Actual presentation may not exactly match these notes. Originally presented to Milwaukee County Federated Library System and Waukesha County Library System in November 2011. Part the First.
Before we can look at adapting retail practices, we need to look at just what libraries have been, are and what they need to be to survive. We need to look at just how we decide which practices can be adapted and which ones are a bad fit. Next, a look at some other business practices – which ones work and in what situations After that, we will look at display as an example of adapting a business practice – why it works in libraries. Finally, we will look at how McMillan has approached some of this – what has worked and what we have stopped doing.
Apologies to all Buddhists in attendance. Seriously, each library will have their own path to Nirvana. Best practices are a good guide – to what worked a decade ago. The best practices for a 21 st century library are in development and you get to develop them. Having your target properly determined is essential to hitting it. Slow and sure can win the race – if you are on the right track. If you are off the track, your speed doesn’t matter much. If nothing has changed for a decade, nothing is likely to change in the next decade. If all your furnishings are where the architect drew them 20 years ago, you have a problem. Everything else in society has changed and you haven’t evolved. OTOH, if you are constantly tinkering, those small changes add up. They build momentum and experience. The cycle of planning| trial solution| implementation | evaluation | planning again is very business-like. Moving to an age of abundance has consequences for libraries. During WWII, people came to the library to see where Guadalcanal was, because it was an age of scarcity. Now GoogleEarth will show me the tent my son lived in while stationed in Iraq. Anyone suffering from a shortage of “news”? Additionally, libraries are (should be) so networked that they have access to millions of items. In effect, even large libraries are branches backed up by a huge cloud based collection. Patrons have powers beyond that of any 1980’s librarian to order items from other libraries.
Yes, change is scary. Who ever got fired for following the rules? How much trouble can you get in doing the same thing year after year? Libraries do not have the luxury of not changing. Retail has changed, technology has changed, books have changed, media has changed. Not changing is the only sure way to fail. If nothing has changed for a decade, nothing is likely to change in the next decade. If all your furnishings are where the architect drew them 20 years ago, you have a problem. Everything else in society has changed and you haven’t evolved. If you don’t develop this muscle, it will atophy. OTOH, if you are constantly tinkering (Poking the Box by Seth Godin), those small changes add up. They build momentum and experience. The cycle of planning| trial solution| implementation | evaluation | planning again is very business-like.
Why is it a bad practice for libraries to adopt business models? Libraries (school, academic and public) are a government/social/community function. They are supplied with tax dollars because they serve the community. That service involves the creation of a social good that is poorly measured by business metrics. The goal is an outcome, not an output. Not numbers of items, but number of lives positively impacted. Language can confuse as well as enlighten. Libraries loan (and that loan is free), which scrambles most business models. Adopting business models in such situations leads to using terminology that conceals more than it reveals – e.g. customers. Our goal should be to become the best library we can be, not to try to become a public-private hybrid that doesn’t work on either level.
There are many disconnects between libraries and the private sector. To start with the biggest, libraries have an educational and cultural mission. They are either improving the community or wasting taxpayers’ dollars. Libraries have wandered from this lately, to poor effect. Libraries can not long survive if all they do is efficiently distribute materials. There are no tax dollars for such a service. Don’t be confused because there are private sector analogs of some library services. The mission, the aim of the institution matters more that tactics or even strategy. There is a difference between a police officer and a security guard, a soldier and a mercenary, between the library and any private sector analog of a library. Libraries are a classic example of a “third place”, neither home nor the marketplace. A community space, a commons. More later. Return on investment does have a place in libraries. Many purchases can be analyzed using ROI. But if you don’t factor in service, it is easy to misuse the term. Library equations involve costs and service, not just investment and return. Everything in a business is a profit center or in service of a profit center. Nothing in a library should be a profit center. Not rental collections, not coffee shops. These are services. Even fines should be service related and not designed to maximize revenue. Business style incentives don’t translate well in libraries. 20% more use doesn’t translate to budget increases or bonuses. Most libraries have 100% market share, as no other institution does what they do. Nor does more transactions mean better service. Many educational and cultural library projects do not generate much in the way of circulation, but they are at the core of the mission, much more than extra copies of the latest DVD are. Privately administered libraries can easily boost standard output measures by dropping most of the mission of the library and focusing on simple distribution. Great metrics, bad service. Because libraries serve a community, niche marketing is an inappropriate concept. Some populations might well be underserved by a library and that should be remedied. But a library isn’t like Gander Mountain or JoAnn Fabrics. It can’t focus on profitable market segments to the exclusion of the rest of the community.
There are many places where library and private sector practices overlap. I don’t think this means that libraries fail at these things and business succeed, but that these are practices that both of them need to pay close attention to. Every business and institution needs to be driven by customers/patrons/users. This is a long way from “Give ‘em what they want”. Does anyone want those chunky things that pass for tomatoes in grocery stores? There are plenty of services that library users might like that we don’t even consider offering. Many libraries face a consistent demand for sleeping space. It does mean that use should be easy, comfortable and fast. How easy things are for staff is a secondary consideration. Ditto for past practice. How an establishment is designed, how sections are laid out and how easy it is to find something (anything) is a shared concern. Hours need to be as plentiful as possible, easy to remember and vary as little as possible. Perception is reality. If an establishment looks too crowded, it is too crowded. If it looks messy, it is. If it seems hard to find assistance, it is hard. A destination isn’t like the dry cleaners. At a destination you want to stay, there is more than one thing to do, it is a “sticky” place in that time passes at a different speed.
