Libraries Imitate Bookstores, Bookstores Imitate Libraries

The Internet, the ebook, modern society in general, is changing the publishing industry in fundamental ways.   I’m a librarian by training.  Just as with every other industry touched by the publishing industry, like bookstores, the library is evolving; changing practices and methods of providing customer care.  I’ve noticed an interesting trend in libraries in the past couple of years: libraries seem to be moving towards bookstore models in certain aspects.  There are many ways this is evident: among them is the organization of some libraries and in the way the staff approach the library patrons.

beautiful libraryThe library industry is, in some ways, quite a bit like the bookstore industry.  Many of the same issues are facing both right now.  The chief among these is the advent of the eBook.  Libraries are struggling with them, same as bookstores, although in a slightly different manner.  Brick and Mortar Bookstores are worried that the eBook will put them out of business.  Libraries are worried about how they will be able to present eBooks as a viable lending material.  There are solutions that are out right now.  One that is used in a library system I used to work at is a program called Overdrive.  This allows epub format eBooks that are offered through the library to be borrowed and read on the patron’s computer.  There are a limited number of copies of each eBook that can be “checked out” to patrons, and if they are all in use, holds can be placed as on physical books.  That works well enough, but now that more people own eBook readers, patrons want to be able to borrow books from the library and read them on their kindle or kobo or ipad.  The Kindle recently announced having this functionality through Overdrive.  Some publishers are completely against the idea of libraries lending eBooks.  One publisher has decided that libraries can do whatever they want with his company’s eBooks.  Once the library has bought a copy it can lend it to whomever it wants under whatever restrictions it wants.  Another publisher has done the opposite, imposing ever stricter policies, including limiting the number of times an eBook can be leant to library patrons.

Something that I have written about here before is the idea of the bookstore acting as more than simply a retail store; it has to maintain a certain level of community involvement.  In a time when bookstores are seen almost as being obsolete, libraries are facing a similar issue.  When I was earning my masters of library science a constant topic of discussion in my classes was the idea of “library as place.”  That is: the library is not simply a building that houses books, it also acts as a community center.  Library’s offer more than just books now: most public libraries now offer services such as employment help, computer training, and spaces for community groups to use.  Some public libraries have gone beyond this and now offer yoga classes, hold rock concerts (the Toronto public Library recently had a great rapper from the Maritimes, Buck 65, perform at one branch downtown), or have special events on Halloween.  The public library, just as with bookstores, has to change how it interacts with the community and benefits the community that it is in.  It has to, as I’ve written before, become a value-added operation.

There are also other operational changes that libraries are having to make, some of which are mimicking how bookstores operate: there is one public library in Arizona which has done away with Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress classification.  The books are now organized in genre sections much as bookstores are.  The books are arranged alphabetically by author within the sections you would find at a bookstore (although with slightly more tightly defined subheadings).  As well, there is also a move among libraries to stop referring to the library user as “patron” and instead call them “customers.”  This is not a simple semantic change; it represents a shift in how the librarian views those who use the library.

The library industry is changing, just as bookstores are changing.  Libraries are learning from bookstores, adopting practices and ideas, and bookstore owners would do well to do the same by watching what libraries do, seeing what works and if it can be used in a bookstore (I’m mainly trumpeting my idea of community involvement once again here, really).


6 thoughts on “Libraries Imitate Bookstores, Bookstores Imitate Libraries”

  1. I agree with your views on the community involvement of libraries. But I’d be leery of giving up the Dewey system entirely, probably because I am simply so used to it. Our county library system has added the use of tags, brought over from librarything, and I find it helpful for myself, though I haven’t heard any comments from our patrons. And I had to laugh about patrons becoming customers! I waitressed for years and years before starting work as a librarian and still occasionally refer to our patrons as customers… and sometimes will say “thank you for coming!” as part of my good-bye.
    I do believe in treating our patrons as though they were customers: good service, smiles, graciousness under fire; we certainly want them returning!

    • I agree Nancy. Sorry if I gave the impression I was all for libraries abandoning Dewey. I’m a fan of the Dewey Decimal system, and feel that, while it can be supplemented with other schema, like the tags you mentioned, I wouldn’t want libraries to abandon more structured systems.

