Monday, November 7, 2011

Dream Library or Avoiding Library Obsolesence Part II

This is the second post in a three part series that imagines what public libraries would be if they were created fresh today and the focus was on the user.  The idea for this came from an article in American Libraries titled Avoiding the Path to Obsolescence by Steven Smith and Carmelita Pickett.  The article examines the failures of Blockbuster and the success of Netflix (before the glaring snag of trying to split the disc and streaming business) and what libraries can learn from them.  Smith and Pickett attributed a part of Netflix's success to being able to start fresh without legacy issues. 

What if we could do that with public libraries?  What would they look like if we did not have legacy issues and if we focused on the user?    The user's wants/needs can be divided into three broad categories: physical needs, access to resources, access to people/staff.  The first post focused on physical needs.  This post will explore access to resources.

When I first started thinking about this post, I started thinking about all the shining new gadget coming out, and how we could use them in a library.  We are suppose to receive iPads at our library to use for collection management, and I feel like a kid who has to wait until Christmas to open a coveted present.  I will admit that I lust after shiney new toys.  I am repeating a quote from Smith and Pickett.  I need the reminder even if no one else does.

"But guessing correctly [what next device people will be using to access information], while important, is not really the key.  What matters is responding to customer wants and needs in a timely and efficient manner, even at the expense of letting go of past practices and tools no matter how cherished or successful.  A baggage-free focus on customer is what gave Netflix its original competitive advantage."
So if we stop looking at devices for a bit, what do users want?  In a very broad generalization, they want access to information.  In this case information is also very broadly defined.  It can be a price guide for baseball cards, a journal article for homework, a book/article on how to fix their car, a mystery novel, the latest James Patterson, access to Facebook, and on and on. 

Part of the hot debate today in the library world (other than to be or not to be) is print or electronic?  At this point in time, users want both.  There are users who show a marked preference for one or the other, and there are users that do not care.  They just want the information.  Despite the format, it must be findable.

If we learn from Netflix's latest gaffe, people want one-stop shopping. Two separate services for two different formats does not work for most people.  For the library's resources (including the print catalog), I visualize this as a marriage of Amazon and Google.  The search function would be worded in everyday language and it would feature prominently on the webpage or app.  It would allow for one-stop shopping for print items, ebooks, audio books, journal articles, etc.  Again, think Amazon.  Amazon's search box defaults to searching everything, but the user has the option (easily found) to limit by format.  And gosh, wouldn't it be nice if some webpages, Youtube videos, and blogs were shown in the search?

This is not all that we can learn from Amazon and Google. The library search algorithm would need to be very generous.  One would not have to know the exact name or spelling to find the item.  (Did you mean...?)  One advantage our super library search engine would have is the option to use controlled vocabulary.  Controlled vocabulary can be a very powerful tool in the right hands.  In addition, we can learn that users like personalization.  The library site could also make recommendations based upon current searches or even checkouts.  It could also give the ability to tie it to social networking such as tweeting or Facebooking what you are reading.  Now, this does bring in privacy issues, but it is something to think about.  All of this, of course, would be friendly for mobile devices.  Granted some of this is available already in some library websites, and there are federated search engines, but we are just not quite where we need to be yet.

Let's move from the virtual to the arrangement of print items.  Since we are creating the concept of libraries from scratch, Dewey Decimal System does not exist.  We can now put all computer books together without having to worry about whether it is software or hardware.  We can create an organizational system that makes sense to not just the librarians but to our users also.  I cannot claim credit for this radical idea.  There are libraries already employing it.  Despite saying this, I still believe in a book being located in a very exact place, so that it can easily be found.  I find it very frustrating to go to a book store to look for a specific non-fiction title and  not even the staff member know exactly where it is on the shelf.  I envision the system to be very intuitive and for browsing customers to not need the catalog. 

The last category ties together access to information and access to people.  That is programming. 
What I am saying here is nothing new, and it is nothing radical.  Let's use strategic planning with our programs.  Pick three areas to focus on throughout a year.  In these current economic times it could be finance, education, and employment.  For the finance track, programs on couponing, retirement, veterans' benefits, etc could be offered.  For education programs on basic computer skills, literacy, and how to find scholarships.  Our children's librarian is currently doing a Mad Scientist program for kids in our area.  It is so popular that she is having to offer the same class three times a month.  Her goal was to increase interest in science for kids that may not have other opportunities.  Lastly, for employment we could offer programs on resume writing, job searching, and again, computer classes so that people can build marketable skills.  Other program ideas to support this track would be seminars on small businesses.  The Pioneer Library System in Oklahoma actually has a dedicated position to work with small businesses.  How cool is that?
Most of the ideas listed above are not that radical or that new.  It is just being able to implement together without having to work with legacy systems.  Since we are not starting from scratch, we must decide what is important to the future of the libraries, and then figure out how we can get there.  Do not be afraid to think big.  "Don't be afraid to shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you will land among the stars." ~ Les Brown.    It is an exciting time to be a librarian.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Dream Library or Advoiding Library Obsolesence Part I

I recently read an article in American Libraries titled Avoiding the Path to Obsolescence by Steven Smith and Carmelita Pickett.  It was a thought provoking article that seeks to learn lessons from the failure of Blockbuster and the success of Netflix. (The article was apparently written before the major faux pas committed by Netflix when they tried to separate their DVD and streaming business and then raised their prices.)  Several of the comments listed after the article refute the usefulness of such a comparison stating that libraries are not business.  It is true that a library is not a business, but that does not negate the fact that we need to monitor the industry, and that we can learn from their successes and failures.  After all, an industry does not succeed unless it has something that a customer wants.