There are some things that business do pretty well that libraries do rather poorly. Explain why a library needs tax dollars in 30 seconds or less. Do so in a way that will at least engage a libertarian. Like many government agencies, libraries can drift. Identify your mission, put your treasure there. Don’t waste time and effort on non-essential programs. Develop strategies and don’t be satisfied with tactics. Look long term and stay focused. If you have a five year plan, how are you doing? Is it on a shelf or does it guide your priorities? Did it change how you spent money? Hired staff? Did it just confirm that you don’t need to make changes? If you don’t plan on making significant changes, are you ready to face the consequences? Relationships are long term or they aren’t relationships. Build relationships with other government agencies, with NGO, with schools, with clubs and especially with donors. No donor only wants to see you when your hand is out.
In any restaurant, you are always asked: Can I get you anything from the bar? Can I start you with something? Supersize that? Or BMW instead of Honda. Mustang instead of Civic. Wait staff can be fired for not trying to sell up. Any interaction with a patron is a chance to sell up, to surprise and delight them, to show them the riches that we have collected. Census records – how about Marine Corps muster rolls? Book about diabetes – how about the health magazine index? Full text magazine – with citations! Sure we have e-books and will soon have a lot more. Books on French – and CDs and an online subscription site. We know that patrons only ask part of the question and are prepared to be satisfied with a sufficient amount of information ( Satisficing ). We can be satisfied too - if we are factory workers. As librarians, we need to sell up all the time. Otherwise, many of our best resources will go underutilized.
Every person and every library should develop a super power. Maybe not everyone can be Superman, but maybe we can be a member of the Justice League of America. Being able to deal with an abusive patron is better than being able to leap over tall buildings. Knowing all about local history is not as much fun as flying, but almost as rare. For a library, being well designed is a super power, having books people didn’t even know they wanted, having a staff that smiles. That super power is what stands between being a cog / being average and being irreplaceable. Superman was born with his powers, but Batman wasn’t. He has to work on them everyday. Developing or recognizing your super power is mainly a matter of attitude and willingness – unless you wait to be bitten by a radioactive spider. Most of us can also use our powers for evil – blow off patrons, scare little children, create unreadable signs.
Did you just smile and then frown? Human brains are designed to mirror what they see. Be aware and intentional. I once taught my 3 month old niece to stick out her tongue and even to curl it. Took about 3 minutes. Be aware and intentional. Patrons will mirror back what you give them. Formality or familiarity. Coldness or comfort. Business or pleasure. Seem what you would be and be what you would seem. Aristotle and I think the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland.
One way to approach this is to look at how we see ourselves. How do we want to be seen? Friendly? Hospitable? Professional? Involve staff in setting these expectations, based on how they want to be seen. Then hold everyone to that standard. Make it explicit.
I see this sign every day on my way home from work. It reminds me not to let this person refinish or repair anything of mine. If you can’t be remarkably good, avoid being remarkably bad. Every business and library has junky, ripped, faded signs. Keeping them to a minimum is a victory.
If you are looking at business models, what kind are appropriate? As my favorite football coach says “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” Low service / distribution based models just don’t cut it for libraries. Hospitality / friendly / personalized retail are good models. Is OK good enough? Not if you want to be like a successful business. They aim higher and so should we. You will need to be welcoming and hospitable. You will need to be both effective and efficient – and fast. If you are aiming to be excellent, you will need to surprise and delight.
How many libraries are on the cutting edge? How many really push the limits? Right now, less than a dozen are going full scale BISAC. South Central is implementing Koha open source software. These are not the safest choices. Libraries that take these kinds of risks deserve the thanks of the profession, even if they drive right off the cliff. For the rest of us they provide visible evidence that something works (or doesn’t). Show us what was necessary to make it work in their setting, so we can see how it might work in our setting. Calculate the costs, which must include the cost of not doing something else with the same energy and effort. Highlight the tradeoffs involved - and there are always tradeoffs involved.
So what do we use to judge, how do we decide? How do we know if we are on the true path? As you adapt a business practice, how can you know if you are on the highway to heaven or the road to perdition?
Does it fit within the Five Laws of Library Science: Books are for use. Every reader his [or her] book. Every book its reader. Save the time of the reader. The library is a growing organism. Is it easy on the public, even if it is work for your staff? Are people working to fit the technology or the other way around? Is it harder to use than a gas pump? If you have to explain it twice, it is too difficult. Patron level skills should not require repeat training. Technology should be better than people have at home. So, Blu-Ray projectors, recent PCs, flat screens (on PCS and as TV). Will it wow people? Or bore them? Don’t be afraid to compete with other libraries.
