ERIC Identifier: ED457870
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Parry, Norm
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Information and Technology Syracuse NY.
Small Public Libraries Can Serve Big. ERIC Digest.
Small public libraries can deliver service like big libraries, without
sacrificing hometown warmth and charm. By borrowing strategies used by
successful small businesses in the private sector, defining goals and exploiting
ubiquitous low cost technologies, small public libraries can serve customer
wants as well as much larger institutions. Responding to just three strategic
questions, any small library can improve customer service, make better use of
available resources and open up new service opportunities, without a bigger
building, budget or book collection:
What business are you in?
What do your customers want?
How do you get it for them?
WHAT BUSINESS ARE YOU IN?
One of the most telling questions
any organization can ask is "What is our business?" The follow up question,
equally important, is "What is none of our business?"
"We're in the library business, of course," is no more useful strategically
than the caterer who says, "I'm in the food business." It helps not at all to go
to the dictionary and look up "library"; your library will not be described
there. You have no choice but to answer your own question, beginning with "this
library," not "a library" or "the library" or (worse) "Libraries." The platonic
ideal "library" exists nowhere outside the student carrels of library science
You should ask, like a journalist, who, what, where, why and how.
Who will this library serve?
What do they want?
Where will we get it for them?
Why should we, rather than some other agency, provide this service?
How will we provide what the patron wants?
The answers to these questions will tell you what your business is, and
provide you with a first draft of your revised library mission statement.
Then what is none of your business? Everything and anything else. Face it;
you can't be all libraries to all people. The good news is if you aren't trying
to be everything, you can be the very thing your small community wants in a
public library. You may have to abandon some of your most heartfelt beliefs and
assumptions about what a library should be, and what people should want from a
library; but increased customer satisfaction and increased circulation will soon
replace any sense of loss you may suffer. It's not what you aren't that matters,
it's what you are.
Defining what your library is and isn't allows you to focus your resources on
the services most important to most of your customers and on developing
connections to those specialized services your customers may occasionally
require. For the physics undergraduate home for the holidays who asks you for
the latest information on quantum mechanics, you phone your contact at the
university library and say, "I'm sending a friend of ours over to you; we don't
do quarks." Nobody will expect you to be a college research library, unless you
do. To the physics undergraduate home for the holidays who says, "I'm tired of
all these quarks and muons; give me something light," you say, "Ah, we've got
just the book for you." You have "something light" because that's one of your
specialties, isn't it?
GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT
What do you call a business that
doesn't give its customers what they want, when and where and why-ever they want
it? An out of business. If you have defined your library mission as something
other than everything, what are you left to do? Find out what your customers
want, and give it to them. Be extremely suspicious of words like "need" and
"should" and "ought" with respect to patron borrowing. It's none of your
business what they should, or ought, or need to read. Your business is giving
them what they want. You have no more business deciding for your customers what
they will read than the most militant censor has. Your job is to sense what they
want, not censor what they get.
Unlike many larger public libraries, small public libraries often have the
advantage of maintaining a close day-to-day relationship with customers. The
librarian hears what they want not only at the library, but also during chance
meetings at the market, at the Founders' Day picnic, anywhere people stop to
talk. That helps, but it is not enough. Anecdotal information can be as
misleading in a small town as anywhere else.
Small libraries must use the same tools of analysis that big libraries and
successful businesses use. Hard numbers are needed to support decision-making on
acquisitions, programming, display space priorities and other library management
functions. Your numbers may be smaller, but they are no less significant.
Fortunately, the computing tools needed to compile and analyze information about
circulation, traffic, preferences and costs are readily available and affordable
in off-the-shelf hardware and software.
For a small library to serve its customers as well as a bigger library,
careful attention must be paid to actual library-use behavior. What percent of
your lending is fiction, non-fiction, videos, children's books? How many people
visit the library each day? How many items do they borrow per visit? What days
and hours do they visit most often? Measure what they do, not what they should
or might or ought to do.
