At the Hairdresser’s, Contemplating Readers’ Advisory

I love talking to people about what they’re reading.  I always apologetically preface my questions by explaining that I’m a librarian because I don’t think folks frequently talk about what they’re reading.  Lately, the service man who came to fix my stove shared that he likes to read biographies of sports and rock stars although he avoids the library because he just doesn’t have as much time to read as he used to (he works more hours than ever before).  The baseball dad who jump-started my battery told me that he liked to read Bill O’Reilly.  He doesn’t use the library, either.  Someday I’d like to spend some more time thinking about how to serve men and get them into the library, or conversely, serve them where they are.

But my most interesting recent conversation was with my hairdresser’s assistant who told me that she used to check out books at the library, but now that she downloads books to her iPhone she never uses the library anymore.  She doesn’t download free books from the library; she purchases everything she reads from Amazon.  When I told her she could download books for free from the library, she said that the money her books cost her was not an issue. She told me that she values two things especially about the service Amazon provides:  when she finishes a book, Amazon prompts her to select a new book it recommends for her based on the book she’s just finished and, Amazon gives her “samples” of books which she saves to remind her what to buy when she’s ready.

My hairdresser’s assistant’s story highlights three concerns I have.  Her willingness to pay to have the convenience of not using the library is evidence that, among some of our patrons, library use is not convenient and they would rather pay for materials than suffer the inconvenience of borrowing them from the library.  Could we make the patron experience more convenient?  Perhaps we could permit patrons to borrow fewer and older books for a longer period.  Perhaps we could allow patrons to borrow reference materials when they are not too expensive or recent.

Another concern I have is that we don’t do enough to interest patrons in new titles or read-alike titles while they are in the library.  While I’ve been told that readers are always looking for suggestions for new things to read, I’ve often observed very little in an organized fashion to offer suggestions to readers besides telling them about new books (or simply displaying new books in a special area).

Lastly, I think that we need to be where our patrons are.  If that means that we need to know something about how hot and steamy a particular romance author is, or which authors would be good readalikes for Debbie Macomber fans, or to be able to rattle off all of the Duck Dynasty spin-off book titles (shucks, I don’t know what they are, either) than that’s something that we should be doing.

I greatly appreciated Kasey Riley’s blog post on Readers Advisory that appeared last week in Illinois Libraries Matter because I believe that readers advisory is very important to the future of libraries.   Reading, whether fiction or nonfiction, is still central to many patrons; serving their needs for news and recommendations is simply part of giving them the excellent service they deserve.

Given that fiction is important to patrons at most of our libraries, we need to know something about it and be able to share that knowledge with our patrons.  (Of course, nonfiction readers advisory is vital to serving all our patrons, and especially, men.)  Libraries are retail environments, and those of us serving the library public need to know the merchandise so that we can express its value to our users, and to make appropriate suggestions to meet their needs.

Elizabeth Neill is a current member and former co-chair of the ILA Marketing Committee. She is extremely active in advocating for Illinois libraries and loves to talk with people to determine how libraries can serve their communities better.

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3 Responses to At the Hairdresser’s, Contemplating Readers’ Advisory

  1. NB, are you saying that because we can’t compete with booksellers well, we should just focus on the other services we can offer our patrons? Should reading be a central part of the library, or not?

    • NB says:

      I guess I’m saying that if libraries want to take a “marketing” approach to getting people in the door, that means they need to think of themselves in market terms. Businesses in a free market economy do not continue to focus on selling uncompetitive products unless they have bad business models. They figure out how they can distinguish themselves in the marketplace or otherwise obtain a market hold. Blackberry can’t compete with Apple. Does that mean it should give up selling mobile phones? I don’t know. But what are its options if it wants to stay in business? That is the kind of thinking that “public” libraries need to take if they really must evaluate themselves in terms of market value.

      In some communities, there is still a “market” for straight-up free books/reading material. In other communities, the market may be something else–such as youth-targeted programming or senior-targeted programming. That programming can still focus on informational support and “literary values” more broadly construed, but it may not be principally about trying to put readily available books into people’s hands. (I actually don’t know–I’m just saying that this is the kind of thinking that would be required in consumer-oriented terms.)

      There is also your point about the need to go *to* the public (sorry, “customers”) you’re trying to reach. I think this is such an interesting topic. There are, of course, cases of branch libraries that have moved into shopping malls. If you’re a suburban library, that may well be the right marketing trick to capture your customer base. Location, location, location, right?

      But thinking more in public service terms, I can also imagine an accessibly located, well-designed commons that houses a seniors’ residence (or senior services) as well as child-care services, a dining court, some kind of green space, perhaps a grocery store, and a public library branch. Could that make a difference?

  2. NB says:

    Part of the issue is that non-patrons aren’t seeing the many innovations happening in libraries nowadays. More and more libraries now offer the same kinds of things that they’re getting from Amazon. For example, public libraries are taking advantage of front-end systems like bibliocommons (e.g.,, which allow exactly the kinds of personalized advisories as well as other “social” and interactive user experiences that your hair dresser was referring to. So that’s just an excuse, not an explanation.
    You speak of going *to* the potential patrons, and that’s a great point. But how is Amazon going to the patron? Certainly not physically. For those potential patrons who are digital readers (such as your hairdresser), perhaps there are ways for libraries to reach out virtually. Not all public libraries are willing to take the free market “consumer” approach to librarianship, but if that’s your bag then perhaps libraries’ virtual marketing strategies need to follow the lead of the Amazons and Apples of the world. Straight-up online advertising, Facebook special offers, Twitter offers that promote not the library but the “free products” of the library, etc.
    That said,it took me years of pushing to get my husband to start using library e-book services rather than booksellers or illicit download methods. The extreme lack of convenience is definitely the problem there, not the ‘perks’ like personalized reading advice. When it comes to e-books and audiobooks, services like Overdrive are extremely unfriendly–its interface is terrible, it works patchily on mobile devices (even with their supposedly new design), the web pages are painfully slow to load, and it takes a seemingly endless number of clicks just to find, let alone download, a library book via Overdrive etc., plus there’s still a big problem with limited e-book selections in the library world. One common problem with Overdrive is that there will be a popular book series, and Overdrive will only offer book no. 3 and book no. 7. That may be the publishers’ fault, but the readers don’t care. There are also the endless waiting lists for most material. The publishers will get what they want (i.e. book sales), because what readers expect instant and straightforward access to *everything* that they’re seeking, not a smattering of offerings here and there. (That and the fact that the public library world focuses on digital fiction for youth rather than adults.)
    I haven’t yet tried BiblioDigital (, but to change non-patrons minds about library services compared to online sellers will require that kind of user experience, and nothing less.
    All that said: why does it matter whether this woman reads your books or Amazon’s books, if she can afford to buy books? The purpose of the library is to provide services and opportunities to those who need it, not to compete with booksellers. It would make a lot more sense if public resources could be pooled beyond income-bracketed neighborhoods, so that libraries in under-served communities could adequately support patrons who don’t have other options and opportunities. In terms of serving those who can afford to buy their own reading material, maybe the question to be asked there is: What other unique services and support can we “sell” to the public that can’t be met by booksellers? Rather than asking people you meet what they’re reading, maybe you need to revise your question.
    … Just a few thoughts! Interesting topic.

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