Top 5: What I learned about being a librarian from working in a bookstore

I worked at the Boulder Book Store for five years. I tried out pretty much every position I could: bookseller, special orders department, author event host, floor staff coordinator, and sidelines buyer (I still miss the yummy chocolate samples!). While my LIS classes in ethics, database searching, and digitization provided valuable training, I’ve come to see that there was much I learned as a bookseller. I think these simple strategies go a long way towards easing library anxiety for students at my community college and encouraging regular use of our services.

  • #1 relationships first. Treat your customers/patrons/students as if your survival depends on them. Because it does. Bookstores realize that customers can easily go to or Barnes & Noble for books. Independent bookstore prices aren’t usually better than the competition, though we tried to complement our new books with nice used copies and remainder books. We knew that relationships and the store’s community atmosphere were our only advantages over big box stores and online retailers. What customers are looking for in a physical bookstore is that interaction with people who also love to read and a lovely environment. In academic libraries, our competition comes in the forms of Google, Google books, or Yahoo answers, among others. When students contact us, they are looking for that human connection and advice, as well as a pleasant place to study. These are both huge opportunities to create positive experiences.
  • #2 be happy to see them. Look up, smile, and greet everyone who walks in the library doors. Sounds simple, but makes a huge difference, especially for people (like me) who would rather try to find it themselves. Creating that small positive interaction lets students know that they can come back and ask a question if they have trouble and they can count on a friendly reception. When you walk around and see someone with a confused look, ask, “What can I help you with?” This leaves the question open-ended and is more likely to generate a real response. Asking “Are you finding everything?” or “Do you need help?” is more likely to generate a quick ‘no,’ regardless of the true answer.
  • #3 know what people want. Reader’s advisory is part of daily life. Rather than having reader’s advisory specialists, every person working in the bookstore was empowered to have a conversation with a customer about their reading interests, habits, and how to find their next favorite book. This is an extremely personalized service model. To be successful, staff must keep minimally up to date with popular books and series so that you recognize when people are asking for, “that red book about the dog?” they likely mean The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Public libraries probably do this innately, but it’s sometimes more of a stretch at academic libraries. I found in the past year that I am definitely guilty of not knowing about popular books in certain genres–mysteries, especially!
  • #4 be a real human. Try starting reference conversations (rather than transactions/interviews!) by asking what the patron’s name is (and telling them yours!), what class the information is for, etc. Students feel more comfortable when they feel like there is give and take. This communicates that you are approachable and makes them feel more comfortable asking for help. They may also share important information that might not have come out if they had tried asking a specific question. For instance, “How do I look up a book?” becomes, “I really need help finding information on ADHD and education for my 8 page paper, due today.” This approach differs from professional discourse that librarians be as neutral and removed.
  • #5 treat referrals like gold. Conversations are how students and faculty let others know about great service via word of mouth. They’ll say, “Go see so-and-so at the library. They were super helpful in my last assignment and they’ll take care of you.” When another student, faculty member, or service on campus recommends your library, treat that referral like gold. This is how good vibes spread, especially if your library has struggled to be visible on campus or show value in the past! The inverse is true–avoiding impersonal hand-offs to other departments or staff is important. We regularly walk lost students to other offices on campus, just to build a positive impression for the future. We think that actions like this contribute to student retention at our school and a reputation as a very hospitable campus.

My first priority is teaching and empowering students to find and create themselves. But I also try to make sure that every student who leaves the library is interested in returning. Even after a (perhaps) difficult conversation about (perhaps) very large fines…

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