The Library is NOT a Supermarket

Recently I graded a set of library school student projects. For these projects students needed to talk with teens about the ways teens spend their time, how they find out about the materials and activities in which they are interested, and what they think of libraries – school and public. As I read through the assignments something became very clear. For at least some teens, the library is not much more than a supermarket. It’s a place where you go when you have to “pick something up.” It’s a place that you visit as quickly as possible and only when you have to. Like a supermarket, it’s a place that can be confusing if the signs are not helpful and there isn’t staff that is willing to engage and answer questions in a friendly manner.

While I know that many libraries do not fit this supermarket analogy, I am very aware that there are still many libraries that do. And, even librarians that support the idea that the library should be nothing more than a supermarket for teens – get them in and out as quickly as possible. But, is that really what is the best for teens in the community? Do teens need something more than a supermarket for acquiring leisure reading materials and informational help and support? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” what do we do to transform the library as supermarket framework to the library as a destination place – where it’s OK for teens go to hang out and spend time? What makes a library more than a supermarket for teens? Is it:

  • Hours that go beyond the traditional 9 to 5 or 9 to 9 model? Do successful hangout places for teens open early and stay open late?
  • Staff across library departments that is welcoming, interested, and willing to build relationships?
  • Flexible furniture that is easy to move around and that promotes sitting and talking with friends and peers?
  • Space that actually has space for moving around, standing and talking, and even sitting on the floor?
  • More than a collection of books and what’s in the collection (books, media, technology, etc.) is of interest to teens 2009/2010 and not just favorites of current or past librarians, staff, parents, etc.?
  • A place where teens know their ideas are welcome, supported, and even acted upon?

As I wrote that list of questions, which could of course go on to include lots of other topics and aspects of teen services, I was reminded of a comment a student in the library school class made last week. She said that as she worked on the assignments for the class she was beginning to realize that in some communities the library just didn’t want to provide services to teens. As I think about that comment it seems to me that a perfect example of this lack of desire is providing library teen services in a supermarket model. If we have to have them then lets make the experience as fast – for everyone – as possible.

Don’t let your library services be similar to a supermarket. Reach for something a bit more meaningful within a teen’s life. What if you analyze why some teens spend hours in a Starbucks and work towards replicating that? Or, what about analyzing the hang-out value of an Apple store, a mall, or maybe even a family rec room? What can you replicate for the teens you serve? And, how are you going to make it work?

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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14 Comments

  1. Oooh, now you’ve got me thinking about the good (and bad) ways a library could be like a supermarket!

    -Multiple check-out options (self-serve for people who want it)
    -“Impulse items” near check-out (think about where your displays, bookmarks & bulletin boards are)
    -Multiple methods of signage (overhead aisle signs, signs on the ends of aisles, individual signs on shelves)
    -Consolidation of services (the supermarket I frequent has a pharmacy, a florist, and a Redbox kiosk; many others have banks or ATMs, lottery machines, liquor stores)

    Ideally, I think a library would be more along the lines of a neighborhood grocery. You can still get in and out quickly if that’s what you want, but employees recognize you and care about what they’re selling (and you!) enough to make recommendations and offer a little extra help.

  2. I can happily state that our renovated library is not a supermarket for teens. We just opened (Oct. 18) a fantastic teen room that contains a high tech media area with video games, DVD player and 52 inch Flat Screen TV. There is a computer area for teens and four comfy chairs around a circular table for teens to gather. The room is very open with some rotating stacks displaying graphic novels, audio books and the new YA fiction. So far we have had 20 – 25 teens in the room during the afterschool video game time. The kids have been really happy to have a place they can come to. Every library should have a room like this! 🙂

  3. Excellent observations. In an interview of MLS applicants recently, we asked them to tell us about their dream library. It was interesting that most began with the word “welcoming.” Come is and sit and stay.

    I always thought of the library as part museum, part sanctuary, part bookstore, part home.

  4. I think it’s great if the library has the resources and the community that embraces the space as a social one – especially teens.

    However, at the same time, I don’t think a supermarket is necessarily a bad analogy. After all, supermarkets are ideal for browsing – how many times have you gone to the supermarket, not knowing what you want for dinner, and come back in half an hour with a bag of groceries?

