The Beaumont Library District (BLD) doesn’t seem like the type of institution that should spend too much time worrying about its most infrequent visitors. Serving one of the fastest growing regions of California—including the city of Beaumont, parts of neighboring Banning, and unincorporated areas of Riverside County—BLD has been grappling with a huge influx of new users since 2008. On a typical week, the single, small Carnegie library signs up 40 to 50 new members.
But BLD director Clara DiFelice is concerned about first impressions.
“Until 2008, our facilities were fine for the size of community we served,” she explains. “Now someone entering the facility has to wonder why it seems so undersized (especially in the area of parking). So then you deal with the whole issue of how to do outreach to keep everyone on your side long enough to ask them to support the costs of expanding the facility so you could begin to look adequate for the population. It truly is a catch-22.”
BLD’s is a common problem writ large. Many public libraries are struggling with rising traffic and strained resources. Though it seems counterintuitive, as DiFelice notes, these pressures can make outreach even more vital. For continued funding or growth, libraries need the support of their entire community, not just their most regular visitors. One of the best places to begin building more engagement with the community is through outreach to rare and occasional users. There are a lot of them, and their infrequent visits create a channel to reach them, while leaving lots of room for growth.
The silent majority
LJ’s exclusive July 2013 report, “Engaging the Occasional Patron,” the fourth and final report in Volume 2 of our Patron Profiles series, takes a detailed look at these infrequent library users. Produced in conjunction with ProQuest/Bowker and the PubTrack Business Intelligence team, the report features data drawn from an online survey of more than 2,000 library patrons, conducted in February 2013.
According to this sample, these infrequent users could account for more than half of all library patrons. Occasional Users, defined as patrons who had made an on-site visit to their public library one to three times during the past six months, represented 38 percent of respondents. Rare Users, or users who had visited their library at least once during the past year but not during the past six months, represented 16 percent of respondents.
The very oldest and youngest adult respondents were most likely to be Occasional Users, and adults under the age of 35 were particularly likely to fall in the Rare User category. The report notes the correlation between having children in the home and frequenting the library, and infrequent users were much more likely to say that they did not have children in the home.
As with many public libraries, BLD’s strong programming for children and young families has played a key role in building a base of loyal patrons. Yet while it does not have a dedicated young adult services staff, every one of the 3,800 items in its young adult collection was checked out last year.
However, DiFelice said she was concerned with the way that loyal seniors tend to visit less as they age and become more homebound and how to address the “vast bunch in the middle,” ranging from parents of teens to people on the verge of retirement.
The just-in-time user
“I’m convinced that that crowd basically come to the library when they have a specific need in mind, and you’re just never going to know when that is,” DiFelice says.
The data bears out her perception. Rare and Occasional Users were more likely than Power Patrons or Monthly Users to say that they had gone to the library “looking specifically for” the last library book they had borrowed. If that book was unavailable, they were more likely than regular users to pick up another book on impulse and were also significantly less likely to place a hold on anything.
With their unpredictable borrowing habits and unwillingness to use the holds system, it’s perhaps unsurprising that these users tend to purchase a greater percentage of the books and ebooks that they read. Publishers and bookstores don’t see much of a benefit, however. These patrons read less in general.
On average, Power Patrons (“What Patrons Teach Us,” LJ 2/15/12, p. 18–19) say they check out almost 35 books per year, while monthly users borrow almost 20. Both groups also purchase an average of nine books per year. By contrast, Occasional Users, on average, report checking out about five books per year and purchasing ten, while Rare Users check out more than five and purchase fewer than seven.
Some of these patrons may view themselves as too busy or their libraries as too inconvenient. One respondent wrote, “I do not use the public library, but I really don’t know why. More people should, because it is free, but I guess it boils down to time and efficiency, and it just seems easier to order an ebook or stop by a bookstore while out.”
They like to purchase
More than 60 percent of Rare and Occasional Users said that they tended to acquire both print books and ebooks by purchasing them. Only about 20 percent of each group said that they used their library to check out ebooks. And while both groups listed “borrowing print books” as their top reason to visit a library, only about 40 percent of each group said they had actually checked out print books recently.
Several ebook platforms are now equipped to sell ebooks to patrons when they do not want to wait for a specific title. The report also notes that in the 1950s and 1960s, some libraries kept duplicate copies of current best sellers and popular mysteries, which were circulated on a cost per use model. Along those lines, to serve these infrequent users better, the report asks, “is the time ripe for a new book loan model for those who can’t wait and will pay for the option to get the books they want on demand?”
Many users still haven’t gotten the message that libraries offer ebooks at all, let alone on demand. More than 40 percent of respondents who described themselves as ebook readers said they were unaware of whether their library offered ebooks. For infrequent users, this is especially unfortunate, since they appear to be bigger fans of the format than Power Patrons or Monthly Users. Almost a quarter of Rare Users expressed a preference for ebooks over all other formats—significantly more than any other group. Occasional Users were second, with about 15 percent preferring ebooks.
