David Lee King posts a closing thought for the year and asks us to ponder the physical library in the 21st century: is it’s demise looming? Prompted by comments on his post about Ignoring our digital community, DLK asks his readers to consider how we might bring people back into the physical library.
This is an important topic. We do need to provide programming and services that bring those people who like using the library in person, but have stopped doing so (for any number of reasons, including that we’re not offering them the things they want) back into the physical building.
How do we get people back into the physical library?
I think the answer is fairly obvious: we need to offer services and programming that are relevant and appealing to them, and promote them using the channels our users tune into. To do this, we need to consult with community members and groups and ask them what they want. We need to look at the communities around us and the activities that are happening in our areas and seek out synergies for service development and delivery. And then we need to be responsive – ready to tweak or redevelop services as the community demands it. And we need to evaluate, review, reshape, over and over again.
Not an easy task, but surely we can get the people who want to be in the library back into the library, with some careful planning and programming?
I know this is a tad simplistic and this is a a much bigger issue, deserving more attention than I’ve given it here… But what I’d like to focus on in this post is something a little different…
Should we really be so hung up on getting people back into the library?
There’s a proportion of our user base that doesn’t come into the library, and doesn’t ever want to. For those library users who only want to interact with us online (users like – I have to confess – myself), no amount of in-library programming or redefinition of in-library services is going to get them back into the library. And we need to accept that it’s perfectly fine if they never, ever walk into a library again – so long as we’re supplying them with what they want and need online.
We don’t want to neglect our physical library customers… because then we’ll end up with no physical libraries!
For the forseable future (always?), some people are going to want to visit the physical library in person, and we should absolutely cater for those people. We don’t want to get into the situation where usage is so low we’re forced to stop providing physical library facilities and services – at least not while there is a demand or a need for physical library services. But I don’t know that usage is going to drop to that degree any time soon. (Especially not if we offer the right services and programs.)
But all this talk about getting people through our physical doors makes me think we’re worried about the wrong issue. Is it really all about the number of people we get through the door?
DLK’s post was written in response to this comment on a previous post:
David, this is all great, but – really, I’m serious – what happens to the physical library? If Topeka Public mails the holds to patrons and they can drop the returned item at boxes, and the patrons need not come to the physical library, we may have crowds online and remote access and whatever, but an administrator comes in and sees the empty library and orders it closed, the librarians fired and a small studio in the country to be opened in the library’s stead that can be maintained by two technicians.
To my mind, we need to revisit the reason we do what we do. We provide physical libraries because people want or need physical libraries. We don’t provide physical libraries simply for the sake of providing physical libraries. We shouldn’t be hung up on getting people through the door for the sake of justifying our physical libraries. We should be hung up on providing the services people want and need. Right now, there’s a demand for physical library services. But if, at some point in the future, there’s a broadband connected computer in every household and a majority of people choose to use libraries online rather than in person, will we still be harping on about getting people back through our doors?
I don’t want to see our physical libraries closed because they’re underpopulated any more than the next person. But success in library service provision should not be measured by door counters and full car parks (or, for that matter, numbers through our digital doors). We should be measuring success by (at least in part) asking our users if we’re providing the services they want. The door count is not the be all and end all. If Topeka can make it easier for people to access library collections by mailing them their holds, then hallelujah for Topeka! Seriously, I’d love to see what this does for their circulation statistics and customer satisfaction levels.
Getting the people through the door… Are we asking the right question?
DLK asks how we get our customers to visit the physical library. The answer is pretty straightforward: provide the services and programs people want, deliver them the way they want them delivered, promote ourselves through the channels that reach our customers, and be prepared to evaluate, review and change constantly. Simple, right?! Ha! What a challenge!
But let’s not focus only on our physical buildings. I would suggest that we need to invest proportionate amounts of energy in both our user camps: those who want to come into the library, and those who want to interact with us in other ways. If we’re looking at ways to get our users back through our physical doors, we should also look at ways to entice our digital communities through our digital doors.
To my mind, DLK’s question is not the one I think I should be worrying about, because as I’ve said, I don’t see bums on seats as the one and only measure of successful service provision. If we’re looking to just increase numbers through the door, then we could just stick free wifi in all our libraries and forget about programming. But, I’m not looking for bums on seats as justification for our physical libraries (plus, where I work, we don’t have any lack of people coming through our doors – maybe this colours my POV on this issue a little).
So, as someone whose job is concerned predominantly with online library services, the questions I’ll be refocusing on as I head into 2008 are: What are the needs and wants of our in-library and online customers? How can technology assist us meet those needs? What suite of services should we offer, and how do our customers want to access them? With any luck, if we get the answers to these three questions right, the issue of getting people through the doors (both physical and digital) should take care of itself.
[Did I just talk round in a great big circle?]