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Engagement In Store: Libraries Borrow from Retail as the Customer Experience Moves Front and Center
What are the benefits of focusing on the best public library customer experience? What are some ways of achieving it? Libraries are increasingly looking to the retail industry for ways to cement a relationship with the customer and have them return again and again.

Not so many years ago a librarian's biggest concern seems to have been the books. Librarians at the circulation desk found it hard to imagine not being situated right next to the front door so they could monitor patrons and thwart any attempt to leave without checking out a book. Fast forward to today. Librarians have a whole new perspective on books and patrons.
Libraries like the Columbus Metropolitan Library don’t even use the word “patrons.” They are referred to as “customers.” CML has even engaged a retail consultant to bring a fresh perspective and thinking in the redesign of the new main library and branches.
Borrowing from the retail industry, one of the key concepts in designing today’s libraries is “touchpoints.” A touchpoint is any interaction between the customer and the brand. This could be the greeting received when checking out a book at the circulation desk; the way in which the collection is displayed in the library; and the sequence the customer follows to arrive and depart the library. Touchpoints are critical because they come to represent how the customer feels and whether he or she wants to return. They must not be isolated experiences, but applied throughout so the customer reads them as a collective whole.

One of the most important touchpoints is what customers see when they first walk in the door. But more than that, CML extends the library experience all the way outside the doors onto the sidewalks. The building is flanked on one side by a city park and on the other by a beautiful formal Carnegie entrance, the latter with expansive lawns fronting on Grant Avenue. This concept of a “library in a park” makes memorable trips to the CML and connects the library to the larger urban fabric – especially important in Columbus, where the library is an anchor to the new Discovery District.
So what is the experience of a customer once they enter the library? Do they see a security desk? Are they presented with a noisy espresso machine echoing in a hallway? Is the grand experience of entering a beautiful Carnegie Library been diminished in the interest of providing handicap accessibility or quick access from parking? These describe the previous entry experience at CML’s Main library, which were addressed in the redesign. The benefits thoughtfully considering the library’s first impression is a welcoming experience that the customer wants to be repeated over and over.

At CML if you arrive by car your first glimpse of the library is from parking garage elevator. Gone is the noisy café and you are greeted with a line of public meeting rooms and a glimpse into the light filled atrium ahead.

Be it BJ’s Wholesale Club or Bergdorf Goodman, retailers know the importance of first impressions. For libraries, first and foremost, there must be a sense of a brand of place – you must know at all times you’re in a library. To wit:

• The front is welcoming: At CML the original Carnegie entrance to the library has been returned to its noble purpose – giving the customer a sense of grandeur, of entering a place of exploration, learning and wonder for all ages.
• The handicapped entrance is more monumental while not competing: This entrance is equally uplifting while being ADA compliant.
• Display of collection: On tables strategically located throughout the library, books and other media are on display, often themed for a particular subject, e.g. “Black History Month” or “Remembering Bette Davis at the Centennial of her Birth.”
• New connections at level 2 to Carnegie to elevate the experience: The old and new portions of the library are melded seamlessly allowing easy movement from one to the other.

Another shift is the way in which we interact with the librarians and the collection.
Touchpoints include:
• Roving greeters versus fortress-like circulation desk: Librarians are encouraged to go out into the library and engage and offer to assist customers.
• Self-serve checkouts and reserves: For customer convenience, self-checkout is available and intuitively easy to use.
• Hands on experiences – children’s department, scanner for genealogy: The Children’s Department features “Reading Buddies,” librarians who can read to children in multiple languages. Equipment in Genealogy Department supplements on line resources like ancestor.com.

How can we extend the stay and enrich the experience
• Café: The café offers the opportunity to read books in solitude, meet and chat with peers or just enjoy a cup of coffee and people watch.
• Store: The Friends of the Library Store offers customers to buy library-related items while also supporting the library’s financial health.
• Park: The presence of the adjacent Topiary Park extends the library beyond its walls, offering a place to commune with nature during one’s trip to the library.
• Family Friendly, Teen Friendly, Kid Friendly, Researcher Friendly: A varied group of customers whose needs must all be met.
• Reaching out to the community: An adjacent high school, Cristo Rey, uses the CML as its de facto library. This is a whole new facet to the library being “teen friendly.”

The benefits of thoughtfully considering the library’s first impression as a welcoming experience is that the customer wants it repeated over and over. Furthermore, there are spaces in the library for everyone – kids, teens, and adults. As evidenced that the library now serves a vibrant and diverse user base, recently a citizenship swearing in for new immigrants was held at the library.

CML has definitive metrics that show library card issuance and overall visits have both increased substantially. The library has become an anchor of the city’s Discovery District and use of it by community groups has trended upward. In ways never imagined by the builders of the original Carnegie Building, it has become an irreplaceable amenity for the city of Columbus.
David Zenk, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, and Christine Verbitzki, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, were leaders in the Columbus Metropolitan Library project.