Because a small public library has far less ammunition to spend hitting its
targets, the small library must aim better. The rifle, not the shotgun, is the
collection development analog of choice for the smaller library. Good, reliable,
up-to-date materials-use intelligence is the small library's best defense
against collection obsolescence and acquisitions waste.
If you're spending eighty percent of your acquisitions budget on materials
that account for twenty percent of your circulation, you're doing your patrons
no more good than the Ma and Pa grocery with half its inventory tied up in
canned artichokes. You can lead Rozinante to the library, but you can't make him
read Don Quixote.
GET IT FOR THEM JUST IN TIME
Once you've decided not to be
everything, you can become the very thing your community really wants from its
small public library. You must:
Most librarians hate weeding their collections. Once acquired, books become
members of the library family; they're as hard to get rid of as the uncle who
came to visit for a weekend and stayed for a year. Unloved, unused, unwanted by
your customers, there's something about an unread book that makes it as hard to
part with as the pet cat you've grown allergic to. Besides evoking your pity, a
book unwanted by your library customers is prima facie evidence of your failure
to correctly judge patron wants, even if it was a bestseller in bookstores and a
most-read title in some other library. And don't you know that book you weeded
last week because no one has borrowed it for five years will be Oprah's pick
Here you must follow the example of the farmer. If you don't weed frequently
and well, the "good" will be choked out by the "bad." Don't let your library
collection lie fallow on the shelves. If it's virtually dying on the vine,
harvest it and give it to some other library where it may be more to the
customers' tastes. Again, witness the farmer: books, like livestock, are not
pets. A book, like a beefsteak, is a consumable with a shelf life and an
expiration date: "After X years, discard unread item." It may hurt like the
dickens, and it may make you feel like Scrooge, but if you want to keep your
collection fresh and active, weed often, weed deep.
If your budget is small and your needs are big -- beg, borrow, and scrounge.
Successful small businesses don't pay full price; why should you? Use the
classic "assuming close" known to all good salespeople: "Would you like to
donate that today, or will it be free?" Scour thrift stores and garage sales for
books and videos, music, furniture and supplies. Go to auctions and bid low.
Disdain any video not marked "previously viewed." Fill in your "must have"
classics Dewey numbers with inexpensive editions. Purchase materials through a
library consortium, regional library system or large public library, where
volume purchasing commands substantial discounts.
Whenever possible buy the collected or multi-book combos, instead of the
individual titles. Use e-mail to establish a lively "gift and exchange"
arrangement with other libraries. Never let personal pride get in your way when
dealing for your library. "If it was just me, that would be an okay price, I
guess, but it's for our little public library, and..." Think of yourself as the
noble scavenger, the hunter-gatherer foraging for your culture-hungry library
Businesspeople call it "just-in-time" inventory; librarians call it
"interlibrary loan." It is, without question, the single most powerful tool the
small library can use to extend local library services. The use of interlibrary
borrowing not only gives you and your patrons access to the enormous combined
resources of many libraries, it allows you to dedicate your resources - money,
shelf space, time - to your customers' most immediate requirements. If you can
borrow it, you don't have to own it. You can spend your limited resources on the
materials and services that your tightly-focused customer profile tells you will
most benefit your customers.
You're in the business of loaning, not owning. Your goal is to get what your
customers want. How you get it will determine whether you are a broker or broke.
By concentrating your resources on those materials most in demand in your
library and borrowing everything else, you can achieve a strategic marriage of
having and holding made in heaven. By playing the game of books "just in time,"
you will score big in customer satisfaction and cost accounting.
"Do you have...?" "Yes, we do. I'll get it for you."
By focusing efforts strategically on well-defined customer preferences,
buying, getting and borrowing strategically and defining your mission
realistically, your small public library will be big in customer service and
satisfaction. You can't be everything, but by concentrating on what your
customers want most, you can really be something.
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