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« Technicians - the unsung heroes | Main | Lost - Season 57 »

Seth Godin gets it.

Marketing guru Godin on The Future of Libraries (2010)

Joyce Valenza's and Scott McLeod's reactions. Here's mine.

It's a re-run...

"What the Public Library Could Learn From Barnes & Noble," Mankato Free Press, June 3, 1996

My 10 year old son gave me pause the other day. He asked to if I’d take him out after supper to see if the latest book in his favorite Goosebump series was out. Normal kid-type request.

But then he added, “While we’re at Barnes & Noble, I want to ….”

I don’t think it even entered his mind that the first place to check for a book would be his public library. In fact, it didn’t occur to me either until we on our way home full of cookies and cappuccino, and twenty bucks or so lighter in the wallet.

What has happened that this career librarian (and life-long library lover and supporter) would head to a bookstore instead of the public library to satisfy his family’s reading needs?

Maybe a comparison between Barnes & Noble and the local library would be useful?

1. Hours
My son wanted to get his book on a Sunday. B&N is open in Mankato every evening in the week - Sunday’s included - 95 hours a week. The public library is only open until 8PM four nights a week and on Sundays not at all. 38 hours less than B&N. Sort of convenient having a place to get a book beyond the workday.

2. Selection
If I want old stuff (which is sometimes exactly what I want), I’ll hit the public library, no hesitation. But try to find anything new at the library:
    Best sellers - out, and a long waiting list.
    Travel guides - 3 to 4 years old.
    New video tapes, audio-books, computer games - forget about it!
B&N not only has plenty of the newest stuff, they promote it. They revel in it. And when it gets old and stale, like bread, it gets discounted and never comes back to clutter the shelves. At B&N, I don’t have to wade through 8 old copies of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide to get to this year’s edition.

My next experiment is to request a book inter-library loan on the same day that I order an out of stock item from B&N. Who will get the material to me the fastest? Oh, and I have to fill out my own loan form at the library; B&N requests the book for me.

3. Service
I’ve got to admit most of our public librarians know their stuff. And they are friendly, tenacious and willing to help. The fact that only a couple may be on duty during busy times does tend to diminish their effectiveness.

B&N clerks are nice enough, and since they tend to be readers themselves, can sometimes recommend a romance or thriller. They can usually get you to the cookbook or auto repair section, but they have difficulty when you don’t know if the book might just as easily fall under the category of education, current issues, or political science. And they don’t do reference either.

The one terrific thing that the B&N could learn from the library is its catalog. Big bookstores really need public terminals which serve as guides to their stock. I get jealous when the clerk gets to use the computer, and I don’t.

4. Costs
Ah, you’re saying, now the real advantage of the library will shine through. Those books at B&N are at least $20 a piece, even $10 or more for a paperback. Library books are free, or more accurately, paid for indirectly by my city, county, state and federal taxes.

Library books are free when they are available (see above). What the public library really ought to do is charge patrons about $3 a week to read the latest pot boilers, and take that revenue and buy (here’s a concept) multiple copies. Sort of like at the videotape store. After the newness wears off, the novel goes back to the free shelves.

Library books aren’t free unless you return them on time. I hate due dates on books. Once upon a time I had a life which allowed me the leisure to read two or three recreational books a week. I never got a fine. Now I am lucky to get through one “pleasure” novel a month, and I am always getting fines. Still cheaper than shucking out a Hamilton, right? Yes, but along with the fine comes a little humiliation, a feeling that you just aren’t quite the citizen your momma raised you to be. If my novel of the month costs $20, so be it. I’ll be careful not to dogear it so I can give it to my brother-in-law for Christmas.

5. Ambiance and location
Here’s the place that the public library needs to sit up and take notice! Where do you go not just to read, but to sit in fine comfortable, clean chairs? Sip a cup of coffee and eat a cookie while reading? Hear a live string quartet softly play in the background? It ain’t my library! No food, no drinks, no noise, no nothing. Would it kill those librarians if I brought in my own thermos of coffee or can of pop? B&N owns its books. Why does its manager trust me not to slobber or spill there?