      • Yes – the library where I work (unnamed as – foolishly – we’re not allowed to speak about the library unless vetted by the PR office) abandoned (to an extent) Dewey for a few years… then switched back. People were having the same difficulty finding books that they have in bookstores. This book fits in multiple genres/this book is written by one person, translated by another, and reinterpreted from the translation by a third/what the heck category is this book? – saying “the books are by genre and then by author” is not as simple as “this book has a number saying exactly where it is.” The catalog search has tags etc., but there’s no more “business section” (if it’s about business history, is it there or in history?), no more “African-American books section” (why segregate? Just because a book on judicial theory was written by someone black doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of being shelved with judicial theory books written by someone white), etc. Those are just a few of the problems we were facing constantly (and that I regularly face myself in bookstores); the return to Dewey (not massively difficult, as the old stickers hadn’t been removed from most of the spines, so just new books had to be modified) was greeted with relief. Of course, as with most large public libraries, biographies and fiction are pulled out of dewey, and other changes are made, but that’s standard.

  2. There is a lot true in what you say, mate. It’s been amusing to see bookstores providing ‘library tables’ and good lighting so people can sit around and read the books. (Interestingly, this is paid for by publishers, whose books, once read and bent by customers, are sent back to the publisher for a full refund as they are no longer fit to be called ‘new’. I wonder, can you sample their e-books?) Libraries invite ‘customers’ (no longer ‘patrons’) to bring a lunch along and watch the soccer game on the big screen. Some libraries have installed televisions so that they can pander to illiterates (they show cartoons at one branch I know). Very soon, librarians will be called ‘reading associates’, since there is a move to downgrade the professional rep. of librarians: Public libraries seem to be turning scholars into clerks to satisfy a recent hunger to beat up on public service workers. Whatever. We are all Wisconsin. Here’s the bad news:
    Librarians deduced, a long time ago, that there was a margin in providing ‘universal’ rules of access for their collections. (Dewey, LC, Ranganathan, etc.)But those standards are giving way to new, maybe ill conceived systems. And Controlled language is no longer a basic requirement of storing and retrieving materials, and so, the standards are up for grabs.
    And, since our model for librarianship in Canada is currently innovations perpetrated in a semi-literate community in northern California, Canadian libraries have begun dumbing down the retrieval systems used for access to collections. One North of Toronto Public Library has created their own Classification system, based on the idea that their public is too dumb to understand Dewey. *(They may be right.) So, libraries are dumbed down to the level of a Chapters (or, more to the point, a Barnes and Noble, the US version of mega-bookstore).
    I find it kind of interesting that as our population becomes more educated, they are apparently less and less able to find materials in libraries. Maybe there is something in the water. Or the schools.

    Here’s the rub: Bookstores are a dying institution: they lose tens of millions of dollars per year. and libraries are following them – sleepwalking – perhaps into the grave. (surely not the grave…)

  3. In my discussions with librarians about the Dewey Decimal System they find it awkward and dated and all seemed in agreement it was only surviving because many necessary add-ons and adaptations have been made.

    I believe libraries are necessary and should be supported but it would take forever for a bureaucracy to become a real “people place” (even with all the financial resources they may blithely waste in their efforts).

    Yes, there will always be people to take advantage of so called “free space” to gather (but aren’t we people already paying for that free space that is competing with us) but a privately owned books store will always be capable of trumping a government building and government employees in credibility, responsiveness and hospitality – because their whole existence depends upon those factors.

    There is no government pension waiting for independent booksellers who have gambled everything they own on their dream and have no bureaucrat or union assuring them an income even when they do bust their butts every moment of every day to find more ways to be of service to their communities.

    Any comparisons between libraries and independent book stores seems incongruous … and maybe even cruel.

    I understand why librarians might admire and aspire to provide the services of independent books stores operators – but I doubt the reverse is true … even though they might envy your security, pensions and vacation packages (which, again, they are helping to pay for).

    That might explain why librarians will be around long after booksellers are extinct.

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