Libraries Aren't Bookstores, and Patrons Aren't Customers

By Kniffel, Leonard | American Libraries, August 1997 | Go to article overview
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Libraries Aren't Bookstores, and Patrons Aren't Customers

Kniffel, Leonard, American Libraries

I live in a Chicago neighborhood that offers a new Barnes & Noble "superstore" and a new branch of the public library both within walking distance of my house, both done in the oak-rich, Arts-and-Crafts style that characterizes so much design today.

Armed with a notebook and a typical library request, I spent an hour at each recently testing persistent rumors that bookstore chains are some kind of threat to libraries. My request: "I need to find out who the first elected woman senator in the U.S. was, and then I need some information about her." Here's what happened.

At the Barnes & Noble information desk, I was told, "We don't have a computer that could access that." Then I was instructed to browse through "U.S. History" - 29 shelves of books alphabetical by author.

Another vivacious clerk asked, "Finding what you want?" I explained again what I was looking for. He clicked computer keys for a while and then said, "I read a book once that might have the answer." He pulled Born for Liberty from the shelves. I found a lovely, comfortable chair by a window and checked the book's index. After 10 minutes, I told him it did not contain my answer. He then suggested browsing through 12 shelves of "Women's Studies."

I killed some time. Finally, knowing that the answer was Margaret Chase Smith, I picked the book I thought most likely to contain the answer, Timetables of Women's History. It was on page 351.

I returned to the desk, where a new clerk was on duty, and asked for biographies of Smith. She checked the shelves, then BIP, where she found six titles listed. She checked the B&N database and found The Politics of Conscience, $24.95, which she offered to obtain "in three to eight business days."

An hour into this experiment, I left Barnes & Noble with Margaret Chase Smith's name, which I had located for myself. The coffee was excellent, so I took some with me, from the cafe where some 20 people were leisurely reading on a Tuesday afternoon. I had seen many tempting things to buy - two splendid floors full, with plenty of comfortable browsing spots.

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Libraries Aren't Bookstores, and Patrons Aren't Customers


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