Move Back to the Future
by Neva L. White
As the turn of the century approached, librarians everywhere got excited about what the "library of the future" was going to be. Would there be more computers? Twentyfour- hour reference service? The need for more complex reference service or almost none?
Entering the year 2003, three years into the new century, librarians are still asking those questions, but few seem to be looking closely at our two main competitors to see what they are offering that we aren't and what we can add to their successful businesses. People focus only on the competition of the Internet. There is almost mass hysteria at the massive drop in the number of reference questions we answer. Library systems around the country report a dramatic decrease in that number during a time when the popularity and accessibility of the World Wide Web is booming. The call for 24/7 reference service is often stated this way: "Libraries have to offer this service. If we don't, someone else will."
I am here to say, "Let them!" Let's stop focusing on our Internet competition. We can't win that war. Search engines are getting faster and more accurate, so the higher cost of offering 24/7 reference service is not justified. People don't care that their answers aren't the most thorough. They simply want their answers quickly and without needing to get out of their chairs, much less their homes or offices.
Instead of trying to compete with the Internet, let's begin to look at our other competitors - the bookstores. After all, don't Barnes and Noble and Borders really have the same mission as that of librarians? Not libraries, but librarians. Whereas the missions of most libraries include providing a place of life-long learning and equal access to information, librarians generally have a simply-stated, personal mission: to bring good books into the hands of as many people as possible.
At 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, Borders and Barnes and Noble have to kick out lots of people who are in their establishments to look at and purchase books. People aren't there to use the Internet, find that last little fact for their homework assignment, or drink coffee. They are there to find books - for entertainment, for education, for their work. When I want to have a full-body experience getting a book in wonderful surroundings, I go to Borders, not the library. And I'm a librarian!
So what do these two establishments have that we don't? What can we do to compete with and improve on their service so that I will want to go to the library instead of Borders to hang out for an hour or so? First, they have a good atmosphere: lightly playing music, the smell of coffee, straight shelves with lots of attractive books, and people talking. By the way, it's pretty quiet in a Borders even though they have all those things. People are still able to sit in lounge chairs and read without being disturbed by loud patrons, even though there isn't a posted sign to be quiet or a staff member patrolling the noise level of the building. It's warm in there, and by warm I don't mean that the heat is turned up. The lighting is indirect, like your den at home, and there are interesting displays of materials on a wide variety of subjects. There are book groups and storytimes and presentations. Now, some libraries offer some of those services, but I haven't been in one yet that offers all of them.
So why aren't we offering these things? "Music in the library? People won't be able to study or read!" There are people in Barnes and Noble who are studying or lounging comfortably, reading books all the time. "Well, OK, but we certainly can't have coffee. It would get on the books, and then the materials won't be available!" Do we really think that people using our materials at home don't have a cup of coffee by their side or, God forbid, aren't actually soaking in a tub while they are reading our bestsellers? "OK, but Borders doesn't have a specially trained staff to help people find the books they want or to suggest other titles they might enjoy! Libraries are better at that!"
Right. Libraries are better at that. Or at least they should be. So, let's give the places a run for their money. Let's make our facilities neater and more attractive. Spend money on multiple copies of bestsellers that won't stay on the shelves instead of $2,000 on a set of reference books that might get used twice a year. Turn down the lights! It will save money in electrical costs and will make people feel more like they are in their own homes. Let customers bring in drinks, and provide them as well. Make the drinks covered ones if you have to, but loosen up the rules on food and beverages. Turn on some music. Not loudly, not Ozzy Osbourne or N'Sync, but some light classical or folk music. I'm sure we can get some suggestions from those competitors we've mentioned.
While we're looking at the atmosphere of the building, let's also take a glance at how the materials themselves look. How many stickers, dots, and labels are on them? And what do those labels say? Let's try weeding those old crusty books, even if they are out of print. Let's also try cataloging our books in a way that is meaningful to a customer. M CORN might mean something to me, but MYSTERY CORNWELL might actually mean something to a customer. (Please refrain from sending in letters to the editor about Patricia Cornwell novels actually being suspense rather than mystery. I know some of you want to, but you might be missing the point.) A Dewey Decimal number that has six digits past the decimal and a numeric cutter for the author might also be less than helpful to the average person. Take Thoreau's advice: simplify, simplify, simplify.
Once we have the basics down, we go in for the kill. Not only do we provide attractive materials, a good atmosphere, and a damn good cup of coffee, we also offer friendly, knowledgeable staff to help people. We encourage our staff to read so that they can offer meaningful, passionate, reader'sadvisory service. We offer Internet service for those customers not interested in books, and we have multiple staff stationed at the Internet terminals to assist those who need it and to offer a smiling face to those who don't (with a suggestion that the coffee bar is having a special on brownies today). We offer in-house and online classes on topics like buying a house, writing for children, effective Internet searching, and planning a summer garden. And we have book and music clubs: Monday is mother/ daughter night, when we read and discuss the latest bestseller. On Fridays we talk about the newest CDs and share musical interests, and on Tuesdays we show people some really cool Internet sites on a variety of topics.
Forget the need for 24/7 reference service. People think they already have that in the form of Google.com. The marketing money available in a library world will never compete with the marketing money available to Google. We can't compete with that, and we need to stop thinking we can. Let's put the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, and the Chicago Public Library together into a partnership. Think their marketing funds can compete with Google? No, I don't think so either, so I know Virginia Beach, Virginia; Peoria, Illinois; and Fort Worth, Texas, don't have a chance of competing.
Go backwards to compete. Go back to staff members who love books and offer good suggestions to readers. Go back to neighborhood libraries that are comfortable and welcoming to Mrs. Smith and her daughters, who come in every week to listen to stories and pick a movie for the weekend. Go back to the reference librarian who will sit down and help Jane with her history homework instead of pointing to the section on Hitler. Go back to being a recognized and trusted member of the community - someone your customers are happy to see because they know you'll do your best for them.
We have the ability, the drive, and the knowledge to insure that the library has a place in the future of the world. I believe people will always want a good story to keep them amused, even if they want it on a video instead of a book. We can compete in the fast-moving world of information by refocusing on our role as people whose job it is to put good books into the hands of as many people as possible. We still need to be there to answer reference questions. We still need to be there to help people recognize when the information they have found on the Internet might not be the best information available, and we still need to be there to smile at people. But we don't need to be there 24-hours-a-day, and we don't need to compete with the Internet to survive in the 21st century.Neva L. White is the manager of the Princess Anne Area Library with the Virginia Beach Public Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.