scary library

Fear and loathing in the library

I have this friend. We’ll call her Angie because that’s her name.  Angie recently ventured into her local public branch library.  YEH for Angie!  She later confessed being intimidated by the experience.  Nothing terrible happened, she wasn’t shushed out of the building.  She simply didn’t know how to navigate the library.  She didn’t know who to ask her questions, what computers to search the catalog with or where to find her book.  My friend Angie can talk to anyone, be in any situation and be confident and fabulous.  Seriously, I can leave her for a minute and come back and she’s already talking to someone.  So I find it very curious that the library would throw her off so much.

I walk into any library and feel right at home.  Sure each one is unique like beautiful snowflakes (insert s

norting noise here) but libraries tend to have similar areas with similar functions.  Working in one and utilizing many, I know the drill, ref desk for questions, circ desk to check out, phone calls taken outside.  For the general population though, outside of school, how familiar are they with the basic layout and function of the library?  It doesn’t help that there are specialized areas, staffed by specialized people, called by terms that are not commonly used outside of the field.  So how do our patrons know what to do?  Where to go?  Who to talk to?

Look at the pretty display

What my friend does know and myself as well, is retail.  Yes a dirty word, but the retail model is more familiar to people in their 30’s and 20’s.  We’re the mall culture.  New stuff up front on pretty displays and a greeter to tell you about the sales, staff walking the floors and fixing displays, registers conveniently located for browsing in the back.  My friend likes that set up too, besides being comfortable with it.  So do I.  Take for example the big B bookstore I used to work at (yes, I played for the other team once).  Many hours were spent on where things went.  There were the integrated endcaps with the movie, the book tie-in cover, the board game and some CDs for good measure.  There was the placement of the bestseller table, the new fiction bays, the staff recommendation endcap.  As my friend said, it is visually pleasing.  And she made another point.  Why can’t libraries be like that?  What experience do we offer our users, patrons and clients?  Why can’t you ask anyone with a name badge your question?  Why do we call it the circulation desk when it’s the checkout?  Do our practices benefit us or them?

While asking these questions I also recognize that libraries should not be copies of big retail stores.  We offer services that retail has no interest outside of selling another item.  I strongly believe though we need to look closely at what makes sense or what we do because it’s always been done that way.  There is no lamer phrase than “we’ve always done it this way” and it means nothing.

I wonder how many other people, like my friend, avoid the library because they don’t know how it works or they associate it with school?  How far do we have to go to change perceptions and how far should we go?  At what point are we just talking to ourselves?