    Most people – even young people – aren’t time-rich enough to spend a lot of time at the library as a social space. Sometimes the best we can do is make sure the shelves are stocked, in order, and provide some good displays so that they can quickly grab something that looks good, and walk away with quality goods.

  5. I say we should strive to be the best whatever the teens we serve want, given the resources/responsibilities we have. There’s nothing that says we can’t be a supermarket and other things at the same time.

    I think a better model for libraries uninterested in teen services might be a hair salon. I have incredibly curly hair; I’ve had it cut by stylists who clearly didn’t know what to do with it. But curly hair is still hair, and if you consider yourself a stylist, you should know how to serve people who have it.
    If you consider yourself a library, it’s not your business to specialize in one kind of patron.

  6. What’s wrong with a supermarket?

    Some days, that is exactly what I want, so why not for teens? And when I’m in a supermarket mood, I want to find what I want — and yet also pick up those impulse things because of savvy product placement.

    It’s good to have all your customers in mind, and to have the hang out space, etc. But we also have people who don’t want the restaurant (sit and hang out) or the cooking school (learn how to do stuff). And we need to have the materials for them — because while there may be other options for some things they are looking for, we are still one of the few that have the information, education, and entertainment materials (books, music, games, DVDs) for customers.

  7. I was a supermarket library user. It was a nice library but it wasn’t in my town and my mom would take me there every three weeks. I’d be there for 1 hour, check out a stack of books and go home. (This is similar to my current use of the supermarket, except my husband goes with me instead of my mother). Clearly this made enough of an impact on my life that I ended up becoming a librarian.

    I have teens in my library that I call my secret readers. I don’t know who there are, but sometimes when I come upstairs, half the books on my new YA book display have been checked out. I’d love to meet them of course, and sometimes I do when I’m at the desk and they want a book that’s checked out or that I didn’t end up buying. But primarly, they browse, check out, and leave. And that’s okay with me.

    There are going to be people using your library who don’t want to hang out there and are too busy for your programs. Their use of your services isn’t any less valid. We should make the experience as pleasant as possible for them so that when they do need to come in, they don’t dread it as much as I hate grocery shopping.

  8. Liz, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the supermarket aspect, either, but it’s the lowest level of service we can provide. No matter what else is going on in the library, people can always dart in and out with their lists and get only exactly what they want.

    I think far more of us struggle with getting teens to see the library as more than that – if they think of the library at all. One of the goals I have is reaching teen non-users. Having a teen space that appeals to them as a potential hang out place, a place that is “cool”, a place that has other teens already there using the space for more than just school work, helps to, well, to put it in the creepiest way possible, lure them in. Then, when they really need help they will not only know where to go, they will get better information.

    Also, being in the library is better than getting jumped into the gangs down the street. The library is neutral zone – I want it to appeal to them for fun and education. Just like we have books for fun and education.

    But, knowing you, you’re probably just pushing my buttons. 😉

  9. Thank you for this article. I am constantly scratching my head wondering why libraries who make the effort to create a space for teens complete with computers, books, and other media think that they can and should stop there. I ask, why did you even begin if you aren’t going to have programs for them?

    While undoubtedly as others have mentioned, there are teens who like the ‘supermarket model’ there are others (and probably the noisy ones at that) who value the library and are a built-in group of participants with an active investment in teen services. Take a look around after school and see who is hanging out in the teen area.

    Furthermore I think that having a space devoted for teens is one of the most important ways of making your service more than a supermarket. But you also can’t have more than a supermarket style of service if staff is not willing to see teens as more than noisy troublemakers that disrupt the library. If you have a devoted space and a library that is willing to work with and for teens than I would say you are well on your way to providing more than supermarket service to them.

  10. I completely agree with Liz and Keri’s comments above. There are a lot of “supermarket” teen users… those that primarily want materials and aren’t interested in programming, or talking to any staff. They’ve figured out how to get what they want and don’t want to be part of our services in any other way. They’re probably extremely satisfied with self check-out, not having to interact with anyone!

