11 Nov

why i don’t use public libraries and how they might lure me back

Disclaimer: this post is written by Kate-the-person. Opinions are all mine and my comments here are based on my own experiences as a public library user and do not reflect the views of any organisations with which I am affiliated. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a loooong time because I’ve felt a bit hesitant about being critical. Which is really unlike me – If I’m anything, I’m the girl who says what she thinks. I think my hesitancy here has been that on a personal level, as well as a professional level, I love libraries and I love what they stand for. I also love the libraries in my city. They are well resourced and I have nothing but fond memories of the time I spent in them as a child… Anyway, I digress… My comments here are about public libraries in general, because I use / have used more than one public library service, and they are my personal opinions only… yadda yadda.

This post has been in draft for ages… Since June, actually, when a post from Hoi prompted me to start writing it. Over the last several months, a few things have prompted me to add to this post, and to publish it today.

The first prompt for this post was watching the Twitter stream for a future libraries event many months ago. As I watched the stream, I couldn’t help thinking: can’t we just stop talking about what the future library looks like and become the library our users need right now?

The second prompt was visiting the brand new public library near my house. It is an amazing space and I can see myself spending some time in this library, particularly in the awesome kids’ section, which features funky animals that are in fact chairs, a kid-sized nook that’s like a little reading cave, and a slippery slide. We loved it!

The third thing was a #ylibrary event at State Library of Queensland last month, which I watched via a live stream while I worked on this post.

And finally, the Queensland Public Libraries Association conference is on today and I saw some talk in my Twitter feed about wifi speeds and accessibility in public libraries. You can follow the conference with the hash tag #qpla2013.

So here’s the thing- the real reason for this post. As an individual, I actually don’t use my public library. Ever. Sometimes I use it with my niece and nephew specifically to do things with and for them, but I never use them for myself. I live in a city that has awesome libraries and awesome collections and I’m intimately acquainted with how good they are because I used to work there. As a rate payer, the service I value most from my local council is the awesome library service. (In second place: fabulous parks.) I have access to some of the best libraries with the richest collections in the country… And yet… I don’t use the libraries or their online collections.

I am a firm believer in the value of public libraries. I love them. I teach my students about them with enthusiasm. I believe they have an enormous role to play in supporting the leisure and lifelong learning needs of their communities. They prepare kids for success and make an enormous contribution to the economy.

As a child and a teenager, the public library was my second home. On school holidays, I’d go to the library with my grandfather. He’d read the newspaper, and I’d ‘do research’ on whatever my current interest was. As a teenager, I went to the library after school most days. When I started working in these libraries in my 20s, I worked with the librarian who ran the story times my grandfather took me too, and with the branch librarian who patiently helped me with my assignment research.¬†When my niece and nephew were toddlers, we borrowed books from the library as a try-before-you-buy scheme. And the twins loved going to the library, especially the one with kids’ ‘puters’. I have so many good memories of libraries and I love them because they have been an enormous part of my life.

There are two things I want from public libraries: fiction ebooks, and fast, free, unrestricted wifi (preferably wifi I can use while I sit on a comfy lounge and drink a good coffee).

To make sense of my needs as a library user, there are some things you need to know about me.

Instant gratification

First and foremost, I don’t have a lot of down time, and I don’t want to spend the down time I have browsing physical bookstores or trying to find a car park at the library. I want to spend my down time (or some of it, anyway) *reading*, not trying to get something to read. I rarely go to shopping centres, instead I buy everything from clothes to homewares online. When I want to read a book, I want to read it right then and there, and I don’t want to have to hunt to find my next read. (Difficult to please, I know!)

E only

I only read ebooks. It used to be a preference, but now it’s a rule. I prefer to read on my phone or my iPad mini. I always have them with me. It used to be that I couldn’t buy all the books I wanted to read as ebooks, and that kept me going back to the public library even when they didn’t necessarily have the ebooks I wanted – at least it was something. But things have changed and I can now get almost everything I want, when I want it, from Amazon.

Good wifi

Finally, I work from home most days to avoid a long commute. Sometimes, I want to get out of the house to work somewhere different but I don’t want to drive for at least two hours (my commute time) to work in the office. The only thing I need to take my office with me is good wifi. (A powerpoint helps too!)

The ebook issue

I stopped checking to see if the library had the books I wanted in e because the hit rate was so low (and I should note here, I am a member of several public libraries so I was routinely checking multiple collections). I just can’t be bothered looking there and then ultimately having to go back to Amazon anyway. Then there is the issue with ebooks being ‘out on loan’ (ludicrous concept!). If I’m actively seeking a book, it’s because I just finished one and I need something to read. I don’t want to wait for the book to come in, and frankly, the fact that I have to really pisses me off. It pisses me off because it demonstrates just how broken ebook distribution models are for libraries. It’s not a physical item, for crying out loud! Why should it matter if someone else is reading it? Why can’t I read it too? (Yes, I know all the answers to those questions. But your average customer doesn’t. And nor should they have to.)

