Using risk-reward calculations in the library

3 January 2012

Since my post before Christmas on maximising the idea-generating ability of libraries, I’ve been thinking a bit more about how we design space and experiences in libraries, and why.


Public librarians talk a lot about risk.  Nearly always this is in the context of how to reduce risk - whether it relates to the risk of lost or damaged stock, perverts exposing themselves, patrons complaining to their local Councillor or the ubiquitous repetitive strain injuries.  Patrons often seek to reduce risk in the library as well, although usually it comes to our attention when they seek to reduce risk for others - the risk their children will read books including violence, profanity, or, god-forbid, gay penguins; the risk someone will spill their coffee on a book; the risk someone might use our computers to look at pornography; the risk that children might enjoy themselves whilst at the library.

This concern about reducing risk leads inevitably to myriad rules in an attempt to reduce or, as modern corporate jargon has it, ‘manage’ risk.  So we have rules against eating and drinking; rules requiring photographic ID and proof of address to be able to borrow items; rules about accessing particularly old, fragile or rare books; rules about mobile phone use; rules about who can access what on which computers under what circumstances; rules about talking; rules about not taking library books into the toilets...


Ostensibly, this inclination to create rules to reduce risk is due to the desire (and pressure) to create, if not a safe environment, an environment with the appearance of safety.  Libraries across the western world pride themselves on being both a welcoming and safe place.  This is a noble aim, but alas it has a fatal flaw.  A safe place for ideas all too often leads to a place for safe ideas.  This is not conducive to a creative, vibrant and intellectually rigorous society.


I’d like to propose a different way of thinking about risk in the library.  Instead of simply focussing on risk as something to be reduced, we should start to think about it as one part of a risk-reward ratio.

Taking the risk of patrons spilling food and drink as an example, library managers might weight the risk against the reward gained by allowing patrons to bring in food and drink - allowing them to stay longer and have a more pleasant experience.  Each library or part of a library would need to make this calculation separately - what is right for the Melbourne City Library is not necessarily the same as what is right for the Bodleian.

Once you start looking at things you have already identified as risks in this way, you can make a more rational and realistic decision about whether it is a risk that needs to be eliminated, reduced, managed or ignored.  More than that, however, you can start to look at all aspects of library service through the risk-reward lens.

Organising space

All libraries, particularly public and academic libraries, have problems managing different expectations and needs among their patrons when it comes to noise and space.  Rather than letting this degenerate into an ongoing skirmish between grumpy child-hating old codgers and irresponsible young people with no parenting skills, it may help to think about how we allocate space in terms of a risk-reward continuum.  Many academic, and some public, libraries assign different rules about noise, mobile phones etc to different areas in their buildings.  This is seen as a compromise and usually considered in terms of specific actions that are banned or otherwise restricted - use of mobile devices, volume of conversation, working in groups.  These are useful compromises, but they tend to stem from a desire to reduce complaints, rather than consider the problem in a more systematic way.

A different way of looking at the problem is to consider patrons or students not so much in terms of differing needs or differing tolerances but rather as having different attitudes (at any given moment) to risk and reward.  A student who wishes to do some group study for a couple of hours has calculated that the risk of gossiping instead of studying is outweighed by the potential reward of gaining a better insight into the subject by studying in a group. Or perhaps the potential reward will be to copy someone else’s class notes, or the opportunity to flirt with Jane’s friend Sally.  For another student the risk of not getting any study done in a group is too high, so they might choose the quiet study area to ensure the chance of a reward in the form of understanding Darwin’s writings on Galapagos Island finches.  Perhaps even the quiet discussion that happens in the study carrells is too much for the Professor who needs to immerse herself in an ancient Latin text.  She may calculate that the risk of failing to fully engage with the complicated text is too high even in the quiet study area, and that she needs a private room.

These calculation have nothing to do whether the Professor is an outgoing and sociable person, or the students wish to ace their tests - they are simply risk-reward calculations for the immediate future.  Rather than seeing patrons as fitting in to a fixed ‘type’ - mother with young chlidren, senior citizen, teenage student - we need to provide a range of options depending on their particular need at any given time.  Rather than providing space based on an assumption of what particular types of people will want, we can arrange things so that various ‘appetites for risk’ are catered for.

The US Treasury Bonds of publishing

Thinking about risk-reward calculations can also be a way of thinking about how you provide services.  Just as the finance industry uses concepts like Modern Portfolio Theory to think about appetites for risk, so too we can use the concept of risk-reward ratios to decide what material to suggest to readers.

The modern fiction publishing industry has a very sophisticated system for appealing to the natural risk-aversion of the average reader.  The whole concept of genres is designed to reduce risk.  Once you find a book you really enjoy, all you have to work out is what genre it is from and you have a way to identify other books that you also may enjoy simply based on genre.  This can be very broad or very narrow.  The masters of low risk genre fiction are of course Harlequin Mills and Boon, whose finely differentiated formula-fiction could be considered the US Treasury Bonds of the book world - even if they’re not to your taste, the risk that they will have a surprise ending is near zero.

Choosing resources based on risk

The risk-reward frame also provides new ways of looking at collection development.  You might consider whether the risk of the encyclopedia set being out of date before it arrives is outweighed by the convenience of owning the material outright and having access to it even when your internet access is cut off.  The reward of 24/7 access from anywhere to your journal database is weighed against the risk that someone will want an article from 1982, which isn’t available in full text but would be if you kept you hardcopy back issues.

Considering how patrons make decisions about resources can also be seen this way.  Rather than one patron being old-fashioned and another demanding and modern, one might simply consider them to have different understandings of risk and reward.  For one, the risk of the Wikipedia article being written or edited by an idiot or a liar is too high, even though the reward is that they don’t have to wait for the library to open, then find the relevant article in the index of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Someone else might consider the question quite differently - the risk of the Britannica article being out of date may be higher for them.

In an ideal world (all other things being equal, which they never are) we would provide a wide range of material in a wide range of formats - because different patrons have different risk calculations.  Just because something is ‘the latest’ or ‘how everyone finds things now’ doesn’t necessarily mean you should prevent patrons from using other sources if they are still available.  On the other hand, the risk of a particular format becoming impossible to use (eg. a microform or electronic file format for which reading devices no longer exist) needs to be considered.

Quantifying risk in the library

A question that we might need to consider is - how can you quantify a patron’s appetite for risk when it comes to library services?  Should you try?  If someone asks for reading suggestions should we ask them for a rating out of 100 for their appetite for risk?  I’m not sure this is necessarily a useful approach, but considering what to suggest based on an understanding of how much risk they are willing to take with new authors, genres, styles or concepts would certainly be useful.  Comments are welcome!

Letting the patron decide

Ultimately, our goal when looking at libraries through a risk-reward frame should be to put risk assessment into the hands of the patron as much as possible.  Instead of trying to regulate behaviour based on our assumption that all patrons are risk averse, we need to let them choose for themselves.  The coffee they bring in may help stimulate their brains to come up with new ideas.  The conversation at the next table might give them the idea they need to start their new novel.  The screaming boy in the non-fiction section might seal their decision never to have children.  The choice, wherever possible, should be left to the patron.

(minor edits made to fix embarrassing typos on 3/1/12, 7.20pm)