A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Being a Library Detective

by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh on December 17, 2015

The basis of all great detectives and scientists is observation. There is something to be said for using statistics and numbers to determine how the library is being used. It is concrete information. However, observing patron behavior either surreptitiously or based on the evidence left behind in the library tells a complementary story to that provided by statistics.

Retail marketing is often uses this type of information to make many decisions on how or where to place products. It also focuses on where complementary products or impulse purchase products should be placed. It questions whether there is a way to drive customers to high demand products by way of other things. Retail marketing explains why milk and bread tend to be in the back corners of the grocery store. Using some of these same general principles, what can your patrons tell you about your library through their behavior?

What do your dirtiest carpet and rattiest furniture tell you? If you’re in a cold weather climate, where are there white salty circles or carpet that never dries out from snow? In general, your carpet shows wear patterns even if you don’t live in an area with a lot of snow. It shows where patrons stop and how they travel within your building. Those are the places where the dirt never quite comes out no matter how many times it gets cleaned. Should you make sure there are more displays in this area or information about upcoming activities? Is this the place to put the OPAC, if people are already stopping nearby? The same is true of your furniture. Are there permanent indentations in some of the chairs from constant sitting or scratches on tables from where watches and other jewelry bump and scrape? If you know what chair everyone sits in, should you put materials or displays near it? If everyone stops where the new movies are located, do you need even more copies than you’re already buying?

Are there patches of grass that never grow or footprints in one of the flowerbeds? Your patrons are using the outside of your building as well. If everyone stands in the same spot to wait for the building to open, do you want to pave that place instead of trying to grow grass there? Should you purchase a bench? Should you place advertisements for library services there? Do you want to put an “ash can” in a different place because there are always cigarette butts getting caught in the lawnmower? Probably you don’t want to put outdoor signage, no matter how helpful, in the flowerbed that everyone seems to step through as they take a shortcut to the library, but putting pavers there may make life better for everyone involved.

Why do they keep moving the furniture? If you find at the end of most days that there is always a conglomeration of chairs in an area, it’s a good sign that you need to consider reorganizing your furniture or space a different way. Your patrons are congregating in a specific area for a reason. Groups are meeting somewhere. Should you find out why? Is there no other place to gather? Is the material there supporting the purpose of the gathering? Can the library support this group?

Why is this area always a mess? A surefire sign that people are using your materials is that they are in disarray. Do you let things get a little messy just to see what people are using? If things are still in order, then people aren’t using them. Sometimes order hides valuable information you can use. Magazines are a great example. What magazines are all crinkly with issues out of order? Those are the ones people are reading. Where do people leave their piles of materials they have looked at but are not taking home? Are you consistently finding materials from one section of the library being left in a different part of the building? It could be that the messy place has better lighting, more comfortable seating, or a better sightline to watch small children. Is there an array of cell phones strewn somewhere in your building? Does that tell you there needs to be more accessible outlets for people to use? It is frustrating to find your “house” a mess, but it is telling you what your patrons are using.

Most librarians love cleanliness, tidiness, and order. Look at what the absence of these things can tell you. How do you want to integrate what you know about how your patrons use your library into what you are doing at the library?

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