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Book browsing in a pandemic

Design research
April — June 2020

Group members
Denisa Maria Bucuroiu
Felix Blomqvuist
Malin Benson
Michael Waldorff
Zakiya Pierre

Methods used
Online reader survey
Interviews with the library staff
Interviews with readers
Participatory observation

During the Service Design course at Malmö University, in collaboration with the City library, our student group explored the reading rituals of the library visitors and the librarian work supporting them during Covid-19.

The importance of the library

Malmö Stadsbiblioteket is a space which many visit everyday to study, read and be alone together with other people. The librarians have observe that some have the same everyday routines and timing; reading the same newspapers, sitting by the same computers. The library is an integral part of their everyday.

You come here as a kid, maybe turn away for a few years, you come here to study, then go away for a few years. Maybe you have kids of your own, maybe you’re unemployed and come back: (throughout life) you interact with the library with different needs.

Project developer, Malmö Stadsbibliotek

Social distancing and the pressure to go digital

This Library is my second home

Rapid readjustments in the ways borrowing, reading or participation in events was done had to be made. This left many regular user, especially elders, unable to engage with the library.

What is unique to us? How and should we compete with other providers in the digital space?

The library staff are also trying to change their ways of working and are raising urgent questions. As an institution primarily focused on physical interaction, the library wants to maintain their culture and uniqueness, not just go digital.

The importance of browsing

Our research led to several design opportunities. We decided to focus on browsing, as it is at core of existing library services and the visitors' go to reading ritual most affected by the pandemic.

The library’s best offer is to browse. You don’t really know what you want, you get inspired when you’re there.

Browsing for books to read can be a big part of the actual reading experience. People have particular ways of browsing and often follow a specific sequence of actions. Some are not able to visit and browse physically during different periods of life or due to situations they are in

People have been spotted using their cameras, filming the surroundings of the library, and when one of the patrons was approached, they said that they were on a video call with someone that was not able to come to the library.

Browsing is also strongly tied to the physical presence of a book, its looks, size, printed text. When a book is instantly available to touch and read, visitors get an impression and can decide whether or not to borrow based on it.

Some people can spend hours walking around the library brows- ing for books, actively making time for this activity of browsing.
This led us to converge on a research question:

How might the library support alternative ways of browsing?

Understanding the how and why of browsing

The first workshop took place outside of the library and was open for people to participate as they passed by. This way we could engage with them in a safer way and maintain a connection to the physical library. We had 17 participants throughout the day, both library visitors and passers by.

This workshop was done to broaden our knowledge and get more insight into people’s personal browsing practices and rituals.

We prepared two exercises to get people in the mindset of browsing for books. During these exercises we held semi-structured interviews and observed people’s behaviour. We also asked them to think out loud. One task was related to physical browsing, and the other to the journey of finding a book to read.

Co-imagining alternative ways of physical and digital browsing

The previous workshop revealed the importance of recommendations. Almost everyone we talked to relied on them in some form. The purpose of the second exercise was to find out more about what made recommendations reliable to individuals.

Each participant was given a paper divided in two sections. The right section was dedicated to a person recommending a book and the left to information about the book. The task was to put together what information should be present on each side.

A number of cut out examples of recommendations were provided. These included things like grading, degree of personal information, related books, list and genres, which they could glue on as they liked. Participants could also choose to add their own elements.

Participants were asked to mark places in Malmö where pick up points for reserve library books could be installed. They were then asked to visualize how this pick-up station could look, either by writing or drawing.

Participants wrote down unusual, novel ways of filtering books while browsing, which they then presented to the group.

Design opportunities

Touchpoints of an existing library book delivery service. Design opportunity touchpoints highlighted in blue.

The importance of recommendations

Recommendations were brought up by almost every participant in different forms. It could be recommendations from friends, news- papers, radio, book clubs and the library recommendation shelf. Recommendations seem to be a way for people to feel assured about the book they are choosing, as well as a way of finding new books to read.

Delivery points

Having pick-up stations for books outside of the library was very well received by workshop participants. They suggested these could be located at travelling junctures, such as Malmö Central Station or Södervärn as well as parks, where they could pick up a book while out walking. Moreover, people preferred to have impersonal postal boxes requiring a code, no one proposed something unusual. Being able to return books this way as was also a thing all participants suggested

Filtering books by physical properties and mood

It became evident that various dimensions play a part when choosing what to read. Mood plays a big part in what to read, this is similar to the factor of season but on a more day to day basis. Some aspects are more related to the physical aspects of the book (such as size, material and cover or title). The format of the book is also of importance, the chapter length of a book can be a deal breaker: very short chapters can make the reading choppy while long ones make it hard to pause and reflect. What makes “too long” or “too short” is, of course, subjective.

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