    Also, I hope this doesn’t sound too old-school, but why would any library encourage teens to use a library after 9pm? Online use, sure. But shouldn’t most teens be home, or at least heading home, by then? I don’t know that I’d consider a library that’s a post-9pm teen hangout place to be “successful”. Again, what is our role in the community?

  11. @eabarbanel pointed to this blog post, which asks “what is the purpose of the library today?”

    All the points made above are interesting takes on the same question: what is our role? can we be all things to all people? are we a supermarket or a boutique store? Given the economy and tighter budgets, none of this is easy to figure out.

  12. I definitely agree that some of the ways that supermarkets provide and organizes items for purchase, make good use of displays, and provide an array of items for sale are to some degree worth emulating. And, I agree, that there are times when making a quick stop into the library is exactly what’s needed. What worries me however, is those libraries that only have the quick in and out approach available to teens and don’t integrate the positive aspects of the supermarket into programs and services. The libraries that don’t provide more for teens than the get it and run approach. are not serving the population successfully or effectively. Are they?

  13. When it comes to library services, I always want to have my cake and eat it, too; and not to serve one population at the expense of another, whether it’s focusing on those kids who hang out at the library and ignoring those who just come for the books or focusing on those who come for the books and ignoring those in the library (and even worse, wishing they would disappear!) I want a library that can serve both those who need a quiet study space (because home is full of family, noise, and no quiet areas and where else will the teen who needs this go?) and those who want to hang out with their friends (and so make some noise).

    And I guess I get a bit concerned about this issue, because I have heard librarians who dismiss those kids who are supermarket users as not being kids who need to be served (NOT in Linda’s post or the comments here, I’m talking RL conversations). But, IMHO, they are just as deserving as good, quality service.

    I think being the “stealth you don’t even know you’re using a librarian” services are just as valuable as the in-your-face obvious ones. The supermarket visitor uses just as much of the librarian’s expertise and time, even if they don’t know it.

    Being on top of collection development and maintenance and signage, so that the DIY visitor can find what they want; or what they didn’t know they want until they saw the book that the librarian thought to buy, to keep, to shelve properly, to display, to highlight. For example, creating timely displays that are full of books for the person to take; I like to time the displays to the borrowing period, so if someone comes in every 3 weeks, say (3 week borrowing period) there is a new display each time they come to the library. Figuring out from statistics, worn copies, missing copies, etc. what the kids who don’t talk to you are reading, so you can figure out readalikes and displays.

    At Midwinter, I was surprised (and happy!) to hear teens on a precon panel name readalike bookmarks as being a source for what to read next. So, creating those bookmarks (and mixing it up every few weeks so therer is always a new one) and putting them in displays, in books on the shelf, etc.

    All of this — especially if its being done constantly — can be time consuming, demanding of readers advisory skills, and knowing the audience to know which ways will work (booklists? website readalikes? displays? frequency? what types of materials to have).

  14. I am a new high school librarian, and I can see many types of users that others have described as I recount the first 9 weeks of school as the sole adult in the library… the teacher-librarian (a/k/a Library media specialist)
    .
    In many instances, the students are practically forced into the supermarket library experience because they ‘must’ check out a book for a book project…whether they come with their class or on a hall pass. I can see in most of them that they don’t like being required to read anything, even though the assignment is typically their choice. Others love to ask me ‘do you think I could use ___ as my book for the early 20th century project? I read it last summer and I loved it!’. This warms my heart, of course! 🙂

    During Homeroom time (one HR is Freshmen/Sophomore, other is Junior/Senior), up to 30 students may be in the library/computer lab area. Approximately half of these students attend every day for their own specific purpose. Ultimately, the students fall into one of three groups: homework/projects, socializing, or brain break (computer games or internet browsing). Some teachers have expressed issues with the limitation of students in the library (which was determined due to the fact that no HR teacher has more than 30 students, and I am the only adult in the library), and that the students are allowed to use that time for socializing or game play when others are working on assignments. I have the position that *all* types of library users are welcome, and I shouldn’t necessarily limit student use of the library simply because they need a break from academic requirements for 25 minutes in the middle of their day. This is still under review, but I have not yet been approached by administration to change the procedures… Perhaps after parent teacher conferences. 🙂 / 🙁

    Thank you all for your input and the forum to express mine. 🙂

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