Monday, March 21, 2011

The Fifth Law of Library Science

So, my husband gets a Barnes and Noble gift card for his birthday. He goes to our local Barnes and Noble bookstore to look around. He finds a DVD series he wants; Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. It's 40% off! Score!

But as he continues to wander around listening to his iPod Touch waiting for me to pick him up after my shopping elsewhere, he thinks, "I wonder if it's for sale online." Using their free wireless, he downloads the B&N iPhone app onto his iPod Touch, and searches for the same set. He finds it at for 50% off with free shipping! He orders it using his new app and gift card. When I pick him up he is happier than a dog with two dinners! Besides saving a few bucks, here's why:

  1. He got to wander around a bookstore listening to own music on his iPod Touch that he got for Christmas.
  2. He got to play with his new toy (the iPod Touch).
  3. He got to buy something that he's wanted without using his own money.
  4. He got it for half price.
  5. He got a better deal than he thought he was going to get at first. (He is a comparison shopper who continues to shop after making a purchase, looking for and expecting to experience buyer's remorse.)
  6. He got free shipping. (For an avid online shopper, that's priceless!)
  7. He gets to anticpate a package coming in the mail with his name on it. (I'm convinced this is why he is an avid online shopper!)

The next day our Midwest Library Services representative came by for his annual visit (something rare that this family owned company still does.) They are a "book jobber" in the business of making it easy for libraries to buy books. As you might imagine, books and book buying habits are of interest to him. So, I told him about my husband's experience.

With Borders recently filing Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and going out of business, we began to muse. "They're just shooting themselves in the foot," he says. He thinks that books -- the physical kind that he's in the business of brokering -- will not go away. Not in our lifetime. But bookstores as we know them will not last.

He has a point. How much longer can Barnes and Noble compete with their online alter ego, let alone Amazon? He thinks that libraries will be the only place where people will be able to go and browse books.

True. Browsing bookshelves is different from browsing lists of books online. Even though the value of running across something serendipitously can be replaced by suggestions to buy other items you might also like based upon your viewing and shopping habits, it's not the same as browsing by library call number or bookstore subject areas. And seeing the physical size and shape, paper quality, graphics, layout, cover, font, and other tangible intangibles add value that, so far, even "Look Inside This Book" features can't replicate online. But is that enough to overcome the convenience of the online experience?

If libraries don't want to be percieved as museums where people come to nastalgically browse books on the shelves and use our free wifi, we're going to have to observe the Fifth Law of Library Science: "The Library is a growing organism." Libraries have to stay true to our core objectives, but continue to change. Or, as motivational speaker and author, Tony Robbins puts it, "stay flexible in our approach" (brainyquote). We need to serve the information needs of our patrons, to promote information literacy, and develop our professional information skills to be a valuable resource to information saturated generations to come.

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