February 17, 2018

Joan Bernstein | Movers & Shakers 2006

Merchandising the Library


Joan Bernstein has a message for librarians: ‘You can create exciting change with very little money.’ It’s not magic. It’s marketing – understanding what your customers want and giving it to them. Focus groups had told Bernstein they wanted a more comfortable library that was easy to use. She’d already found that merchandising techniques helped people discover what they wanted: when she displayed little-used books near the entrance, they ‘flew off the shelves,’ she says. So when New Jersey State Librarian Norma Blake and South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative (SJRLC) director Karen Hyman invited her to make her library the demonstration project for a library merchandising program called Trading Spaces, she leaped at the chance.

With a $45,000 grant, she added a teen zone, Internet café, and DVD collection. She improved display of materials with gondolas and slatwall end panels. She added color and comfortable furnishings throughout. She reorganized the collection in user-friendly categories. She improved signage. And she trained every staff member to take turns as the friendly greeter. By March 2005, first anniversary of the project’s completion, circulation had increased by 38 percent and uniformly enthusiastic patron comments included words like ‘this is the coolest library ever.’

Throughout the process, Bernstein involved her staff. While sharing her uncertainties about the uncharted territory they were venturing into, she gained their total commitment to trying to make it work. As a result, Blake says, every staff member is now a marketer: ‘Thanks to Joan, they’ve become passionate public speakers, knowledgeable about the big picture policies and procedures.’

As part of the grant, Bernstein provides photographs and how-to-do-it documentation for the project on its web site (www.sjrlc.org/tradingspaces). She’s also a consultant for librarians attempting similar merchandising projects and a frequent speaker on ‘Adding WOW to the Library.’ A member of the Public Library Association’s Marketing Public Libraries Committee, Bernstein believes ‘it’s our obligation as librarians to make people aware of our products. Librarians shouldn’t think their libraries can continue to prosper if they remain the way they were when we graduated from library school.’

Bernstein’s risk-taking spirit is exemplified by her favorite cartoon: a flying penguin hovering over a group of penguins, saying, ‘We just weren’t flapping our wings hard enough!’ A reminder, she says, that ‘you don’t know what you can accomplish until you try.’



Current Position Director, Mount Laurel Library, NJ
Degrees M.S., Information Sciences and Technology, Drexel University, 1974
Leadership President-elect New Jersey Library Association
Fun Fact Once answered a job ad for a female race car driver