Executive Director's Blog: Discovery from the Outside In

Author’s Note:  Last week Serials Review published an article I wrote this spring about library consumer expectations, popular services in other industries, and the art of trendspotting.  The final version of that article can be found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00987913.2016.1214521  If your library doesn’t subscribe to Serials Review, below is an earlier, draft version that I’m allowed to share.


Discovery from the Outside In

Premise:  I believe we can make libraries more effective, more impactful, more popular, more valued, and better supported.  I believe we can accomplish this without a single new idea. 

We are all Outsiders

The ideas already exist.  They have been and continue to be implemented, evaluated, measured, tweaked, and re-measured.  The good ideas stick and the bad ones fall away.  Some good ideas have already served their purpose and been displaced by newer ideas better aligned to what people want (and therefore expect) right now.  You are already familiar with these ideas.  It’s true.  You have helped test the ideas, albeit unwittingly, and you already have strong opinions about them.

What am I talking about?  What are these ideas I speak of?  They are the ideas you find in your life outside of libraries.  They are the ideas that shape your experience as a consumer.  Whether you are grocery shopping, buying a new blender on Amazon, requesting an Uber, ordering takeout, checking Google Maps for traffic delays, or subscribing to a meal delivery service like Plated, you are engaging with service providers that have invested enormous amounts of time, talent and money to ensure that you have an excellent consumer experience.  They make it easy to find what you want; offer intuitive UI; provide a variety of options to meet your specific needs; leverage new technologies like GPS and mobile Apps to let you consume where you are; learn your preferences so these services can make smart, nuanced recommendations; make it simple to order and pay; and work out all the logistics necessary for speedy delivery.  They make it so easy.

When we like these services, we keep using them.  When we don’t like them, we make them go away by ignoring them.  We are all beta testers.  We are all members of focus groups.  We all have formed opinions about these services.  Hate grocery shopping?  Try ordering them online and receiving curbside checkout.  Hungry for real food, but don’t want to leave your apartment?  Order via GrubHub.  Need a ride, but want to ensure your driver isn’t going to overcharge you?  Uber it.  Not sure when to leave home to catch the opening act at a concert?  Check Google Maps for a real-time estimate.  All of these products and services, and all the others you are thinking of now, are sources of fully market-tested ideas that can be adopted into our libraries to make them more effective, more impactful, more popular, more valued, and better supported.

The Best You’ve Ever Had

Consumers have a voracious appetite for products and services that they perceive improve their quality of life.  Once consumers become accustomed to them, their expectations for all products and services rise accordingly.

An example from my own life:  at my house we receive lots of packages.  My wife and I both regularly shop online and there are weeks when we receive at least one package a day, usually arriving in a cardboard box.  When the companies we order from use a private carrier like FedEx or UPS, the packages get delivered to our doorstep rain or shine.  When the weather is bad, the carrier will put the cardboard box in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the rain or snow.  Because of this relatively simple additional service of “bagging” our boxes, we receive our packages on time every time.  Therefore our expectation for all carriers is on time delivery.  When a company we order from uses the United States Postal Service (USPS) as their carrier, we experience something different.  USPS packages generally arrive on time, but the individual delivery person will not deliver the package if there is so much as a hint of rain or snow in the air.  Her concern that our products not get damaged is appreciated, but as meteorology is not her forte, we often wait several overcast but otherwise dry days for a package to be left on our doorstep.  Depending on what we are waiting for, this can be annoying.  One time I happened to be in the driveway when the USPS delivery person pulled up.  I asked about their weather policy, and she confirmed that she would be held responsible if a package was damaged by the elements.  I told her I understood her caution, but that other carriers like FedEx and UPS simply bag the box and leave it and that has worked brilliantly.  Her response:  “They don’t give us bags.”

My goal in providing this example is not to disparage the USPS, but to illustrate that (a) great ideas to improve service are not hard to find (FedEx and UPS are not attempting to keep secret the fact that they empower their delivery team to use their best judgment and supply them with bags), and (b) a consumer’s expectations are set by the best service experiences they have ever had.

Fundamental questions

Before we go further, we must think about three fundamental business questions, for the answers to these questions will inform our definition of a “good” idea and will help us determine where in the vast wilderness of other industries we should look for these good ideas that can improve our libraries.  First, what business are libraries in?  Second and third, what do we call the people we serve and what do they really want from us?

