Information Enthusiast

An ongoing conversation about the changing landscape of public libraries.

Think Small

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In the world of bookstores, there seems to be room for both the big corporate chains and also the smaller independent book vendors. The smaller bookstores often don’t have the coffee shops, computer interfaces, or deep discounts, and yet, as a consumer, I am drawn to these comfy little hole-in-the-wall locations. But I don’t feel the same way about libraries… and I started to wonder why.

Certainly every public library would love to have the shiny, modern building with sleek PC labs, a fleet of self-checkout machines, and trendy and eye-grabbing signs. But how do smaller, underfunded libraries make due without these amenities? Yes, it’s the age-old question: appearance versus personality.

If you take a look at the host of updated missions, visions, and slogans, it’s apparent that some public libraries are beginning to let go of the buildings, collections, and services, and push people to the forefront. I frequently refer to marketing blogger Seth Godin, and this post is no different. In a recent presentation about his new book Tribes, Godin indicated that many successful nonprofits are focusing on their ability to connect people. Sounds to me like an appropriate goal for public libraries.

In public librarianship we often talk about competing with bookstores, but lets see if the small bookseller has some advice for the small public library. Here is what I like about the indie bookstore:

  • I might have a real conversation with one of the employees. A Borders employee might greet me, but the employee at The Raconteur on Main Street in Metuchen, NJ might take the time to chat with me. There’s a difference. Yes, the small bookseller might also remember the types of books I buy, but I could actually care less about this. The interaction is more genuine, and that is what keeps me coming back.
  • No security guards. I don’t know about you, but these people make me uncomfortable. Sure, protect your merchandise, but be welcoming!
  • Encourage browsing, touching, playing. Certainly the big bookstores are clean and organized, but focusing on this too much creates a sterile environment that neglects the experience. I like the fact that the shelves at the indie store look like the ones I have at home. The rugs and chairs look plucked from my grandmother’s house. These things all contribute to making me feel like this store is as much mine as the owner’s.
  • Indie booksellers know their trade. I appreciate Amazon letting me buy a book with one click, but what if I have a question that isn’t answered in the description or review? It’s unlikely that anyone on the sales floor at Barnes & Nobles is responsible for ordering new materials, but I’m pretty sure I can find this person at the small bookstore. Centralized ordering is a necessity for larger public libraries, but I think this is a tremendous benefit of being a smaller library.

Much like your parents might have told you as an adolescent, I think the lesson here for smaller public libraries is to be yourself. Think less about recreating the appearance of the ultra-funded library in the next county, and focus on the personality you have to offer.

Worry less about controlling the environment, make a sincere effort to focus on the community you serve, and let your customers create their library experience. They’ll keep coming back.


Written by Allen McGinley

November 2, 2008 at 5:08 pm


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In Seth Godin‘s recent post, Bowling 300, he talks about the impossibility of perfect achievement in service fields, but offers advice for coming close. I love his suggestion: overdeliver.

Forget perfection, if public libraries do anything right, our customers are generally amazed. How did the standards get so low? Once during a film program at my library, we encountered technical difficulties and could not screen the film. With no backup plan, we had to pull the plug on the program.

What was the reaction of the patrons? No one seemed at all surprised. They just shrugged and shuffled out the door.

This really bothered me. Sure, things go wrong, but why can’t we raise the bar in public libraries and live up to higher standards?

What would happen if we went above and beyond in any area of library service? Exactly what Godin suggests: our patrons would leave excited and eager to talk about our service and spread our message to family and friends.

Here are some ideas for overdelivering at the library:

  • Don’t just point, walk your patrons to the resources they need. If you have a line of customers and must point, then follow up with those patrons later to make sure they found the information they were searching for.
  • Create an exceptional environment. Do something unexpected! Pick up some fresh snacks from your farmer’s market and provide a tasty, local snack at your next program. Make sure your patrons are comfortable – host your next public event as if you’re hosting a party.
  • Take advantage of reference questions and use this opportunity to pitch other services. If you’re answering a computer question, tell the patrons about books, periodicals, and your computer classes. Is the patron looking for business books? After you show them print materials, then pitch your business workshops and electronic databases.
  • Give patrons more then they asked for. Show patrons the quickest route to their destination, then show them all the alternative routes too. Go above and beyond. Treat each interaction as a chance to impress!

I know, the standards are pretty low. But now you have the opportunity to go out and surprise someone. Don’t just go through the motions – be excited and exceed expectations. Overdeliver!

Written by Allen McGinley

October 12, 2008 at 6:56 pm

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The following was the final post from The Last Librarian. Follow the link to see previous posts.

Makeover @ the Library, continued – Selling Your Services

Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you can’t sell it.We’ve all heard that question: what exactly do librarians do? Doctors treat disease, firefighters extinguish fires, and librarians… stamp books? To the general public it’s not really clear what librarians do. Granted public libraries could use a complete image overhaul via radio ads, billboards and their very own Super Bowl commercial, but we should probably start smaller. The best marketing happens one-on-one and begins right at the information desk!


Another comment I’ve heard all too often in library break rooms is staff complaining about trivial job responsibilities. “I got a masters degree so I can direct people to the restroom?” Lets think positively here for a moment. Why did you go to library school? How do you wish to define your job? Things are changing. We used to be just about books. Now I hear it’s information. Right this very minute we have the unique opportunity to define what exactly public libraries do.I’m not suggesting we should stop pointing out the restroom when asked, but try advertising to patrons what you wish to do for them. And be creative! Think outside of that formal job description your supervisor gave you on your first day (that probably hadn’t been updated in about ten years). Take control of your image and start defining who you are and what you do!


Here are some creative ways to sell library services that will appeal to patrons and non-patrons:


  • Offer computer classes. From email to employment services to filing for financial aid, computer literacy is becoming increasingly vital for Americans young and old. Certainly you can teach introductions to word processing and the Internet, but if your patrons are bored then go beyond that. Try teaching a class about YouTube, Flickr, or LinkedIn – you may be surprised at who signs up!
  • Provide specialized services. Ask casual questions when you’re talking to patrons, and listen to the answers! I can’t tell you how many program ideas have come to me from quizzing patrons. Find out who these patrons are. A lot of the time they are teachers, authors, performers, and knowing this type of information will open a wealth possible services that you can provide.
  • Go above and beyond. People don’t remember adequate services – what they remember is when they are unsatisfied or super-satisfied! I’m so tired of running across posts on Twitter about nasty librarians. I want to start seeing tweets from people raving about their local librarian’s helpful service (but I’ll also settle for killer style).
  • Share your excitement! If you’re passionate about being in the information business, then let that show! If you’re not, then go hide behind the scenes – I’m sure there are some books that need to be shelved somewhere. Like it or not, even nonprofits are involved in sales – embrace your belief, or idea, or cause, and sell it!

Photo credit: Washington As It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

Written by Allen McGinley

September 26, 2008 at 5:13 pm

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That New-Blog Smell

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Change is good. I just couldn’t wait until January 1, I needed to start fresh immediately! Here you will find my thoughts about the current and future state of librarianship – a continuation of what I’ve been posting for the past year at The Last Librarian.

Written by Allen McGinley

September 26, 2008 at 4:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized