Public Libraries — The Genius Bar for Readers

Librarianship | Duncan Smith| December 14, 2017

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The founder of NoveList says books are a gateway into the library for patrons and an opportunity for librarians to provide a positive customer service experience.

Duncan Smith, the founder of the readers’ advisory tool NoveList, reflects on how helping library patrons select books, a core library function, can be a gateway to a better customer experience for library patrons and foster a stronger tie between public libraries and their communities.

In a few days, I will be going to the Apple Store at the mall near my house. I’m in the market for a new iPad. If this next visit is anything like my past ones, I will walk into a very crowded store and walk out with a new device and a smile on my face. I’m expecting to have a very favorable experience even though we are in the midst of the holiday shopping season. I’m expecting to encounter staff who will determine what my goal is for this visit, then refer me to someone who can walk me through all of my options and help me determine which iPad is right for me. Once I’ve purchased my iPad, I will work with another staff member who will make sure that I’m up and running or at least know what I need to do to get to that state. I will also be informed about my customer support options as well as opportunities for classes and assistance. I will be reminded that the Genius Bar is there for my use. The result of all this interaction and information is a satisfied customer and a repeat customer.

Customer service is a hot topic in public libraries. In a recent survey of U.S. public libraries, NoveList and ALA’s Learning Roundtable found that customer service training was the number one focus of public library training activities in the past 12 months and is also a top topic for future efforts.

One finding that was personally disappointing to me was that training for readers’ advisory service was pretty far down the priority list. Now I will admit that I’m not particularly objective when it comes to the topic of answering the what’s a good book to read question; but when 64% of your users come to you to borrow a book (according to the Pew Trust), how can you not move doing this work well up near the top of the list? The answer to that question lies in how we define good customer service.

I’ve asked a few public library directors about this, and the answers I’ve gotten run the gamut. Some feel that good customer service is having staff who aren’t rule bound. Some feel it’s about bringing successful retail strategies to the library floor. At another library it is about working to determine how every aspect of library work can add value to that institution’s users — including readers’ advisory.

It was about this time last year that Apple’s Retail Chief, Angela Ahrendts, told Fortune magazine that Apple’s biggest product was not the iPhone, the iPad, or the Apple Watch. It was the store. This executive went on to describe why that was true. She pointed out that the stores were connected to the community, had qualified and knowledgeable staff educating visitors on products and services, offered engagement space for events and had self-serve and self-directed options for those users who wanted to be independent.

The stores are an extension of Steve Jobs’s philosophy of creating well-designed, attractive products that not only address user needs but anticipate future ones. My experiences in these stores have left me feeling heard, competent and empowered. I leave the store with a smile on my face (and feeling a little bit like a genius) not only because of the product under my arm but also because of the knowledge I gained as a result of purchasing it.

When it comes to books, reading and customer service, we need to realize that our value is not only bound up in the delivery of materials. We have the potential to help our readers not only find more of what they like but also to develop a deeper understanding of what they like about it. To help showcase that visiting a library is not just a trip to pick up a book they already know about but is also a visit to a place where they discover authors, titles and interests of which they were not aware. An opportunity to understand the role of reading in their life and an occasion to share their interests, knowledge and experiences with others.

When it comes to books, reading and customer service, we need to realize that our value is not only bound up in the delivery of materials. We have the potential to help our readers not only find more of what they like but also to develop a deeper understanding of what they like about it. To help showcase that visiting a library is not just a trip to pick up a book they already know about but is also a visit to a place where they discover authors, titles and interests of which they were not aware.

I am currently doing a lengthy project with the Hillsboro Public Library in Portland, Oregon. We are exploring how we as a profession and NoveList as a product can provide better service to our reading customers. A few weeks ago, I was on a flight to Portland. The man in the next seat stopped reading on his Kindle during the safety announcement. Once that was over, he looked at me and asked about my iPhone and the Mophie Juice Pack battery case I have on it.  After I told him I liked it a lot, he told me that he used to work for them, and we began to chat.

He asked me what I did, and I told him that I help librarians help readers find their next book. “Well, then maybe you can help me find some new authors.”  I asked him to tell me about a book he read and enjoyed.  He immediately started listing authors: Baldacci, Connelly, John Hart, Lee Child, Dan Brown.  I asked him to tell me about one of his favorite books, and he told me about John Hart’s Down River. It is a story about someone who is accused of murder and is found innocent, but no one really believes that he is — not even his own father. My seatmate went on tell me that he was a father with two sons and reading that book had made him think a lot about the impact that he was having and could have on their lives. I suggested a few authors and titles, explaining how they connected with his favorites.  He recorded each suggestion in his phone.  We spent the next 20 minutes talking about books before he went back to reading and I went back to working.

As we were coming in for a landing, I asked him if he used his local public library.  He said that his wife lived at the library but that he didn’t use it. He traveled too much. When I asked him if he had found our conversation helpful, he said that he always valued individuals with expert knowledge. He went on to say that he didn’t have many people to talk with about books in his line of work. 

He walked away with a list of new authors to try and an appreciation of some of the books he has read and what they mean to him.  I’m also hoping he walked away realizing that public libraries have the Genius Bar for readers.

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Duncan Smith
Founder & General Manager, NoveList

Duncan Smith is the Founder and General Manager of EBSCO’s NoveList Division. Since creating the NoveList readers’ advisory service, Duncan has worked to help librarians transform the lives of the readers in their communities — connecting readers with the books that will make a difference in their lives.

Duncan has a Master of Library Science degree from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science.

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