Thursday, April 7, 2011

Is you library a department store or boutique?

In D. E. Stevenson's Sarah Morris Remembers, the heroine goes from a curate's daughter turning hay in the fields to a silk-clad sophisticate, and it's all down to the opportunities she encounters in a department store. While by night, Sarah endures the blitz, with bombed-out families sharing her shelter, by day, commerce goes on with no hint of austerity:
"It was a 'luxury store,' warm and comfortable; even in wartime, Barrington's had a wonderful display of goods. On the ground floor, there were wide, carpeted corridors with stalls on each side on which were displayed perfumery and soap, ribbons and laces..."
I happen to love "shopping" books, and I do think there is something here for libraries to take away. A library is not a bookstore, but could be more like a department store. Culture shouldn't be about base consumption. Contrast the delight Sarah feels in her store (and those in Betty Cavana's Connie Blair series, whose stilted prose did not obscure the prospect of retail nirvana) with the retail models which began to emerge over the past decades. We have super-stark, J. Crew and Gap-y minimalism on one hand and hand-curated collections on the other. Consider Scruples, Judith Krantz's torrid book about high-end boutiques. It wasn't enough to be a successful merchant, Billy Ikehorn had to be an arbiter of style.

I prefer the model of expansive department store to either the boutique or bares-bones options. Anyone who has played around with the library digital music solution freegal must bemoan its lack of discovery features. It is more like locating a known item through a torrent site than the exploratory iTunes experience.
I think, as with Barrington's in Stevenson's novel, we must inject whimsy and delight into library-going. But it might be hard to figure out how to do this when even the remaining American department stores like Macy's and Nordstrom seem to display so many similar items, promoting quantity instead of privileging real variety and service. I found it difficult to find a person to ring up my Anna Sui tights at the Nordstrom on Michigan Avenue in October.

While I do love the notion of personalized services like print-on-demand, e-reader assistance, and patron-driven acquisitions, I worry that when attempting to be responsive to users, we will end up reflecting the requests of the few who are relatively enfranchised. The boutique model does not welcome everyone and will be off-putting to many. If they won't know our code, we need to give them a range of discovery options and recommender systems, ones that are easy, intuitive, and as seductive as iTunes and Amazon. And I love the idea of of creating a dedicated girl's space, like those women's lounges in the better department stores....

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