NJLA – Why we borrow

This morning started with Paco Underhill, Founder, CEO, and President of Envirosell, Inc., a global research and consulting firm. His keynote was amazing!! I just couldn’t stop writing and I hope I got all of the best points he made down. Paco started by explaining why his books exist = “13 years ago i fell in love with the wrong woman – a premier flutist – she worked every night and every weekend” – so he had to come up with something to do to stay out of trouble and that became writing books 🙂

Paco Underhill at NJLA

He started by listing a few issues that he saw affecting libraries.

The first issue is that our visual language is evolving faster than our written or our spoken word – one of the aspects of our lives is how we communicate visually at our point of contact – “I hate the dewey decimal system – it may have made a lot of sense 50 years ago but it makes a lot less sense today”. One of the visual problems we face is how do we respond to the audience that is walking into our door. As we age we start to see things differently, we have to be cognoscent of who we’re communicating with. We can not just put letters on our pallets – but we can add icons – we can have more fun now.

Next, we live in a world that is owned by men, designed by men, run by men and yet we expect women participate – it doesn’t make any sense. What makes a female friendly library? What makes a female friendly parking lot? All of those are usually painfully simple issues – it’s not about spending money – it’s about thinking through the process. We know that 60% of all books purchased across the board are by women, we know that women are more likely to visit the library. At big events – women take over all of the men’s rooms and re-brand them.

The third issue – is what is global and what is local? We are struggling with what is our local and state-wide identity. How can we recognize the constituent base that we serve. Example: he has just done work for the LA county library – and they have some markets where the immigrant population coming in the door is often more than 65% percent (they don’t speak English as a first language). One of the great things of the American library is that we’re an engine of social progress. We provide things that when people can’t have them at home they can have them in the library (computers, the internet, gaming systems, etc). One of the issues we face in our libraries is how can we be evangelical? Because not everyone knows what we are or how to use us. Being evangelical is understanding the ground you’re standing on and who we’re trying to reach out to.

The final issue is the issue of time. We live in a multi-tasking universe and for every occasion when someone walks in the door, willing to spend an hour or 2 hours or 3 hours in the institution – there is another time when someone is desperate to get in and out as quickly as possible. How do we organize the physical asset that we have to the multi-tasking audience.

It used to be that we thought that polite worked, but we ended up in a 20th-century bar fight – where everyone is fighting for the customer’s dollars and attention. The library is fighting with the movie theater, with book store – etc. When working with zoos what they say is that on animal planet you can’t touch the animals or smell the animals – what zoos offer is magic – the same goes for libraries.

Libraries have become a day care center for kids, elderly, the homeless – we have become a welcoming community like a church or a temple – Paco sees, this and he doesn’t know how to solve that problem except to recognize that it exists and build that into the plan for the future of the library.

Cherry Hill Public Library

Where does you library start? The less you do outside the more you have to do inside – there is a reason why the lions outside of the NY Public library are so popular (For me, Cherry Hill Public Library and Seattle Public Library were like this – pulled me right in with their amazing exteriors) – you want to increase your drive-by power – if someone drives by your library are they tantalized by something that they see? My public library is dull and far back from the road – in fact I drove past it once a week on the way to the grocery store for months before I knew it was there. We often have great spaces and locations – the problem is that we don’t do much with them. We’re not just a dry government building. Instead of a sign that just says ‘Library’ – maybe a sign that says ‘Twilight! It’s here!’ Paco then showed us images from libraries – some with lots of paint on the exterior, some that just have a bench (what he calls – long term parking). With so many libraries you’re dealing with inte-rgenerational families – so if you can park someone at the bench the primary shopper is happy.

Libraries used to be as dull as dishwater (I don’t know about that – even as a kid I was in awe of libraries – but then again I grew up to be a librarian) – for those who think you can get away with something like a pile of books on a book cart – keep dreaming. What do we have that HBO or PS2 doesn’t? We have people – we have things – we have ways of being able to cope in a recession – I don’t have to go to Blockbuster – I don’t have to pay for Tivo – I can get it all for free at the library – does the larger public understand that? Paco (and me) isn’t sure that they do.

We could learn from Wal-Mart and Amoeba Records (a place where they let you bring in your CDs and trade them). Wal-mart as an institution is dedicated to helping the single mother raising her kids and living on a budget. The library is about enriching it’s constituent base – not only in terms of culture, but in terms of money – you don’t have to buy it – you can borrow it – you don’t have to buy it – you can sample it – and you can do it legally!

In the end when we ask library patrons do they understand what the library means and what it’s constituent parts are – it is remarkable the number of people who walk in and don’t know that you lend CDs or DVDs for free. The typical patron who walks in the door only visits one part of the library. If I’m over 50 I go to the books – if I’m under 20 I go to the internet cafe. Our job is to broaden our the pieces of our offerings so that everyone can benefit from them.

Paco insists that librarians “Get our from behind your damn desk and get on the floor … Part of the joy of being a librarian should be the interaction with people – and in that interaction is part of the way that you control some of the abuse that may happen on your floor.” If you’re out there things that you don’t want to happen are less likely to happen because there is a presence on the floor saying ‘this is mine’ – not just a seat behind a desk.

