Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks

run, lola, run

July 31st, 2009 · 4 Comments · Uncategorized

The other day I was in my beloved local coffeehouse, looking for something to read while I drank my iced coffee. Alas, I had already read nearly all of the options, so I picked up the only one I hadn’t, Lola.

Its tagline is “Boston’s New Best Friend”; its website title refers to it as a guide to fashion, shopping, and events. So let’s just say I’m not in its target market, and have rarely read it.

Flipping through it — the Love and Sex issue, as it happened — I noticed that a column on the brain chemistry of love was written by…the Boston Globe’s health columnist. Huh. And then there was a spread of seen-on-the-street fashion photos snapped by…someone who does an identical column in the Globe Sunday magazine. Neat gig, I think, if you can recycle that material and get paid for it twice. And then the reader letter in the advice column made me think, have I not read this exact same letter in the Globe magazine’s advice column…? At which point I became awfully suspicious and flipped to the front matter to look for some kind of statement of responsibility. And there it was, all teensy among the fine print — Lola’s an offshoot of the Globe.

It doesn’t look like the Globe. It’s very quiet about its affiliation; the size, layout, look and feel are very different. It’s a free magazine targeted at a tiny slice of the Globe’s potential audience – which repackages content the Globe has already paid for — in a format where it can attract an entirely new set of advertisers who can count on a much more defined demographic. (I guarantee you that cable companies do not advertise in the regular Globe by saying you can save money on cable, spend more on shoes. Pretty cute pair of shoes in that ad, though, gotta say. Impractical. Red. Not something that screams “paper of record”.)

Very clever, I think, very clever, Boston Globe. As answers go to the “future of newspapers” question, this one is sneaky. Leaves me wondering if — in some sort of place you would probably never find me, like a cigar store or gym or something — there is some Manly Man Executive magazine, with anonymously but slicky repackaged Globe business and sports content and low-key, modernist styling. It’s a franchise idea that keeps on giving, and most people would never see how often you’d exploited it.

Which got me to wondering, is there an analogous proposition for libraries? Libraries aren’t generally about collecting ad revenue ;) , but they do face questions of what the future looks like and how to retain audience, and they do face tight budget constraints. Are there core services libraries can simply repackage (rather than expensively reinvent) to appeal to broader demographics? What would that even look like? The libraries which are exploiting Web 2.0 stuff (and, for the record, I hate that buzzword, even as I love the stuff) are making overtures in that direction, but of course there’s only certain populations you’re going to reach in that space, and web 2.0 tends to involve a lot of service invention and reinvention (as well it should, but again, the cost).

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Newt Sherwin

    I agree that that’s a great, sneaky idea for newspapers. I don’t have any great ideas for libraries — but I can tell you what I like about my local library’s services, and what I’d love to see more of. :)

    I love that I can get out a bunch of juvenile non-fiction, most of which will never make it to electronic versions or the Kindle or whatever, and thus dramatically increase my homeschooling flexibility without spending any more money. The two-week check-out time, though? Not so friendly. Three or four weeks would be much more homeschooling-friendly. (My library does offer a four-week checkout time for teachers, which by IL law I am, but they don’t want to admit that.) And really, I think libraries would do well to target homeschoolers; we’re pre-disposed to like libraries (free stuff! educational! books!), and we’re exactly the sort of people who can bring the children’s librarian interesting questions and requests (I’ve found amazing holes in our library’s seemingly-complete children’s collection), but in my experience, few homeschoolers understand the benefits of talking to a good librarian (I grew up in a family full of them, so I know, but few others do), and most children’s librarians are busy targeting the toddler-to-preschool age group during the day and the public school kids in the afternoons.

    I love that I can look for books online, request them, and have them show up from other suburban libraries three days later. I think it’d be really great if I could also select books that are in my library, on the shelf, and have them waiting at the desk to be picked up — sometimes, I don’t have time to bring all the kids in, find the books myself, and pry the kids away from the kid computers to cajole them out the door again; being able to retrieve my pile of books from the boring-to-kids front desk in the adult section would be much easier. (Occasionally, I end up going with books requested from other libraries where I could have gotten equal results from books on my library’s shelf, for this very reason, which seems a waste of the library’s resources.)

    I have very mixed feelings about those kid computers. On the one hand, they’re brightly colored, appealing to children, and full of educational and book-reading software. On the other hand, they’re so appealing to children that it’s hard to pry them away from the computers to look at the books, which I’m old-fashioned enough to think ought to be the focus of a trip to the library, and some of the software on them is really “educational,” not really educational, and even the most educational programs waste a lot of the kid’s time with cutesy graphics. I’m sure that having them is considered part of keeping the library up-to-date, relevant, or what have you, but I’m really not sure they advance the library’s mission/goals (what is a library trying to accomplish, exactly?) or belong where they are. (Some software that actually taught things at reasonable speed, that could keep track of a multitude of users and present content of appropriate level, would probably get a much more positive reaction from me.)