Our B&N is close to our Walmart, K-Mart, discount grocery store,and shopping center - places I get near to at least a couple times a week. Our public library is in our rather dead downtown - where I go on purpose once or twice a year. The library requires a special trip. B&N is handy.

6. Programming
Well, the public library still has a story times for children, I believe, but I don’t know exactly when. B&N, the flyer they send out tells me, this month alone has children’s stories, a children’s play, poetry readings, author signings, a singer, a storyteller, a book discussion group, and experts talking on subjects as diverse as women aviators and divorce. The technology side of the store holds computer game days, a Q&A session on Windows 95, and seminars on connecting to the Internet.

One of the primary missions of the public library in this country has been adult education. The public library, like the public schools, has been an educational equalizer between the economic haves and have-nots. B&N seems to taking on an educational mission as well - and the opportunities it provides are relevant, valuable, and (gasp) fun! And it doesn’t do it passively - it reaches out and grabs the public. Take notice, public library - just letting the books sit on the shelves until a patron is motivated to come and learn doesn’t cut it anymore, if it ever really did. You need an active, exciting, educational program, and offer, not just resources, but skills if you want to stay viable in this information-glutted society.

Poor financing is only one reason our public libraries have lost their eminence as the cultural and education hub of the community. Other reasons may include a lack of vision, imagination and willingness to serve the public in critical ways. Maybe the library board doesn’t need to do a nation-wide search for a new administrator. Maybe it only needs to see if it can recruit the manager from Barnes & Noble.

Doug Johnson
209 W 5th St
Mankato MN 56001

To be fair, many public libraries in the past 15 years have re-thought their missions, their services, and their hours. But still when I visit my public library, it seems that the primary patrons are the homeless, the jobless, and the retired. These folks certainly need service, but it seems more social service than library service right now.

I would say that the Internet continues to whittle away at the traditional services of the library. The old economic model that sharing a book is cheaper than buying a book for everyone is breaking down. Cheap computers/e-book readers, iTune priced electronic books, GoogleBook and Gutenberg, Wikipedia, etc. are all creating an information environment that is increasingly affordable to an increasingly large percentage of people. At a buck a pop from vending machines or streamed online, who is even going to use the public library to get DVDs?

Given local city and county budget shortfalls, Godin's suggestion to libraries to train people in information skills is critical.

But perhaps too late.

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Reader Comments (19)

A few years ago I had the pleasure of watching as Alan November stood before an auditorium full of librarians and researchers from around the DC area and told them they were going to be out of a job.

More to the point he told them that the traditional role of a librarian, that of organizing and dispensing information for society, will no longer be wanted or needed. Instead, November said, their job going forward would be to teach people how to find and manage information for themselves, using their own criteria and not some system imposed by someone else.

There was a lot of push-back from the people who spoke during the question and answer period but he was telling them exactly what they needed to hear.

I think there will still be a place for libraries in the foreseeable future, as long as the people running them understand that the world of information and how people use it has changed drastically in the past decade. They must also change.

January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I realized earlier this term at school that I no longer think of our school library as a mission-critical resource for my school.

I think of our librarian as a mission-critical resource for my colleagues, because she's wonderful and clever and really hardcore about getting kids to read. She matters to our school a lot.

But the library she curates? Well, a lot of the information on its shelves is old. Some sections of the book catalog haven't been taken out in years. Other sections haven't seen a new book in years. And the kids use its space primarily as computer game space and socializing heaven. Not exactly what its founders had in mind, I think. And the kids who really care about the library — the K-4 kids — discover every time they visit that the books "aren't really for them." They're written for adults, and are longer than they have the attention span for, and not really as convenient as an Internet connection. The lack of a K-4 collection in our library is in fact teaching the youngest kids at our school that having library access is all well and good, but not actually necessary. Or useful.

And when those kids get to 8th and 9th grade, they'll expect to have Internet connections — not library access.

