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

Where Is A Library’s Community?

   September 29th, 2009

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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5 Responses to “Where Is A Library’s Community?”

  1. Amanda Says:

    I can completely understand why the local bookstore was upset. Public libraries are supposed to be about the local community, and it absolutely makes the most sense for their wish list to be connected with the local bookstores.

    The point you bring up of possible perceived favoritism is a good one. I would think that would be solved by asking all the bookstores to participate, but I am not a public librarian so am not certain of the logistics.

    I know I would certainly feel like I’d done the community more good if I bought the book to donate from a local bookstore.

    What if they made a wiki wishlist? People could edit to say they’d purchased the book to prevent duplicates…..or something.

  2. Where Is A Library’s Community? from the Swiss Army Librarian… « Phx Friends of UA SIRLS Says:

    […] the rest of this interesting story” visit:  http://www.swissarmylibrarian.net/2009/09/29/where-is-a-librarys-community Posted in Budgets, library promotion. Tags: public librarianship. Leave a Comment […]

  3. Michael Herrmann Says:

    Hi, Brian–I had a sixth sense, a premonition, or perhaps just an email suggesting that I should have a look at your post. It is excellent–the issues are complex, as you point out. But I would like to point out one thing that you aren’t giving sufficient weight to, in my view–when the CPL posted the list exclusively on Amazon, they were ALREADY favoring one business over all others… which you rightly note should be taboo.

    It’s funny, people don’t think of Amazon as a business that is in competition with other businesses. They think of Amazon more as some kind of force of nature or something, above the fray. But they are every bookstore’s deadliest local competition.

  4. Jessica Says:

    Very interesting post on an important topic. And while I agree that the library’s original plan to use Amazon did not take into consideration the “support your local business” aspect, my take is that they decided to go with something that was very EASY to implement, and that would, in a word, just WORK. Amazon is set-up to do things like this, while many small businesses may lack the website capabilities, staff tech abilities, staff time, or just plain willingness to do so.

    I think it’s great that this book store was willing and able to dedicate the time to the wish list that that have – because, clearly, this was not just an automatic and easy task. The use of email to track the list alone makes it labor-intensive for them and their staff.

    I was also thinking about using Amazon to create a wish list for books at our library – and I fully admit that I don’t know that I would have approached the local store about doing it for us. And while I will now take that much more into consideration, I have to say I will highly surprised if the stores in our area have the resources and capabilities to do it, without making it more of a hassle than it is worth for them (and, naturally, for us).

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Amanda: A wiki would work, as long as the patrons could figure it out. But even for library staff, that might be the easiest way to manage a multiple-book/multiple-source kind of wish list.

    @Michal: Good point about Amazon being a business – funny, but that didn’t occur to me. Similar, I guess, to librarians showing patrons how to search the internet via Google: every time someone clicks on a sponsored link as a result, that’s a case of the library driving them revenue. Hmm.

    @Jessica: You’re right, I think it took time of a (or more) Gibson’s employee to manage this, rather than being all hands-off the Amazon way. But if a bookstore(s) has staff willing to do that, then great. Or, if a library volunteer (or staff, but that’s unlikely) could manage it, then also great. The single automatic list from Amazon is very attractive in this case, but local options are worth exploring (and perhaps a review of library or municipal policies regarding working with local businesses, too).