Posted by Lori Ayre on November 29, 2006

NetFlix is easy, personal, fast, and convenient. It assists users in finding titles they will not only enjoy but titles that they are probably very excited to find because they are surprised that they could be found or they've never heard of them before. Their choices are not limited to the blockbusters of the day. NetFlix makes it very easy for customers to borrow and return titles. NetFlix is to movies as libraries should be to books.

Make it Easy
Cathy De Rosa, Lorcan Dempsey and Alane Wilson tell us that library users prefer to do things on their own (Environmental Scan, Social Landscape section, 3). Studies have shown that the more unmediated a service is, the more popular it is. Libraries everywhere report increases in circulation after self-check is rolled out. ILL is more likely to be used when it can be initiated without talking to a human being and remote borrowing has also been shown to increase circulation.

With libraries, there is a "transaction cost" for each step of the processes involved in finding, requesting and actually taking possession of an item. These costs are measured in time, attention, money and expertise. The first transaction cost involves locating the item in the OPAC. If the user is able to find the desired item in the OPAC, she/he must then locate the item to determine how best to acquire it. Is it on the shelf? Can I put it on hold? Can I borrow it from another library? Do I need to put in an interlibrary loan request? Each of these steps may require additional authentication or search steps. These transaction costs inhibit use.

Make It Personal

While library search and discovery tools are improving with innovations such as faceted browsing, they are not intuitive nor are they personalized for the user. Utilizing the customer's circulation history and their feedback about items borrowed, libraries could also find those special titles that excite their customers. Academic libraries have made more inroads into providing some personalization with portals designed around the student's coursework. Public libraries, on the other hand, have done very little to personalize the online experience of their users.

Make it Fast and Convenient

Remote borrowing (in place of the cumbersome ILL process) is making it easier for users to request items. But there are few new developments when it comes to quickly and conveniently putting the item into the user's hands. Customers can place holds on items from most library websites but that's where the convenience ends. Once the item becomes available (the item is returned or is transferred from another library), the customer is notified by email or phone call (often from a virtual person) of its availability. The completion of the request is then left in the hands of the customer.

Depending on how long items circulate at a library, how many people have the same item on hold, and how long it takes to get items transferred from one library to another, it may have taken weeks for the item to become available. Already, the delay in fulfilling the customer's order may have fallen outside of the "window of usefulness" (Patricia Weaver-Meyers and Wilbur A. Stolt, 1996. "Delivery Speed, Timeliness and Satisfaction: Patrons' Perceptions About interlibrary loan Service: Customer Satisfaction in GMRLC Libraries" Journal of Library Administration, 23(1-2)) - the period of time when the customer could make use of the item. If the customer still wants the item, they must find the time to get to the library to pick it up.

Getting to the library isn't necessarily easy. It certainly isn't convenient. In urban and suburban settings, it may require navigating traffic to get across town, paying for parking, waiting on public transportation or squeezing the trip in around work schedules. Depending on one's hourly wage, the cost of the trip could be difficult to afford (another bus ticket, more fuel for the car) or it could be difficult to justify (high earners might rather purchase the item and have it delivered than spend the time it takes to get to the library and back). In rural settings, the distance to the library might make the trip particularly time-consuming and untenable.

Libraries could also make it much easier for their customers to get and return books by offering home delivery options using UPS or FedEx. For high wage earners, providing home delivery options for an additional fee would be a welcome service option. Allowing customers to return items by U.S. Mail using library-provided envelopes would reduce the burden on customers. Even drive-through pick-up and drop-off services would alleviate some of the transaction costs of using the library. Libraries could also reduce the wait time for items on hold buy purchasing more titles of a particularly popular item. In many cases, the cost of acquiring a new book is less than getting a copy through ILL channels (Sharon Campbell, 2006, "To Buy or Borrow, That Is the Question", Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Electronic Reserve 19(3)).

If libraries made it as personal, easy and convenient to find and borrow titles as Amazon and NetFlix do, circulation in libraries would skyrocket. Instead, business is booming at Amazon and NetFlix and circulation is holding relatively steady in public libraries.

[This is an excerpt from a longer article I've written and which is currently being peer-reviewed. Here's the whole article (PDF).]