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Month: March 2005

What Librarians can learn from Bookstores

What Librarians can learn from Bookstores

I have spent the last week or so working for my brother-in-law at the bookstore he manages. I’m helping him do inventory, something he has to do every year with the help of a few extra hired hands, but this year he only has me to do his bookly bidding. Doing bookstore inventory, from the perspective of a hired minion like myself, involves taking a barcode reader to every book in a section. And then moving on to another section. Lather, rinse, repeat.

After spending a few days with the bar code reader and watching what’s going on around me in a bustling and successful bookstore, I’ve decided that all librarians should regularly spend some time in the profit sector of the book world. As soon as profit gets involved, the whole concept of good service clarifies itself into the stunningly obvious.

At library school alma mater, several faculty have spent years researching the level of service offered by reference desks at public libraries in the province. The process of gathering information for that study involves sending out fresh-faced first term library students to a public library and having them state one simple request, with no clarification: “I’m looking for a good book to read.” The research measures how far along the classic reference interview a patron actually gets. The results are not very stellar.

When I first learned about the reference interview it sounded ridiculously basic. I mean, yes yes, listen to the patron’s question, ask an open-ended question, ask a closed-ended question, make sure you mention that if they have any more questions they shouldn’t hesitate to come see you. It seemed like straight up common sense to me. I thought they might as well have called this thing “how to have a conversation 101”. But on the ground running I can see why the common sense is important to underscore.

We get so caught up in our jobs, in the minutae of this and that, how much time we have and how much we have to do, how intimately we understand our own service and expect it to be crystal clear to everyone else, we forget how much courage it takes to show up at a desk in the first place. How intimidating it can be to open your mouth and ask a dumb question. How embarrassed people are if their first question is misunderstood, and how unlikely they are to clarify. How people generally understand the education of a librarian; my favourite quote: “My mother tells me I have to go to trade school if I flunk out of university. Maybe I’ll become a librarian.” The patrons basic expectation is that the reference staff will give it a half-hearted try if they have the inclination or the time and that they will be reasonably nice about it; since that’s the basic expectation, that’s often all reference staff do.

In the bookstore, the ultimate goal is always obvious. Have a question? Looking for a book? Can’t remember the author or the title? At the bookstore where I’m doing inventory, the staff jump to show you around and smile the whole time. They will help you remember the title of that book, or will talk about the content of it with you, or will offer to order anything out of Books in Print if you want it. Of course they’re polite. Of course they walk you over to where the book should be and make sure it’s what you want. They want you to buy it. They want you to be so happy with your experience that when you want another book, you won’t even consider going anywhere else.

Profit motive aside, in the end we essentially have the same motive, booksellers and librarians. I want to lead you to the book/resource that fills your needs exactly, and I want you to be so thrilled with it that you want to take it home with you. My brother-in-law wants to end up making a profit out of it, and I guess the “profit” of the library just isn’t so tangible. There’s no fire under a reference librarian’s behind to get them off their chair, to really listen to the patron and find out exactly what they want, and get creative about finding resources and make sure that patron walks away with something of use in his or her hands. If it’s not part of the corporate culture to bend over backwards for a patron, the reference staff isn’t going to see the point. The patrons are getting more than they expected anyway, aren’t they? The books are already free, that should be enough, right? There’s no profit involved; why do more work?

My co-op supervisor Jennifer was always pushing the idea of looking at the business sector for hints and directions, and from this angle I can see her point. In the bookstore they really care if you can read the signs and if the place is attractive. They care about cultivating a sense of space, an atmosphere. There is a clear profit-driven reason to make the place somewhere people want to hang out, and so the interior decorator comes in, the place gets a makeover every few years. That equals bodies in the bookstore, more visibility, and that means profit. It makes me sad that people so often need that golden dollar sign hanging over a thing in order to bother trying to make it worthwhile.

And then there are the things that happened at the bookstore that reminded me I was very much not in a library. At one point a woman came by looking for a book about blogs. She bought a book eventually, but not before telling me all about her blog and the issues she’s having, and getting some suggestions from me that were completely outside of the content of the books that were in stock. It would have been a very successful reference interview, but in the bookstore I felt guilty for the time it took. I’m not there to “chat” with customers, no matter how helpful I am. There was no more profit involved because of my detailed explanation about social networks and RSS readers; the book was bought in any case.