Paco doesn’t want to turn a library into a shopping mall – he’s not telling us to add a Starbucks in our library – but he is saying that we need to secure some other kind of income – other than what our government gives us.

“I love books in the concept of my own home – and nothing is uglier than an empty shelf” — Paco. He has books in every room (so do I 🙂 ) he thinks they look great (so do I 🙂 )

How do we celebrate the literary life and the literary appeal – one thing that Paco has noticed and thanks us for – is getting rid of those hard uncomfortable chairs (which my library still has). He loves that there is a comfy place to sit now. He loves a book store in Austin Texas because they sell the books by making it home – in the cooking section there is an old stove. The bookstore is topical and modern – no dewey decimal system – you can set up a section and if it works you know it – and if it doesn’t work – you know it too. There is a section in his bookstore that has books on conspiracy theories. At Waldenbooks when they put self help next to children’s books they saw and increase in sales – we need to organize our libraries for groups – so that people can fan out – so parents can browse while keeping an eye on their kids.

Paco Underhill at NJLA

Think about your front desk – the desk in the front of the library drives the paths that patrons take through the library. A library without the desk at the front – has less diversity in their pathways. 80% of people are right handed – in a good store design you look for a counterclockwise shopping pattern. Usually people are carrying with their left hand and reaching with their right. Part of what you want to understand is the nature of sight lines – put things at a distance that tickle their curiosity – so that they’ll walk in and walk through.

Paco Underhill at NJLA

Hypothetical situation: I (Paco) live in Brooklyn and I commute to my job in Manhattan on the subway. 3 days a week I see the same woman get on the train at the stop after mine. I think she’s cute and I like what she’s reading on the train. What do you think the chances are that I’ll go up to and tell her I’m interested in her and she’ll respond positively? The chances are slim and none if I do that with nose to nose (my face to her face) interaction. So, how do I get to first base here. What I do is sit down next to her on the train and talk to her about something else that we can see from this angle. I haven’t confronted her – this is hip to hip interaction. You create a sense of intimacy. Then do this over and over a couple of mornings – and each time backing off instead of pushing the subject. By the third time you have formed a connection.

Examples of the hip to hip process can be seen all over these days – sales people not behind the desk anymore – at the Verizon Wireless store there are computers in the middle of the store where sales people can talk to customers side by side – when you go up the ‘info desk’ at Borders you’re actually on the same side of the desk – because it is much friendlier – the same is true at most Apple stores too.

Think about language too – what does a ‘circulation desk’ mean? Why not just call it “checkout”? Think about your communication strategy in the library – the simple act of changing the name of something makes the light bulb go off – makes it clear what is meant. Our desks are covered in signs – we think that if 3 signs work – then maybe 27 will be even better – our circ desks are too cluttered and often have out-of-date notifications up. People shut off with this much information in their face at once. You would rather have people learn 1 thing absolutely than 5 things possibly. And remember to speak the language of the people walking in the door.

If you put a sign on your door with 25 words on it – then it’s slightly more effective that putting that sign in your garage. Start to match the nature of the message to the nature of the opportunity. A sign on a desk where a patron is sitting is maybe more likely to be read if it’s longer – but a sign on the door or down the hallway isn’t going to be read if it’s too long. Also, we want our signs to catch people’s eyes – use shapes and a sense of movement – by having a little more fun we catch people’s eyes. This is a place where we can have fun doing what we want to – and whether it’s odd shapes and sizes or big stacks of books, we can have fun with our displays and our signs. Having fun is what makes our jobs enjoyable – cause we certainly aren’t doing it for the money!!

One of the ongoing problems we have we have to make people feel good at the end of their process at the library – and the checkout process is your chance to teach people to fish (instead of just giving them fish). We want them to make the trip to the public library part of their weekly routine. We want to start them as novice users and move them up the scale. We want them to use us for lectures, books DVDs, CDs, etc – because our future as a public library is in controlled by us being evangelical about what we offer. Often people don’t realize that we’re not just a place but we’re a system – if they can’t find it here we can check other places to get it for you – like you can in retail.


The level to which I understand the needs of my patrons corresponds to my success. The success of my library also depends on my architecture. And lastly the operating culture effects my success. Many of us have gotten very comfortable thinking sitting down – whether it’s around the conference table working out an idea – or staring at my computer with a spreadsheet open – the greatest ideas often fail because no one goes out on the floor to try them out – thinking standing up is a 20th century skill – it’s time to get our from behind our desks and out of our chairs and see the library the way our patrons do – on foot.

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  1. Thanks for this! all good stuff, much of which I try to tell people as well. THINK ABOUT HOW THE CUSTOMER WANTS TO USE YOUR SPACE. Why aren’t we all there making these changes, a little bit at a time?

    I missed NJLA this year but now there’s at least one great talk that I was able to absorb in absentia, thanks to you!

  2. No problem!! Glad all my writing was helpful to at least one person 🙂 hehe

  3. Thanks Nicole, this is a great summary. I couldn’t type this fast AND pay attention! So, you can put another notch on your MAC; you’ve helped at least two people 🙂

  4. The typing helps me pay attention – if that makes sense.

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