Fear of Success
by Barbara Quint
Long, long ago in ages past when I worked in a traditional library environment, an unanticipated budget crisis occurred. It stemmed from the library doing its job too well. In an effort to apprise all interested clients of our wonderful growing collection, we published a weekly library accessions list chronicling all the new items we had acquired, arranged by broad subject categories and with an order form attached at the end. Actually, the order form was more decorative than functional. As a corporate library, we really didn’t order much of anything but reference books on our own kick. Any new book or report we got came as the result of an order from a library patron. So when the book or report arrived, it already had a routing that forwarded it to the requestor. And since the library had no scheduled return policy for circulated items, the requestor could keep it until they ran out of shelf space, quit the company, or died — whichever came first.
Occasionally orders for popular books would arrive in the acquisitions section. Immediately eyebrows would arch. Checks of pecking orders would ensue (“alpha dog,” aka department head or program manager = OK; “omega dog,” hmm). Discreet inquiries might follow. But, once we had the official authorization initials signed off, we would order the book despite its popularity. The naive or eternally hopeful among our library patrons who saw a popular book announced in the accessions list would fill out the order form and mail it down to the circulation desk. On slow days, the circulation staff would pile up a bunch of these forms and add the names to the circulation records as reminders. Oh, did I mention that this was all done by hand? That’s how many ages past this was.
Anyway, one day the library director was reviewing the previous month’s acquisitions budget and found to her horror that it had jumped up noticeably for no obvious reason. She and the library acquisitions manager set out to find the villain. It turned out that the director herself was the evildoer. A couple of months before she had instituted a new policy to speed up the acquisitions process after some project managers had complained that it took too long to get multiple copies of reports to key project personnel. To answer the problem, the director’s new policy instructed the circulation department to inform acquisitions whenever they observed more than two names waiting for an item. Acquisitions was then instructed to order more copies without waiting for requestor order forms.
The policy worked great for the items we usually ordered — niche-bound, targeted items only the author’s mother and researchers working in the same niche could love. Unfortunately, no one told circulation how to distinguish the usual, minimal demand items from TheNew York Times best sellers (nonfiction, of course) with foot-long “Wish Lists” of patrons who merely hoped to read a book some day. And overnight, our acquisitions section turned into a veritable Santa Claus, dispersing best sellers throughout the company. (“Here it is! Take it home, if you’re too busy to read it now, maybe your friends and family would enjoy it.”) Suffice it to say, that policy was rescinded toot sweet!
This was my first personal experience with the terror that haunts the careers of so many librarians, the notion that some promotional effort, some marketing strategy designed to prove the library’s worth will actually succeed and end up putting unendurable pressure on finite library resources. And should this painful success occur, inevitably librarians will end up having to disappoint the client expectations they have so foolishly raised and only reinforce the negative stereotype of their role as a patron-shushing, naysaying Marian the Librarian. For unlike commercial services that measure success in sales, where the greater the demand, the greater the revenue to meet that demand, library resources — purchased collections, annual budgets, limited staff hours, etc. — have an ingrained finitude that makes increased demand a danger.
But here in the 21st century, the Third Millennium, the Internet Age, perhaps that situation has changed. Will wonders never cease? Perhaps we should all examine our professional operations and those of our institutions with an eye to finding the infinite, the unbounded, or at least the expandable opportunities. For example, most anything digital can handle inflated demand without putting too much pressure on finite resources. Of course, the open Web and the Web search engines that handle them offer 24/7/365 access for merely the low-fixed cost of a computer. At this point, access to the Internet and its Web has become almost ubiquitous as even wireless devices become compatible. Licensed electronic libraries may represent a solid chunk of a library’s subscription budget, but vigorous negotiation should be able to block any foolish vendors attempting to overcharge for increased usage. The fear factor from Google Scholar alone, not to mention the open access movement, should be enough to strike fear in the heart of any overly aggressive vendor rep.
Speaking of negotiation, what about pressing OPAC vendors to integrate recommendation engines with circulation records to produce a service that will promote items still on the shelf to people who may be looking for something checked out? The library catalog may identify nonfiction books by topic. It may take integration of services such as EBSCO’s Novelist with all its content covering fiction to help patrons find alternative titles. But both services need quick, clean identification of what is available from what is not. And if a patron looks for a specific known item that is not available, the OPAC should immediately suggest alternatives. Just like Amazon. In fact — just like Amazon — how about encouraging active library users to build lists of favorites that others can tap? One might even tie that sort of activity to donation pleas. Perhaps one could tie in a “library wish list” — just like Amazon.
Then there’s the profit factor to consider. Why shouldn’t library Web sites accept ads? Apply Google’s AdSense or other advertising tools. Look for sponsorship by local businesses. Library consortia might even arrange larger advertising programs with major sponsors. Some librarians feel reluctant to charge their clients for services on a pay-as-you-go basis, but charging third parties (“OPM” = Other People’s Money) couldn’t hurt. Any approach that means more and better service at no significant cost increase is a good idea, especially if it might even offer the prospect of providing improved service AND making a profit while doing it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Let us “Do Good and Do Well.”
Barbara Quint's e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.