I have a friend who’s an avid reader and an up-and-coming science fiction author. He lives in New York City, home to eighty-six branches of the New York Public Library. I recommend a lot of books to him, always with some variant of the phrase, “I’m sure you could find a copy of this at the library, or they could send for it.” Yet he still prefers to use online bookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, who will deliver to his doorstep, often within the same day. He also swears by Netflix for television programs as well as movies. He even shops for groceries online.

On a recent visit, I asked him why he didn’t use the library. He told me he’d been there — once. Apparently, the library can’t beat door-to-door service, even if the latter costs more. He’d rather resell his books on the Amazon Marketplace — usually for a slight loss — than take the trouble to visit the library and carry the books home, despite the convenience of being able to place holds online and visit the library only when the items arrive.

He did make a suggestion, though — one that reminded me of a thought that has recurred to me ever since we began allowing holds and book requests to be placed from home through our online catalog. What if the library mailed books to your door? Recorded Books has been doing this for years. Netflix is doing it now. Libraries are exchanging books amongst themselves through interlibrary loan. The bookmobile makes the rounds of the city for special patrons.

I can hear the prime objections now: time and money! My answer? Both would be covered if you’d take subscriptions to this service, like Netflix, or alternatively charge an appropriate fee per item to cover roundtrip shipping and handling. My guess is that patrons would jump at the chance. It would be less expensive — and less trouble — than purchasing and reselling books online. It would follow a model many have grown enthusiastic about. In addition, the library would have even more protection against lost materials: in order to pay the cost of the service, the patron would have to submit a credit or debit card, and would have to click through an agreement of responsibility for any lost or damaged materials or fines (due-date checked by postmark, as established by Recorded Books). The library could invest in sturdy, reusable shipping containers in a variety of sizes, enclosing the return postage card with the item, as we do with audio materials mailed to the blind. I’m not saying we should expect to do this for every patron. There are still plenty of people who come in to use the library; that’s where our circulation statistics come from now. But circulation statistics have been falling. It makes sense to offer the option.

What if the library
mailed books to
your door?

After all, boxes and postage are cheaper than bookmobiles, if not as sexy, and bookmobile circulation is still important in many rural areas. The trick is to see what we want to do for our users through the thick fog of established practice. Already, Find It Virginia! has given libraries a presence in many homes around the Commonwealth, and sets a good example of the potential success of libraries without walls. At Ferrum College, we are delighted to see the use of our proxy server increase as more students and faculty use library resources off campus. Our mission should be getting information to the public, rather than building gate count. Funding agencies — and the taxpayers — will understand the value and power of various methods of home delivery if we are articulate and concrete enough in our assessment of our efforts.

There are actually a lot of ways in which libraries could be stepping forward, meeting the needs of their users in a new environment, following the successful models of online businesses and behavior in a Web 2.0 world (see Tim O’Reilly’s article, http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html , for more information about the concept). Many libraries seem to be once more lagging behind the technology curve and becoming less relevant to the audience we most want to entice. Take a look at LibraryThing ( http://www.librarything.com , or view a sample discussion group devoted to Nero Wolfe, at http://www.librarything.com/talktopic.php?topic=142 ). Scan some of the discussion boards at the websites of A&E ( http://boards.aetv.com/category.jspa?categoryID=700000013 ) or the Biography Channel ( http://boards.biography.com/index.jspa ). At places like these, fans of books and drama gather to debate the merits of their favorites with a passion I’d been afraid was on the wane, especially after NEA’s Reading at Risk . I’ve found that email listservs devoted to my reading interests are still going strong (try some at http://groups.yahoo.com/ ), while yet more fans are finding each other at places like LiveJournal (such as in the Fantasy with Bite community, devoted to “Fantasy fiction that’s out of the ordinary,” http://community.livejournal.com/fantasywithbite/ ). And we’ve all seen Amazon’s successful usergenerated reader’s advisory system. These sites are doing everything we should be doing, and they’re doing it better.

These sites are doing everything we should be doing, and they’re doing it better.

Stepping up to the plate, some Virginia libraries have adopted or are considering a blog with library news, facilitating user comments on books in the catalog, discussion lists for fan topics, or some combination of all three. Let your users share their passions and help revive the enthusiasm of others. They’ll be energized by the chance to share their opinions about favorite books as well as discuss their particular fandom without having to come to the library for face-to-face book groups, which can be intimidating. Let the anonymity of the web work for you — it frees people to join in the discussion. And lest you fear that this might give your patrons too much freedom, you can review the comments either before or after they’ve been posted.

Becoming more inviting to the wired generation is not just good sense, it’s survival. We’re far from the only game in town, and if we want to remain relevant, we need to shed our fears — including both our fears of technology (remember, Web 2.0 is the world of perpetual beta) and our fear that a new approach would cost too much. The fact is, it will cost too much not to. In an era when book and music sales are down across the board, when reading is in decline, and when a substantial portion of the literate community would rather spend time online than take a trip to the library, we need to reach out to the patrons that we aren’t serving — particularly the ones who would have been some of our strongest advocates in an earlier age. VL