This is not something the library can fix – at least not at a local level. It’s a problem that libraries need to act on collectively. Libraries need to hurry up and get active on this or they will no longer be relevant to people like me – at least not in terms of their role as content providers.

Up the game

I think there are a few places where public libraries – all public libraries – could up their game and meet the needs of customers like me.

Fuel my consumption!

The library doesn’t encourage me to use the library. It doesn’t draw me back in. It doesn’t keep me in the loop on books I might like to read (at least not based on knowledge of what I *actually* read). In short, the library doesn’t keep data about my reading habits and consequently, it can’t exploit what it knows about me to keep me coming back for more.

Amazon knows what I read: what authors, what series, what genres. Amazon emails me recommendations. I don’t even need to think about what I’m going to read next because when I log on, Amazon tells me what I might be interested in. They alert me of forthcoming titles I can preorder. In an average month, I buy a minimum of three or four books. I aim to read one a week, but even when I’m not making that quota, I still buy anything that Amazon recommends that I want to read, so they’re sitting there ready to go.

Amazon fuels my consumption. Amazon knows me. I couldn’t care less that Amazon knows my reading patterns and habits and what I buy and how much I’m likely to spend and how long it takes me to read a chapter and whether I bought Fifty Shades or Anna Karenina. But libraries assume that customers *do* care how much ‘the system’ knows about their reading habits. They don’t keep this kind of data and they don’t exploit it. I know there are many, many complex reasons that libraries are cautious with user data, and I don’t mean to trivialise these reasons. In fact I value the effort libraries put into protecting patron data.

But the reality is, I like getting my books from somewhere that knows what I read and that pushes new books to me. I don’t want to trawl for ages to find something to read next. I just want to log in and hit that one click purchase button and get reading in a flash.

Can’t the library give me the chance to opt in to a recommendation service based on my reading habits?

It’s readers’ advisory at its personalised, targeted best. Customers expect it because they can get it everywhere else but the library. Libraries need to give this some serious thought. And if they decide not to store and exploit customer data, then they need to come up with another way to hook their customers and real them back in time and again.

Unthrottle the wifi

I don’t go to physical libraries for the collection. I go for the wifi, and let’s face it, not many public libraries do a good job of wifi. Connections are throttled, there are clunky password systems in place, and access is for a fixed amount of time. Hot tip, libraries: stop worrying about how much bandwidth your customers are going to use; stop worrying about how long they’re going to sit their for; stop putting up barriers to access by requiring passwords.

Libraries are about access to information and ideas. They’re about connecting people. They’re about facilitating lifelong learning. They’re about facilitating knowledge sharing and knowledge creation and creativity. Crappy wifi is not helping libraries realise any of these visions. All of the practices we have in place to limit access and restrict connection speeds are barriers that stop customers from doing what they need (and want) to do.

Am I a lost cause?

Winning me back as a user of the online library is not going to be easy. The ebook issue is a big one, and it’s not going to be easy to solve. Publisher, distribution, purchasing, licensing, lending… All of these models are completely and utterly broken. Libraries need to collectively get loud on this, and fast.¬†Ultimately I’d love to get my ebooks from the library. I’d save $50 a month at least. But right now, I’d rather spend the $50 on a delivery model that meets my needs than save it and waste time – a rarer commodity – looking for, and ultimately not finding, the ebooks I want at the online library.

I can’t see the library collecting and exploiting data about me to offer personalised recommendations, the way Amazon does – but I really wish they would. I guess I could get around this – I could get my recommendations elsewhere… From GoodReads for example. But I want integration. I want to click straight through and borrow the book that’s recommended. I don’t want to jump through hoops and go round in circles. The fact is people like me will pay for books to avoid the hoop jumping. If public libraries don’t get onto this, they are going to lose people like me.

Getting me back into the physical library won’t be so difficult. I just need somewhere to plug my laptop in and fast, unrestricted wifi that I don’t have to jump hurdles to access. It doesn’t even have to be free. I’d pay for the wifi if I had to (though obviously I’d prefer not to). I know wifi is often restricted to avoid racking up a big bill, but perhaps we need to rethink how much funding we pour into this part of the business. Libraries are *information organisations*. Surely they should be hubs of good connectivity? In many cities I’ve visited, I can get better wifi with less barriers at McDonalds than the local public library (and I’m not just talking about guest access here – I’ve looked at access policies around the place and these issues exist for library members too). That is a *big* problem.

As a non-library user, I’m not a lost cause. But I am greedy. And I want more.

[PS. I feel the need to add a postscript… I edited about 600 words out of this post in which I waxed lyrical about comfy armchairs and decent coffee. The upshot of those 600 words was that I think the perfect public library looks a lot like the ground floor of State Library of Queensland. The only thing it’s missing is a service that delivers your coffee so you don’t have to pack up and go get it.]