And then yesterday there was a fellow in the café having trouble with the wireless, and they sent for my brother-in-law, the local fix-it guy knows-what-to-do person. He told me to get my ibook and go see if the wireless signal was working from there or if the guy was sitting in a dead spot. The wireless was working fine; it turned out that the guy had never used wireless with that computer before, so he probably didn’t have it enabled, if he in fact had a wireless card at all. It was a windows machine.

“I’ll see who can help you with enabling wireless on windows,” I said, and scampered off. And then I realized; no one can help him enable his wireless. This is a bookstore. Not a library. They provide wireless, not technical assistance. Wireless does not equal sales; bums in seats, while a great thing at the library no matter what, does not equal sales in the bookstore. If the guy sits in the café taking up a valuable seat and just orders coffee after coffee, that’s a net loss. Someone could have sat there and ordered a more profitable lunch. Making a place attractive enough to want to linger in is a good thing, but giving them something other than buying books to wile away their time doing is not a good thing.

So in some ways I’m sorry that we don’t have a profit motive in the library; if we could pin a dollar value to ourselves, perhaps we would be clearer about why our services are so important, and why we need to keep our level of service and enthusiasm consistently high. Why we should be offering more than the patron expects and letting expectations (and levels of trust and usage statistics) rise. But on the flip side, our non-profit status means we are freed from picking a good information need from a bad one; one that will lead us to more profit versus one that’s just a drain on the system.

A couple of weeks every few years in a bookstore for every librarian; I think that would be revealing and inspiring. One of our goals should be to become everything an excellent bookstore is, with just as much excitement, enthusiasm, friendliness, helpfulness, and customer support. Librarians are lucky enough to have the option of going one step further and letting people leave their wallets at home.

To-do list: Start Revolution

To-do list: Start Revolution

To jump back on an old hobby horse: I read an interesting post at digitallibrarian.org this morning on federated searching versus Google Scholar:

So, why is Google able to do this, and do it in a relatively short time span, while libraries haven’t? An arguement could be made that Google has a greater amount of resources at its disposal, and because it is Google, can work out agreements with database providers which allow for the harvesting of their metadata (and full text) for the purpose of providing search results (but at this time, not the full-text directly). Most likely, there is at least some truth to this arguement. But I don’t believe all of the credit goes to Google; a lot of the credit also goes to the Library community for being passive in its approach towards information providers. We now rent our information instead of buying it; we subscribe to journals and databases without assurance that, if we eventually cancel a subscription, we will retain access to the information for the years to which we duly paid. We accept these terms, and because we do, our technology and our services are limited by them.

This is an interesting question, and one that makes librarians very uncomfortable; why was Google able to come up with a search engine that worked, being completely (as far as I know) devoid of any librarians on their team? Why are the efforts of librarians largely ignored by the technorati while a group of young guys in California were able to change the world? There’s a seething whisper coming out of librarianship when it comes to Google and Google Scholar and the grand digitization project: it should have been us. Those interlopers, they were just kids and they turned our world upside down. Why could they do this when we could not?

I think I have at least a short answer for this. And this circles back to the Gorman affair, of course. Librarians as a group have not attracted enough of the paradigm-shifters of the technological world. When someone, like that 19 year old guy who started Google, thinks about building something to harness the power of the internet, they don’t come out of a library science background, nor do they (generally) consider librarianship as a career path. (What tech-savvy person would read the recent words of the ALA’s president-elect and think that Librarianship was the right fit?) People with the ideas and the knowledge to do the things we wish we were doing are coming out of other, more profitable and more technically-focused fields. At this point, it isn’t enough to understand the life of information, or to know the difference between the universe of knowledge and the bibliographic universe or the intricacies of AACR2. You need to understand the technology and what it’s capable of.

