The Patron-centric Library

I just attended, The Customer Focused Library, a very illuminating Web Junction session. 


Three public libraries and an academic in the Chicago area had Envirosell, a company specializing in retail environments, study their physical spaces and customers’ behavior.  Of course, all libraries have differences, but among their surprising findings;


– Over half the library users got help from staff

– Around half the users come in once a week

– Half of borrowers check out audio visual materials

– Fewer than one in ten of those age 14-24 visit the book sections

– Many patrons spend 10 minutes or less in the building

– Two thirds of visitors didn’t come in for anything in particular


It’s great that staff is interacting so much with patrons, but unfortunately the biggest reason people needed help was because they couldn’t find things on the shelves.  The libraries are addressing this by putting lots of explanation on the shelf end signs (Self Help, Health…) and (oh the horror!) forsaking Dewey in favor of descriptive spine labels that actually say Organic Gardening and the author’s name instead of 635 ROD.


I was also fascinated by the density map (page 69 of the report), which shows where everyone is (different colored dots distinguish kids, teens, staff, adults…) at 10 minute intervals.  Obviously the computers get loads of use, but, except in the children’s area, the staff is almost all clustered at desks, with very few patrons near them.  Hardly anyone was out in the stacks helping frustrated customers find materials.  The time to start practicing roving reference is now!


Since so many people visit so often, our marketing and displays need to be fresh, so change them monthly or weekly to keep users’ attention.  Take advantage of the bright colors of our items.  One branch that had spine out picture book shelving increased their circulation 60 percent immediately by replacing shelves with face out bins so kids could flip through them like we used to do at record stores. 


With so many people borrowing A/V items, DVD or Playaway displays by the checkout desk will lead to impulse borrowing, and a note indicating there are loads more DVDs in the East Wing may convince patrons to spend more than 10 minutes with us.  We know it’s important to put your best foot forward, so cater to these brief encounters by putting your newest materials right out front.  And consider changing the book bias so that more of the budget can be devoted to popular materials like music or films.


There were also a lot of great tips on signage, probably the bane of every librarian’s existence since no one ever seems to pay attention to them.  Turns out we’re right – generally just 12 percent of people look at signs, especially when they are small and homemade.  Put signs people need to read where you have a captive audience – bathroom stall doors and by checkout lines.  Lure teens to books with enticing graphics by the computers.  Since two thirds of visitors don’t have a specific item in mind, pique their interest with great visuals like best seller or staff recommendation or featured author displays.  I love the book drop idea from a Swedish library – there are two book drops, one for regular books, and one for amazing books.  Amazing books are put in a special display.


So check out the full report and start using retail concepts to excite and delight your customers.

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5 Responses to The Patron-centric Library

  1. To these points would add what we’ve learned in our biennial Service Surveys … 60% of patrons use only the library they see from the front door (have dubbed this “The visible diamond of service”) and 1 in 10 patrons stays on for a while, nine simply shoot in and out. (We know this from periodic, walk around “snapshots”.)
    Check out a useful book: Creating Great Visitor Experiences: a guide for museums, parks, zoos, gardens, & libraries, by Stephanie Weaver.

  2. Justine says:

    Thanks for the tip!

  3. Sarah says:

    Would the tendency of \staff\ to concentrate around the reference desk have anything to do with proximity to public computers? In other words, helping with technical issues rather than being able to venture out further? Also, is behavior being encouraged by staff having off-desk time, or must they do everything at the public desk and thus they stay there in order to order materials, weed, and so forth? Just asking.

  4. jshaffner says:

    It could be they were watching the computers from their desks. In the density map the computers are the three squares where big crowds of dots are clustered just to the right of the most left cluster of black dots. I also questioned that there were no staff near the computers or in the stacks and it could be that the observer didn’t recognize staff when they were away from the desks, or that it just happened when “observers” took the “census” every 10 minutes, all the librarians had just got back to their desks from being out and about. It seemed really strange that no shelvers (at the very least) were in the stacks (though there is one black dot there). They didn’t mention if staff had to do all their work on desk, though that is a good point. But even if they do, it’s still good to have staff alternate circulating around – when I used to do it, I found so many bewildered people asking shelvers questions – they felt the librarians were too busy to bother them w/ their “silly” questions. I always told them that no question was silly, plus it’s job security for us when they need our help.

  5. Michael S. Hart says:

    Now we know the density of library patrons!!!

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