5 Lessons for libraries from the world of retail

It is a great relief that the digital versus print debate is becoming a thing of the past and our discussions are becoming far more nuanced. Siôn Hamilton has captured some important aspects of this nuance in an article he recently wrote for TheBookSeller.com, “What 15 years at Foyles taught me about the future of bookselling” (June 21, 2017). While retail and libraries do differ profoundly in purpose, philosophy and method, Hamilton brings a number of critical insights about the nature of human experience, discovery and the pleasure of reading a physical book, that are relevant to both book stores and libraries.

There is no doubt that digital technologies have shaken the publishing world to its core and transformed our reading habits. Gaming, social media, ebooks, online shopping, smartphones and tablets, home delivery, search engines, curation algorithms, advertising algorithms, big data, physical books, and most significantly, the almost infinite ways that all these media are interconnected continue to make change the only constant. Hamilton cuts through this swirling world of publishing and retail to offer some insights that have implications for libraries.

Lesson 1 : good design

People “like being in pleasant and stimulating environments; it is why we go to the beach, or take a walk in the park”. The details of the physical design of our library spaces have a profound impact on the experiences and perceptions of visitors (see “The Embodied Library”). Textures, shapes, lighting, colour, shelving configuration and even the weave of the fabrics covering our furniture all form the language of that space. In the school setting the actual live experience of the students – the very reason school exists – can become squeezed out of our priority list by the daily demands of curriculum and institutional pragmatics. As Doorley and Witthoft writing in “Make Space : how to set the stage for creative collaboration” (p.38-52, quoting Chris Flink of d.school and IDEO), the design of physical spaces is the body language of an organisation. Whether intentional or not, the form, shape, functionality and aesthetics of a space reflect our values and as a direct consequence, mould the experience of library visitors. The design of space has its own grammar (p.38) that we can learn to incorporate in library design to spark curiosity, set the stage for creative collaboration, and create a context for serendipitous discovery.

In book stores and libraries we can be in danger of ending up in focussing on the “content of the book over everything else” forgetting that this is “not how readers first encounter a book” (Hamilton, 2017). The environment that library visitors enter shapes their experience and can determine whether or not they experience the thrill of discovery.

Lesson 2 : the role of the librarian

“In the past booksellers and librarians were the custodians of knowledge, gathering titles and influencing the public through their roles. This still happens – in many ways it is more important than ever – but now readers come to the store better equipped, knowing full well they can always source it somewhere online” (Hamilton, 2017). This resonates with the concept of student agency and the significance of honouring the student as the experts in their own learning. The role of the librarian is no longer the holder of literary knowledge to be bestowed on library visitors, but one of a collaborator who comes alongside students and steps aside to get out of the way of their process of discovery. It is not about the library or the librarian, it is about the student connecting, discovering, and sharing story, ideas and inspiration. If that happens without direct input from us, then all the better. A discovery the student is leading is an experience that will inevitably lead to an invigorated search for more discoveries.

That is not to say that the librarian has no role. On the contrary, there are innumerable factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of that moment of agentive discovery by the student and these are the details where the role of the librarian has greatest impact. One of these factors is our need to redirect the role of the librarian away from protecting our authority toward enabling student agency, to reduce the intimidating feeling of libraries and invite access at all levels of understanding, and reading ability, to minimise the sense of judgement and to invite all interests and identities. This can be threatening for librarians because it is more than likely that such a level of acceptance and openness will lead to visitors with questions we don’t have the answers to and areas of interest that we know nothing about. “Yet in this new world of retail [library] we require workers who are open and sensitive to people’s needs, emotionally intelligent enough to adjust their manner, and comfortable with not always knowing as much as the customer in front of them” (Hamilton, 2017).

One thing that online shopping and digital reading offers is a shopper driven experience that protects them from judgement through a level of anonymity. This is even more significant for young people who very keenly sense and experience the judgement of adults that can cloud their experience. Such experiences of powerlessness, expectation and judgement impacts significantly on the likelihood that they will chose to return to a venue that hosts physical books.

Creating a “democratic culture” (Hamilton) is the key to the success of a library. Technically, no one needs to come to a library but a librarian that can curate such open experiences of discovery for visitors is “the point of difference” that decides whether libraries are relevant now or not. “Currently conversations still offer up possibilities that are overlooked by algorithms” (Hamilton, 2017).

Lesson 3 : making leaving the library with a book a compelling experience

One of the most significant actions we can observe in the library is for a visitor to leave with a book tucked under their arm that they have chosen for themselves. There is no need for a library visitor to do this – there are plenty of gaming and online retail options experiencing story, or social media reading opportunities to fill all their time. Despite all these opportunities for consumers, retail stores and libraries live on because there is currency (literally and metaphorically) in the experience of making that purchase or checking out that book. “So we come back to [the] design of our physical spaces again, trying to ensure that the environment is stimulating, the product is [compelling and] compellingly presented” (Hamilton, 2017).

Lesson 4 : the value of reading

The perception is often that physical books need to compete with the digital sphere. This is a false dichotomy. Print and digital are complementary and the experience of most readers is a hybrid existence where our reading lives merge across media in the pursuit of ideas, story, inspiration, escape and enjoyment.

The reality is that reading a physical book is an easy way to filter out the noise of advertising, social media, and the 24 hour news cycle. We don’t need to “sell” this to our library patrons but it is an experience that we owe to every patron. If we truly believe in the power of books, we do not need to push books, we simply need to remove barriers and improve access to let the authors and illustrators meet readers. The “intrinsic value” of reading a book is enough. The act of reading a book in a comfortable space is an experience that the design of libraries and dispositions of the librarians can have a powerful influence over. Reading a physical book is an easy way to create a deeply focussed and immersive experience for students and once experienced, will become a lifelong positive seduction.

Final Lesson 5 : physical libraries are more important than ever

“In a world where the internet of things brings convenience and increasingly personalised suggestions, the effort of going to a bookshop [library], finding a book, buying it, carrying it and then reading it, looks to me like a refreshing change. A cheaper, more democratic experience than going on a retreat or taking up a short course to educate yourself and give yourself a break” (Hamilton, 2017). The act of discovery amongst the shelves creates a memorable experience embodied within an environment that is devoted to your well-being. Holding a book in your hands brings a physicality to the ideas contained in those pages, it gives a literal weight to those ideas, and allows us to contemplate the contents in a form of meditation as we carry that book to a new destination.

So there is no need for a hard sell but we do need to consider carefully how we provide and facilitate access for library visitors. Digital media and the interconnectivity of the world around us provide boundless opportunities for us to provide multiple on-ramps for readers. There is no doubt that the act of finding, borrowing and reading a physical book has enough intrinsic reward and merit in itself so our role as librarians is to design for discovery, adapt our roles with agility, and devote ourselves to the experience of library visitors.

Bookstores do differ from libraries in many respects in purpose, philosophy and method, however retail data and perspectives offer important insights about the future of books and how people encounter them.


Further reading

Doorley, Scott, and Scott Witthoft. Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

Hamilton, Siôn. “What 15 Years at Foyles Taught Me about the Future of Bookselling.” What 15 Years at Foyles Taught Me about the Future of Bookselling, The Bookseller, 21 June 2017, www.thebookseller.com/futurebook/bookshops-573921.

Feature image taken at “Open House” bookstore, Central Embassy, Bangkok

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