The Customer and Public Libraries

A little while ago I wrote a post about classifying fiction in public libraries.  I had been trying to decide whether it was a good idea to remove genre distinctions from the fiction shelves and go for a straight A-Z run.  After much thought, I decided to stick with our current system of a mixture of A-Z plus a few genre categories.  Having temporarily resolved that one in my mind, I then started thinking on broader terms about what our customers want from their public library.  What changes could be made to improve the user’s experience?  Funnily enough, having gone through another period of analysis and brain storming with colleagues, the module I am currently studying on Collection Management provoked a few more ideas on how to ensure the best possible service for our borrowers.

The module has prompted some more ideas and challenged some of my beliefs about what does make a user-friendly public library service.  For example, when I first started at my current place of work, the non-fiction section was a mixture of stock ordered in Dewey order, but broken up by the odd category here or there.  This I found too confusing so I proposed that we re-arrange it into a single run from 000-999.    This meant that we didn’t have a dilemma about where some stock should be shelved, making it easier for staff to locate the item.  Of course, this was the fatal flaw.  It may be easier for the staff, but it is not necessarily easier for the borrower.  I know a lot of libraries have switched to the bookshop format of categorised non-fiction and it seems to work quite well.  In fact, one study I read noted that, after one month of utilising such a system, Bexley library saw issues in non-fiction stock rise by 30% – pretty impressive statistics¹.  So maybe we should all be doing this after all?  Or is it unwise to take one example from one library nearly 20 years ago and apply that across the board. Would be interested to hear what your thoughts are.

There were also some other interesting assertions that came from my reading today.  For example:

Of those found to have no books in the home only 6% belonged to a library. Subsequent studies have confirmed that reading and book ownership relates strongly to library use.²

That was something I had never really considered before.  I tended to believe that people who didn’t have many books at home were more likely to use their local library.  Shows what I know!  It was also interesting to note the following:

Library members, like the book readers, are predominantly young, middle-class and well educated³.

Again, this makes sense.  Libraries are always struggling to get working class families to use the library service and are constantly trying to find ways to attract them to their local library.  But why do they not use the service?  As was noted in the article:

Libraries do not change the social situation, they reinforce it.

It is of great concern that those that would most benefit from their local library service seem to use it less than the affluent middle classes.  What causes this?  Is it a lack of awareness of what the library service could offer?  Is it disinterest?  Whatever the cause, it is very worrying.

There was one other statistic that got me thinking:

  • 7% of borrowers account for 38% of issues
  • 18% of borrowers account for 62% of issues4

So the vast majority of issues are down to less than 20% of all borrowers.  One-in-five of our borrowers who come into the library will be ‘heavy’ users of book stock, whilst the remaining 82% are ‘casual’ users who use the library as and when they need.  The challenge is getting that 80% to use the library more regularly than they do – which could be particularly difficult given that they use the library according to their individual needs.

I guess some of these assertions should have been obvious to me.  Whether it was down to naivety or inexperience I hadn’t really given these much thought.  I am well aware of the importance of getting working class families to use their local library, but I had never fully considered that there was such a class divide when it came to libraries – particularly when you consider the role of the public library.  Although I guess there wouldn’t be much point in studying the course if all of this was already at the forefront of my mind.  Besides, you can have assumption but until you see cold, hard facts, it’s all pretty intangible.  I’ll try not to feel so bad about my obvious naivety!

¹ Partridge, Jan (1992). Dumping Dewey: Promoting the Collection through Categorisation. Libraries: the Heart of the Matter: Proceedings of the ALIA Second Biennial Conference. Maryborough, Thorpe, 274-6
² Smith, Ian (1999). What do we know about public library use? Aslib Proceedings, 51 (9) 302-314
³ Smith, Ian (1999). What do we know about public library use? Aslib Proceedings, 51 (9) 302-314
4 Smith, Ian (1999). What do we know about public library use? Aslib Proceedings, 51 (9) 302-314
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2 thoughts on “The Customer and Public Libraries

  1. Having worked in libraries where we had categorised non-fiction, we found that this was confusing for both staff AND customers. The stock issued much better after the libraries were de-categorised. The argument about categorisation or not has been around for as long as I have worked in libraries and tends to go in cycles, perhaps we are now moving back to “categorisation” being in favour. Certainly it is coming back into some of the refurbished libraries in our authority.

    As regards the statistics about public library use; how far is this still true today? That article is 10 years old so I would venture to suggest that the position may have changed. Certainly the report seems to rely on book issues as it’s prime indicator (or at least the bits you’ve quoted do) whereas we know that people now are using our libraries for a myriad of other things, not necessarily book borrowing but to use the IT facilities, consult information sources, newspapers, and attending other activities we provide. I wonder if a report based on the position in 2009 would show different results.

    Whilst I feel it is rather a sweeping statement to sum up all the middle classes as “affluent” (some, maybe) the difficulties of attracting into libraries those who are most in need of our services (and that assumes we know what people need) has been around for as long as I have been working and I do feel that we are having more success with this now than we were say 10 or 20 years ago. Think about the work we are doing with Children’s Centres for example, Silver Surfers, Homework Clubs, Headspace. Obviously there is a way to go but we are moving in the right direction. Not revolutionary change maybe but a gradual evolution and change in our priorities.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, thank you. I’m studying for an MA in Librarianship and I think I’ll be looking into that little bibliography!

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