Monday, September 19, 2011

Long overdue at the library.

       During New York Fashion Week, designer Ronaldus Shamask showed his line at the New York Public Library. He paid one dollar to use it.

       I'm glad someone found a new use for the library. Maybe next year everyone will be there, on the Dewey Decimal System, of course.

       Supporters of public libraries say they're losing out to bookstores that offer coffee and bagels. I look at it a little differently. The public libraries themselves are the biggest reason people are buying books rather than borrowing them at no cost from the library.

       Should we really blame Barnes and Noble for creating a bright, enoyable environment for browsing? Should we call them out for recognizing that people will stick around longer if they had a bite to eat and something to drink?

      It may be no fault of their own, but many public libraries seem to be frozen in the 1950s. They've added computers, which is great, and now librarians are "information scientists", which is terrific. But they've also added machines so you can check out your own books, without any contact with a human. The feeling one gets in the public library is that you can stay here if you really want to, but isn't there somewhere else you'd rather be?

       Sure. A bookstore.

       A few years ago I was asked to speak to a meeting of librarians. About 150 showed up to hear me tell how advertising people use libraries. Instead, I chastised and challenged them.

        I told them they did little to invite new people to visit. They do nothing to promote free library cards. I told the librarians their chairs were too hard, their bathrooms unpleasant, the stacks too dark, and that they seemed more concerned about getting books  back than they did about getting good books out. I told them I thought they did little to promote literature, and stocked the "new arrivals" shelves with more crime books than good reading.

       An example of a great library is at the Art Institute, where I teach. It's roomy, airy, well lit, colorful and very comfortable. Even more important, the staff is accessible, always asking how they can help, free with  directions, and openly asking for suggestions of additions to the collections. They know what their users are using, and what they're not.

       Why can't public libraries learn the basics of good marketing? Find out who their customers are and what they want. Then supply it and let people know. Try promotions to bring people in. Make sure service is good at every point of contact.

       When I was 12 years old, I gave puppet shows at the Chicago Public Library, to give kids another reason to get to know the place...and their parents a free hour to browse. Today things have changed. Today it's a fashion show for the sophisticated fashion crowd.

       What's next? A Texting Jubilee?

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