There is nothing as inspiring as really understanding how something works. An architect who understands the principles of construction will be more adept at twisting and bending those principles to create something new and interesting. Knowing what’s possible is a springboard to creating meaningful and useful change. Google Scholar was surely created because one of the Google staff saw that the metadata allowed for searches to be modified by type in just such a way to produce results useful for academics; did we know that was possible? Did it even occur to us? Why should it have; we’re not experts on the internet. We like to pride ourselves on being experts on organizing and ranking information sources, but we (for the most part) wouldn’t know an algorithm if it zipped to our homes and organized our underwear drawers for us. In order to deconstruct, we need to at least understand the construction.

Librarians did a very brave thing at one time. Librarians sought to organize information with the understanding that Google was impossible and would never exist. Librarians tried to create order and reason where there was only a morass of paper and ink. Without their efforts we would have been stuck looking at an idiosyncratic pile of looseleaf. If there is no order, there can be no searching or finding. But that’s no longer the case.

Librarians are like communists; they assume the best in people, they presume that any thinking person would rather learn the controlled vocabulary than get 20 extra (useless) hits. Google came in and did the opposite. Google presumes that most people are stupid and allows them to be.

“rogers high speed internet is a piece of shit”

“search the web for erotic stories”

“need ideas visual presentation film monster”

“Alice Walker feminist view on By the light of my father’s smile”

Would Melvil Dewey have ever considered building a classification and retrieval system that allowed users to plug in searches like these?

Not to say that Dewey’s ideas were wrong. Organizing information by subject is a good idea, and if anyone doubts that they should talk to someone who runs a bookstore. As soon as there’s a profit motive, you get to see what really works and what doesn’t when it hits the floor running. Putting things with like things means that users can find more of what they’re looking for (and buy more). Browsability is important. Librarians are good at organizing physical information (ie, books). It appears that we’ve struggled to move out of the card catalogue.

I spent a lot of time in cataloguing class talking about how digital information is actually no different from non-digital information. Whenever something new comes along everyone wants to separate it out; I have written several papers on the topic of digital exceptionalism and how it’s the plague of librarianship. But now I must offer a somewhat altered thesis. A change has happened; the world is not made up of information we can line up on a shelf. A card catalogue is not a search engine, and neither is a library OPAC.

From the digitallibrarian.org:

So, what should we do? We should seek to emulate what Google is doing; not necessarily try to emulate Google Scholar (though we could and have done worse), but seek to work out agreements where we are allowed a copy of the data to which we are providing access. If the folks at Google can work out terms which were acceptable to content providers, I’m sure libraries can as well. Maybe, just maybe, if librarians, who are quite good at organizing and working with indexed information, could start to play with the databases, indexes, and metadata provided by our major information vendors, then perhaps we can start to explore new access tools which are users actually want to adopt and use. Otherwise, instead of being second (after google) in the information search food chain our users consume, we may start to drop to third (after Google Scholar), or worse…

Librarians feel threatened by Google. As a new librarian, I’m not as invested in the way things were, so it’s easy for me to point fingers. But I don’t think emulating Google is the right move. After all, Google already exists. Being a cheap knock-off isn’t going to help anyone. I think we need to reconsider our role.

We missed the digital information organization boat. We are not going to be the kings of catagorization in this universe. But what we can do is get to know the technology, and see where we can contribute in ways that Google can’t. We can work with Google to get the end result that we want.

Mistake #1: when we started creating metadata, we stopped at the monograph level. This is exactly the problem that the Google digitization project is trying to fix, and exactly the reason why we have to rent information. If we had entered every journal article, every essay in a collection, every segment of every book into our catalogue, we wouldn’t need to buy some for-profit publisher’s wares. We should have added journal titles to our catalogue. You should have been able to do an author search and get a citation for every damn piece of writing that person has created, be it a book, a book chapter, a conference paper, a book review, a letter to the editor, or a journal article. But our catalogues don’t work that way, so Google Scholar will always be better.

Unless we offer to do something Google can’t do. And when we do it, we do it for free. We do it for the good of our patrons and of patrons world wide. We do it because everyone should have access to information. Don’t compete with Google; you’ll never win. Technology is not where our competence is.

Who created a bibliographic universe where salaried academics who write, edit, and peer review for free need to have their work bought back from for-profit publishers in order to assign it to their students? We did.

If we can fix that, we’d be an equal partner with Google, not a competitor. They come up with the interface and the algorithm, we make sure it has good content. A match made in heaven.

To-do list: start revolution.