I have a confession to make: I do not use my local public library. I have been in there twice. The first time I went in to get a library card and browsed around to see if there was something I might want to take out. I discovered that the selection of new books was pretty abysmal and I found the whole atmosphere really unwelcoming. The woman who gave me my card wasn’t friendly, welcoming or even had a smile on her face. I used to register people for library cards when I worked at a public library and I would always tell people all about where things were at the library, welcome them to the area and asked them if there was anything they were looking for that I could help them find. Not here. The library is in a dark, cramped Victorian building, which is cool for historical value, but isn’t really the sort of place I’d want to hang out in. The insufficient lighting is old-school fluorescent which definitely doesn’t make me want to stick around (or even open my eyes). So I left with nothing. The second time, I dragged my husband there. We browsed the stacks for a little while and found again that there really wasn’t much for us there (and I have pretty diverse tastes in reading). Then my cell phone rang and I got shot a nasty look from one of the women at the desk (and I don’t even have a loud annoying ring tone — mine just rings). So I sprinted out of the library and that was the last time I’ve been in there. It’s rare that I go into a library feeling like a little kid in a store full of glass figurines, who doesn’t belong there and is afraid of doing something wrong, but some libraries still do that to me. And geez, if they do that to a librarian, imagine how members of the community feel.

It’s not just that our OPACs suck. The physical layout of our space sucks. I would guess if you did a survey of patrons, they would rather have a welcoming space and good materials than an OPAC that doesn’t suck. I was talking to my husband last night about this. Ironically, since he is married to a librarian, my husband has a fear and dislike of libraries. He feels very uncomfortable in them and finds most of them claustrophobic and difficult to navigate. He wants a library that is bright and open with lots of comfortable places to sit. He wants to easily be able to browse books. All that is not too much to ask for, but out of all the libraries we’ve been patrons of since we met, there has only been one (the West Palm Beach Public Library) that really met his requirements.

Interior design has such a huge impact on the way a person feels about a place. In grad school, I did a usability study comparing Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue at the Town Center Mall in Boca Raton, Florida. Although both are high-end department stores carrying labels like Prada and Michael Kors, the differences are huge. People use department stores regularly, but it is rare that they actually think about usability while they’re shopping. People might know that they feel more comfortable in a particular store, but they rarely ask themselves what it is about this store that appeals to them. That comfort comes from many factors, including the physical design of the store, the price and selection of merchandise, the helpfulness of the sales staff, and even the music that is played. The usability of a store greatly effects whether someone will find what they are looking for and the level of ease and comfort they feel while they are finding it.

The first thing I notice when I enter Nordstrom is space. The store has an open floor plan where there are no interior dividing walls or floor-to-ceiling impediments. One can see the entire first level from the entrance, making it easy to find the various departments. When someone walks into the store, there is nothing in front of them to impede their progress. There is a clear path from entrance to exit. Nordstrom has rejected the idea of putting the makeup counter or some other section directly in front of the consumer; instead it is beside them as they walk in from the mall. Nothing in the store really assaults the senses. The music is live piano jazz standards that are pleasant to the ear, but do not really disturb or distract the customer. The aisles are wide and do not have displays in the middle. An individual in a wheelchair would have no difficulty in getting around the store. Even the shoe section, usually narrow and crowded at most stores, has a great deal of room to maneuver.

Saks Fifth Avenue has a very different feel than Nordstrom, particularly in terms of their layout. In fact, its layout is unlike any other department store at the mall. It is almost like a collection of boutiques, with each section or each designer in a room that feels separate from the rest of the store. While it might make for a more cozy or exclusive feel, it is not good for navigation. You cannot see any of the other departments from the one you’re in, so it’s difficult to know which direction to go in. The store has the feel of a maze, particularly on the second floor, which is a grid of small women’s apparel sections, some leading to the escalator and some leading to a dead-end. The combination of the small spaces and large amount of merchandise make the store overwhelming visually. When you first walk into the store, you have to walk through a massive cosmetics section, which is a tremendous assault on the senses. Additionally, the music that was playing – show tunes from Mama Mia – were distracting. In the entire time I walked around the store, I never saw an elevator or a sign for an elevator. The bathrooms were equally difficult to find. After looking for ten minutes, I finally asked a salesperson. The bathroom was in the most unintuitive location, tucked behind the shoe section in an area that looked like it was for employees only. There was a tiny 8″x11″ sign for the bathroom, but no one could see it unless they were standing right in front of it.

The way your space is set up could mean the difference between attracting new patrons and repelling them.

Are there libraries out there working with the same consultants who work for the major bookstores (heck, even a run-of-the-mill licensed interior designer would probably have some useful insights to offer!)? Those bookstores have done serious research on user behavior, browsing behavior, etc. and have designed their spaces accordingly. Andrew Pace and the folks at NCSU were genius to work with the company that designed Barnes & Noble’s Web user interface. They now have a catalog interface that is intuitive and user-friendly. As much as it may make some librarians cringe, there are plenty of important lessons to learn from the big box booksellers. Why do people like hanging out there? It’s not just the cafes. It’s also the physical layout. I often go to Borders or Barnes and Noble with no particular purchase in mind. Usually the first thing I do is look at the tables of new paperbacks, and I almost always find something interesting that I’d like to purchase. That is not exactly easy to do at many libraries out there. I remember reading in some blog about a new library building (the library escapes me) that had several thousand books displayed face-out and available for browsing. That is insanely cool. Also, it’s so easy to find specific groupings of books in a bookstore like the computer books, art books, science fiction and travel literature. I often have students come in to the library looking for which floor the ____ book section is on. In Barnes and Noble, you can point to a specific area and they will find what they’re looking for. At an academic library, you will need to look the topic up in the catalog and write down a call number range or take them up to that area and show them specifically where they are. We’re just not set up for easy browsing; you need to come in with your topic and be ready to search the catalog or ask a librarian. How often do you see people using those computer kiosks at Barnes and Noble to find books?

