Libraries – a little bit like supermarkets really

A grocery store (in case you forget what they look like) - c/o roadsidepictures on Flickr

There’s a blog title I never thought I’d write.  Stick with me on this one.  I was listening to Eddie Mair in the car on the way home from work this evening (on the radio obviously, he wasn’t actually in my car) and he was running a short segment about the growth of online grocery shopping.  Introduced with a line about how increasing numbers of people no longer actually visit their supermarket, Mair proceeded to introduce two guests (binary alert!), one celebrating online shopping (think it was one of those Trinny/Susannah types – for brevity I’ll refer to her as Trinnyanna) and one celebrating visits to the store.  And this is where it got interesting (I know, not like it wasn’t interesting already, right?).

The arguments put forward by both sides were very…familiar.  The one arguing in favour of visiting the shops (the non-Trinnyanna) talked about how online shopping tended to result in less experimentation when shopping.  Instead of browsing around and picking up something that maybe you hadn’t had before, the tendency would be to just go straight to the items you always buy out of habit.  No browsing.  No checking out something different or unusual.  Just routine shopping.  She also pointed out (and I agree entirely on this point by the way) that by shopping online you are not able to check out the produce that you are intending on purchasing beforehand.  Instead of having the chance to root around the fruit and veg to find a nice firm item, you could end up with something that turns to mush as soon as you pick it up to put in the fridge.  Seriously, this does have a point to it.  I’ve not taken to suddenly blogging about grocery shopping.  Not yet anyway.

The argument in favour of online shopping was also interesting (if a little wishy-washy).  According to Trinnyanna, what makes supermarket shopping so tricky is that it is confusing (seriously) and hard to find the things you want (sound familiar?).  Not only that, but often you end up buying the ‘wrong’ things (again, I am serious here).  Seems to me that rather coincided with what the supporter of ‘real’ grocery shopping was talking about – the random purchase of items you would not necessarily buy.

Basically, strip out the grocery element of the discussion, and they could easily be talking about libraries.  The tendency to experiment, the ability to browse, being able to examine an item before deciding whether to take it home, the confusing layout, the accidental taking home of an item you didn’t really want…  Are supermarkets turning into libraries at a time when libraries are trying to turn into supermarkets (well, bookshops at least)?  In the future, will we see the supermarket threatened in a way that libraries are today?  Will the ability to get everything you want online make the supermarket on the high street (or, more likely, out-of-town development) redundant?  Who knows?  But then, who thought libraries and supermarkets would have so much in common?


14 thoughts on “Libraries – a little bit like supermarkets really

  1. Nice post. Would say the analogy works on a time basis too – the web is quickest for reference (the basic shop you just need eg loo paper) but nothing beats browsing when you have time (your weekend treats eg a selection of olives with artichoke hearts)..!

  2. Love the headline! Back in the 90s, I had a student job in a supermarket and loved serving cutomers. After I graduated in the naughties, I thought about what I wanted to do with my life and decided I wanted to continue serving customers but somewhere that was an intellecutally stimulating environment. Libraries fitted the bill perfectly and I’ve enjoyed it since day one. So yes, I think a comparison between the two places is most valid!

    • I like this point. It puts a positive spin on it all! My journey into the library-and-information world was a similar thing, although i’m so very old that i was lucky (?) enough to work in a book shop. I realised very early on how much i hated doing the hard-sell on those awful, immoral diet books et voila, a librarian was born!

      Hoorah for helping customers find what they want, be it dairy-free white chocolate or an incomprehensibly intellectual book theorising on the psychology of criminals in the interwar period!

      Hope this isn’t too cheeky, but ooh look, i’m a librarianship type and i’m on WordPress too… ahem…

  3. Reading CILIP Update’s article on the design of libraries (current issue p26). Architects from Ryder say that libraries can continue to be ‘the place people want to be – the living room of a community, a place for everyone’. They could actually be this despite being or as well as being a place that people get books from (for free).
    You can get what books and info you want digitally, from home, or reserve your books online, but still crave the physical visit which you know will lead to discovering more.
    Or, as a researcher, Fred Garnett from the London Knowledge Lab says, the new ‘digital disorder’ has enabled the useage of information to be separated from its storage.
    You can apply this to supermarkets too; getting the basic goods online so you don’t have to physically cart them home, but meander through the aisles if that’s pleasurable to you.
    Those supermarket people must know that they’ll still make huge profits even when cutting out ‘passing trade’ in this way.
    I always think of Armando Iannucci’s brilliant sketch of Tescos as a monster staggering along the high street stamping on cars, shops etc, intent on world domination. (That monster is now living down the road from me in Maryhill, Glasgow! The new Tesco store is simply grotesque.)

    • I loved Time Trumpet! Heck, I love everything Iannucci produces! I do think there are things we can apply to libraries from the supermarkets, but there are definitely some things we should go nowhere near.

  4. Pingback: Growing a library

  5. Reminds me of a classification lecture at Loughborough that we had, based almost entirely on the new Sainsburys supermarket layout. Libraries and supermarkets really aren’t that different!

    • That sounds like an interesting lecture (well, by classification standards anyway!). I think library schools are getting much better at teaching this sort of thing…as they should, it is becoming increasingly important in these ‘difficult times’ TM.

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