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Feb 20

Changing the Logic: Libraries

I have observed a low correlation between people campaigning to save libraries and their likelihood of using them. Halfway through their vehement insistence on the preservation of the concept I ask when they last went to the library. This is not the point apparently. The library is a fine institution, enhancer of moral fabric etc – not a place you actually GO to in your ever more squeezed free time.

This, plus some research and strategy work I did on non-users of libraries a few years ago, set me thinking about the retail sector. Roughly speaking, it has gone from being based on trades (the butcher, the baker…), to categories (good shops, clothes shops) and now to customer segments (habitat, apple, virgin records). So as bookshops seem to have peaked and now be closing stores, maybe it’s time for libraries to loosen the reins on Owning The Book Sector and get closer to the customer.

There is a tremendous amount of wisdom in the heads and hearts of librarians and library staff. They recognise customers and customer types, they can predict and recommend the right books for individuals. They are constantly assessing lifestyle and adapting the book offer to fit. Harnessing all that wisdom could provide the library service with a powerful tool for capsule libraries embedded in the places people like to go. Of course some of that happens already, but on an ad hoc basis. How much better that there is an easy way for eg mums and toddlers to have a capsule of children’s books, parenting craft and some well selected distraction literature? Or teenage fiction in Top Shop. This is just the start, there are many ways this could work for particular groups – ESOL and other language books for those waiting in the queue at the benefit office, healthy lifestyle and autobiographies in the hospital waiting room.

This would require some technological shift. We expect to be able to buy or rent a video – it could be the same for books. These days I use audiobooks a lot so I can listen on my i-pod and make better use of journeys, waiting in queues and other scraps of downtime. I’d like to flick through one or two of say 100 books that “people like me” read  (I haven’t got time for a whole library!) then with a swipe of my “bookster” card either download it onto my ipod or borrow or rent it. And why not?

The time I spent researching the sector led me to the conclusion that it could only ever change if the individuals working within it were prepared to change. And there was a significant group who were risk and change averse. They believe passionately in the traditional library model. But as user numbers drop in most areas of the country and funds are squeezed, that view looks untenable. The unlocking idea might be the original purpose of libraries – to make stories and facts available to a wider audience. On that basis, anything is possible and the 21st century library still has much to offer society.

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