    My library is somehow offering free audio book downloads, which I think is a great response to the prevalence of IPODs, etc., and which I took a flyer on but have yet to actually explore. (Now that there are three noise-creating persons sharing my house with me 24/7, I value my silence. Audiobooks are great for long car trips, though.)

    I love that I can go online and renew my library books. I hate that if I remember to do so five minutes after midnight the day they were due (or if the web program is having trouble and it’s after hours), I’m too late, and cannot do anything about it without first physically walking the books into the library. Maybe they could let me renew them, but charge me the late fines for the one day? That would be nice, IMHO.

    My library seems to be doing pretty well at retaining audience, although a good chunk of their audience is the latch-key kids who head to the library after school, which I think the librarians have something of a love-hate relationship with. They impose a few very strictly-enforced rules (including that you have to have a current library card on your person to be an unattended juvenile in the library), and there’s a definite dose of the child-noise-and-behavior-management issues you’d expect from having taught school; OTOH, they also sponsor various book discussion groups, book-themed “parties,” and other teen-targeted events. The few times I’ve stopped in during evening rush hour, I’ve noticed that there’s also a pretty good-sized rush of employed adults visiting the library on the way home from work, which says to me that they must somehow be doing a decent job of providing something those people want, as well.

    Having typed that all out, I do not feel that I have gotten any closer to figuring out what the next incarnation of libraries ought to be, or how libraries could re-package themselves Globe-style. But hey, that’s why we have librarians, right? :)

    Newt

    • Andromeda

      (Homeschoolers aren’t rabid about the library? Buh? But how does that even *work*?!?)

      (Although it’s true that a lot of people don’t really know much about the kinds of services libraries, even their local libraries, can provide.)

      Anyway, it seems that there’s two separate but related issues here:
      One, what kind of actual services can the library offer, and how can it customize them to meet library demand?
      Two, how can it brand/advertise those services?

      I mean, sometimes libraries have a problem that they don’t offer services that people want (oh, local branch, how I wish you had weekend hours). But sometimes it’s a perceptual problem — they *do* offer services people want, or closely related services, but people don’t know about it, or feel unwelcome to take advantage of it, or something like that. And it’s the latter sort of problem that I think Lola is cleverly addressing for the Globe. There is nothing different about the content (I mean, maybe there were minor edits, but except for layout it appeared to be the same). They’re just putting it in a different-sized package, with a different selection of content, with different design and advertising.

      So an example for me of how libraries might do this is their web presence. Per one of my favorite essays ever (oh, danah boyd, how I <3 your brain), you see very different demographics on Facebook and MySpace (and these days, I think, Twitter). I was reading something else recently that was noting that African-Americans are dramatically more likely than white people to get their internet access via their cell phones. Now if you've only tested your web site on a desktop/laptop browser, you're probably inaccessible to everyone browsing on a phone (and you probably don't even *know* it — but many web sites are really, really pessimized for phone access). If you've gotten hip to this web 2.0 thing, or so you think, and set up a page for your library on Facebook, you're missing a huge pile of people on MySpace. (Facebook looks bigger these days because the sort of people who like it are also the sort of people who tend to dominate public discourse…in terms of actual users, MySpace is still huge.) You don't even necessarily have to have different services to reach these other populations (depending, of course, on the populations' needs), but you *do* have to have a presence in places where they look, with design that is appealing and usable.

      And then, of course, there's all the people who don't use the web a lot at all. How can you design the library (physical space, customer service philosophy, …?) to appeal to different demographics? How can you be present in non-library spaces where users, and potential users, might be (local businesses? schools? city government meetings? parks? local events?), emitting messages which those people will hear?

      Where are the homeschoolers in your community when they're not at home (or in the library), and how could the library be present in those spaces in ways which would — not even necessarily change the services they offer, although that might ultimately be important — but articulate those services using a presentation which homeschoolers are predisposed to hear?

  • Newt Sherwin

    Just now got around to actually clicking through to your blog (normally I follow on Bloglines), and noticed that you’d responded to me. Sorry for the tardiness. :)

    I like your comments on web pages, etc. — good points, and ones that many don’t think of. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that some people only look at webpages through their phones, as I don’t do this at all, being something of a dinosaur wrt cell phones.

    Your questions about homeschoolers bring to mind a bunch of things I should probably actually discuss with my local librarian, especially once we get a new director for the children’s department. Part of the problem here is that I live in a rather small village, such that the area local homeschoolers draw support from is much larger than the area served by my specific library; nearby village libraries have the same problem; and of course, none of them seem to be targeting homeschoolers, and it would probably take all of them working together to target homeschoolers effectively, and how do you get lots of people working together on something that none of them are even trying to do?