January 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew B. Watt


Funny that I would read your post on the same day our local Sacramento Bee has a feature story on one of the region's newest libraries - - with a quote from a visitor (local politician): "I walked inside, and thought I was in a Barnes & Noble."

Here's a link to the photo gallery - What do you think? Would your 7 year old approve?

January 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGail Desler

Oops...10 year old son, not 7.

January 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGail Desler

Hi Doug,
Wondering what I do with those B&N paperbacks I've finished? I donate them to the library. They don't have the books I read, so I donate the ones I've read so that some poor, homeless sap can benefit where I did not. Besides, I can't stand the thought that others have touched my book. It's my book. I know the places where I sometimes read. I don't want to touch a book that's been in somebody else's hands while they were sitting in such places. Besides, if I choose to make margin notes in my book, the pucker-faced librarian in our home town isn't going to give me the stink-eye. Personally, I question the continued value of the library. My son in college accesses a great number of his research online for his English and History courses, as well as for his Religion, Philosophy, and Math courses. While I like the idea of the library as a fixture in a town or city, I think it's usefulness as a centre of enlightenment has seen its day.

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTodd Wandio

St. Cloud has built a brand new, welcoming, convenient, modern facility. It has a coffee shop in the foyer. And it's closed nearly every time I'd like to go.

I really want reading to be a big part of my kids' lives. It is at home, but I want to take it further. Real-world hours would be a good start, and I like the idea about paying a small "rental" fee for new releases. Most of my reading is new content, and finding it at the library is a crapshoot.

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterClint Buhs

I agree. It has always bothered me that the library is usually not open during those times when most working people have time weekend evenings and holidays. Sure I am exaggerating a bit, the library is open from 2-5 on Sundays and 9-5 on Saturdays, but why couldn't those hours be changed to allow users to leisurely get to the library in the evening? What about holidays when the day extends endlessly in front of you? Wouldn't that be a great time to spend some free time browsing and wandering the stacks in the library? I don't understand why the library is closed and locked tight during those times. Seems dumb to me.

January 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermary jane waite

I wonder how much their ability to stay open the hours you wish is due to the fact that they draw their finding from across all the stores in the US and web while many public libraries are only funded by their locality. In my system, a slow usage periods at one branch cannot by subsidized by peak usage times in another time zone. If funding is restored, we will look to restore Sunday hours and staying open until 9PM. Thanks

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Taube

I have been a school library media specialist for almost five years. In that time, I think my family's use of the public library has increased. My wife used to purchase books to read, usually paperbacks that have been out for a while. I've encouraged her to walk to the public library, 2 blocks from our house, and check out a bunch there. She still hits the library prior to Barnes and Noble. We encourage our children to check out books from the library. Doug, all of the reasons you stated above are true, and I agree. For me, the public library is more a part of our lives since I moved into the world of libraries. I'm not sure I'd still feel this way if I was a classroom teacher or if I didn't live so close to my local public library.

January 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChad Lehman

Hi Tim,

I heard Alan give a similar talk 10 years ago to our state library organization. Prophets are not always easy to hear. Scott McLeod gave a similar message this year, and I am afraid the reception was chilly as well.

I hope this profession has the courage and skills to adapt!


Hi Andrew,

Interesting perspective. I wonder how she gets kids reading when the resources seem to be lacking.

A great librarian, however, is more important than facility, collection or "stuff." Too bad many of us see the "stuff" as more important.

Thanks for sharing this,


Hi Gail,

Ah, libraries with vision have a future. I can think of many, many vital public libraries. We have many great suburban libraries in the MSP area here too.

Yes, my son would approve of Sacramento's newest. Wouldn't it be grand if all citizens had access to similar community resources. How do we make that happen?


Hi Todd,

Well, I can't help you with your hygiene issues, but now I will think twice before buying a used book!

It seems like a growing number of people are affluent enough to buy, not borrow, their books today. I see costs going down, especially as the economies of e-books straighten out.

I do hope your prediction is wrong, though...


