Visual Merchandising – Applying Bookstore Insights to Public Library Collections

Book display for Inspirational women

Check out this article from the Public Libraries journal, by Allison Marie Fiscus.  About the Author: Allison Marie Fiscus is Manager of the Maumee Branch at Toledo Lucas County (OH) Public Library. Contact Allison at

What if I told you that the more intricate and thought out a book display, the less likely it is that a customer will actually touch a book on it, let alone check one out? What if I said that at best an overly constructed book display discourages circulation and at worst contributes to its decline? Counterintuitive though it may be, it’s the truth.

Bookstores figured this out long ago. It’s one of the main reasons that in a world populated by Amazon shoppers they have stayed in business. Conversely, public libraries nationwide have seen their circulation drop steadily as new ways of consuming text come into popularity.1

Why is it that we struggle to give away materials for free while Barnes and Noble keeps their people coming back to give them more of their hard-earned dollars?

The answer is visual merchandising. It’s not just a tool for retail establishments. As a veteran of the bookstore industry I’ve seen it in action, and I’m here to tell my fellow librarians that we can learn from what they’ve spent millions of dollars to research and implement.

Keep It Simple

Don’t spend excessive amounts of time carefully creating a display based on a topical theme. Instead, curate displays based on a very general idea or genre. Mystery titles, biographies, juvenile fiction, holidays, cooking—pick your prettiest book covers or the titles you have in largest quantity and display them simply and prominently (more on this in a moment). These displays will be easy to refill and can be used to help struggling books circulate purely by being out in the open. And make no mistake; being able to refill your displays quickly is key. A full display is an inviting display and these books will go.

New Books Are “New” to Your Patrons Far Longer Than They Are to You

Dedicate a large space to prominently displaying new books with their covers facing out. If possible, keep books in this “new” section for at least twelve months. Consider this: per capita, U.S. library users visit a library less than five times a year.2 With that in mind, highlighting books as new for twelve months makes perfect sense and arguably is still not a sufficient amount of time for your customers to fully grasp what you have to offer. Make it easy on them to find new titles and they will reward your efforts with circs.

Take the Time to Study How Your Customers Move Through Your Library

Find an hour every day for a week and sketch a heat map of where your customers travel upon entering your building. The results may very well surprise you and will definitely help you to better understand where displays should be placed to support interaction. It’s easy to look at your library and see where you can fit a display, but if the majority of your customers are coming through the door, walking directly to the hold shelf/computers/quiet study, and back out the front door again, they aren’t seeing your display on the slat wall behind your fiction stacks. Put the books where the customers already are. Once you get their attention their user habits very well may change, at which point you can push displays into new and deeper areas of your space.

Get Creative (With Your Furniture)!

Extra table lying around? Display space! Short shelving units? Display space! Unused atlas stand? Display space! Before you commit to spending gobs of hard-won funding on new furniture and shelving to support your displays, take a hard look at what you have and what can be tastefully repurposed. Shift collections to different areas and don’t give valuable shelving real estate to collections that will circulate anyways. However, avoid using temporary furniture such as folding tables for display. Sadly, these look sloppy no matter how much work you put into making them presentable.

(Read the rest of this article here!! Get some great ideas for your own displays – and share photos with us!!)

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