Wendy Bartlett: How to enhance the library user experience during the pandemic and beyond

Thank you to Wendy Bartlett, Collection Development and Acquisitions Manager at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, for sharing her thoughts on what librarians can learn from changing consumer behaviors in a retail environment to enhance the library user experience.

Last September, the New York Times published an article titled “7 Ways the Pandemic Has Changed How We Shop for Food.” It really got me thinking about coronavirus’ impact on people’s library experience. What does grocery shopping have to do with libraries, you ask? There are more parallels than you might think. Consumer behavior can tell us a lot about what people expect from their service providers, whether it’s grocery stores or libraries.

Here are some key takeaways that my team and I gleaned from the NYT article. These takeaways both validated some of the changes that libraries have already introduced and inspired some new ideas.

1. Lowering print holds ratios

Like groceries, books are enjoying a boom during the pandemic. We needed to capitalize quickly. For instance, I figured we should lower ratios on print materials because, to my mind, a hold is a cry for help in the wilderness of boredom! So during a period last year when our library branches were offering curbside and drive-through service only, I thought, “what if curbside and drive-through service became our permanent service model? How would we be buying differently to capitalize on that?”

The answer? Give the people what they want: namely, a 2:1 holds ratio for physical product. Why buy materials for browsing, I thought, when no one can enter our buildings or see our shelves and displays?

2. Find your Lucky Charms

The New York Times article mentions Lucky Charms as a comfort food. What are libraries’ Lucky Charms and Oreos? During Cuyahoga County Public Library’s (CCPL) successful levy campaign last November, we advocated that a vote for the library was a vote for normalcy. How can people’s desire for comfort and normalcy carry over to their library experience?

We made sure that comfort reads were always available. James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small is a perfect example, as many comfort-seekers watched the familiar stories as a new series on Masterpiece and were looking for the books again.

3. Pile ‘em high and let ‘em fly!

According to the New York Times article, stockpiling is back in a big way—and it’s not just happening at grocery and retail outlets. Feedback I have received from our CCPL branch managers is that it’s our most loyal customers (we call them “power users”) who are carrying us through this chaos. They are coming in to load up on library materials in mass quantities. Instead of browsing at their local branch three times a week like they used to do, they’re visiting only once every three weeks or so. But when they do visit, they borrow a lot of stuff. These power users are essentially recreating the browsing experience for themselves at home by amassing huge piles of titles. Per the article, they are not crazy-hoarding, but oh boy, are they planning ahead!

At CCPL this trend has been consistent whether our doors are open or we’re stuck in curbside/drive-through mode. People are limiting their exposure by loading up. “Loading up,” is, of course, a behavior we want to encourage and reward. One of my staff went so far as to ask, “why have circulation limits?” Why, indeed? More items per transaction is a beautiful thing.

4. What are our oranges?

The New York Times found that, “In May, grocers sold 73 percent more oranges than during the same month in 2019.” This caused a shortage for grocery stores. What are libraries’ “oranges”? I think one of our big supply chain issues was the loss of DVD circulation because Hollywood couldn’t film. We have trained our customers to expect the latest and greatest and when we can’t deliver it, they get bored with our backlist REALLY fast. I think DVDs were our oranges.

5. Create the space

The Times article astutely points out one pandemic trend that will likely linger long after the pandemic is gone: wider aisles! It’s likely that people will permanently be uncomfortable shopping close to one another, both consciously and subconsciously. I am already thinking about pulling out every other range in some of our over-shelved buildings, busting apart picture book rows—anything that creates more space. Because in this brave new world, space equals safety.

6. Value people’s time

What can we do when choices are shrinking and we’re fighting for people’s attention? Simple. Limit the choices even further, curating for people in advance so they don’t have to. Yet at the same time, we don’t want to create an “opportunity cost” (see oranges/DVDs above). We’ve long done this at CCPL since I started preaching the “Why We Buy” ideas from Paco Underhill years ago. The trick now, though, is to limit even further, to keep stock even fresher. We might need Mariah Carey’s new bio, but do we need to KEEP Mariah Carey’s new bio? Can we replace it in 90 days? 120 days? How fast will that tempting choice go bad? If nothing else, people have learned the value of their time. They’ve rediscovered jigsaw puzzles and gardening, so they will spend less time selecting books. If we can get the right ones in front of them, they’ll continue to come in for them, but we’ll need to respect their time in a much more strategic way than we’ve been challenged to do before.

If 2020 taught us anything, it is that we librarians are resilient and creative and can adapt to serve our communities no matter what obstacles stand in our way. And as we work our way out of the pandemic, we will need to attend to customer experience closely as it evolves. In May 2021, the New York Times published another article about groceries and the customer experience titled “Stores Still Matter. Where’s Amazon?” Included is this line: “Stores are familiar to navigate and some people are nostalgic for their old habits.” That will be true for libraries as well, and if we’re smart, we’ll capitalize on it.


Wendy Bartlett joined the Cuyahoga County Public Library in 2006. She is responsible for overseeing the delivery of an impactful, customer-driven collection. Wendy, Technical Services Director, Daniel Barden, and the team at CCPL, place innovation at the forefront of library practices to deliver a better user experience and are power users of collectionHQ to support this. In 2020, the Cuyahoga County Public Library was named a Library Journal Five Star Library for the 11th consecutive year.

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