What struck me most about the article was that a key component they attributed to Netflix's success was that they were starting fresh without legacy issues.

"Netflix was not burdened by the need to support and retain a lot of practices, services, and structures that had once worked well.  It had the freedom to focus exclusively on the needs and wants of the consumers."
The next quote however had me hopping up and yelling "Yes, yes, yes!"

"But guessing correctly [what next device people will be using to access information], while important, is not really the key.  What matters is responding to customer wants and needs in a timely and efficient manner, even at the expense of letting go of past practices and tools no matter how cherished or successful.  A baggage-free focus on customer is what gave Netflix its original competitive advantage."
I got very excited.  If we were to invent the concept of the public library today and focus on the user's wants/needs without all of our legacy issues, what would we create?

[Caveat: The following is based on my observations and experiences and is highly idealized.  It is designed to start the thought process and not to be an end product. It does not reflect scientific research (though I may have to start a project). Since this is a dream library, cost is not considered. I am also not addressing issues such as preservation.]

I believe that we can categorize what users wants/needs are in three categories: physical needs, access to resources, access to people/staff.  I am posting this in three parts.  This post will address physical needs.

Physical Needs

Much like the trend in homes, people want the libraries to have zones based on function.  I have identified several possible zones.

Child's Zone:  The children (and their parents) want a play area.  They need a child friendly area with child-sized furniture and a nearby bathroom.  Don't forget the bathroom.  Cozy spots which can be easily cleaned are also a must for children's area.  For safety of the children this can be achieved with clever arrangement of low furniture rather than isolated areas.  Areas to explore their imaginations and create are also important.  The section should have a warm and welcoming feeling. It should also come equipped with children's computers with appropriate games, and as an added bonus, laptops for parents to check out and use in the area.  No more unattended children while the parent is on the computer!  Joyous day!

Teen Zone: Teens want a place to hangout and socialize.  We are constantly at odds with a lot of teens that come in because they are being...well teens.  We are exploring options to address the issue by better utlizing our space rather than constantly argue with teens.  They also want access to computers for homework - ok, only sometimes - they want to access computers for social networking including Youtube and Facebook.  When they do work on homework, they want group spaces as many project being assigned are group projects that often require computer access.

Adult Zone:  I was of mixed mind whether to include a separate adult zone.  Many of adult needs are met with zones listed below, but it seems to beg mentioning.  Adults want what is commonly called the book store experience.  Items should be merchandised, browsable, and attractive.  Grouping of chairs and end tables will facilitate browsing and quiet reading.

Computer Zone:  The computer zone should offer a somewhat quiet area for individuals to work. (Group computer space will be addressed below.)  Users want their computers to perform a variety of functions, and they want flexibility.  They want to be able to download that program to print out a coupon or edit a video. They want a variety of browsers available (not all sites/programs are optimized for all browsers).  Disabling functions for security frustrates the user and give them a sour experience. Access to equipment such as scanners and faxes (or combo devices such as digital senders) is expected.

Quiet Zone: Traditionalist don't despair!  People still want quiet areas in the library.  It should be stocked with small tables (nobody wants to share tables with someone they do not know) and comfortable table chairs and armchairs.  There should be plenty of plug-ins for laptops and good lighting - preferably table lamps.  (Oh to have an unlimited budget!)

Group Zone: People want places to meet as small groups.  This is distinctive from meeting rooms.  They may meet to work on a group project for homework (adults and teens), a small committee meetings, an interview for job or for a service, tutoring (unpaid of course), and a variety of other reasons.  They may/may not need access to computers.  Whether computers are in the all group space or just a few, they should have a larger sized monitor for easier viewing with a large desk or table to spread work.

Meetings/Programs Zone:  The meetings/program zone needs to have flexible set-up that can easily be rearranged to accommodate different programs and needs of large groups. The space also needs to be able to work with their technology such as providing a projector that will work with laptops, screen, and a decent sound system.  It should also be neat, clean, and inviting.  Too many meeting spaces are stained and institutional.

Customer Service Points:  This will mostly be addressed in the post addressing access to people.  Let me state here that customers want to be able to find someone easily and not have to worry about different desks having different functions.  They do not like to be redirected.  No one wants to stand in line twice or feel embarrased because they went to wrong place.

In reality, libraries have a limited budget.  While we cannot afford to scrap everything and start over, we do benefit from imagining if we could.  What we can do is prioritize what we need to move towards our dream library.  Some of the above can be achieved by rearranging our currents spaces, changing how we view customer service, and adopting some of the new technology as we normally replace our outdated systems.  Also, paint is the cheapest way to freshen a space, deligate areas, and decorate.  Walls in public spaces to do NOT have to a shade of white or some other neutral color.  In the grand scheme of things, paint is cheap.

What are your thoughts/wishes regarding space utilization for your dream library?  Do you have different ideas?