What business are libraries in? 

Libraries provide e-resources, so does that mean we are in the ecommerce business?  Libraries provide physical materials, so perhaps that makes us a retailer.  Libraries also provide reference and instruction services, so does that make us consultants and educators?  Maybe we are museums; after all, we preserve and display cultural heritage materials.  Many public libraries are their community’s hub, hosting public meetings.  Does that mean they are in the facilities management industry?  Got a Makerspace?  Perhaps that makes you a laboratory.

Our diversity of services, missions, content, physical spaces, etc. are often a source of pride in librarianship, and there is merit to that.  But from a branding perspective, this is hopelessly confusing.  Librarians roll their eyes when someone naively assumes that we deal with physical books all day.  What’s annoying to us about this outdated notion is also revealing; it demonstrates that, for at least 500 years, libraries have benefitted from a durable, recognizable brand.  That kind of longevity is the envy of just about every industry outside of places of worship and hospitals.  Libraries as “the buildings with books” really has stuck with people, probably because it’s not difficult to remember and, for most people, evokes positive associations.

Nonetheless, our historical brand doesn’t accurately reflect today’s libraries and needs to be refreshed.  But what do we replace it with?  What is our modern brand?  Note the singular.  Not “brands.”  Brand.  Here our diversity works against us.  We have an identity crisis.  We are so many things to so many people, we cannot distill it to a modern equivalent of “the buildings with books.”  In lieu of a modern brand, our patrons revert to our historical brand.  We can’t blame them; we haven’t offered an alternative brand that can compete.

Brand confusion aside, being many things to many people has other, internal, impacts to libraries.  How many employees do you have at your library?  Now name a business with the same number or fewer employees that is exceptional in more than three lines of business.  More than two?  There is a reason for this.  It is incredibly difficult to be great in one line of business.  Libraries, even small ones, attempt to be great at several.  The result is predictable;  we are good at some, okay or worse at others, and all the while we feel pulled in too many directions at once.  The stoics among us say they wear many hats.  Their desire to serve the needs of patrons is admirable, but stretched too thin we can’t give them the best.

It’s not all bad news.  Because libraries do many things, we have many things to choose from when determining what our core business (our area of expertise) will be.  What’s more, because we do not compete with each other the way for-profit businesses compete, but rather have a long history of strategic partnerships and reciprocal agreements, we can have the best of both worlds.  We can choose our individual library’s core business, and we can continue to provide other services to our patrons by “outsourcing.”  Outsourcing could take the form of partnering with another library or group of libraries, joining or forming a cooperative, partnering with a local business, or simply purchasing a vendor solution.  The point is to focus on the core business your library is best at and supplement it with other services by way of partners, co-ops, and vendors.  Assuming you make sound business choices, you can offer patrons a suite of best-in-class services.

A rose by any other name

The name you attach to someone can change the way you view him or her.  Having worked in or with libraries my entire career, I’ve heard the people we serve referred to as “patrons,” “users,” “faculty,” “undergraduates,” “community members,” and on occasion much worse.  Each of these designations connotes particular roles, qualities, social standings, likes and dislikes, etc.  What is limiting about all these terms is that they are library-centric.  They allow us to define the people we serve as patrons of the library, our space, and as such we feel empowered to apply library-centric criteria of satisfaction to them.  This insular view of the people we serve does us no favors.  First, rather than describing our potential customer-base, all of these terms account only for our active customer-base.  By focusing only on our current base, we greatly reduce our ability to grow our customer-base because we don’t spend sufficient time and effort determining what is deterring un-patrons from using the library.  This approach would be anathema to any revenue-generating business where anything less than year-over-year growth is seen as failure.  Second, these terms imply an overstated differentiation between various types of library users.  Are faculty members and undergraduates different in some ways?  Of course.  But seen through a broader lens both groups are information seekers, making them 99% the same.  Whatever differences in service expectations they exhibit have more to do with their generational gap than whether they assign the homework or turn it in.  Finally, these terms are, to varying degrees, proprietary to libraries.  They lure us into thinking that the people we serve see the library as fundamentally different than the other service providers they consume from.

