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library update

Previous post: Idea (re: libraries)

I talked to Dan the librarian today, and he had an interesting point:

Adults in small-town libraries are conservative readers. “They go back to their favorite authors from the 70’s and 80’s and read through that, then maybe ask a friend. Or they only want audiobooks and make a beeline for the audiobook section every time.”

Moreover, another interesting point: Adults go to the library when they are being thrifty in time and money. “To me, the bookstore is much more relaxed with comfy couches and coffee and tea and everything.” According to Dan’s observations, people generally go in and out, and don’t need help finding books.

He said that he was familiar with online retailers’ recommendation systems, but talked about them as “judgements” that libraries wouldn’t use. The library creates pamphlets and bookstore-like displays, but isn’t very successful with these. What IS wildly successful is the NYT bestseller list, patrons’ adherence to which he admits is a problem. [That awkward phrasing is also a problem. Sorry.]

As for what data were held: the system knows how many times a book was checked out, but not when. (that is so useful, isn’t it?) It also knows what books are checked out, and presumably, which books are on hold. [I think these “on hold” or “waitlist” data are some of the most useful.]

Finally, total quantity of books checked out is the number used for funding/grant-writing purposes.

Dan says that it would be great if he could get patrons to check out some of the older books that never made it big.

My thoughts:

  1. People don’t take books from your displays for several reasons.
    • It doesn’t look like a cohesive whole. These “displays” are arranged on the tops of rather long bookcases, about chest-height. Spread over about the length of a pingpong table, a sparse dozen books hardly look cohesive. Moreover, some are facing out, some are facing in….(these bookcases happen to form an octagon around a middle table where the card catalogs (“search”) are located. It just doesn’t look very good, and why should it? You’re librarians, not visual artists. Barnes and Noble has pretty displays because there are people paid to make them.
    • If they take a book, they’ve ruined the display! This is the same reason why retailers eschew perfectly folded shirts in favor of leaving one or two rumpled: they want you to touch and experience (and buy). This isn’t a problem for bookstores because they have multiple copies.
    • (This is why an electronically generated display is better: it effortlessly looks nice and encourages people to explore.)
  2. There is part of your population (18-25), small as it may be, that isn’t yet set in its reading habits. In fact, your other readers might not be as narrow if they’d had a recommendation engine to help them branch out. This generation is used to having recommendations pushed at it, and moreover, doesn’ t see algorithmically generated suggestions as “pushy.” They’re comical when they’re bad, of course, but then we handily ignore them.