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Lessons in Focus: What Public Libraries Can Learn from Barnes & Noble’s Challenges

by on December 7, 2023

As Amazon rose to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many shoppers and economists predicted the end of brick-and-mortar bookstores. Some chains, like Borders, did succumb to the competition, but after many years of the market evolving, Barnes and Noble has gotten through the transition and currently maintains a solid market share. The turnaround came in 2018, when the company’s board fired its CEO, sold the bookstore chain and hired a new CEO, James Daunt, a former hedge fund manager and bookstore owner. Simply put, Daunt pivoted the focus back to books, removed the extraneous items that were a distraction, and put the power to make decisions about the displays and book collection back into the hands of the local bookstore staff.

Libraries can learn a lot from his successful approach.

People Still Want Paper Books

Books remain the main draw for bookstores and libraries. Amazon maintains a 50% market share of the physical book sales in the United States. The rest are sold in bookstores of various types and sizes. Although libraries certainly circulate a lot of digital materials, customers still want to come in and touch the books. The smell of a room full of books is distinct, and often a reason customers cite for loving the library. Browsing titles online cannot provide the same visceral experience as touching physical books and leafing through the pages. One feature that shopping on Amazon cannot replicate is the experience of browsing and serendipitous finds. The time that creative librarians put into developing and maintaining appealing displays is rewarded by helping customers spot just the right book that they didn’t know they were looking for.

Library Staff Members Know What Patrons Want

When Barnes and Noble tried a “one size fits all” approach nationwide with fees paid to feature books that the publishers wanted to promote, it was a failure. Libraries are most successful when they let the staff respond to community interests. Front line staff members know their customers and their community. They know what people are asking for and how to meet those needs. Libraries sometimes accomplish this through floating collections, where items stay in the branch where they are returned. It is also important to target the buying of materials based on circulation statistics and the number of customer holds –both good ways to gauge demand. Barnes and Noble learned that encouraging bookstore staff in each location to promote what their customers wanted increased sales. Libraries can apply that lesson for books and for programming. Communities respond when they feel that the library is listening and providing what they want.

“Give Em What They Want”

Charlie Robinson, long time director of Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) is well known in library circles for pioneering the concept of “give ‘em what they want.” When Robinson took over as library director of BCPL in 1963, the system was following the traditional philosophy of housing classics and buying what the librarians thought people should be reading instead of what they wanted to be reading. While his philosophy was controversial, it helped BCPL grow into a leading public library system with circulation rivaling Queens Public Library by the early 1990s.

Focus on Priorities

Mission creep happened in Barnes and Noble, and it certainly happens in libraries as well. Some of it is positive – notepads and Nook tables and eReaders in Barnes & Noble make sense. But the space that was used for elaborate toy sections and household items was converted back to space for books and educational materials. Libraries have expanded to include public health initiatives to address community needs but they also have to make careful decisions so that staff and budgetary capacity are respected, and the library is able to focus on established priorities. The lessons learned by B & N’s challenges resonate with public libraries as well and have the potential to support the growth of both in the future.