I advocate that we call the people we serve consumers.  Why?  Because by thinking of the people we serve as consumers, and not as patrons, users, faculty or any of those other terms, we force ourselves to consider that these people view the library through the same lens they view other providers of goods and services.  In the typical day of a consumer, the library is one of 20 or more providers they transact with.  They might begin the day consuming breakfast (one) at home while watching TV (two); drive to work listening to the radio (three); stop for gas (four); check the news online (five); IM their significant other about an annoying coworker (six); buy a coffee (seven); order lunch (eight); pay bills online (nine); check the status of a delivery (ten); log-in to a WebEx meeting (eleven); and so on.

Each of those service experiences shapes their expectations for all other experiences.  If my weather App automatically knows my location, why doesn’t my library App?  Once a consumer knows a service is possible, that service becomes an expectation.  Thinking of the people we serve as consumers, rather than any of those library-centric terms, reminds us that we don’t get to set our own bar for great service.

What a Patron Wants / What a Consumer Needs

What do library consumers want?  The same things you want when you are the consumer:

  • A familiar experience
  • No learning curve
  • Integration with their favorite technologies
  • Convenience
  • Speed
  • Reliability
  • Portability
  • Great customer service.

Walking into a library (or landing on its homepage) does not lower these consumer expectations.  Libraries do not get a free pass.  As long as we are in the ecommerce industry, we compete with Amazon and eBay.  As long as we are in the retail industry, we compete with Apple and Whole Foods.  As long as we are in the professional services industry, we compete with financial advisors and real estate agents.  We can say that libraries are fundamentally different and, therefore, impervious to the standards set by these other industries.  But you cannot undo the expectations that the consumers walking in your doors or searching your website bring with them, expectations set by all the other service providers they consume from.

The Fine Art of Trendspotting

The aim of this article is not to provide you a list of readymade services to implement in your library.  Any such list would be oblivious to your library’s unique situation.  What’s more, any services I suggest now will be dated soon after publication.  Rather, the aim of this article is to provide some illustrative examples of services in industries outside of libraries that consumers are fond of and, therefore, accustomed to.  Some of these services will have long shelf lives, while others will soon be displaced by other services deemed superior by consumers.  My goal in providing these specific examples of services is to help you develop the skill of “trendspotting,” a skill that will outlive any particular idea or trend.

What can we learn from ecommerce?

Noticed anything different about online ads lately?  Do you ever feel, like the cast of South Park did in the 2015 episode “Sponsored Content,” that ads seem to be following you?  Is it eerie how much they seem to know about your interests, habits, desires, affinities, insecurities?  Because online power players like Google and Facebook have invested heavily in companies like DoubleClick and Atlas, respectively, which track and analyze your online and offline purchasing behavior, the ads you are presented with are much more targeted to your interests (Steel & Angwin, 2010; Madrigal, 2012; Sterling, 2014).

For some, this level of tracking and dynamic responding in the form of spot-on suggestions for products and services is alarming.  Those concerned with privacy have taken to using new browser features like Chrome’s Incognito, Firefox and Safari’s Private Browsing, or Internet Explorer’s (IE) InPrivate Browsing, which, among other things, prevent companies from tracking your behavior across multiple websites.  There are limitations to each of these features and, as you would imagine, those with privacy concerns are skeptical that companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft, all of which benefit greatly by collecting and analyzing masses of data, are going to allow users of their browsers to completely shut off the data tap. 

For others, the analytics that companies like Google have put to use are perceived as a major convenience.  Ads based on my searching behavior and location are much more likely to be of interest than the blanket, “dumb” ads I see on television or in print newspapers.  If I’m going to have to see ads as I use the web, I’d rather they know me well enough to suggest relevant products and services.  The more data a provider has, the more accurate it can be when making suggestions to you.  Amazon’s recommender service is a great example of a service provider taking what it knows about its customers - location, gender, age, interests, likes/dislikes via ratings, search behavior elsewhere on the web, and consumption habits - and turning that data into useful suggestions.  Amazon introduces us to authors that share similar traits with those we like.  Amazon suggests that we purchase more of our favorite marinara sauce since it’s been a month since we bought any and are probably running low.  Amazon knows that we’ve been searching for brown socks elsewhere online and suggests a few brands we might like.  Consumer behavior tells us that, for many, the convenience is worth the lack of privacy.

