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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Reference Question of the Week – 2/25

   March 3rd, 2007 Brian Herzog

Minute Man/Farmer StatueYou know it's going to be an involved question when the phone rings and the first thing the patron says is, "have you got a few minutes?"

In this case, the caller was from a different town (Concord, MA, as in Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere, the shot heard 'round the world, etc.). He said he receives a daily email called Mass Moments, which gives an interesting "on this day in Massachusetts history" event.

The Mass Moment for 3/1/2007 concerned how the town of Bedford responded to the Boston Pamphlet, which, published in 1772, urged the towns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to organize an inter-town communication system to aid in the growing resistance against the British Parliament.

This got the patron curious how his town, Concord, and other towns at the time responded. Chelmsford was one of those original towns, so he called me. What he was looking for was the town archive dating to 1773, and he wanted to know if he could go through it.

First of all, being from Ohio, I'm not really used to thinking of things beyond the 19th century in terms of tangible history. So, him thinking that 18th century documents would be lying around somewhere kind of made me laugh. Not to mention that, in my experience, a public library is not at all a safe place for such things.

Anyway, aside from a few books, we don't have much my in my library that dates back past the 1970s. So I called the Town Clerk's office, thinking that they should know where old town records are stored.

The first woman I spoke with didn't know. But she did say that this patron had already called her, and she told him the same thing. But, since I was calling from the library, she transferred me to her supervisor.

The supervisor was more knowledgeable, and told me that there is an archive in Town Hall. She said they have most of the town records back to when the town was incorporated in 1655, but that nothing was indexed or searchable. She said she'd have to manually go through the Town Meeting records from that period to find the information, and that when she did, she would call the patron.

I thought this was an interesting question, partly just because of the fact that the Town has records dating back that far. Also, though, I think it's funny that the Clerk's office treated me better than they did the man from Concord when he called on his own. They don't know who I am over there, I just said I was from the library. I wonder if this guy had said he was calling from the library that they would have been a little more accommodating. And I wonder if my library connection will earn me special treatment the next time I get a speeding ticket.

boston pamphlet, concord, libraries, library, mass moments, reference question, town archive, town records

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