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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > May/June 2007

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MLS - Marketing Library Services
Vol. 21 No. 3 — May/June 2007

How to Evaluate Your Library’s Physical Environment
By Julia Cooper

Spring is the time for renewal and for making fresh starts. I have developed a system to help you take a fresh look at your library, just in time to gear up for the summer programming season. I call it a Sensory Perception Audit or SPA. One way to market your library is through creating a physical environment that both fosters and reflects the needs and wants of people in your community. By being aware of the environment, the impression it makes, and the simple changes you can make, you can significantly improve both your customers’ and your staff members’ experiences in the library.

In providing more than 10 years of consulting services to both public libraries and bookstores, I have come across some common problems that can easily be solved by conducting a SPA. I begin by asking administrators and managers some general strategic marketing questions. Then I think in terms of the customer or target market. To do this kind of audit yourself, you can carry this article along to help you evaluate your space or you may also want to hire a consultant, designer, or other observer to accompany you on a library tour. This is an opportunity to rediscover what your facility is communicating and to enhance the environment.

Look at the Big Picture First

In order to keep pace and to plan for the future, it is critical to first take stock of what is happening now. Before taking the SPA tour, ask yourself these four questions:

1. Who is the target market? Is it the suburban homemaker, 25- to 35-year-olds, young families with children, residents of a particular neighborhood? Identify and label the primary and secondary markets. Also consider who will be your target markets in 10 years, 20 years, even 30 years from now to guide your decisions.

2. What is the lifestyle of the target market? Does your library support your targets’ lifestyles and activities through its environment? Are they into convenience and multitasking, or do they have all day to hang around in the library? If there is a large population of young parents, should you add a stroller parking pad? Is everyone a pet owner, but you have no pet-friendly space? Would it make sense to set up a picnic table or other outdoor seating?

3. Can you describe your library’s style in three words or less? You should be able to describe your library and
its intent in a few words. Do you want people to see it as a destination or a citywide drop-off point? Is it a high-tech haven or the entertainment capital of the county? Is it an inviting, comfortable, leisure-time browsing hangout or bustling community center? And no library can be “all things to all people,” so be realistic here! If you are a combination of these, focus on the top one or two and name them—label the library in terms of how people use it and of your vision of what it will be in the future. Are they the same or is there a large gap?

4. What kind of atmosphere does the building and surrounding area convey? Is your library like a museum, a factory, or a diner? Do you have banners, artwork, photos of staff and patrons, or local exhibits that you could add to make an impression as well as to balance space visually? Is there a point of architectural interest, something that designates your building? Look at your library from the outside, both day and night, on foot and from a car passing by. Do people see an implied invitation?

Evaluate Your Space from the Patrons’ Point of View

Now you’re ready to systematically conduct a Sensory Perception Audit. Walk around and evaluate all of these areas, keeping the patrons’ point of view in mind.



Curb Appeal and Traffic Flow

* Parking Lot and Walkways: Is your parking lot easy to enter and exit? Are traffic flow and parking areas clearly marked? Do pedestrians have clear walkways and line of sight to the front entrance? What is the condition of the pavement? Would large signage, painted arrows on pavement, or speed bumps help move traffic more safely and smoothly?

* Book Drop Access: Can people drive up to the book drop without getting out of their cars or do they have to walk to the building? Can they at least get in and out quickly to return items without causing a bottleneck in the parking lot?

* The Grounds: Does your outdoor area lend itself to stages and designated areas for entertainment? Could part of the space be turned into a butterfly garden or a sculpture park for the public to enjoy without going into the building? Are there shaded areas for reading or eating at a picnic table? Is a staff member assigned grounds duty, to pull weeds, fluff mulch, and pick up trash on a regular basis?

Your Entryways

* Signage: Are the doors to the library cluttered with signage or are there just a few important pieces? Are they clustered at your customers’ eye level? Are there too many signs about restrictions?

* Waiting Areas: Are there open seating areas for those waiting on rides or space to just read? Add seating, tables, and plants in groupings out of the line of traffic.

* Information Center: Are announcements, posters, and community information on a designated wall with a clear heading? Is someone keeping this area neat, tidy, and updated?

* Traffic Flow: How is the customer “greeted”? Do you have clear signage and use of nice planters, seating, door mats, etc. that are clean and that don’t interfere with the flow of traffic?



Circulation Department

* Core Area: Is this desk the most clearly marked and easily found by all age levels? Are the checkout stations distinct and uncluttered? Are there too many decorations or visual cues that are distracting? Is there good lighting and bright colors to make the desk areas stand out?

* Keep Operations Hidden: Are the materials to be shelved or on hold organized? Are work areas out of view to customers? Are staffers visible and helpful or do they have their backs turned or their heads down? Are the shelves in this area lower and concealed by counter space, or are all of your materials, papers, etc. visible from a distance?

Audio-Visual Department

* Visibility Is Key: What is visibility like? Your fixtures and shelving should be low in the middle with high shelving around the perimeter. Should there be another service desk to help curtail theft, to assist people on the floor, and to speed up checkout?

* Multimedia: Is the collection being “featured”? Is there a variety of music playing at all times? Do you highlight your music collection by announcing over the speaker system (DJ-style) which artist is playing? Are movie posters, posters of actors, artists, or award winners highlighted with spotlights? Are there strong color combinations on the walls for drama, such as blues, purples, reds, or theatrical curtains?

