Making Libraries Habit-forming! — A TTW Guest Post by Susan Musson 1


The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (2012) has been on my books-to-read list for over a year now so I was quite pleased to see it included in the list of suggestions for this Context Book assignment. My only hesitation was that I was unsure how a book on habits could be applied to the library community. I needn’t have worried. This book is not a ‘self-help’ manual, and Charles Duhigg is not a therapist or neurologist. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist which is evident in his conversational tone and investigative style. He describes how habits have destroyed and then saved people’s lives, emotionally and physically; how companies came back from the brink of bankruptcy; how one of the lowest ranked teams in the NFL turned their game around; and how oppressed, but resigned citizens came together during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While these seemingly random case studies may not sound related, it is the recognition of habits and how using that awareness made it possible for dramatic change, individually, company-wide, and throughout an entire community. It was the focus on this last subject that made me realize what a powerful tool habits can be and how applying them to public libraries will require reforming habits of patrons as well as librarians.

Duhigg has developed a simplified model of why habits develop and how this awareness is critical in changing certain ones. “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permissions, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize – they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.” (Duhigg, 2012, Location 521). Identifying habits as three individual processes allows us to examine and modify each in order to change.

“Experiments have been carried out publicly in the foyer of the Main Library in Aarhus.” (transformationlab, 2007). This is a great example of how testing the theory in Step 2 of Duhigg’s flowchart works. Obviously not all libraries have resources that were made available at the Main Library in Aarhus, but that shouldn’t stop one from trying some simpler experiments. One way to find out how library patrons want to participate is by asking them, just as the L. A. Public Library did in 2013, For many patrons, seeing their idea or suggestion brought to life is the ultimate reward. As patrons grow accustomed to being asked for input, responding to those requests will become a habit.

Participatory service is a two way street and there are so many ways libraries can contribute. For example, I would love it if my library emailed me book suggestions based on my previous check outs, and even better, offering a hold option so it would be available for me to pick up within the next 24 hours. Duhigg talks about how Target has been researching our buying habits to provide more individualized marketing material, a.k.a. coupons and catalogs. (Did you know your envelope of coupons might be completely different from that of your neighbors?) Amazon has been collecting data about our purchases and feedback for years and uses it to make more purchase suggestions, as well providing our reviews for others to help choose their own purchases. “To market a new habit – be it groceries or aerobics – you must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.” (Duhigg, 2012, Location 3285). So, by using patrons’ records, with their permission of course, libraries have the option for customizing and personalizing communications for each user. Senior events and classes could be announced by automated phone calls to the generation that might not have embraced social media. On the opposite end of that spectrum would be tweets and instagrams about after-school library programs and homework help to those that seem glued to their phones. Tracking feedback via social media and program attendance will give libraries a sense of what patrons want, and what they might not be interested in. Pretty soon, library patrons will be expecting reading suggestions and being able to register for a program through email or on their phones, and a new habit is created!


Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House, New York. [Kindle version]

Mack, C. (2013, February 15). Crowdsourced design: Why Los Angeles is asking the public to create the library of the future [Web log post]. GOOD.Retrieved from

transformationlab [Kanal tilhørende transformationlab]. (2007, May 7). Transformation lab – Prototyping the future [Video file]. Retrieved from

securedownloadSusan is a student working towards her Master of Library and Information Science at SJSU School of Information. She looks forward to joining the growing number of information professionals who are working to break down the physical limitations of libraries. Susan believes that today’s libraries are not defined by a building or a book, but rather defined as a structural or virtual space of unlimited information, that should be made available to everyone with a thirst for learning.

One thought on “Making Libraries Habit-forming! — A TTW Guest Post by Susan Musson

  • Andrea funkhouser

    Excellent. Full disclosure – she’s my kid. But I come from a long line of librarians/authors and have, myself, a MA in Communications. Adoption of new ideas is a big focus in the field of communications. Technology is throwing wide open social change in many areas and can certainly be applied to the operations of libraries. We do not live in the U.S. It would be great to have access to a library without having to be a resident in a U.S. community (my experience so far), and then to be able to get material electronically. I am a late adopter of e-reading but am slowly breaking my habit of lugging volumes of physical books back to Mexico every time I travel. So that is my suggestion for another “habit” libraries could work on to help long-distance users.

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