or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Where Is A Library’s Community?

   September 29th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Here's an interesting situation - so interesting, in fact, that I find my self in agreement with both sides of the issue.

Concord (NH) Public LibraryThe Concord (NH) Public Library found that it couldn't afford to purchase all the books it wanted. So, it started a program where patrons could purchase and "donate" a copy of a book from the Library's wish list.

Great idea. They explained the program on their website, set up wish lists on Amazon, and waited for the books to roll in. Good use of Web 2.0-ish technology, right? Patrons could just click and pay for the book, and it would be shipped right to the library. Kudos to the library for being creative and proactive and making it easy for the public to support the library in a very useful way.

But after four weeks, only four of the 30+ books on the wish list were purchased.

Gibson's BookstoreLast Thursday, the owner* of the independent Gibson's Bookstore in Concord sent out a message to his customers. He explains very well what he feels the library did wrong, and appealed to his customers to support the local library buy purchasing the books locally. He even created a duplicate click-to-purchase wish list for people to use to donate books to the library.

The result? In less than 24 hours, all of the remaining wish list books were purchased to be donated to the library (which is why the wish lists are now empty).

This benefits the library, right? And it benefits local business, which benefits the tax base and the local workers, and everyone is happy, right? So why didn't the library just do that in the first place?

I wonder: could the library have done anything differently? I think the Amazon wish list was a good idea, but it wasn't successful. I don't know what kind of promotion it got, but perhaps the library's website just doesn't get enough traffic.

Also, the idea of a library partnering with a local business is a bit of a sticky wicket**. Being a non-profit government department, libraries usually cannot do anything that would imply it favors one business over another. But I suppose it would have been okay if the library approached all the bookstores in town - which I think is limited to Gibson's and a Borders, anyway.

This then starts to make the program more complicated and difficult to manage, to make sure patrons don't purchase duplicate books. But by opening the program up to the customers of the stores, the library would have been able to reach more members of the community.

Library communities are not just the people who come through the door, and certainly not just the people who visit the website. When libraries reach out to the community, we have to go to where the community is, and not just wait for them to come to us.

UPDATE: Article and reader comments at the Concord Monitor newspaper

UPDATE 10/1/09: The Concord Library created a second wish list, and distributed it to Amazon, Gibson's and Borders (in-store lists only). That's the best way to get it filled quickly, by distributing it as widely as possible to get the message to the patrons. And then, as Michael from Gibson's says, "It's up to us to convince you to shop at Gibson's--as it always has been."


*Full disclosure: the Director of my library is married to the owner of Gibson's.

**I love that phrase.

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