To those who say there’s no space to make your library space more user-friendly and browseable, I say consider doing more aggressive weeding. If something never circulates and/or is seriously dated, it probably should be evaluated for deselection. It’s been really hard to get our humanities librarian to get rid of the reference books that we now get through the Literature Resource Center online, even though that means there is no room for growth in the reference area. We can’t be pack rats. We’re not building a museum of books; we need to cater to our patrons’ current interests/needs. There are certain sections where frequent weeding is a necessity — like medical texts and technology books. I did some searching in library catalogs and found an embarrassing assortment of dangerously dated technology books. Here are some gems from that search (believe me, there were many more where these came from!):

  • Setting up an Internet site for dummies (1996) – West Palm Beach Public Library
  • Finding it on the Internet : the essential guide to Archie, Veronica, Gopher, WAIS, WWW (including Mosaic), and other search and browsing tools (1994) – Palm Beach County Public Library
  • CyberStrategies : how to build an Internet-based information system (1996) – Boca Raton Public Library
  • The SLIPP/PPP connection : the essential guide to high-speed Internet access for the dial-up user (1995) – Ann Arbor District Library
  • The Mac Internet tour guide : cruising the Internet the easy way (1993) – San Jose Public Library (folks, do you need copies of Zen and the Art of the Internet from 1992, 1993 and 1994???)
  • The Mosaic navigator : the essential guide to internet interface (1995) – Aldrich Public Library (Barre, VT)
  • The whole Internet : user’s guide & catalog (1992) – Norwich University (I think I’m going to beg my director to let me weed the tech books!)

Technology is definitely important. We need to keep up with our patrons, to provide services where our patrons are online and make our Web site a welcoming space. But we absolutely cannot ignore the impact our physical space has on our patrons. No matter how great our Web presence is, if we don’t create a space that people want to be in and that is conducive for the kind of browsing most people like to do, we will lose people. Our collections are equally important. You can’t just be complacent and only serve the population that comes into the library. You need to find out what the folks who don’t come into the library would want. The library I used to work at primarily served young children and people over retirement age. However, kids are going to grow up and won’t be reading Captain Underpants at 30; and if we are not serving Gen X and the Boomers now, we won’t have an elderly population to serve in a few decades. We need to develop strategies for catering to the interests of those who currently find that the library has nothing to offer them.

My husband isn’t the typical library patron in most of the places we have lived. He made me search for Ruby on Rails in a bunch of library catalogs as a test of how well the collection is keeping up with current technologies. In most cases (other than in Mountain View) there were between zero and two books on the topic, and more often there were zero. Obviously, our little library in Barre, Vermont isn’t going to have books that my husband wants because he’s probably one of perhaps three people in town who would want them. So I asked my husband “what if you could request a specific book and get it in a few days?” He liked that idea, but said that he was only willing to wait about three to five days to get it. Most small libraries can’t afford to cater to the long tail in terms of their permanent collection, so Interlibrary Loan is really the best answer. How many libraries really play up their ILL services on their Website? I never knew a service like that existed until my last year of college when I was writing my thesis. On our local library’s Website, I can’t even find anything about Interlibrary Loan. But ILL can often take far longer than three days unless you are part of a local consortium (Vermont libraries have been very slow to get into partnerships). It would be great to have a Netflix-like service for books (Update hey! I just found two!), since Netflix actually gets materials to users much faster. But right now, we should at least be playing up the fact that “hey, we may not have what you’re looking for, but we can definitely get it for you.” And maybe we should be considering some of those Netflix-esque models that Lori Ayre discusses in her post Library Delivery 2.0. I think it’s insanely cool that David King’s library mails holds to patrons. My husband even suggested that he’d be willing to pay $3.00 to have someone get the books he wants to take out and have them ready for him at the desk.

If these are things patrons want, perhaps we should be looking at how to make them happen instead of clinging to the ways we’ve been doing things for decades. I’ve even looked at people’s posts on Netflix models and other “2.0” ideas and said “yeah right” in the past. But why not? If what a library is doing isn’t working, maybe it requires a total reinvention.

I’m just throwing out ideas on a snowy Saturday morning, and I’m sure many things we’d like to do are not possible at every library. But we need to get out of the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset and look at how people from outside of the library world are doing it. Maybe we need to forget everything we think a library should be and look at it with fresh eyes. What is our fundamental mission? How do we provide those services for as many members of the community as we can? We need to talk to people who don’t use the library — people like my husband who find that Amazon and the big box booksellers better meet their needs. These people are readers; we’re not trying to change their fundamental interests. How do we get them back to the library? We need to stop making assumptions and actually ask them what would get them to use the library. While it is certainly important, I tend to doubt it’s the OPAC that’s keeping most people away. Is a blog or IM reference going to bring them back or will it take a change that really requires a shift in our collections and our space, which is far more scary. (I’m not saying that the Webby stuff isn’t important; just that it shouldn’t be our only — or even primary — focus.)

For a great summary of a lot of the discussions that have been taking place about better serving our patrons, check out Walt Crawford’s article on the topic in the January 2007 Cites and Insights.