Come Shop at the Library!

Thanks to the advent of patron-driven-acquisitions, you can now shop for books on your library’s budget! That’s right, you can browse your library catalog, come upon a book that hasn’t been purchased — like the one below — and with a click of a button essentially place the book into the shopping cart and get your library to buy it. Cool, huh?

For a while now, library patrons have been able to fill out forms — like this one — to ask their library to consider buying a book. However, the process is basically a suggestion for  purchase. The library makes no commitment to buy the suggested book and even when it does make the purchase, the fact that it doesn’t do so automatically stretches out the time from when a patron fills out the form and when he actually has the book in hand. The uncertainty, the wait, and the barrier erected by having to fill out a blank form mean that few patrons make purchase suggestions to their libraries.

This changed when the combination of Internet-enabled communications, automated software, print-on-demand, and stretched budgets led libraries to adopt a “just-in-time” attitude in responding to patron’s demands in place of a “just-in-case” acquisition policy. Libraries have become more open to having their patrons regularly picking out books that they want to read and the library speedily responding to such demand by buying the books. Essentially, one can shop for books at the library, with the caveat that the book is the library’s property, not one’s own. Think of it as being a personal shopper, but the person whose taste is being satisfied is your own. You just can’t keep the shopped-for goods too long.

At my library, things work like this: certain titles are placed on a “buy as soon as a patron clicks on this button” plan. These titles are searchable through the library’s catalog, just like with materials the library already owns. Once a patron comes to such a record, he can simply log onto his account and signal for the library to buy the book. The process is automated; the uncertainty is completely removed, and the patron should get the book in as little time as it takes the library to process a new title.

I very much like this feature that libraries now offer. Of course, there is a set of parameters that individual libraries must still work out and so the process can work better or worse depending on the execution. For instance, libraries still have to decide beforehand what are the potential materials that a patron can acquire. A good list includes titles that patrons have a good chance of wanting to read (but are not certain to want to read; otherwise, the library should just buy the title without waiting for a patron’s response since it’s sure to come); a bad list includes too few titles or titles for which there is no interest.

There are a couple of good practices that I think any library that does patron-driven-acquisitions should follow. The first is to make the records available for patrons’ consideration in advance of the publication of the actual materials. This is because the timing of book promotion is such that patrons can find out about a title in advance of its release date. Ideally, the library wants to satisfy the patron’s demand as soon as his interest in the book is piqued, so it wants to let him signal that he likes to read the book as soon as possible. Making the catalog record available early accomplishes this goal. It also cuts down on the time that the patron has to wait for a book.

Second, once a title is “shopped” for by a patron, the library should make processing that particular title a priority. Unlike most books that a library buys which may sit for the shelves for months before its first user comes along (if not longer), these specific patron-driven titles have a patron just itching to use them. Thus, they should be moved to the beginning of the queue for processing — cataloging, stamping, shelving, etc. This is the equivalent of service personnel helping somebody who’s at the front desk instead of working on less time-sensitive materials like folding napkins.

Although I realize that these things are easier said/proposed than done, I believe this is an area of library operations that, if done well, delivers exceptionally high value to the end user while simultaneously has the potential of saving the library money (since it will spend less money now on buying materials for which there is no demand). Shopping at one’s local library should be a gratifying experience for the patron and a bargain for the library footing the bill.

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