Stop by sometime
When asked what factors might encourage them to visit their library more often, Occasional Users chose expanded evening hours, more weekend hours, and “more classes” as their top three suggestions.
Some parents said that the children’s programs were scheduled during inconvenient times. One respondent wrote, “[The library has] good programs for babies and toddlers, but they’re on weekday mornings, and working moms can’t participate.” Another wrote, “More afternoon weekend preschool programs please for full-time parents who cannot come to the weekday events.”
Beyond rescheduling children’s programming, Laverne Mann, director of the Cherry Hill Public Library, NJ, and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, notes that the existing programs at many libraries may be missing out by not targeting child-free, nonsenior adults. As discussed earlier, many Occasional Users fall into this demographic.
“I have been advocating to have attention in adult programming for child-free people,” says Mann. “For so long, the library was tied only to children or parents, and adult programming, many times, was [focused on] either seniors or parents. And there’s just a larger and larger number of people in the United States, especially since the 1990s…that are child-free. We want to track that 20s to 40s age group.”
For example, Cherry Hill will be participating in the “Thrill the World” global thriller dance flash mob in October, and the library regularly organizes participation in pop culture and fan club events. The library also hosts monthly roundtables for aspiring writers and poets in the community, as well as other events such as lunchtime movie screenings.
Many libraries would love to have the staff and funds needed to increase their evening and weekend hours as Occasional Users desire. Unfortunately, this may be one of the more significant hurdles facing libraries that wish to enhance their relationship with infrequent users.
For those libraries that can’t increase the overall amount of time open, closing during slow weekdays may allow a budget-crunched system to buy some time in those prime evening and weekend slots. DiFelice says that a couple of years ago, BLD had enjoyed a stretch of 18 months during which the library was able to stay open seven days per week. During that time period, they monitored their traffic closely and noted that their slowest day was usually Wednesday. When they were later forced to cut hours, BLD began closing on Wednesdays and offering extended evening hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Additional research revealed that many retailers also consider Wednesday to be the slowest day of the week, DiFelice says.
More than 50 percent of Occasional Users said that they preferred to visit their library on Saturdays. Preference for all other days of the week was relatively equal.
The personal touch
Although only five percent of all library users in this survey expressed dissatisfaction with their library’s staff or its atmosphere, it is notable that a third of all respondents (32 percent) did not seek assistance from a librarian during the past six months. When patrons did seek help, however, they were 23 percent more likely to give their library an “excellent” value rating than patrons who did not. Outside events may offer the library more opportunities to generate these positive perceptions and elicit similar goodwill from members of the community who rarely visit their local branch.
Patron and staff interactions can be negative as well. Write-in responses are by nature anecdotal, but several Occasional and Rare Users said that they had been turned off by bad experiences with library staff. “Please tell the employees to be friendlier,” one wrote. “I find most of them cold, unfriendly, and act as if they are doing me a favor by checking out my books. Makes me not want to go there.” Another wrote, “I feel like I’m an inconvenience to staff when I ask them questions.” Yet another complained that upon visiting a remodeled branch and approaching a page for help finding the relocated genre fiction section, she was told that all questions needed to be asked at the reference desk. “This struck me as a ridiculous waste of time; in no way did my question need the expertise of a trained librarian.”
Getting out there
While this edition of Patron Profiles focuses on occasional and rare on-site visits, these days there are other ways to use the library without ever setting foot in a building. As Kit Hadley, director of the Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL), notes, many libraries are already working to engage their communities by marketing resources that patrons can use from home, or hosting programs and events outside of the library.
“One of the things that we have increased significantly in the last three years is the extent to which we are offering services in the community outside of library buildings,” Hadley says. “For example, we now have a pretty extensive program offering computer and technology training in non-English languages in community settings around the city. And we are doing the same thing with world-language story times.”
The report agrees that external events have become an important part of efforts to raise awareness of library services and suggests that libraries experiment with weekend service models that include visits to farmers markets, flea markets, mega-churches, malls, and other venues where the community gathers.
“People’s habits have changed,” Hadley says. “For many families in particular, time is the big premium. So what we’ve tried to do is reach out to people who may not be coming in to our physical libraries and trying to reach them where they are. It’s having an interesting ripple effect in terms of acquainting people with the library and the library staff. We start seeing people in our physical libraries who haven’t come before.”
Libraries may need to step up their broader outreach and marketing efforts, as well. The report points to LJ’s Public Library Marketing Survey, conducted in November 2012, which indicated that only 11 percent of patrons were aware that their library had a Facebook page and only 28 percent received regular communication from their library via print or email newsletters. When hosting events inside or outside the library, staff could make it a priority to ask for email addresses in order to contact attendees regarding future events.
Targeted email newsletters have been another recent initiative at SPPL, Hadley says.
“We’ve created all of these different types of e-newsletters and readers’ advisory [messages] so that people can make choices about [which content] they receive,” she explains. “We’re not focusing uniquely on infrequent users. What we are focusing on is how we connect differently to users.”