We are team of student researchers at the Austin Center for Design tasked with doing design research for a local Austin organization over the next several months. Our team is working with Recycled Reads, which is a used bookstore and part of the Austin Public Library system. Over the last several weeks, we have been shadowing our participants, watching their behavior, and learning from them. From this research, we have collected many interesting stories from our participants. Here’s a sample of the stories we experienced in the field.
STORIES FROM THE FIELD
Where Stuff Goes to Die
Mitch has been with the Austin Public Library for almost 30 years. He actually retired at the beginning of this year, but was brought back on by his boss because they had not yet found his replacement and they needed his assistance during the renovation of some of the library branches.
Mitch is the Inventory Specialist at the Austin Public Library’s Warehouse. The warehouse is a nondescript building on the eastside of Austin. There is little signage outside and it’s quite difficult to discern how to enter the building. Mitch found us outside, knowing that we would not know how to get into the building.
Since we knew this was the warehouse for the public library, we assumed that we would be walking into a warehouse full of books. We were wrong. We entered into huge, open room, full of stuff. As soon as we walked in, Mitch said, “This is where stuff goes to die.”
We follow Mitch around rows and rows and rows piled high and overflowing with stuff. There are tables, chairs, old shelving units, desks, pieces of lumber, old banners, and even expired fire extinguishers. Mitch is overwhelmed with the amount of things that the warehouse has to store. He tells us that the warehouse gets all of the furniture and random things that the library branches do not want anymore. All of it goes to the warehouse while they try to figure out what to do with it.
Some of the things go back out to the library branches, but a majority is being held indefinitely at the warehouse. Mitch is frustrated because the city makes it difficult for him to get rid of anything. Since the materials are obtained with taxpayer money, there are specific ordinances that dictate where the material can go and how the city can dispose of them. Mitch is disheartened and finds it challenging to get rid of anything because of the constraints the city puts on the materials.
Not only that, but Mitch is dealing with the whole library department. He says,
“We’re such a big department and we have so many locations. Another department might be just one building, but we have well over 20 buildings that we have to deal with. It’s a constant, constant struggle.”
Drowning in Books
Regina is a branch manager in one of Austin’s twenty branch libraries. While she may be a librarian, in her words, “She’s not the reading-ist lady in town.” She describes herself as a “programs person,” and it was evident from following Regina through the library, there are many different programs she operates.
The main floor of the library was clean, tidy, and humming with patrons when we visited. But as we followed Regina to the management area of the library, shelves were filled with a random assortment of items: art supplies, snacks for community events, and carts filled with books. We sat down with Regina in the library’s mechanical room, which had been converted to a small meeting space. Dealing with the flow of large quantities of books, materials, and supplies is a significant part of Regina’s job.
Regina explained, “We’re drowning in books.” She was referring to her branch, but also the Austin Public Library system in general. Like all branch libraries, Regina’s branch has a limited amount of shelf space, and in order to serve patrons with the best quality materials, library staff perform “weeding.” Weeding is the action of pulling materials out of circulation. A book may be weeded because it’s in poor physical condition, or it hasn’t been checked out in recent years. Regina showed us carts full of weeded materials: books, audio books, and DVDs.
After materials are weeded, Regina and her staff mark materials to be delivered to Recycled Reads. Regina communicated a sense of relief and gratefulness when describing Recycled Reads’ purpose within the Austin Public Library System. She mentioned, “It wouldn’t take us very long, about a week, until we were tripping on stuff…with very limited resources [Recycled Reads] makes it all go away.”
Making it all go Away
That brings us to Recycled Reads. From the front, Recycled Reads looks like an unassuming storefront in a small strip center on Burnet Road in north central Austin. We walked in the front door on our first day of research, and stepped into the atmosphere of a calm, welcoming used bookstore. In the large, open center of the store, patrons were reading and working on laptops, while others browsed shelves filled with books.
We were greeted by the manager, Mary – a petite 62 year-old woman with a big presence and a lot of energy. She took us through to the back room, and we were astonished by the sight of boxes upon boxes of materials. Some boxes were stacked in huge cubes on pallets, while others, on carts, were being methodically opened and sorted by staff and volunteers to go to the retail floor.
Mary explained that it isn’t just the public library that sends Recycled Reads its unwanted books and media, but that 50% of the donations they receive are straight from public donations. She said:
“They drive up here in Uhauls and pickup trucks, and SUVs, and Wells Cargo trailers filled with books, you know? And they have no idea, they have no idea what’s gonna happen with this stuff. They’re just so happy not to have to deal with it.”
We’ve learned through our research that people have an attachment to books. However, at a certain point people feel overburdened by their accumulations of stuff, and their sentimental attachment is outweighed by the need to be rid of it all. They don’t want to throw these books away, but they want them out of their consciousness, so they take them to Recycled Reads.
Recycled Reads is not only the reuse, repurpose, and recycle branch of the Austin Public Library, but they’re also a place for the public at large to donate their unwanted materials. Recycled Reads takes in 60,000 – 70,000 items a month. That’s 2,000 items a day! Most importantly, they’re taking items that would otherwise go in the landfill, and redirecting them to streams of further use.
Mitch feels overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff in the warehouse he oversees, and frustrated by an inability to get rid of any of it. Regina is always just at capacity with books at the library branch that she manages, and is so grateful to have a place to send the weeded materials and donations that pile up in her space. Individuals with too much stuff want to unburden themselves of their unwanted personal books and materials, but can’t bear to just throw them out. Recycled Reads takes on the responsibility of accepting these donations and weeded materials, diverting them from the landfill, and gives them further life. In the words of Regina, the branch librarian we visited:
“If I didn’t have Recycled Reads to launder my donations and grubby books, we would be in a world of hurt real quick.”
RECYCLED READS’ REACTION
We presented our stories from the field to two members of Recycled Reads staff. Their reaction was positive, and expressed that our stories were an appropriate introduction to Recycled Reads. The staff also saw value as a conversation-starter to an ongoing conundrum to the city— the inability to get rid of unused materials. The staff believed our research had potential to be presented to City of Austin administrators, other city departments, and other library branches.
We are just completing week four of sixteen, concluding our data collection portion. We will transcribe every interview, post them around our workspace and immerse ourselves in the words and drawings of our participants. From there, our team will uncover themes in order to synthesize our research into insights.