Library Patrons Don’t Know What They Want

Every so often some very talented visionary will echo the statement that they don’t listen to focus groups or conduct market research because people don’t know what they want. I think that this idea can be applied on the ground as much as in far-off visions of very smart people. One doesn’t have to be ahead of his time to realize that non-experts or amateurs are often totally clueless and/or grossly misinformed about a given subject or occupation. Many times, these folks will even overestimate their competence or knowledge of the item under consideration.

The famous zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few,” and most people see this as a way of boosting the beginner. But it is not necessarily so; when going to a doctor, for example, you will give her your symptoms and she will narrow down the possibilities using her medical training, compare this to a layman who may accidentally hit on the right condition using a scatter-shot style — which is more efficient? The information-seeking behavior of some patrons is similar except that very often the beginner’s mind has no possibilities while the librarian has a few.

Take this a step further and talk to a group of randomly selected people about libraries and the role of librarians. You will likely get something about books, something about access, a little about education, and how everyone is welcome. No surprise here, these are qualities that libraries have had for generations. Naturally, everything else that happens at libraries, even if it has been happening for decades (read: online catalogs, programming, DVDs, and yes, ebooks), is reported on with shock and awe. Why are librarians so peeved about this? The reporters who make a living writing articles about numerous topics in a week’s period are not library experts. Why would they have any sense of how libraries have changed from year to year? It’s not like they spend the time before their deadline re-reading past articles that in a crazy twist of fate will resemble their own yet unwritten piece. These reporters don’t know what they want from a library and neither do the patrons! Mark these few examples:

Rarely do patrons approach the desk asking for reading recommendations, and thus Readers’ Advisory is usually done on one’s own initiative by asking the patron, “Would you like me to show you more books like that one?” Yes, they didn’t know they wanted a recommendation, but most are sure glad to receive them.

No one asked for the Twitter class I put on last week at my library because they didn’t know that it was even a possibility. But people showed up, and they liked it, and we’re doing another one. We also offer Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint classes. Before we offered them, people only asked for basic computer classes, and yet now that our excellent IT guy is doing the others, he’s developed a nice following.

How many patrons ask you to show them your article databases? My guess is a very small percentage if not zero. Do they even know that it is possible to ask the library to subscribe to others? That it is a service the library has been offering for years and years? When was the last time a mainstream press article mentioned library databases?

Even something as simple as self check-out machines would likely have no part in a focus group discussion regarding future libraries. And yet we have them at my library and they comprise 85-90% of our check-outs.

Maybe when I write that patrons don’t know what they want you think I’m being disparaging about the people we serve. Not so! A lawyer’s clients aren’t expected to intimately know the law, nor are they expected to have the knowledge to prognosticate about the future of the legal profession. So why do we expect laypeople to divine the future of libraries and understand exactly what we do when we’re “off the desk”? Why do we expect them to “get” libraries the way librarians who have devoted their lives to the institution understand them? It’s silly, isn’t it? It’s obvious that many patrons don’t know what they want, after all, the reference interview exists to figure out what a patron is looking for whether he can articulate it or not.

The whole purpose of writing this is to say that the people outside of the library department, the City, County, District officials (elected, appointed, or hired) shouldn’t be expected to know the intricacies of what we do. It shouldn’t be beyond belief that they don’t understand why Main Street Library needs another librarian. An emotional reaction is natural when someone does not see your worth (or how hard you work proving that worth), but its also necessary to quickly move beyond it. Instead of steaming, we must cool down and gather data: statistics, press clippings, and testimonials to name a few possibilities, and practice calmly getting officials up to speed on what we’ve been so busy doing and why it’s wonderful for the community. Once they’re up to speed it’s time for the important part: Tell them the magnificent things we will do with another librarian. Tell them what Awesome Library in the next town over is doing. Tell them what they want. How else would they know?

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2 Responses to Library Patrons Don’t Know What They Want

  1. Peggy O'Kane says:

    One of the things I noticed decades ago when I lived in an urban area and often took part in focus groups. The more closely I was aligned with the product the more I got paid for participating. How often we don’t know what we want until we get it. How often we forget that tohers feel the same way.

  2. Oleg K. says:

    Well, there’s nothing wrong with focus groups except that they are typically best for affirming the opinion of the average person. This is fine if you want to know how people see an advertisement, or if a website is easy to navigate, but it’s not so good if you’re aiming for innovation.

    An uninformed group is not going to think beyond what experts have spent years considering. It’s like trying to develop complex math without having studied arithmetic – possible, but highly unlikely.

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