But what does this mean for libraries?  Incredibly accurate recommendation services have raised the expectations of consumers, who now expect the ecommerce providers they interact with to know them and make uncannily on point recommendations.  What do you suppose these consumers think when they use the library’s discovery system?  Are you hoping they lower their expectations?

What could libraries do to live up to consumers’ expectations?  We have assets that could be put to powerful use.  We have more item metadata and more expertise creating and interpreting it than anyone.  Surely this gives us an advantage over other service providers.  Are we willing to monitor our users’ search behavior, assuming they opt-in?  Or are we willing to purchase it from one of a hundred-plus firms that are tracking it already (Angwin, 2010)?  Could a national library association play a leadership role in purchasing it for us at a discount?  Imagine how powerful library discovery systems could be were they to leverage user search behavior data and item metadata to make smart recommendations.

What can we learn from how we consume news online?

In February 2016 the scientific community reported a finding that excited the mainstream media.  Scientists had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding, fulfilling the final prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  I first learned of this on the New York Times’ homepage.  Until that moment, I had never considered the possibility of hearing black holes collide; now it was the one and only thing in the world I needed to hear.  So I clicked on the story and was taken to a multi-dimensional webpage (Overbye, 2016).  I could read about the discovery and how the sound was recorded; I could watch a narrated video about the formation and collision of black holes; I could see pictures of the scientists who made the discovery and the instruments they used to record the distant sound; I could click through a slideshow called “An Earthling’s Guide to Black Holes” to glean some context; and, most importantly, I could listen to a 12 second audio clip of two black holes colliding.  I did all of these things and felt my curiosity was entirely satisfied by this “article.” 

Then I wondered how this same article would appear in my library’s aggregated database.  We often tell faculty and students that we have the full run of the NYT and, when it comes to historical, born-print articles, aggregated access via the web is quite a convenience over microfiche to researchers.  But what about contemporary articles like this one describing the sound of two black holes colliding?  What would the aggregated version of this be like?  Bad, as it turns out.  Very bad.  Gone was the narrated video without even a mention of its omission.  Gone were the scientists’ pictures and the Earthling's Guide slideshow.  But by far the most painful discovery was the line ratcheting up the anticipation for the reader:  “That faint rising tone, physicists say, is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago,” which was followed by the flat, linkless words:  “(Listen to it here).”  Where the word “here” was hyperlinked to the audio at the centerpiece of the story in the original, NYTimes.com version of the article, in this aggregator’s database it was merely four letters on a screen, leading nowhere.

What can libraries learn from these two consumer experiences of the same “article”?  If born-digital content is what consumers want (and therefore expect), why are we providing them these aggregated simulacra?  Can we continue to say, with a straight face, that we are providing access to publications like the NYT when the version we offer is so badly deprecated?  Perhaps it is time to rethink the value of purchasing aggregated databases and instead look to purchase content in the format its creators’ intended.

What can we learn from user behavior?

Who among you would like to learn to navigate another platform?  Isn’t it fun to find something of interest on the web, click on it, and then be whisked off to an unfamiliar, often poorly designed platform?  You want the content, but standing in your way is the packaging.  At this point you weigh the pros and cons of proceeding:  based on what I know about the content, is it worth the effort of signing in or signing up for this platform?  Do I think I’ll come back to this platform for other content in the future?  Assuming I encounter difficulties navigating this platform, how much time am I willing to spend and what level of frustration am I willing to endure (Clarke, 2016)?  Often we abort and return to the familiarity of our favorite search engine (Connaway, Dickey, & Radford, 2011).  Sometimes the root problem is the sheer volume of platforms; other times it’s the poor design of the platforms that turns us off (Hanrahan, 2016).  Either way, the medium prevents us from reaching the message.

What can libraries do about this?  Increasingly, libraries are factoring ease of access and platform user experience design (UX) into their decisions about what content to purchase.  If users can’t (or won’t) get to it, even the best content is valueless.  But what if there was a universal platform that all consumers were already familiar with?  What if libraries purchased “naked” content, without any accompanying platform, and then made it available on this universal platform? 

