholden to a larger organization. In this way, she says, we can make changes to improve our libraries more easily than academic libraries. As far as I know, public libraries are ALL run by some governmental oversight, either the city or the county. Are there libraries who do have the freedom to do what she suggests without the bureaucracy?

My library can't make the decision to eliminate overdue fines because the city insists we collect them (because, of course, they get the money). We cannot buy anything without going through the city and having every charge scrutinized. Custodians are assigned from the city's Department of Public Works. Hiring part-time workers with benefits to fill expanded hours, as she suggests, would need to be approved by the city and probably the union. We can't hire without the city's input. (In fact, our new Director was just hired by the Trustees with absolutely no input from ANY of the library staff, but I hope that's not typical!)

She goes on to say that few librarians really try to improve the image of the library (which is probably true) and that "Few make sure that decision makers know how important the library is." But this responsibility lies with the community and libray patrons. Librarians can do everything in their power to tell city officials how important the library is, but we aren't the ones they are going to listen to. They want to hear this from voters and taxpayers.

Libraries who have a lot of community support and the freedom to be innovative and make big changes would probably find this book very useful. As for me, I will just fantasize about working at one of those libraries.


Megan said...

Hello -- I came here via knitty, but the library thing caught my eye! I'm sure it's different in every city, but rather than eliminating fines altogether, I've often thought libraries should have a maximum fine per check-out period. Mine has a max fine per book, but when you've checked out 30 books, the fines can be enormous. And my library sure isn't filled with middle-aged white women either -- we get everybody, including our local homeless population, and it's definitely a happening place! Thanks for being a librarian -- y'all are terrific!

3goodrats said...

Thanks, meegan! The issue of fines is tough. I used to work at a library that didn't charge overdue fines and patrons complained because they *wanted* other people to return their books on time so they'd be available to others.

But I definitely agree that if there aren't limits of some sort, past a certain point people just won't return the books at all (or ever return to the library for that matter) because the amount is so large. I haven't seen a perfect solution for this yet, but I'm still looking :)

Unknown said...

the saddest thing (in NYC) is that library hours are so short. years of budget cuts have eroded the hours that the libraries are open.

as a child, i could count on the library being open every day till 5 PM, and most of saturday.
now, i have to keeps schedules (i have 3 branch libraries that i use.. 2 within walking distance, one near my daughter (and the post office with a parking lot)

NYC (well i now actualy use the Queens library system) has great libraries.. lots of branches, and lots of diversity..(in language and in media material)
(an other knitty reader who came to see photo and scrolled...)

3goodrats said...

It sounds like the New York Public Library is really suffering. A friend of mine was offered a job there, but the pay started at 28K. I don't know of ANYWHERE that pays librarians (with Master's degrees!) that poorly. In a city as expensive as NY to live in, that is disgraceful. I'm sorry to hear that they've had to cut back hours as well.