The unlikely named Paco Underhill is a genius, having invented a new field of study – retail anthropology. Of course, it just means that his crew watch people in stores. Which way do they turn (right), at what point do they look for signs or assistance, how much do they handle items, what can we do to encourage transactions? All of his books are worth reading, especially his last, which deals with retailing to women. His main findings aren’t too surprising: Comfortable, easy, practical, fast. But do we meet that standard? Most business find they don’t. Design is a means of managing people and how they move, where they go and when they ask for assistance. Design is also a form of theater – setting the stage for a quiet scene or a children’s area. It has both a physical and emotional impact – so have an intent. One test here – if a TV crew was coming to film a segment at your library, what would you change? A bunch.
If you are customer driven, then self-service is an option, not something you force people to do. By Paco Underhill’s guidelines, self-service is often the best service – easy, practical and fast. Holds pickup, self-check, Internet signup, self-renewals. Non-service is rarely the best option. If I can’t find help when I need it, I leave the store and don’t return. Most businesses staff their self-checkout. Prevents thefts, but also provides assistance. Staff stays busy with other tasks while overseeing 4 stations. For efficient self-service, retrofitting is necessary, maybe not in phase 1, but before it can be considered done. This involves changes to staff duties, staffing patterns, desks, signs. Otherwise, self-service will be an add-on. Self-service needs to be infused throughout the library’s program /design / staffing.
Most library users (and most business customers) do not ask for assistance. Depending upon how you count, 60-90% of walk-ins don’t ask for assistance. Since they are operating as self-service users, the best help we can provide is Wayfinding. If we were serious about customer service, this would get as much attention and time as your Information Desk. A library needs to be intuitive and capable of being navigated without assistance. If a person can come into a library, wander for 10 minutes and not find anything that attracts their attention, we have failed them. Just as a business would in the same situation. Wayfinding involves how the library is designed, how furniture and shelving is laid out. Even how areas are decorated should be important clues for patrons. You should be able to spot a children’s area 50 yards away. Librarians are often concerned about their own sightlines and rightly so, both for supervision and to identify patrons needing help. Patron sightlines are also important. There are landing and decompression zones where patrons will stop, look around and actually see signs. These spots need good sight lines. Signs is a good place to use business practices. A few large ones to be read from a distance, some smaller ones to help when you have reached the right area. Simple, declarative, jargon free. No scolding, no passive aggression. Signs can be read from a distance. Architectural standards for this. Handouts have to be within arm’s reach to read. Don’t post handouts.
Just in time came originally from car manufacturing. Instead of keeping a large inventory of parts, factories would have them delivered just in time. This spread to retail, so that WalMart and grocery stores display most of their inventory and keep very little in storage. For libraries, being in a shared system and having a good delivery system make this work. Leaner, targeted, more up-to-date local collection. Easier to display a smaller collection. Our three levels are: Our library has a solid collection designed for our community –like a bookstore might. Our system has a huge collection, with 2-3 day delivery – like Amazon For the very few items that are beyond that, we have ILL, which is like a specialty bookstore. Our goal is to have 80% of our circulation be from our shelves. In an open system, with lots of remote use, this can be a difficult target.
Libraries zone, but not enough. This is like zone heating. Different zones are designed for different purposes and audiences, so they should have different rulesets. Children’s Room is already a different ruleset. Louder, crying allowed. Often, the rest of the library is one zone / one ruleset. That zone can’t really be kept quiet nor can it be used for social purposes. This leads to unenforceable rules – no cell phones, no water, talking in normal conversation, no laughing. It can also lead to an entire social zone or an entire quiet zone (which means you aren’t meeting the other need).
When a business changes operation, it changes staffing to reflect that – right away. Businesses have more flexibility than government bodies in staffing. Adding staff may require several levels of approval. That makes libraries very unwilling to downsize, since they have a difficult time recovering the lost staff. When one says “right size”, they are almost always talking about cutting staff. Hard for that not to affect services. Right staffing, OTOH, means moving staff from one unit to another, from one classification to another, cross training. This may be restricted too, by contract or policy, but is more likely to be internal to the library. This goes beyond mere FTEs. Administration should re-examine position description to see if they have remained relevant. That is also a good time to see if the work being done matches the class assigned. Some clerical tasks have been de-skilled by technology. Some position descriptions are too narrow and inflexible. Try Position classifications for Wisconsin public libraries (WAPL 2005). Re-examining all this will help protect the library if it has to justify salaries/classes, while making operations more efficient. Structure runs top to bottom. Businesses often have team approaches, whereas libraries tend to remain departmentalized, which is less flexible. If cuts are coming, be proactive and get the library in order before decisions have to be made. If a task is sufficiently de-skilled and doesn’t involve confidentiality, volunteers may be used. We use the term “patron level skills” for things every patron can be taught simply and that volunteers can be used for. Contracts and policy may limit this.
Remember who you are Adapt don’t adopt Promote all manner of self-service – infuse it into your program Manage change – or it will manage you Be a great library Break and maybe activity