The good news is that the universal platform already exists.  It’s your browser.  Chrome, FireFox, Safari, and IE are ubiquitous with users.  Content providers like The New York Times, in my earlier example, have figured out how to maximize the capabilities of browsers to enhance the value of their content.  A familiar platform with the capability to enhance the value of content may sound too good to be true, but it exists and is being utilized effectively outside the library industry.  Could libraries play a role in encouraging the distribution of “naked” content and exposing it effectively via browsers with no intermediary platforms?  Libraries have the metadata and expertise to create a powerful universal index.  Libraries have the expertise to curate content the same way theSkimm curates news stories, thereby adding value for consumers.  Vendors should view this idea in a positive light, as well.  No longer obligated to build and maintain a platform, they stand to save money.  And most important of all, consumers get easy access to the content they want without unnecessary layers of bad user interfaces (UI). 

What can we learn from retailers?

Grocery stores have notoriously small margins, often hovering between 1 and 3% (Smith, 2008).  Because of this, competition for market share is fierce.  Convenience and rewards are two foci into which grocery stores have invested significant research and market testing.  Anyone who shops can see the resulting services and consider how they have altered consumer expectations for all service providers.  These newly formed consumer expectations aren’t left behind when shoppers push their cart out the automatic sliding doors.  So how can libraries leverage these new services to meet library consumers’ expectations?

First, it is instructive to think about how grocery stores identify what consumers want.  Grocery stores already know what you buy by tracking purchases and pooling data from external sources like credit card companies (Ferguson, 2013).  But effectively pushing products you like is only productive if shoppers routinely return to your store.  To entice loyalty - in this context the term meaning repeat business - grocery stores must set themselves apart from competitors.  They can’t do this through unique products alone, for unique products can easily be copied.  Their ability to distinguish themselves by price is limited, because margins are so small to begin with.  They need to add value to their brand by making it more convenient to shop at their store than the store across the street. 

Grocery stores take consumer personas seriously.  They divide their customers and potential customers into personas like “Variety Seekers,” “Smart Shoppers,” “Gourmet Focus,” “Here we go again,” and “Fast and Furious” (Anonymous).  For each of these personas, they list key attributes.  For example, they know that “Here we go again” shoppers dread shopping and see it as a necessary chore.  What can we do to appeal to these consumers, grocery stores ask.  How about a service that lets them order online and pick-up their groceries curbside?  If these shoppers learn about a Curbside Express service and competitors aren’t offering it, this grocery store has created customer loyalty within this persona.

What are the personas of your library consumers?  Though it’s tempting to use traditional designations like Faculty and Undergraduate, or Adult and Juvenile, consumer personas should be based on behaviors, desires, and attitudes.  They should be based on what the consumer persona does and what they care about.  In an academic library you might identify personas like “Social Butterfly,” who wants access to good coffee, modular furniture, games, and who hates being shushed.  “Solace Seekers,” who view the library as a quiet space to complete homework, will desire private space, limited distractions, comfortable seating, and quick access to a librarian.  No matter what the personas you identify for your library, the outcome should be a detailed list of behaviors, desires and attitudes.  Once you have identified a persona, you begin to see the library through their eyes and it is much easier to brainstorm services, spaces, and policies that will win their loyalty.

Grocery stores were also commercial pioneers in popularizing loyalty cards.  These not only tracked the cardholder’s purchasing behavior, but provided targeted coupons, discounts, perks and insider news.  Of course, library cards are almost as deeply ingrained a brand in our culture as libraries themselves.  But our use of them has been limited to tracking loan activity, fines, and fees.  How might libraries maximize the value of library cards to build additional consumer loyalty?  We could offer rewards for using the library, checking in on social media, writing a review on Yelp, or recommending the library to a friend who signs up for a card.  Could we produce insider newsletters and exclusive offers to active cardholders?  Could we proactively notify customers when new items arrive that match their previous borrowing habits?  None of these efforts would cost libraries much, but they stand to increase loyalty and meet consumer expectations.

