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Displays, man. I love em’. I just came back from Portland, where I drank IPAs and visited Powell’s City of Books, the largest Independent bookstore in America. My takeaway from Powell’s was not how many books they have, but how many displays they have. They have a ton. Not only in the main areas, but even in the back areas. Almost every large bookshelf had physical displays on the endcaps, whether it be “featured” of “staff picks” or whatever. I would have appreciated them more if my 3-year-old son wasn’t having a fit, but that’s another story.

Working on the Reference Desk, we’ve all gotten this phone call: “I heard this book on NPR…forgot the title…it was about housing in America…” Now I’ve talked about my book display philosophy elsewhere, but I had a sneaking suspicion that a permanent NPR book display would do very well at my library. So, although these displays are a lot of work on the front end –  build the table, create the location, find the books, add the stickers – I gave it a try.

NPR book display

I was right.

Four months ago, I placed 48 books on the display and began tracking them via CollectionHQ “Experimental Placement”. Four months later, those 48 books have generated 323 circulations (including renewals), which is as successful as any display we’ve ever done. But that number – 323 circs – is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve added several books since then, feeding it like a bonfire really. Today, although the physical display only holds about 50 books at a time, there are currently 265 NPR books in our system, 210 of which are checked out, generating circs and renewals as we speak. That means 79% of that collection is checked out, which probably means the turnover rate (circ/books) is insane (well over 6, according to the experiment). As a comparison, our other highest performing collection is the “New Books” section, which has 50% checked out at any given time. Urban Fiction and Graphic Novels are around 25%.

People love popular displays, but they also love carefully curated and interesting displays. People want recommendations from people they trust. Librarians, for example. That’s why “Staff Picks” are a slam dunk and that’s why our Library Reads display is popular. NPR is essentially the same concept – expert picks from author interviews that make the books come to life. Indeed, my personal reading list has expanded!

Logistical FAQs
What does the catalog say for these books? “On NPR Display”. In our ILS, we give them a special location, so everyone knows where they are – especially for patrons. It’s work, but I think it’s worth it.

How do shelvers know where to put them? The ILS says “DISPLAYNPR,” but we also put a small sticker on the spine. The sticker tells the shelver what display it goes on. There are alternative ways to do that.

How do you get the list of NPR books? RSS feed that goes into my Outlook mail every day, into a special folder actually. See NPR’s books site. Tracking the books down is a bit of work, no doubt. Sometimes they are in Cataloging, On Order, checked out, or in the stacks. Luckily, I can do most of this remotely, from my desk.

What happens when the display gets too full? This happens, but not as frequently as you might think.

 

 

It’s 2017 and the website of every single library in the country suffers from the same old, cruel, schizophrenic, UX nightmare dichotomy: the website and the catalog, the website versus the catalog. Two products, two experiences, two silos, two staff members behind them. Both are wannabees. The website is almost a catalog, and the catalog is almost a website. And together they are redundant, cluttered, confusing, and pointless to patrons.

The first library to figure out a true single user experience – that is to say, a real website – gets Library of the Year.

Scratch that.
Library of the Decade.

I truly believe that. We have come a long way, but we need to jump this hurdle. Our online presence – specifically the home page – is now more important than ever, more important than our physical space. With eBooks and eAudiobooks integrating into Search (sort of), with various providers like Overdrive, Hoopla, 3M, and Zinio – all of which are confusing to patrons; with online articles (if you can find them), online registration, online room booking, and online programs (and don’t get me started on online library cards which still don’t exist)….

Yeah, the website matters.

So who will be the first library to stop using the word ‘catalog’ – to eliminate the concept from our consciousness? I know the obstacles are huge, but who will be the first library to make the commitment and priority to fully integrate the search experience into the home page. Like this:

search_1

Who will be the first library to figure out a seamless “my account” feature of the website, where a patron doesn’t have to log in twice, where a patron is automatically logged in (like Facebook), and where a patron can see all their checkouts simply by hovering over the My Account icon, like this:

My account_1

Recently our library did a UX Study on our website and catalog. My interpretation is this: people go to the website to find books, place holds, check their account. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Let’s embrace that. Who will be the first library to transform the homepage into an Amazon experience? With gigantic book covers, curated lists, staff picks. Browse, click, hold – as few clicks as possible. Like this:

Home Page_1

How Do We Get There?

