Personal librarians

One of the things we’re working on at my public library is increasing our personalized readers advisory services. We’re planning to use a form, and I hope we can also do some staff training to increase readers advisory at the information desk as well. Multnomah County Public Library is taking personalized service in a slightly different direction with My Librarian, an online service that allows patrons to get to know the readers advisory staff. I have noticed that our patrons love it when we sign reviews, make a display of a particular staff member’s favorites, or otherwise connect in a personal way. For National Library Week, I invited staff members to join me on booksecret.org, and one of them also made an eye-catching display of our booksecret submissions:

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Just about every day I hear a patron comment on how much they enjoyed seeing what we like to read.

But I recently heard about a library where the staff didn’t want to include their names on recommendations or reviews. I have mixed feelings about that. I get that some people are private or shy or have concerns I perhaps haven’t even thought of regarding using even just their first names in a public space.

On the other hand, I think humanizing what we do, and making sure people feel personally connected to their library and librarians, is beneficial. It can only be good if people see us as familiar members of their communities, not just as anonymous public servants. I’d like patrons to leave the library feeling we are part of the same happy book tribe (which is why I think it is important to encourage staff to chat a bit with patrons, so that they feel welcomed and cared about, but that’s another post).

In an interview, the Multnomah County library director Vailey Oehlke explained that people could get book recommendations on Amazon.com (or I would add, the library catalog online, if like ours, it includes Novelist Select or another discovery tool), but that’s ” a pretty transactional experience . . . . It’s not a conversation, it’s not a relationship that develops with a back-and-forth personal connection.” Reporter Kelly House notes that when people go to their local library, “familiar faces greet patrons daily.” My Librarian is an effort to replicate that experience for online library users.

Which brings me to a common theme here at Nocturnal Librarian: libraries, like other service organizations, may change their delivery methods or search tools, but the basics of what we do — like make reading recommendations to patrons who we get to know — are what we’ve always done well. I’m all for reaching people in new ways, but instead of touting how much we’ve changed, I think there is real value in reminding people that what they’ve always counted on libraries for, like help finding a good book, is still what they can count on us for.

And I believe that Vailey Oehlke is correct, our patrons trust us because we are familiar to them, and that’s something else unique to libraries. People could get books anywhere; they come to us in part because libraries are a community service, and both parts of that term should be at the heart of what we are and do. I plan to keep putting my name on whatever I recommend, and to encourage my staff to do the same, so we remain, for our patrons,”their” librarians.

Automated but human

A convergence of forces, including budget cuts and reduced staffing, automation, and patrons “browsing” online when the library is actually closed, means that readers’ advisory can’t always be a face to face conversation. Some libraries are using forms to create “personal shopper” style recommendations for readers. Others are blogging or posting reviews in local media and on their websites, casting a wide net with recommendations.

My public library tested NoveList Select for our catalog and I found that it worked pretty well. It connects Ebscohost’s NoveList tool, which recommends books when you input a title, author, or series, to the library’s catalog so that when a patron searches for a book, other recommended titles from your collection appear at the bottom of the page. NoveList says “The recommendations are created by professional librarians who understand readers’ advisory.” So it’s automated from the patron’s point of view, but a human being decides what to suggest.

Chelmsford Public Library in Massachusetts is in the middle of a very cool project linking their children’s staff’s readers’ advisory to their catalog and even to their physical collection with QR codes. You should read Brian Herzog’s post at Swiss Army Librarian for the technical details.  But the executive summary is that their read-alike lists, which are something most libraries create for their patrons, are integrated into the library’s website and catalog, and the staff are linking them all to QR codes. They’re printing stickers and putting them in the books themselves so when a reader gets to the end of a book, they can immediately find recommendations for their next read.

Do you know of another example of best-of-both-worlds readers’ advisory that combines human brainpower (rather than computer algorithms) to make reading recommendations but harnesses technology to get these suggestions into readers’ hands? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Buy it now?

