BROWSING, YES. FINDING, NO
by Marylaine Block
I've never understood people who claim that it's easier to find what they need at bookstores than in libraries. Unless their needs are always going to be met in topical sections like computers or science fiction or mysteries, or unless they routinely ask the clerks every time, I don't see how.
In libraries, all you need to know is one system, whether Dewey or LC. Then you look up the title and follow the library's map to find it. In a bookstore, though, you need to do a lot of guessing about where they would have filed something.
I was looking the other day for the food guide that accompanies Dr. Phil McGraw's weight loss program. Now, since several million people are participating in his weight loss challenge, you'd think the book would be on display tables all over the store, but especially on the table of books on diet and nutrition. Nope. Not in the regular diet and nutrition section either. Not in the new non-fiction display. Not in the display of fitness books, either. The clerk who was helping me was utterly stumped, because the more knowledgeable bookstore staff kept telling her it was on "the display table." Two clerks later, I found that yes, it was on a display table -- a whole table devoted to Dr. Phil that was tucked away out of sight and nowhere near the diet and nutrition display table. Now how self-defeating is that, when the logic of the arrangement escapes even the staff?
You may argue that that's just one example from one particular bookstore, and not indicative of a general pattern, but I experience similar frustration almost every time I go to a bookstore. There are no public access computers to tell me whether they have a particular book in stock and where it is, so I almost always have to ask. Partly that's because the things I'm looking for don't fit in any obvious categories. Where would they put Donald Norman's new book, Emotional Design? It could logically be filed with psychology, but it could just as easily be filed with technology because it's about the design of things like automobiles, watches and computers.
And even if I guess correctly, exactly where ARE the sections on psychology and technology? The stores don't usually have maps to guide you. You are virtually forced to ask a staff member (assuming you can find one, not always an easy task) and hope she knows the answers. AND can explain them. When I was looking for a collection of Barbara Holland's essays, once, I asked three different people, each of whom pointed vaguely across the store to where the collected essays were supposed to reside, and I still couldn't find them, because there were exactly two shelves of them, hidden away, without any signs, in a section on literature.
When I know exactly what I want to find, give me a library any day.
But if there's something I didn't even know I wanted to find until I saw it, I want a bookstore, because serendipitous discovery is what bookstores are really set up for. I am their ideal customer, the one who comes in to buy one book and walks out with five (another reason I limit my exposure to bookstores).
If bookstores could stand to learn a thing or two from libraries about making titles findable, libraries very much need to learn from bookstores about making books browsable and appealing.
Librarians are starting to imitate them in the way we display new titles. We actually show books facing out these days, instead of scrunched tightly together with only the spines on view. I'm not sure why it took so many of us this long to realize that publishers spend money on cover art for an excellent reason -- a good jacket cover intrigues and lures potential readers who might not otherwise have considered that book. There is a tradeoff involved in display shelving, since this is an inefficient use of space, but a library is supposed to be focused on what pleases its users, not on what is convenient and efficient for managers.
Many of us are also starting to imitate bookstores' comfortable environment that allows browsers to plop themselves down in cozy chairs, scattered throughout the store, to browse more carefully through a stack of books they might want to buy. Many of us are adding our own coffeeshop, too, acknowledging that we live in a grazing society where people expect to be able to eat and drink wherever they are.
But we could also use bookstore display techniques to showcase the things we do better than bookstores.
Unlike bookstores, we can afford to house things that don't "sell" in quantity. We were buying Dean Koontz and Barbara Kingsolver and Neil Gaiman before they were best-sellers. The same holds true for many authors -- we housed Oprah's book club before Oprah's book club came into existence. That's because we have enough space that we can afford to nourish young authors with potential. They might make it big this year or next, or not until they're too dead to enjoy it, but when those authors do make the big time and people want to see what they wrote earlier, we've got their books, even though the publishers long since gave up on them and let them go out of print.
We offer best-selling current science and history, but we also house the older science and history that's still true, still important. Like bookstores, we house current magazines and newspapers; unlike bookstores, we also keep them, which means our patrons can sit down and read contemporaneous accounts of the Civil War, Victoria Woodhull's run for the presidency, the deadly flu eipdemic of 1918, the attack on Pearl Harbor, written by the people who lived through them.
We could do a lot more with the kind of end-panel displays that bookstores use, offering a sampling of interesting wildlife books in the 590s, collections of columnists' work in the 070s, books on our local churches in the 250s, gorgeous photography books in the 770s, our staff's science fiction favorites in the sci/fi stacks. For displays to celebrate anniversaries like the Wright brothers, or to provide background on current concerns, we can show off material from our periodical backfiles and our local history files and photos. We could even do endpanel displays in the fiction aisles, highlighting a few interesting authors in a particular alphabetical range.
We could be doing more with readers' services using bookstore techniques. We're good about creating brochures and web sites for book recommendations -- "readalikes" for favorite authors, murder mysteries featuring cats, time-travel romances, baseball novels, and such (see my page on sports fiction http://marylaine.com/bookbyte/sports.html). But we also need to display them where their audience is most likely to see them and grab them.
What's more, we can get our readers in on the act. Why should all the recommendations come from us? We have book clubs that would be happy to kibbitz. Many of us have web pages where we invite readers to submit their own recommendations and reviews (and if you don't, why not?). Invite them to submit a list of favorite topical or genre books in our library, and include their name and a charming thank you on the display.
One other edge that libraries have over most bookstores is the fact that we buy in so many formats to meet so many different needs, something our displays (both physical and on the web) could emphasize. Take a topic -- mysteries, say, or the upcoming election, or Lord of the Rings -- and display related fiction and nonfiction about it, children's books and adult books, large type books, audio books, movies on DVD, and magazines devoted to the topic.
I have just one caveat about displays. Any book that's on display is not on the shelves where anyone specifically looking for it would expect it to be. Libraries should offer all the pleasures of accidental discovery, but not at the cost of purposeful exploration. Let's make sure that our staff, unlike the bookstore clerks, knows how to find the books we've taken out of their normal order. If we do that, our libraries can offer the best of both worlds: browsing AND finding.
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Stories, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them.
Umberto Eco. Vegetal and Mineral Memory: the Future of Books." lecture at the newly opened Bibliotheca Alexandrina. http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/665/bo3.htm
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