Judging a Library by its Cover

There is an assumption that the digital age will bring about the demise of the library. That isn’t particularly true. The digital age will bring about the demise of the traditional library, but libraries will continue to grow and flourish in this new age. The key is to work out how . . .


Libraries aren’t actually that different from any other shop. Where a shop may sell products, a library sells knowledge and community. And they may not charge anything (unless you rack up a sizeable fine) but they do incur a time cost and a psychological cost. So to bring the concept of a library into the 21st century, it takes an understanding of the customers that engage with the service. And that is exactly what Nieuwe Bibliotheek (New Library) in the Netherlands has done.

Facing a significant decline in the number of visitors, the New Library turned to their customers to see how they could change the service to better suit the needs of the users. This process started with an extensive customer survey to gain an understanding of the socio-demographic groups engaging with the service as well as the impression of the traditional library from which they found some interesting facts.

Firstly, consumers found the traditional library idea dull and boring. Secondly, there was a mismatch between the library cataloguing system and customer’s area of interest. Thirdly, their customer groups were significantly more diverse than they had predicted. And finally, (and most importantly) between 70 and 75 percent of their customers entered the library without a certain book in mind, they came in to browse.

Tackling these insights forced a radical change in thinking. The traditional library set up was missing something . . . so where to turn? Commercial libraries – i.e. Bookshops.

The spaces were given a complete revamp with colourful designs, furniture, styling and interesting signage. Books were no longer displayed with the spine facing outwards. Instead they were displayed with the cover facing out providing greater insight into each product for the user. While we would all like to believe that we don’t judge a book by its cover, that clearly isn’t true and the effectiveness of this design emphasises the importance of displaying the visual stimuli on the cover.

Books were grouped by interest areas rather than Fiction and Non-Fiction or by the Dewey decimal system and were then displayed in smaller areas suited to different customer groups. Graphics and photos were introduced. Employees approached the customers with a more proactive, customer-oriented approach. Cafés were introduced into different sections of the library and a reading garden was created. A piano was even introduced that visitors were invited to play!

All these advancements changed the function of the library. Rather than becoming a new system that customers had to learn in order to interact and gain the most value, the library provided it straight to them. In this way, it was able to maintain its true purpose as a site for knowledge transfer despite the changing medium of that knowledge.

And it worked! In 2013, they had over 1,140,000 visitors through the doors of the library. People were staying longer in the facility. Knowledge transfer was now being undertaken over a coffee. Customers were staying within the grounds to read a book or meet other people. The individual functions of the library had changed, but the purpose remained the same.

All it took was a little bit of a customer-orientation!

Check out an interview with the masterminds behind this library here: http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-a-new-dutch-library-smashed-attendance-records