Casual eateries have also invested heavily to create conveniences that build consumer loyalty.  Chipotle and Panera, for example, make it incredibly easy to order food online and pick it up with minimal time spent waiting or paying.  At Chipotle you simply have to tell them your name to claim your food; at Panera, your food will be waiting on something that looks very much like a book cart in the lobby area and no check-in is required to make off with your meal.  In both cases these restaurants are capitalizing on intimate knowledge of their consumer personas to create experiences that will appeal to them.  Considering these express services in the context of libraries, how could we make getting resources as easy as ordering a burrito?  Could we make it easy for library consumers to order resources on the go, from their phone?  Do we have express lanes for the pick-up of physical items?  What about bringing resources to our consumers?  How could we provide full-service catering of resources delivered to the classroom?  Can we anticipate information needs?  We know what courses students are enrolled in and professors are teaching.  Could we proactively recommend content to students based on the courses they are enrolled in?  Could we proactively recommend course materials to faculty members based on similar courses taught elsewhere?

What can we learn from the ways we eat?

Not all library services revolve around content.  Reference and instruction librarians more closely align with educators.  Their role is to teach library consumers how to search for and assess resources and then how to apply them effectively to their information need.  Just as in the classroom teachers can change lives by imparting critical knowledge and skills to students, reference and instruction libraries can impact the lives of students or community members by showing them how to open doors they never knew existed.  A great teacher is revered and remembered by his or her students.  But what about those who don’t want to be students?  Or don’t have time to be students?  They have information needs, but they can’t or won’t make the time investment to learn information literacy skills.  How should we serve these library consumers?  For a clue, we can look to the various ways we eat.

Some people enjoy cooking.  At some point in their lives they invested the time and effort to learn the necessary skills to prepare food.  Perhaps they learned from a parent or roommate, or perhaps they watched TV chefs or took cooking classes.  Regardless of where they learned to cook, these people decided they would commit the time and effort necessary to prepare food for themselves.  The benefits are many:  they can cook whatever they want, select only those ingredients up to their standards, and prepare the dish exactly as they prefer.  In library terms, these are the equivalent of the library consumers who attend our instruction classes, express keen interest in learning the skills we impart, take notes, ask questions, and leave fulfilled and armed with the skills necessary to find and assess information.  For years libraries have excelled at teaching people how to cook.

But not everyone knows how to cook, as we can all attest.  Some people have no interest in learning to cook, yet must eat.  The food industry caters to these people in the form of restaurants.  While restaurants do not require that the diner participate in the cooking process, they do expect the diner to provide input about the food that’s to be prepared for them, as well as how it should be prepared.  All of which is to emphasize that there is some level of investment required to dine out.  “Which side dish would you like?”  “How would you like that prepared?”  This all takes time, as does the wait between ordering and being served.  While dining out preserves many of the same benefits of cooking in, some aspects of control are lost:  choice is limited to what’s on the menu, the quality of ingredients is left to someone else’s judgment, and no matter what your instructions, preparation can vary.  In library terms, these diners are the equivalent to library consumers willing to engage in a 1-on-1 reference session.  They aren’t willing, or they don’t have time, to attend an instruction class to learn the skills to do the research themselves, but they are willing to place an order and wait for the results to be served.  For years libraries have excelled at performing reference interviews and serving up relevant information.

Finally, there are those for whom dining out is unthinkable.  This is not to say they never dine out.  Rather, they find themselves in a circumstance that demands faster, more prescriptive service.  It could be a traveller running through an airport terminal to catch her next flight.  It could be a single parent of three late to the next extracurricular afterschool drop off.  These people probably enjoy dining out and perhaps they love to cook for themselves, but circumstances have rendered those options impossible.  And yet they, too, must eat.  The food industry knows this, has recognized this consumer persona, and created services like grab-and-go shops in airports and drive through windows in fast food restaurants.  These services offer a bargain;  in exchange for the diner giving up control over the quality, variety, and preparation of the food, they preserve the commodity most precious to them - time.  This is an opportunity area for libraries.  What would grab-and-go reference service look like?  It is not a LibGuide, which is merely a recipe for cooking on your own.  Perhaps it is a collection of curated content (not resources) on common topics.  Perhaps it is an App that allows library consumers to fill out a brief “order” on their phones describing their information need.  When they click the “finish” button, the order is delivered to a reference librarian and the consumer gets an estimated delivery time of 30 minutes.  When that time has passed, the consumer receives a notification that relevant content is ready for them to view online.  Would such a service teach library consumers how to conduct research?  No.  But not everyone wants to be a scholar, just as not everyone wants to be a chef.  Though everyone needs to eat.

