Book Fair Weather Friends | Newberry

Book Fair Weather Friends

I was moving from one end of the library to another when a lady stepped from the restroom and jumped out of the way. As I paused to apologize for being in a hurry to get at my next missile filled with Divine Secrets, she said, “Is this the way back to the reading room?”
“No,” I said, “It’s that way.”
She grimaced. “You keep moving things around.”
“We do,” I agreed, though in fact the Grand Renovation had not yet spread to this level.
“It must be fifty years since I’ve been here,” she explained. Now I grimaced, because the lady looked younger than I do. “I hardly knew where I was. But I had to come back to do some research. Even my great-granddaughter told me, ‘You should go to the Newberry Library.’ She’s seven; I said ‘How do you know about the Newberry Library?’ Her mother takes her to your book fairs.”
Out of the mouths of babes, eh? Most people think the profit to the Newberry from the Book Fair can be expressed in that hundred and umpteen thousand dollars we bring in over the last weekend in July. A dozen or so may have some knowledge of the occasional donated book worth ten thousand dollars. But not many regard our people profit.
That was one of the original goals of the Book Fair, away back in 1985: to convince the general public, and especially people in the Near North, that quite normal people were allowed past our high wooden doors. If only a person could be coaxed inside once, went the reasoning, that person would likely come back.
Many do—various surveys have indicated that for many of our neighbors their first exposure to the Newberry came when they were a customer at the Book Fair or a guest at a wedding—but it’s a hard thing to measure. And many do not: the Book Fair is their annual visit to the library.
In the olden days, we tried raffles and drawings, in an effort to get names and addresses. We gave that up when we started to worry about the Illinois Gaming Laws. Then we tried surveys, questionnaires which asked the public what it wanted from the Newberry. That came to an end when we found that what most people wanted was a chance to buy their books without being bothered to fill in a survey. Our most successful gambit was just a sign-up sheet in te lobby, with someone standing by to ask “Hey, you want to get news of upcoming Newberry events?”
The digital age made this all so much simpler. People are more ready to give out an email address than a front door address. And we can send announcements for every single lecture and exhibit without spending money for postage. There IS the drawback that one has to rely on people’s handwriting to figure out that email address. Someone whose a looks like an o and whose m, n, and r are indistinguishable are not going to get much email from us.
And it’s all part of the search for information. Everyone has an IDEA about what percentage of the Book Fair crowd comes back to see us during the rest of the year. There must be a correlation between the number of people thrilled by the selection of maps for sale and the number of people who come to lectures on maps. But how can we prove it? How can we trace it when the connection may be as remote as a happy customer who tells her great-grandmother to come and get a Reader’s card?
Well, the suggestion that we band each customer with a tag in the ear received very little support. Fingerprinting our customers would, like the survey, just add time to checkout. Surveying readers about why they come to the Newberry is dependent on often faulty perceptions. A person might say she was at the Newberry to research the French Revolution because of the Newberry’s excellent collection of primary documents, completely forgetting that she is interested in the subject at all because her mother bought her “A Tale of Two Cities” at the Book Fair in 1994.
We will continue to work on the project. If at next year’s Book Fair you are asked for a DNA sample, just assume it’s for a genealogical research project. (Just so you won’t expect any of the money when we get our Nobel Prize for isolating the Booklover Gene.)

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