I want to add a few comments and, perhaps, caveats to Meredith’s use of the bookstore as an analogy in her post, “It’s not just the OPACs that suck.” I want to emphasize that I generally agree with Meredith here. I do not think she crossed any lines that shouldn’t be crossed. But we see this analogy, and others, frequently in our field, and I’d like to add some cautions against them and perhaps start a conversation.
A few days ago I was in Borders trying to spend money when I remembered a book I need for 590RO this Spring. I headed to the computer section and browsed around. No luck. I found one of those kiosks and looked it up. Yep, it was in Computers, in fact, Computers–History and blah, blah and it was in stock. So I head back to Computers and look all over for –History and blah, blah; finally finding the section. [The arrangement of the subdivisions of Computers makes absolutely no apparent sense, to me, nor most of the rest of the store(s).] The book is not there.
So what book was I looking for? Ambient Findability. These sorts of little ironies amuse me to absolutely no end.
As a counter possibility to Meredith’s use of bookstores as example, [fn1] …
I find browsing in a library, at least as good, and probably better than browsing in a bookstore. I can suss out a fair amount of Dewey or LC, but not, it seems, Bookstore. I rarely am able to find anything I am looking for in a bookstore (talking big chain stores here). Their categories are practically meaningless to me; ever had the misfortune of looking for philosophy in a modern, mega-bookstore? Better be prepared to wade through New Age and “Eastern” philosophy crap. [For any Islamists, or otherwise out there, I do not mean to in any way to disparage non-Western philosophy, only the big bookstore's categorizations of these topics. Kind of like placing rap music in R&B.]
I almost always just browse in a bookstore. If I must find something specific then I’ll try looking in the places I think it belongs, then I’ll find one of those kiosks to look it up and verify if it is in stock (because just like if it is checked out at the library, if not in stock it can’t be found via browsing) and in which section. After that, if I’m still having troubles (and still want the book) I’ll ask a salesperson. I forewent the salesperson in looking for Ambient Findability because the price looked to be quite a bit higher than Amazon (and I was right).
So, while we have a lot to learn from bookstores and their arrangements of items and space, they are in a completely different business than us. The bookstore is one example that is often used in analogies to libraries, and it does have its place as such. But, often completely glossed over is the vast differences between libraries and bookstores, especially in the context of the 21st century consumer.
Bookstores are in the business of selling products, and some services, but those services are all primarily geared towards selling more products. Libraries sell nothing. I know, I know. Many of you, especially the more market-based among you, will argue that libraries are selling something(s). To the extent that image and tax-supported services are selling, then fine. But there are vast, and often quite subtle, differences between what and how libraries and bookstores fulfill their respective roles in society. Honestly, there is very little overlap.
And for anyone who wants to argue that we should go with “Bookstore Classification” for arranging our materials, please, please, please go have a look at the BISAC Subject Headings. [I am not implying that Meredith said this. She didn't.]
Sure. They are fairly intuitive. And they also have absolutely no depth. Here, for instance, is the Philosophy “schedule.” Now, I would love to see this much differentiation in philosophy at a bookstore. But is it going to be good enough for a library with anything over, say, 500 books on philosophy? Not at all, especially if most are from only one or two sub-categories.
I am not saying we shouldn’t use the ONIX metadata with either the BIC or BISAC subject headings, but we certainly cannot (currently) rely on it to do much for us. See the final report from the CC:DA Task Force on ONIX International.
As for interior space in bookstores: “Those bookstores have done serious research on user behavior, browsing behavior, etc. and have designed their spaces accordingly” (Meredith). Maybe they have paid a fortune for these things, but one point from above and a caveat from below.
The layout of bookstores may comport to some idea of consumer behavior and browsing in that situation. But I would maintain that those behaviors are different in bookstores and libraries. And yes, empirical data could prove me right or wrong. They may only be slightly different or the behaviors themselves may not be different, but the underlying motivations and decision-making are. I would also argue that it is a difference that in the end makes a difference. Or at least, should.
If the behavior and decision-making by the user in a public library and the behavior and decision-making of (the same) consumer in a bookstore are exactly the same, please let me know folks so I can leave our discipline now. If our society is to the point where these two vastly different processes are exactly the same transactions in the mind of most of the public, then there is little good I can do for anyone in this profession. Or, it becomes even more elite than it ever has been. And while I can easily drift into a form of elitism, my more democratic tendencies rail against it.
My shopping experiences seem to often be vastly different than those of many folks who turn to other product/service suppliers as shining examples of how to do things better in our libraries. While there often are analogies to be made, I think they need to be far better qualified and some actual analysis provided before they are used to support what we in libraries should do, except as a point of departure and something to consider. But as soon as we seriously start considering them as examples for emulation then we need some serious, and subtle, questions answered. This then is my caveat, how well do I provide any sort of counterexample to these ways of thinking? Am I that much of an outlier in my society? How many other people experience these things in the same way as I do? Or in some way different than the expensive studies show and different from me? How big are the differences? What about the differences between users and non-users? Ad infinitum.
I do like bookstores. Mostly because I like books. But, for me, shopping in a brick-and-mortar big box bookstore is not a pleasant shopping experience. Those tables of new paperbacks, etc. are generally just in my way. There is, to me, very little order except of the most general sort. Maybe I’m lucky that I am rarely looking for something that would be on one of those tables; I’d never find it. Now I do, in fact, browse these tables sometimes. But at best it is a sort of scanning process that picks out an interesting looking cover or perhaps title, if I am even processing words.
On another note, and again I do not mean to argue with Meredith but only add some nuance to the discussion, not all bookstore employees are kind, have smiles on their face, are easy to locate, etc. There are a lot of people in customer-service oriented jobs who have no business being in them. But, again, Meredith’s point about libraries being personally welcoming is well taken. I have worked with some of those folks, and they can have a massive impact on our users. Many are actually great people, but do not radiate warmth and, in fact, radiate the opposite. Some just are not nice people. They do need to be dealt with in some manner. But these people are pretty much everywhere in society, and my consumer activities are filled with them.
So, while I do think Meredith’s use of the bookstore analogy is warranted in her use, I also caution that it is limited in its application and generalizability. I also want to caution that this analogy, which is so easy to fall into, is a very seductive one, but one that is dangerous and far more subtle that most seem to appreciate.
And when Ambient Findability is ambiently unfindable, well, I find that darkly humorous to no end.
[fn1] Meredith made a proper use of her analogy, one which I support. I have no argument or disagreement with her use. I merely want to point out the model being used as a comparison is not flawless either. At least, not for everyone. Of which I have no doubt that Meredith would fully agree. Also. To hold myself up as some sort of counterexample is silly in my opinion. I consider myself to be an outlier, in so many ways, but generally not a counterexample. To hold me up as an example of a norm of human behavior is quite possibly a waste of time and effort. But then none of us want to be a complete outsider all of the time, either.