  1. Open Source ILS
    Currently, none of the ILS products, catalogs, or so called discovery layers allow for a real website. I’ve seen impressive library sites, but nothing close to modern. The ILS – the soul of the library – is probably the fundamental roadblock. We cannot make a product do something it can’t. Therefore, an open source ILS like Evergreen might be the only option – although I’ve heard very promising rumors and mockups at my library that we can do it with Sirsi’s ILS. Or, even more radically, I wonder if a library could build a completely original ILS from the ground up, designed specifically by a library for a library? Yikes: is that naive of me?
  2. Library Consortium or Collaborative Design
    Clearly building an ILS or Catalog from the ground up is a giant project, requiring several years and millions of dollars. One way to mitigate that is by joining up with other libraries, or state-wide collaboratives, or getting grants from the government. The best example of this is the amazing discovery layer created by a Colorado team called Pica, which looks similar to an Amazon experience (but it’s still just a catalog, not a website). Our library almost got it. The downfall with collaboration is that technology designed for many libraries tends to get watered down. They want to be everything for everyone and thereby become clunky to everyone.
  3. Budgets Reflect Priorities
    We’ve heard that phrase before, but it’s true. If libraries really want to do something, they will find a way. If libraries need to hire a team of web developers and designers, they will find a way to fund it. How important is this? That’s the question. And with all the other priorities we are committed to, it’s a healthy debate to have.
  4. We need Web Developers on Staff
    The number of third-party technology products that we buy is mind blowing. Most of them are crappy, a few years behind, and some don’t play nice with others, although there are exceptions. Wouldn’t that money be better spent by simply hiring one or two web developers, really smart in-house people that can build products to meet our specific needs? For example, our library has recently hired a very smart IT professional. In his first few weeks, as if by magic, he had already created a brilliant internal website for staff – on WordPress, for free. I think the time is past to have more IT professionals work at libraries. Maybe I’m being naive here (I probably am).

Could Kalamazoo Public Library have the first real website?
I wrote this article probably a year ago and I’m happy to say that Kalamazoo Public Library might be forging a new and innovative path to the age-old website/catalog conundrum. I won’t go into the details, but it involves bypassing the catalog altogether, grabbing the data from the catalog and displaying it exactly how we want on the….wait for it….on the website. The team – composed of the web guys, the ILS guy, and a design guy – is making incredibly promising progress so far.

Interpol-biometric-1The plastic library card is a dinosaur. It needs to go. It’s an embarrassing relic of what-we’ve-always-done. Nostalgia aside (that took me a second), I look forward to the day when libraries join the rest of the world, get rid of the card, and move towards a username/password system (or something better).

Let me go out on a limb here: nobody wants another plastic card in their wallet or purse or hanging from their keys: another thing to remember, another thing to lose, another thing to clutter our end tables. From a customer service perspective, the library card has no benefits whatsoever. But it does have an array of annoying features. First, it’s not important enough to remember. Let’s drink a tall glass of humility on this. People care about their Driver License, their credit cards, and that’s about it. I’ll speak for myself: all I want in my perfect minimalist wallet is one credit card, one debit card, a driver license, and some money. Even for someone on the inside, a librarian who goes to the library every single day, having a library card is not a priority that deserves real estate in my wallet (I memorized my number).

Working at a library, I see this all the time. People don’t remember their library card. When helping people over the phone, people don’t have their library card on hand (“Can I have your library card number please?” “Oh, shoot, let me go find it,” they say). Hint, hint: they don’t care. Second, it comes with a stupid, outdated, lengthy number on it – a 13 digit library card number. Mine is 120242015…oh, never mind. The number is so long it gets printed with spaces between it, so it’s easier to read!

But it gets worse. Not only is a 13-digit number holding us back from accessing our account, but a 4-digit “PIN” too. What? Are you serious? As in… “personal identification number?” Is this an ATM machine (pun intended)? Not surprising, we have to explain to grown adult people every single day what “PIN” means (turns out, it actually means ‘the last 4 digits of your phone number’….what? OMG. LOL).

Hypothesis: a lot of people use libraries when they need to, at certain points in their life, in stages, not all the time, like the local grocery store. Not everyone is a lifelong power user. The library card, therefore, is dispensable, disposable, and short lived. John needs to print something. He thinks: the library has computers! He goes to the library. The library puts him through the ceremony that is getting a library card (proof of address? ID? email? phone number? preferred way to contact you?). He’s getting annoyed. He prints his resume and visits the library in 5 years. Yet even if people consistently used the library for several years (which they might), the library card still has no place or relevance.

One Problem with My Argument – the Barcode

When I said the library card has “no benefits whatsoever,” I lied. It has one. Libraries like mine have self-checkout machines, which are tied to barcode scanners, which allows you to enter the 13 digit number by scanning the card itself. That saves time, assuming you have your stupid card with you to begin with. In fact, different library technologies are in bed with the barcode (we have a mobile app that saves your barcode, for example). With a username or email, on the other hand, we would need a different solution.

Finger Scan to Check Out Library Books? Yes, Please.

Call me naive, but I think biometric technology should seriously considered for checking out materials (and getting on a public computer). Scan your finger, check out, and go – fast, easy, convenient. The technology is here, cheap, and….creepy? Maybe.