Yesterday I listened to a Library Journal webinar, “Are Books Your Brand? How Libraries Can Stay Relevant to Readers,”on readers’ advisory. I heard a number of good ideas to share with my boss and coworkers.  But one topic I found a little disturbing: “buy it now buttons” in library catalogs, so patrons can purchase rather than wait for a book.

All the panelists thought this was a good idea, worth promoting heavily so patrons would know a portion of  purchases benefited the library. What I found ominous was that one panelist suggested, based on his conversations with a group of library professionals, most libraries would incorporate “buy it now” in their catalogs without hesitation especially if publishers made it a condition of lending their books.

I don’t know whether publishers are considering that. But I’m especially wary because I know NoveList Select, a popular discovery tool for integrating readers’ advisory in catalogs, links to Goodreads reviews, and Amazon just bought Goodreads. I’d really hate to see Amazon be the sole “buy it now” option in any library catalog, especially ours, since we have an independent bookstore in town as well.

It appears that library “buy it now” buttons are already available through OverDrive. I know there are long wait times for popular e-books because of the restrictions publishers place on library e-lending. I was relieved to see OverDrive allows patrons to select from several stores, including IndieBound. I still don’t like it.

Yes, the mission of libraries is to promote reading and provide access to reading materials. But libraries are also free and our resources are freely available to all. It’s already possible for someone who doesn’t want to wait for a book to go buy it. Why should we alter our mission to provide e-commerce?  A better alternative would be to educate library patrons about why there is such a wait for popular e-books (thanks to Brian Herzog at Swiss Army Librarian for noting that link on his blog).

Libraries could also do more to provide readers’ services to those on long waiting lists. Sometimes the print version of a popular e-book is sitting on the shelf  — wouldn’t it be nice if patrons could see that when they place an e-book hold, or get a message to that effect? A good suggestion I heard on the webinar was to make a “read alike” handout for books with long waiting lists to give people at the service desk — why not email it to those placing e-book holds? Or, email patrons who get on the list for a book with 5 or more holds, inviting them to reply with likes and dislikes (or even use a nifty reader’s advisory form like this one, mentioned in the webinar) and receive personalized reading recommendations from a librarian?

I would think that gaining support by providing excellent professional service is the key to a library’s long term well being, to a far greater extent than the bit of money possibly on the table with “buy it now.” I hope libraries stay out of e-commerce and instead focus on being an indispensable resource for readers in our communities.

Library service of the future

The staff at my public library are currently thinking about where adult services is heading in the next five years. I had some fun looking around at library blogs and websites yesterday and pondering this.

One thing we don’t do but my last library did is provide text and chat reference. I found information on the Chelmsford Public Library‘s website about QuestionPoint, which provides chat and text tools as well as “a 24/7 Reference Cooperative to provide live around-the-clock reference service.” Libraries around the world participate in the coop, which seems like a cool idea. I wonder how well it works?

Something else I read about in a few different places is “personal shopper” style book recommendations. I’m not sure how different this is from traditional readers’ advisory, but I guess it’s about marketing it in a new way.  As I understand it personal shoppers in stores meet a client, find out their size and style preferences, and then at future appointments they have pulled together items the person might like to buy, thereby saving the shopper time and energy by streamlining their browsing.

I’ve seen some busy patrons who rush in and grab their books from the hold shelf and rush out again. People who don’t feel they have time to browse might enjoy being able to fill out a form outlining their reading history and preferences and be able to check out a “curated” selection of books a librarian has chosen for them. That certainly sounds like a snazzy service.

Another cool thing I’ve read about is unusual lending collections. Hooksett Public Library patrons can check out a telescope (there is a nonprofit, Telescopes for Libraries, devoted to spreading this practice). Various libraries across the country lend cake pans, tools, toys, art, and state park passes (with hammocks). Libraries in several states lend Bi-Fokal Kits, which are “multi-media, multi-sensory resources” designed to help older people share memories.

But I wonder if I am not thinking far enough outside the box? Imagining innovative items to lend or ways to update or repackage existing services is easy. What new things will libraries do? I’m not sure yet (beyond all the dire predictions that we won’t even need to exist), but I look forward to digging around and learning more. If you have opinions about the direction library services to adults should be heading, please leave a comment.