    Local library issues, specific to my system:
    1) Expanding the checkout time would really really help. If they don’t want to expand it for everyone, and they don’t want to give homeschoolers the teacher’s privileges we’re technically entitled to by law, maybe they could create a “homeschooler” option that’s half-way in between? 3 weeks? It’d help. And abandoning the archaic date-stamped card system for a more modern receipt-printing system would help the circulation desk deal with a variety of check-out times, but I know that switch would cost money.
    2) There is a homeschooling support group that meets at the library; I only found out about this by talking to someone who attends it. Posting a schedule of what groups are meeting in the library’s conference rooms would be a great way to help people who already use the library to find such groups, and I’d think that for most groups, the free publicity would be a nice added bonus. (“Private Meeting” could always be listed for any groups that didn’t want the publicity, I suppose.)
    3) They could be much more open about having rooms that are available for use. Right now, you have to ask to find out. I’d think that a library conference room would be a wonderful meeting location for any homeschooling group, and that the library would get increased business from it.

    More wide-spread issues:
    1) It is one of the best-kept secrets ever, but a few years back, one of the libraries in the extended metropolitan library system got a grant/donation/whatever, on the order of $10K, to buy homeschooling resources, along with a deadline for when they had to spend it by. This, combined with the normal ability to request non-reference books from anywhere in the metropolitan system through your local library, means that there are tons of homeschooling curricula that a homeschooler anywhere in the metropolitan area can check out. This is HUGE!!! And almost no one knows about it! Homeschoolers flock to conventions largely for the ability to go to the vendor hall and inspect curricula in person. How much better to get to take it home and try it out on your kid for a couple weeks! But, aside from one friend of mine who is obsessive about finding and using free resources, most homeschoolers I know are completely clueless about this. (In defense of our local librarians, I bet they’re completely clueless about it as well. The library in question hasn’t exactly publicized it widely.) (Somehow ensuring that said library had funds to keep the collection of curricula up-to-date would also be wonderful.)
    2) Educating local homeschoolers about the benefits of talking to librarians would likely be helpful for both homeschoolers and local librarians. This is probably most easily solved by inviting a homeschooling-friendly librarian to come talk to a homeschool support group, for which purpose it would be useful if I actually belonged to a formal support group, instead of garnering all my support from a very informal collection of friends I know from elsewhere.
    3) It’s entirely possible that my local library could be of use to me in ways I haven’t even thought of, in spite of my greater-than-normal knowledge of libraries and librarians. I think it’d be really great to have a librarian interested in brainstorming such things, in place of the overworked and/or uninterested librarians I actually have access to.

    Newt

    • Andromeda

      No worries — it’s always nice to get comments.

      So here’s my off-the-cuff thoughts.

      One — do all of these libraries already have some sort of cooperative relationship? Shared catalog, active ILL network, shared borrowing privileges, anything? Because if they already have the relationship, that’s a groundwork they can use for some kind of shared effort in re homeschoolers.

      Two — if there are multiple libraries that your local homeschoolers would all consider to be within their areas, maybe it would suffice for one of them to have a collection/meetings/special services (possibly as part of a collaboration with everyone else, possibly not, but it might be easier to just get things set up at one center).

      Three — I’m wondering if the checkout issues are maybe driven by issues with their database or coding system (like, maybe they don’t have a good way to represent homeschoolers and their borrowing privileges, or maybe they do but they don’t have the tech-savvy to figure it out). If this is the case there’s probably not much you can do about it without being an insider or having a much closer relationship with them.

      Four — the posted-calendar thing sounds like a fine thing to put in a library suggestion box, if they have one, or otherwise suggest. It sounds like something that should be pretty simple to implement, so they may be willing to consider it. There are also lots of web sites that facilitate calendar sharing (although, again, don’t know how tech-savvy your librarians are).

      Five — yeah, so grant funding. My guess is that the librarians, especially right now, are overworked and just had their budgets cut and are not excited about launching new programs. But if you (or your homeschooling community) can do legwork for them, find grants that might support them, offer to collaborate in writing such things, etc., you might find a more willing audience.

      Five b — the homeschooling community can do a lot of the advertising of library services itself. I’m sure you already have networks that that community uses to share various sorts of information; you (or someone like you) can leverage that to inform people about what the library offers. You might be able to mount a more effective and two-way campaign by working with a librarian, but you could get started solo. (And if you *do* succeed in driving traffic to the library, and that’s something you can document, you may have more clout when you try to propose that the library serve your community further.)

      Six — is there a Friends of the Library type organization? You probably have more leverage for change if you are part of it. And that would also let you influence fundraising, advertising, etc.

      Seven — you have already provided your own suggestion with the librarian talking to the homeschoolers ;) . Probably better if you can get the *homeschoolers* into the *library* — not only save the librarian the trouble of traveling, but also make it an opportunity to show off resources firsthand.

      Eight — I’m guessing that homeschoolers are, *or can be*, a highly organized, articulate, and civically involved population. That’s the sort of population libraries want on their side. You have a mutual value proposition here.