Public Areas

* Meeting Rooms: Are the surroundings neutral and do they serve as a backdrop to the other meetings and activities that go on here? Is there flexibility in the options for the room setups? Are you using the room to introduce people to your library? Does it have library brochures that promote your other products, services, and upcoming programs?

* Public Restrooms: Is the restroom functioning properly or does it need servicing? Are there odor-controlling devices installed? Are there changing stations in both the men’s and women’s rooms? Are the colors harsh and sterile or are they soothing and relaxing earth tones? Is there room for seating or plants? Is there a place outside to set down materials?



Youth Areas

* Activity-Based Design: Remember, public libraries are known for “something to do with your child on a rainy day” so make the department more activity-oriented. Foster creativity and have color, murals, soft seating, and big bright shelving to promote reading aloud.

* Themes: Is there a consistent theme (or a mascot) for the department, such as animals or insects? Use bright colors—primary colors are simple, yet fun. What are the surroundings like? Are they over cluttered and overwhelming because so much is going on? Are there a few main features of interest, such as a fish tank, mural, carpet patterns, hanging plants, castle doors, a play area?

* Teens’ Designated Space: Ask them to help define it and to volunteer to make it so. Create a teen advisory board and ask its members to help out: What topics are current? What colors and posters and lighting would make this a place to hang out? Here, it is important to get the teens, mainly in grades 6 through 9, to be part of the scene. They want to give input and to make choices, so why not let them take the lead here?

Adult Information Services

* Best-sellers: Highlight them by putting them on slat walls and display units all around the entrance.

* Desk/Greeting: Is the customer service and staff desk facing the entrance or the customer, rather than being on the side?

* Reference Collection: Are any reference librarians easily visible from the entryway to this section of the library? Are there different desk heights to conduct business? Are there convenient places for patrons to use reference materials? Are the books in the background or is the collection overshadowing the service area?

* Computer Center: Something as small as
a keyboard reveals the extent of your organizations’ care and concern. Look at the keyboards you provide: Are letters worn off? Is there sticky, peeling tape, dirty fingerprints, etc.? Would someone want to even touch them?

* Reading Area: Do you make it easy and inviting for people to stay and read? Are there easy chairs, sofas, or other cozy spots by a fireplace or with a rug for ambience? How bright is the lighting? Are there reading lamps, natural light through windows, classic artwork, quilts on wall hangers, and cloth or leather-bound books for display?



Staff Room

* Form vs. Function: Does this area welcome staff or is it too institutional? Are there flowers, plants, artwork? Is it cheerful with warm colors (such as sunny yellow or sunset orange)? Does the room lend itself to multiple functions, such as eating, holding in-house meetings, sitting for reading or private conversations, playing cards at tables?

* Kitchen: Is it simple and fully equipped and functional in order to benefit staff for meals, breaks, and meetings? Is there a system in place to regularly clean out the refrigerator, microwave, or other appliances?

How Did You Score on Your SPA?

The Sensory Perception Audit is designed to provide guidance to identify and adapt to meet patron’s needs. You may choose to start with one area, such as the entryway, to work on for spring, then work on the adult department in summer, and so on. By writing up the results of a guided “walking tour” through one’s own library, managers can use the suggested advice to check progress or to develop a plan and implement environmental changes based on individual situations and resources.

Finally, keep your audience in mind. Humans have a need for belonging, a need for a gathering place, a need to feel part of something. We also feel that our environment is a reflection of ourselves, thus, our surroundings are our identity. This is evident in the number of cafes and bookstores in which people come together to connect across the world.

Now is the ideal time to take the opportunity to keep your library looking fresh. Use as much vigor and awareness here as you do with your collections, services, and staff.


Ten Simple Tips to Spruce Up for Spring

1. Have your windows professionally cleaned inside and out.

2. Add small flower bouquets in vases or aluminum pails (use greens and pastel colors) to each service desk.

3. Play Celtic, harp, jazz, flute, or guitar music softly in the background on your PA system.

4. Change reading lamps to pink light bulbs (which are sometimes offered for breast cancer research donations). Their light is softer and easier on the eyes.

5. To fill in high ceilings and large wall spaces, hang kites, flags, banners, or other lightweight, breezy fabrics.

6. Check the dumpster area outside and clean up any broken glass or debris.

7. Place artificial greenery around tops of bookshelves to fill space and to add texture, color, and novelty.

8. Thoroughly clean all countertops with an ammonia- or vinegar-based cleaner. You will be amazed at the difference!

9. “Wallpaper” behind each service desk area with the same solid-colored wrapping paper. This will create a unified focus on service through the library.

10. Check high-touch areas, such as keyboards, mouse pads, light switch plates, and door edges and handles for wear or fingerprints; clean or replace as needed.

Julia Cooper is a marketing consultant in Columbus, Ohio. She has a B.S. in retailing and consumer behavior from the University of Tennessee, an M.L.S. from Indiana University, and an M.B.A. in marketing from The Ohio State University. She teaches marketing, merchandising, and customer service workshops throughout the state of Ohio and through Kent State University’s School of Library and Information Science. Also, Cooper has more than 10 years of retail merchandising and service management experience and has worked with executives for public libraries, nonprofit organizations, and small business owners on their marketing strategies. Her email address is
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