Enticing readers — delight them first, or sell the sizzle

How do we create an engaging and enticing library experience that sells the magic of books?

"Sell the sizzle, not the sausage!"

"Delight then instruct."

"You don’t need to understand the barcode to buy the bread..."

Gems of wisdom keynote speaker Rachel van Riel (Director, Opening the Book) dropped into her frank and very entertaining talk, The student centered library — how putting students first increases engagement at the recent SLANZA conference, held in the July school holidays at Kings College.

The word 'sizzle' spelt out in bacon Bacon Sizzle by Andes survivor CC BY 2.0

Getting in the way

Librarians sometimes do things with the best of intentions but which, inadvertently, get in the way of the very aspirations we most want to achieve — enthusiastic readers and keen researchers.

Libraries are full of systems and procedures that suit librarians rather than students. So, for students, a visit to a library tends to be a functional experience, with an unstated message — you must understand and fit in with our systems — creating an off-putting experience that gets in the way of enjoying new titles.

Libraries of faith

Books are often over-controlled and over-labelled, complicating the process for discovering titles. We do this thinking that the more spine labels a book has, the more pathways we have given our students. But in reality, we have just covered up a book spine designed to sell its own product.

Overly full shelves with books all spine out in narrow aisles create what Rachel called “Libraries of faith” — there might be a book you’d like in there somewhere, but there's no easy way to find it. You just have to have faith it's there and that you will find it.

Understanding systems might be necessary for the librarian to create a functioning collection, but it isn’t necessary for someone wanting to borrow a book. So how do we remove these barriers and create an easy experience of discovery for anyone coming into our libraries?

Here are some of Rachel’s suggestions.

Let them shine

Think about how book retailers display their titles. Bookshop spaces are often more intuitive with simple, clear displays that let the books speak for themselves. Rachel noted that we now have some of the best book cover designs ever to sell books — that’s the point of them — so stop doing displays that detract from the books, and let them shine.

Books with numerous spine labelsOver-labelled? How many labels are too many?

Curate small collections of books with quirky themes. One example — books about people who are more miserable than me — immediately drew my attention and made me wonder what titles were chosen. Promote titles that are less well known. The popular titles will always be borrowed.

Offer manageable choices

Offer manageable choices to your students. Libraries have an overwhelming selection of items to choose from and students may leave with nothing because they simply can’t decide or don’t know where to begin.

Rachel referred to Sheena Iyengar’s book The art of choosing and talked about the jam experiment. At a stall, people were given a choice of 30 jams one day and then 6 jars the next. Which day did they sell more? On the day with only 6 jams because people weren't overwhelmed with options and weren’t distracted by the fear of missing out.

I recently worked with a school where the teacher with library responsibility believed their library collection had been thoroughly read by their students. However, when she watched them closely they were only taking books from the returns trolley. It was functioning as an easy way for students to select books that had already been read by someone else — a passive recommendation system. The learning was that students needed more help with selection, but also that the bulk of the collection was invisible to them.

Be visible

Get out from behind the desk.

We often work behind large issues desks that act as a barrier. Rachel commented that very few people go to desks and that we generally prefer independence, so interacting with our users is most likely to happen out 'on the shop floor'. Don’t wait to be asked for ideas and information — offer them.

Make discovery easy

Create a layout and environment, which tempts and entices your students to discover more. Often users don’t go into book shops or libraries with a specific title in mind, so creating a library where discovery is easy and enjoyable is key to getting books into the hands of readers.

Think of the school library as a place that provides a different learning experience to the classroom, allowing a different relationship with students that fosters their independence. It doesn’t and shouldn't function like a classroom.

With this in mind, don’t feel you have to have the books clinging to the walls — bring some of them into the centre of the library.

Sell the sizzle!

First, sell the magic of the library, the enchantment of books. Delight them and engage them. The chance for instruction and systems, if they're really needed, will come when your students have fallen in love with the library and its treasures.

Find out more

Librarians' role in creating readers

Reader-friendly policies

Reader-friendly environments

By Lisa Allcott

Lisa Allcott is a Facilitator in the National Capability Services team with Services to Schools.

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