Bringing the Outside In

To take a fresh look at library services through the lens of other industries yields two conclusions.

  1. We know what library consumers want because we know what we want as consumers.
  2. Libraries have some daunting competition.

With hope, we realize that consumers are consumers and all the knowledge we have as a consumer ourselves, as well as the knowledge gleaned from everyone we know about their experiences as consumers, is 100% applicable to library services.  The inner desires of patrons aren’t so unknowable after all; we need only look to broad trends in consumer expectations to know what people like and therefore what they come to expect.  With trepidation we realize that consumers’ expectations don’t suddenly decrease when they walk into a library.  Rather, their expectations of your library are as high as they are for infinitely better-funded service providers.  We understand, then, that libraries face a significant challenge.  Consumer expectations are not fixed.  The best service experience a consumer has ever had will become his or her expectation for all service providers going forward.  And why not?  Once you know something can be done, why not expect it to be done by all providers?  This phenomena places enormous pressure on libraries to match services offered by far better-funded businesses.

But there are reasons to be hopeful.  Funding does not equal success just as money does not equal happiness.  Well-funded businesses make boneheaded decisions and fail spectacularly on a regular basis.  The advantages libraries have over other businesses are (a) our tradition of partnership with one another and with other organizations; (b) our brand recognition, historic though it may be; (c) our culture of openly sharing our successes and failures to help fellow libraries; and (d) our awareness that good ideas to improve library services are all around us, waiting to be adopted.

Be a trendspotter.  Teach yourself to become more self-aware of the services you like, even seemingly small services like bagged packages on your doorstep.  Ask others, especially young people, what services they like.  Don’t assume that the things you appreciate as a consumer have no relationship to library services.  Consumers are consumers, and that fact opens up infinite possibilities for us to try out in the form of new services based on what we see succeed in other industries.  Adopting these ideas stands to make libraries more effective, more impactful, more popular, more valued, and better supported.


Angwin, J. (2010, August 19). Tracking The Companies That Track You Online. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129298003

Anonymous. (n.d.). Market Segmentation Examples for Retailers. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.segmentationstudyguide.com/segmentation-bases/segmentation-base-examples/market-segmentation-examples-for-retailers/

Clarke, M. (2016, May 4). Accessing Publisher Resources via a Mobile Device: A User’s Journey. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2016/05/04/accessing-publisher-resources-via-a-mobile-device-a-users-journey/

Connaway, L. S., Dickey, T. J., & Radford, M. L. (2011). “If It Is Too Inconvenient, I’m Not Going After It:” Convenience as a C ritical Factor in I nformation -seeking Behaviors. Library and Information Science Research, 33, 179-190. Retrieved from http://www.oclc.org/content/dam/research/publications/library/2011/connaway-lisr.pdf

Ferguson, D. (2013, June 8). How supermarkets get your data – and what they do with it. The Guardian. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.theguardian.com/money/2013/jun/08/supermarkets-get-your-data

Hanrahan, K. (2016, March 28). There’s No Such Thing as Platform Fatigue—There Are Only Bad Platforms. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://switchboardhq.com/blog/theres-no-such-thing-as-platform-fatigue-there-are-only-bad-platforms

Madrigal, A. C. (2012, February 29). I'm Being Followed: How Google—and 104 Other Companies—Are Tracking Me on the Web. The Atlantic. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/02/im-being-followed-how-google-151-and-104-other-companies-151-are-tracking-me-on-the-web/253758/

Overbye, D. (2016, February 11). Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory. The New York times. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/12/science/ligo-gravitational-waves-black-holes-einstein.html

Smith, S. V. (2008, April 8). Rising prices a supermarket challenge. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.marketplace.org/2008/04/08/business/rising-prices-supermarket-challenge

Steel, E., & Angwin, J. (2010, August 4). On the Web's Cutting Edge, Anonymity in Name Only. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703294904575385532109190198

Sterling, G. (2014, September 29). With Atlas Online-to-Offline Conversion Tracking Goes Mainstream. Retrieved May 15, 2016, from http://screenwerk.com/2014/09/29/facebook-atlas-and-online-to-offline-conversion-tracking/