Some caveats to “It’s not just the OPACS that suck” by Meredith

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.

10 thoughts on “Some caveats to “It’s not just the OPACS that suck” by Meredith

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that shopping in a “big box book store” is analogous to using a library but only to a point. One further nuance to add to the discussion is that not all bookstores are “big box” book stores. I worked for many years in a small, independent book store, and it was much more analogous to a small public library than the local big box store was. (And I think the analogies work differently when comparing bookstores to public and academic libraries.)

    When I worked in this small bookstore, we had our regulars and I would set aside books as we received them knowing that one or another of my regulars would want to see them, and we spent a lot of energy tailoring the inventory for our community. In fact, I left the store when a manager came who had worked in a big box and who wanted to make this store like his old stores. He was later fired because sales dropped so dramatically…

    But at the same time, you’re very right: a collection is not the same as an inventory. Luckily, my favorite part of learning by analogy is that they help you figure out what’s the same, what’s different, and what you can reinvent to make work for you. They don’t work nearly as well if you just take them, swallow them, and apply them without testing them.

  2. Very true, Iris. That is why I early on said “big chain stores.”

    I was thinking about how I do navigate far better in smaller, independent bookstores, new or used, which have their differences, too. I can generally navigate quite well in a used bookstore, even one of decent size.

    I guess one way to put it is that I do not like to browse when I want to find. To me they are different objectives. I may be browsing to find (via serendipity or directed “luck”) but I may just be browsing. When I know what I want (know item search) then I want to find via find, and not via browse. For me, large bookstore “book classification” and arrangement does not work for me when I have find qua find as an objective.

    We do quite a lot of analogical thinking, so much so that teasing apart our analogies can be a very difficult thing. Unfortunately, much of our stereotyping, biasing, classifications, and other discriminators are based almost wholly on (usually unchallenged) analogies.

    You seem to have a good attitude towards learning via analogy. I wish more of us did.

  3. Mark, I think that the issue you raise is an important one. You point out that browsing for something you might be looking for and finding something specific that you want are two very different behaviors – that require very different strategies. Libraries are definitely not bookstores – and shouldn’t try to be bookstores. Yet people go to bookstores and libraries expecting (at different times perhaps) to be able to both browse and find. Which one is more important? Which one should we cater to? Can we cater to both? How do we balance the two behaviors in order to provide the best service possible to our constituents? Do people have better overall impressions of bookstores than they do of libraries? If so, I think we can learn something from places in which people enjoy spending time. But then again, I’m willing to bet that people’s experiences with bookstores and libraries vary widely.

    I also tend to get very irritated with finding specific books in bookstores . I agree that their subject groupings often leave quite a bit to be desired – and leave me frustrated. Putting books in the What’s New section, but not in their proper subject area is something that drives me insane. I absolutely hate the prospect of asking for assistance. If I can’t find something specific, I am way more apt to buy it online (and yes, it is often cheaper that way).

    I agree that this is worth a conversation.

  4. Nice questions that you raise, Jennifer. We do need to differentiate between browsing and finding, and the variations within each, and we also need to support (cater to) them.

    I also believe there’s a third (or 5th, counting classically) objective, that of navigation–as per Svenonius–that needs to be supported. And if anyone objects to me slipping “objectives of the catalog” in here, then, fine. Forget the catalog reference.

    I am speaking of ways of navigating the world purposefully, and there are at least three: browsing, finding, and navigating. These apply to the “world of information” and to the wider world.

    Jennifer asks great beginning questions: “Which one is more important? Which one should we cater to? Can we cater to both? How do we balance the two behaviors in order to provide the best service possible to our constituents?” I would only widen the scope of what we are looking at by a bit first.

    And I fully agree with Jennifer that we can learn a lot “from places in which people enjoy spending time,” which is one reason I support Meredith’s use of the analogy.

    I know I certainly naturally feel more or less welcome in any specific bookstore or library. Often the why or why not is never even considered; I either feel comfortable or not, and I go back or don’t. I am glad we have people who want to understand these behaviors (and, hopefully the reasons behind them).

    And wide variation was another of the points I was trying to make, whether or not I suspect myself of being a valid data point or not. Another way to say this maybe, is beware the research of people trying to sell you stuff. To sell you must pick a market; is their market our market?

    Thanks for the great comments, Jennifer!

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  6. Bookstores are not organized for finding specific books. When I was young, I worked in a big bookstore, and I figured out one day (when I was getting frustrated trying to put new books on the shelves) that the plan in the big bookstore is not to help you find the book you’re looking for, but to help you find 5 other books that you really want.

  7. Hi Thomas and thanks for the comment.

    I am unsure whether you meant to disagree with or support my point, but I’m going to take it as an excellent added reason to support my concern over the bookstore-library analogy. In fact, it was something that I was alluding to.

    Bookstores are in business to sell us stuff. Do they really care what specific stuff it is? Nope. Not at all. As long as we buy stuff from them they are happy. Or as you said, as long as we buy 5 “stuffs” from them they are happy.

    N.B. I am using the highly technical term “stuff” and its plural, “stuffs,” to represent the kinds of content objects and assorted paraphernalia that bookstores sell.

  8. I could not agree more – I generally cannot find what I need in my local bookstores, because so many items are displayed ‘attractively’ rather than in some sort of organization that means anything to me. Browsing is fun and can be theraputic, but sometimes you just need what you need and let’s get out of here.

    But the really bad news for me is that my local library thinks this a a good thing, and has started to display books ‘face out’ on top of shelves, on random tables, on moveable carts, anywhere they can get the cover art at eye level. Which means that even if the books ARE in the library building, there is a good chance that they are not on the shelf where they are supposed to be. I wind up hunting down a librarian who will say something like, “now I know I saw that one, where is it?” and begin hunting around the stacks looking, literally, high and low for the requested title.

    Maybe a good application for RFID, but not particularly helpful for patrons who actually know what they are looking for.

  9. Hi annette. I do agree that browsing can be therapeutic and/or fun, but as you say we often want a known item.

    Other than displays involving a small number of books for a special event or holiday, having books all over as if the library was a bookstore sounds downright ludicrous. Having a librarian (routinely) say, “now I know I saw that one, where is it?” sounds like a complete abdication of some of our professional responsibilities has taken place in your library.

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