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.

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