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Austin Public Library

How can a city-run bookstore provide value to its library system?

Yes, the City of Austin owns a bookstore.

Austin Public Library operates Recycled Reads, a used bookstore and book re-use facility. The operation is under a continual threat of closure from administration. The store provides valuable services to the community in the form of used books from $0.50 to $2.00 and adds to the City’s Zero-Waste Initiative. Yet decision makers do not perceive the store’s value.

A glimpse of $1.00 paperbacks on sale at Recycled Reads


August 2018 - December 2018


Austin Public Library (APL) hired our team of three Austin Center for Design (AC4D) consultants to uncover areas of opportunity for Recycled Reads to provide value to multiple audiences: the local community, the APL system, and the City of Austin (COA).

My Roles

  • Wrote a research plan and facilitated research recruitment within 72 hours

  • Conducted in-depth research with 20+ individuals from Recycled Reads staff, customers, volunteers, APL and COA administrators

  • Synthesized over 24 hours of transcribed data into themes

  • Developed insights for deeper investigation into problem areas

  • Visualized the problem space and create design recommendations for the client

  • Designed and present gripping narratives for multiple audiences: APL, COA, AC4D, and naive audiences

Design Research 101

Our team conducted extensive design research for Recycled Reads.

Design research is a rigorous qualitative research method. We talk in depth with users in-context within their homes, businesses, or among any interaction that’s related to the task at hand. We witness their routine tasks and probe to understand why things and people operate as they do.

The following are four interview subjects, and an important utterance, or quote that led us to form a larger insight about Recycled Reads’ operation. Everyone had a different connection to Recycled Reads.

Librarian: Drowning in Books

Regina is a branch librarian who educated on us on the intricacies about how books move throughout the library system.

There’s a consistent waterfall of materials in the Austin Public Library system: lots of new materials, limited shelf space, and materials that aren’t being circulated, or the opposite, have seen lots of wear and tear from constant use. Many of these books end up at Recycled Reads.

Regina, branch librarian in the Austin Public Library system. We met in the boiler room as the staff area was packed with books.

Staff Member: Where Books Go to Die

Mary knows the value of books. Her staff judges what’s sellable on Recycled Reads shelves, or is ready to be recycled. Computer programming books from the early 1990’s, or a cookbook from the 1980’s have little chance of selling, and are sold or donated to downstream recycling partners, who recycle the books into other industrial products.

A Recycled Reads staff member sorts through donated books.

Customer: The Emotional Connection to Books

Mario is ready to get rid of his large book collection, but it’s tough. Like many, Mario’s books are evidence of his identity. Recycled Reads ensures books will go to a good home, whether that place is the sales floor or a recycling facility. Most importantly for the city, books don’t end up in the trash, and in the City’s landfill.

Mario had collected hundreds of books about Russia, he wanted his collection to go where they would be used.


Contextual inquiry

We met staff and volunteers at Recycled Reads and watched them as they worked. We followed librarians in their branches and saw the process of sorting books firsthand.

[Left] I listen and take notes on book sorting procedures

Getting to the Heart of Everyday Tasks

Design research also facilitates research subjects to participate in the design, or visualize how they solve everyday problems. As researchers, we often join in with workers on the job to gain a greater sense of understanding and empathy. Below, a Recycled Reads staff member participates in a “Path of the Book” activity we designed to gauge awareness of the greater City ecosystem.

Recycled Reads staff visualizes the bookstore’s place within the City of Austin

Design Synthesis

We took our recorded interviews and work sessions, transcribed them, and worked with that data and our observations in a few different ways. Our goal was to identify patterns and consider the information we gathered from a few different perspectives.

Design Synthesis: Each transcript of every interview, sorted to find common themes, eventually leading to insights

Telling Stories: Zooming In, Zooming Out

Design research results in vivid stories to provoke new ideas. But this research is best balanced my reaching everyone in the system, and visualizing how people or systems work (or don’t work) together.

My teammate Kelsey adding a connection to the first draft of a map of how Recycled Reads interacts with the City of Austin

My teammate Kelsey adding a connection to the first draft of a map of how Recycled Reads interacts with the City of Austin

These chaotic first drafts of behavioral maps get boiled down, edited, talked about, and help to clarify the messy workings of people, especially in the midst of large hierarchies.

A higher fidelity version of a services map, each grey line depicting the connection between a staff, another staff, an organization, or tool

A higher fidelity version of a services map, each grey line depicting the connection between a staff, another staff, an organization, or tool


Recycled Reads struggles to communicate a dual-value promise, both to the City of Austin’s Zero-Waste Initiative, and their bookstore customers.

Lack of performance benchmarks (from the City and internally) results in Recycled Reads’ struggle to communicate value to the City.

Very low prices allow Recycled Reads to serve people regardless of income, allowing customers to take risks on books or explore new ideas.


Our team also delivered four design recommendations of how to benefit from each opportunity:

  • Design Recommendation 1: Recycled Reads must amend sorting procedures to promote variety in the front of house.

  • Design Recommendation 2: Recycled Reads must price materials consistently low.

  • Design Recommendation 3: Recycled Reads must optimize the physical space to display materials for purchase.

  • Design Recommendation 4: Work with the City or APL to set mutually beneficial benchmarks to define “success.”