Maybe not. A word about privacy. For some this brings to mind dystopian sci fi movies. Calm down. First, biometic technology doesn’t really scan your finger print, like the police would do. It’s not a scan. It takes certain measurements of your fingerprint and converts them into numbers, which distinguish you from another library member. Second, and most importantly, the library protects your privacy more than anyone. We are not some greedy corporation. Not only do libraries actually care about your privacy, we have to. According to the Library Privacy Act, we cannot give out patron information unless the police has a warrant for it (and I wonder if that ever happens). Third, this would be an optional service, patrons could opt-in. Do you want to check out items faster? Yes? Then give us your finger. No? Okay fine, use the old way weirdo.

pile-of-booksLibraries have different ways of dealing with extra copies. After these books are 6-8 months old, they’re ready to retire to the regular stacks. But how many copies should we hold on to? And for how long? At our library, we keep two copies and hold onto them until they get weeded (which means no checkouts in 4 years). So, browsing through our regular stacks, it’s hard not to notice the many copies of older Patterson’s, and Baldacci’s, and [any popular author we get more than two copies of]. Many are newer, but many are old – really old. Like over 10 years old. Do we really need two copies of a Patterson novel from 2002? That’s a lot of real estate, after all.

Turns out, yes.

Focusing on our Central (downtown) Branch, I recently ran an experiment in CollectionHQ tracking the performance of (a) books we had two copies of and (b) that were at least 10 years old. I scanned a large sample of these books into one experiment, a total of 281 books – from Child to Connelly, Cussler, Evononvich, Kingsbury, Koontz, Macomber, Patterson…you get the idea.

And then I waited.

In four months, 102 of those books had circulated (35%). Not bad. In six months, 129 had circulated (46%). That’s a lot, and doesn’t count renewals, which accounted for 291 circulations. And in many cases, both older copies were checked out (not just one of them).

Don’t sleep on your older but popular authors.

47148088-love-picture

I’ll never forget creating a Staff Day presentation titled “Customer Service is Loving People,” filled with all sorts of ideas about empathy, love, MLK quotes, and references to historical and philosophical figures. Before clicking ‘save’ on the PowerPoint presentation, I thought: am I really going to do this? Could this be the corniest presentation of all time? (the corniest LL&F post of all time?!) Am I one of those weirdos at Staff Day that we all make fun of later on? Alas, I felt compelled. I literally opened my talk with this: “I was going to talk about Customer Service, but I cannot…”

After thinking about it for several years, and after serving on our Customer Service Committee at KPL, I truly believe empathy is the holy grail of customer service and, being a simple person, I prefer to focus on that alone. All of us who serve people – whether that be students, library patrons, or middle aged women getting skinny vanilla lattes – we all need to consider how we treat them, how we think about them; and, ultimately, how and if we love them.

  • Do you care about the members of your library? All of them?

  • Do you find yourself thinking about patrons most of the time (positively, not negatively)?

  • Do you treat users as you would treat yourself, your family, your friends?

If so, you are giving good customer service, probably great. And you are probably a good person to boot. Similarly, leaders should be judged in proportion to how much they inspire others to care for patrons. I find a direct correlation between moral virtues and professional ones – and here is a good example. Empathy crosses the boundaries.

Customer service is empathy. And empathy is morality, and morality is life. Some things in life have simple answers, and this might be one of them. Maybe it’s not about eye contact, and smiling, and body position, and the reference interview, and re-stating the question, and following up, and saying the proper things. Maybe those are peripheral. Maybe those are symptoms of customer service; they flow from it and cannot be forced, cannot come from nothing. As Rene Descartes would say, let’s get to first principles. Customer service is a genuine concern. You can’t fake it. People are smart. They know if you care about them or not. And if you care, you will make eye contact, you will smile, you will follow up. I’ve seen it so many times. Caring for customers is the worldview that creates excellent customer service experiences, both on the front end and the back end, both in person and when designing service, spaces, policies, procedures. Everything that psychology has to say about a healthy relationship – empathy, trust, communication, love – applies equally to patrons, customers, users, members, and co-workers.

Well, okay, maybe love isn’t the whole story. Loving alone sometimes isn’t enough. We can have the best of intentions and still design a terrible service for library users. For example, it’s great to care about people who prefer large print books, and those people exist no doubt. But should you double the size of your Large Print collection? Probably not (in fact, it might be too big). Without knowledge, love can be blind. We have to know what patrons – specifically and collectively – actually want. We have to look at data, crunch numbers and interpret statistics on occasion. We have to get to know people, ask questions, think critically, do focus groups. Martin Luther King Jr. once said (oh great, now he’s quoting MLK?) that in order for the heart to be in the right place, the head must be in the right place. I agree. Perfect customer service is when the heart meets the head on an organizational level.

If you work at a library, you need to figure out which side you’re on. If you don’t love patrons, you are getting in the way of progress. If you love patrons, let’s roll up our sleeves, learn, and create amazing services and spaces for the people we care about.