Hi Clint and Mary Jane,

My theory is that public libraries are open for the convenience of the librarians, not the public. I would also study when the most politically active (affluent) tend to use the library and base my hours on those findings.


Hi John,

I know funding is always an issue for public libraries and the hours they can be open. I'd think, however, Sundays would be higher traffic days than say Tuesdays? But what do I know.


Hi Chad,

I think you make a good argument for thinking carefully about where libraries are located. I bet usage would rise if they were always built next to the omni-present Wal-Mart in communities!


January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson


Great discussion- plenty of ideas to digest.

While we middle class people talk about how much easier it is to buy than borrow, our teachers (HS) complain if the library and computer lab are booked because "most of my students don't have computers at home and can only work on them here." Their local library, like the schools themselves, are neglected by the community. So we are neglecting students (patrons) access to learning and information.

It may be easier for the middle class to buy a book, read it, and give it to the library out of their "convenience" while giving away good clothes to Goodwill because they just aren't in style anymore. It may be easier to watch a movie online at a cheap price instead of supporting someone's job at a movie theater or the local library staff, because it's convenient, but what of those who have no computer or a car to wing to the yuppie shopping mall but are some "poor saps" who have to use public transportation to possibly find resources at the library?

The purpose of the public library (in my understanding) was to provide everyone an equal footing in knowledge and resources. Besides, how much waste are we creating by buying books we really didn't need to own in the first place just to have it when you want it then toss it? Goodwill and library book sales have enough "bestsellers" purchased a couple of years ago now going for a buck. I think it's just an example of the forgotten lower class who have to live in those "rather dead downtowns." And rural areas, even more so.

While we have all this easy technology at our fingertips" I wonder what to do about the student who came into the library wanting old copies of the previous day's newspaper because it had 2-1 McDonald's coupons in it. He was glad when we did, saying "Now my brother and I can eat this week."

Yes, I admit it has been a long day.

January 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBob

Hi Bob,

I appreciate the "heart" in your message. Libraries have always been a major part of closing the "information divide." I do hope we will continue to play this important role. The political climate seems less than supportive of helping the disadvantaged for too long.

All the best and thanks for the comment,


January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Dear Doug,

I disagree with the statement that a growing number of people are affluent enough to buy, not borrow, their books today. We're in an economic disaster with unemployment at 10%, not to mention those who have given up looking for work or the under employed (which are not counted in that statistic).

I do agree that libraries need to change and be flexible. Seth's post seemed to gloss over the issues surrounding libraries and not really offer anything of value. He says, that we need to "train people to take intellectual initiative." But what does that actually mean?

To read more of my reaction to Seth's post, visit: It's 2010 - Let's Make Forecasts about the Future of Libraries!

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Lepczyk

Hi Tim,

Great point and great blog entry. Thanks for sharing it here.

All the best,


January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Late to the party, but let me just add that as a former employee of both B&N and Borders, B&N does usually have more seating but their discount cards aren't much of a deal. Borders, while usually not as much seating, still offers coffee, long hours etc and has better discounts AND terminals for you to look up things on your own so you don't always have to wait around at the information desk. They often have deeper collections in say, poetry, science, philosophy; things that B&N overlooks.

Our local branch of the library is within walking distance and my daughter still loves both the bookstores and the library for different reasons. They have had their hours drastically cut, but nowadays you can re-check out books online and they send email reminders for returns so worrying about due dates isn't so much of a problem anymore. Hope your local system improves their service!

January 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim Randolph

Hi Ninja,

We have the choice of a B&N or B&N here in our big town. I agree about the discounts, but I sure love having them in town.

Our little public library is pretty much stuck in the 60s. I think loaning videos to them is still a big deal. I go in to read the paper before Kiwanis sometimes, but I don't remember the last time I checked anything out.



January 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Lovely Post! I am one of the biggest admirers of Seth Godin. I've improved most of my marketing techniques reading his blog. If you don't know Seth Godin, then you are just a newbie.

August 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Mutt

Hi Andy,

I guess we all start out as newbies sometime.

All the best,


August 17, 2010 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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