Imagine for a moment that libraries were for-profit enterprises. The good news: you know your core customer: readers—or at least that’s a sizable portion of your customer base. Then let’s extend the fantasy and imagine you wanted not only to retain this group of readers but actually get more of them. What could you do?

Book Club

A few years back, I devoted several months of research to that question. In one effort, I interviewed dozens of women in Fayetteville, Ark., all of whom self-identified as regular book borrowers and buyers. For the most part they were über-readers, the type who are never caught without a book and typically belong to multiple book groups. Each one of my generous participants first told me her life story, then returned a few days later and told me her life as a reader. And while every reader’s life was unique, they shared many common traits as readers.

One common behavior, I learned, is that library readers also like to browse—a lot. Sure, they might discover books through the New York Times or NPR, but browsing physical collections was the #1 method for discovering new titles. They especially appreciated collections that were merchandised, displayed by genres or topics, with plenty of copies face out. Browsing is why they loved bookstores, which excel at presenting new titles in eye-catching collections, often grouping them in fun or provocative ways. They also browsed online and looked for lists of similar titles, librarian or staff recommendations, and notice of new publications. Each reader had her own set of trusted sites she visited frequently. But one source they rarely used was the library’s catalogue—except to check if the library owned a title. For online discovery, Amazon was the de facto search engine, even though their acquisition of a book was typically not through Amazon.

While it’s common to think of reading as an isolated act, what these women taught me is that reading is actually a social activity. Most of my subjects relied on large, social networks—in part to discover new titles, and actually loan or borrow books—but also just because they liked to talk about books, because talking about a book greatly enhances the experience.


But as much as readers love the library, we librarians sometimes make it hard for them. At the end of the 19th century, we had the “fiction problem,” a raging debate about popular literature that sought to curtail spending on popular bestsellers. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, many libraries signed on to the adult education movement, seeking to create library collections that support education, with pleasure reading taking a back seat.

By mid-century, librarians were becoming “information professionals,” amassing huge reference collections in the belief that information, correctly applied, could help solve society’s problems. And, does anyone recall being a cybrarian?

Public libraries today have embraced so many roles—from career centers to makerspaces—that readers, along with the declining book budget— can seem like an afterthought.

But our readers have stuck with us, patiently adding their names to the hold lists for Dr. Zhivago, Valley of the Dolls, and The Name of the Rose. And if we’re lucky, when we wheel that 3-D printer to the basement to join the mimeograph machines and the microfilm readers, those readers will still be with us.

According to an OCLC report, in 2005 69% of the U.S. population said that books were the first thing that came to mind when they thought of libraries. By 2010, that number had shot up to 75%, even as libraries invest more of their shrinking budgets in technology and database content. Yes, despite the astonishing degree to which libraries sometimes take readers for granted, the public persists in associating us with books.

The Books

Famed library educator S.R. Ranganathan famously taught us that “the library is a living organism,” and without question, the changes underway in public libraries are revitalizing our profession. But let’s also remember that what our core customers want is often simple. They want good collections, well-presented. They want resources—largely online—to help them navigate their reading lives. They want recommendations from people they trust. And they want to share their reading experiences with others.

It’s an exciting time for libraries as we reimagine our future. But as we move toward that next big thing, let’s be sure not to forget our longtime companion and best supporter: the reader.

Brian Kenney is director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, and a former editorial director of Library Journal and School Library Journal.