Notes from Rachel Van Riel Workshop at Regina Public Library

RPL hosted a workshop with well-known library consultant, Rachel Van Riel of OpeningTheBook.com today, the only Saskatchewan stop on a cross-Canada tour that will also take her to Alberta and Ontario.  The information presented was excellent and I’d highly recommend her to anyone looking for ideas on how to improve their libraries.

As always, a patented list of my random thoughts, jots and impressions…

– the Just Returned cart is one of the only (maybe *the* only) way that patrons have to communicate with each other.  Knowing that someone else has taken out a book or DVD is like a vote of confidence.

– you can do more with this idea – why not have patrons return books to bins/carts named “Liked It” or “Didn’t Like It”

– her company designed a web site and campaign called “Take a Break” where people could specify what they needed a break from – kids, e-mail, life in general – and get recommendations.  It was particularly interesting to hear that they included an option for a “Surprise Break” where patrons would have a random book put on hold with them which they’re never told the title of until they pick it up from the hold shelf.

– much frivolity was had when she asked us to do a partner exercise with a series of questions about where we read, (mostly on the bus to and from work, at lunch time and also before bed), how much we read at one time (usually 2-3 books on the go at any one time), what time of year we read more (year round I think I’m pretty consistent), if we ever skipped pages (no but I’ve only recent begun to allow myself to not finish books that are boring me or that lose my interest), the first book we remember having read to us as a kid (maybe Aesop’s Fables at my grandma’s house?), who we talk to about books (Shea, co-workers, friends, Internet book sites like Good Reads, Amazon, etc) and which books we snuck peeks of to get to the naughty bits when we were young (I don’t remember the name of it but it was a mass market paperback – maybe by Harold Rollins or Judy Collins or somebody like that – about how the Russians manage to install one of their agents as the US President, with the Second President’s wife using all of her charms to get him into that office.  Er, thanks mom for reading such smut! ;-))

– another idea for helping readers communicate is to put a paper in each book asking people to write “mini-reviews” (not sure how workable this would be but would be an interesting experiment)

– also likes the idea of Opinion Boards the entrance to libraries where patrons can communicate (if memory serves, the small town of Oxbow Saskatchewan used this technique.)

– on those last two points – first, I think they’d probably work better in a smaller town and second, in a weird way, they seem to be ways to re-create some of what users can do in various online forums to the real world

– a good program idea – “What books should you buy for Christmas gifts this year?”  (This would be an excellent partnership between the library and the Sask Book Awards who’s event is held at the end of November, in large part to capitalize on the Christmas buying season.  Many other provinces hold their awards in spring to keep to a Jan-Dec entry cycle but that’s too bad because SBA helps sell SO many books with the timing of its awards – even if the entry deadlines are somewhat weird.)

– instead of not being able to afford big name authors or having smaller local authors who don’t draw crowds, you could have a “Perfect Pairings” event where you have local celebs (or patrons or staff or whoever) read excerpts from books from certain regions and pair this with wine tastings from those same locales.

– she points out how the library can be “all things to all people” but you can get into trouble if you don’t differentiate your audience.  She doesn’t advocate only letting certain people in the library at certain times but suggested thinking of swimming pools which usually have certain times of the day dedicated to certain groups – fit swim, family swim, public swim, etc. – and that libraries could also focus certain times on certain groups (we probably do this already to some degree – storytime is in the morning, adult programs happen in the evenings)

– lots of people who are pushing libraries to change say we need to start following retail models.  I was happy to hear her say that we shouldn’t do this – at least blindly – with lots of examples of how libraries and bookstores differ interspersed throughout the day.  One thing she said we should do like retail is offer fully stocked shelves – 90%+ full is ideal.  I’ll have to think more based on what she said but this is one I tend to disagree with – I’m a fan of shelves that are 60-75% full so that you have room for staff to shift books more easily, have display options at the end of each shelf and room to add books as well.  I also like the ideas of Barry Schwartz in _The Paradox of Choice_ and particularly the idea that having too much choice actually induces a kind of paralysis in people.  (I saw this first hand when one of my small libraries in Southeast took a bunch of older, worn or simply less popular books off their shelves.  They didn’t have permission to weed so instead, they put them on shelves in the back room – ready to still fill holds if needed.  They took out maybe 20% of their books and their circulation went up more than 20%!)  I know that’s only one example but it’s a pretty powerful one for me.

– finally, one other note I made is she said libraries spend the majority of their time selecting, acquiring and cataloging books (say 80%) and only 20% doing things to make the books move once they’re on the shelf – merchandising, displaying, featuring, etc.  She believes these percentages should be switched.

Here’s more from Barry Schwartz on the Paradox of Choice:

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