Column Editor: Ann Okerson (Advisor on Electronic Resources Strategy, Center for Research Libraries)
During this past Charleston Conference, I made my annual sacred pilgrimage to Cupcake DownSouth on King Street, a little way north of the Francis Marion Hotel. While I was making my choices and photographing my beanies, I heard another conference-goer remark, “Well, this isn’t a library, is it?”
As I walked back to the conference, cupcakes and beanies securely tucked away, I began to wonder what they could have meant. Were they sure? There’s that famous Harvard Business Review article from 50-some years ago, “Marketing Myopia” by Ted Levitt, who wrote that if the passenger railroads of the 1950’s had known they were in the transportation business, they might have stayed in business longer. Are we sure we know what business we’re in?
Take the cupcake store, for example. They have a small, carefully curated collection, expert advisors, patron-friendly seating for examining the collection, and even a user-friendly catalog of the necessary metadata on the wall to tell you which flavors will be available on which days of the week. There’s enough similarity that perhaps we could learn a few things. Their metadata, for example, are clear, comprehensive, and easy to use in the discovery process and the interface (sign on the wall) is very easy to use.
Since then I’ve been ambling about in my usual way, thinking about what business libraries are in by looking at other businesses for guidance. Coffee isn’t my passion, but I did stick my head into a Starbucks for an inspection, and what struck me there was that their “reading room” was much more like a library than the one at the cupcake shop. To spend time in a cupcake shop, you pretty much have to be eating cupcakes. At Starbucks (or the Panera near my home), you can be starting a business, planning a wedding, seeking the meaning of life, or catching a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. They certainly want to “push product” as we say nowadays, but they’ve learned that letting the prospective users define their needs for the space is better than requiring a tight connection between finishing your coffee and rushing out.
Then I thought about my cell phone. I’m a sad person these days, because my wonderful palm-sized Blackberry is getting old and tired. I’ve also got an iPhone, which I detest (as near as I can tell, nobody can type on one), and I’m experimenting with a new Blackberry about the size of the first-grade reading book we used in school a long time ago. So, I’ve had to go to the phone store — and the phone store, I think, is really missing a beat from not understanding libraries. Getting your phone right is a fundamental need today, but the phone store is all stand-up transactional, with long waits for an available representative, nothing else you can do there, and always an edge of anxiety about whether you’re going to get what you really need. The people there might or might not be knowledgeable, but they will surely be pushing hard for what their bosses want the customer to do, not for what you think you’re there for.
Hmm. Then, of course, I had to think about Amazon. I had a chance to do that this weekend when I realized that in order to go to “the grocery store” in my neighborhood now, I actually have to go to three or four different places, and of course one of them is the Amazon store — yes, I mean “Whole Paycheck.” Mobbed, absolutely mobbed. I don’t know if Amazon buying the chain had something to do with that, but what’s clear is that even the company that defined Internet-only retailing is now working very hard to have these physical points of presence in neighborhoods where people who are willing to pay more than they do at Safeway or ShopRite can easily be found. But Amazon, of course, has its flaws. Grocery stores have lousy customer metadata and cataloging. All customers have to go by are rough “subject” categories, like “cereal” and “cheese,” sometimes found in more than one place in the store. Even in those categories one may have to rummage around a while. And what if you need something that doesn’t fit those categories so easily? Next grocery store you go into, ask yourself where you’d find a jar of taramosalata, the Greek fish-egg spread, halfway between caviar and hummus. I happen to know you can often find it at a Whole Foods store, but there’s no telling where — and in my experience, even if you find a store employee, it can lead to a long circuitous wander. Metadata, metadata, metadata, Mr. Bezos: study up on the subject — it could take your mind off your personal troubles.
Last stop on the weekend’s shopping was Target — I needed a slightly specialized kind of household cleaner for stainless steel cookware: something called Barkeeper’s Friend. I have a lot of confidence in Target, even though their metadata leave a lot to be desired as well. I became a Target fan for life the time I went looking for something for the kitchen and was having trouble finding it. Just then, a man in a security guard outfit came up to me and said, “Can I help you?” Now it’s a truth universally known nowadays that when a fellow in a uniform asks if he can help you, what he may mean is, “What are you riffraff doing and I’m about an inch away from rousting you out of here!” Oh, I said defensively, I’m looking for the Whatchamacallit. At this point, the guard speaks into the mike of his radio — not a good sign — and says, “Priscilla, where do we keep the Whatchamacallits?” And “Priscilla” says something back to him into his earpiece, and next thing you know the security guard — the security guard! — is leading me right to the shelf. It struck me afterwards that a security guard who’s also encouraged to be helpful probably has a better and more interesting job than the one who stands around glowering.
So, what have I learned from my retail adventures? Well, for one thing, libraries do many things right. But the experience emphasized for me that we should be thinking of our libraries as, first of all, places where people are encouraged to come for their needs, not just to serve our idea of what we’re there for. Second, we should work hard on those discovery systems and the metadata that users require. Third, if a Target security guard can be that helpful, we should be supporting every last library employee to be potentially the answer to a patron’s question about where to find a book about Whatchamacallits — and with a smile.
OK, this day I need to go to Liuzzi’s, Connecticut’s best little Italian grocery. Hmm, I wonder if a library should be putting out those great samples of sliced breads and imported cheeses for everybody who comes in. That could do wonders for our gate counts…