When You Don’t Know, Ask

When You Don’t Know, Ask

When You Don’t Know, Ask

Today I’m coming to you live from the Milwaukee Public Library, one of my very favorite public buildings. When I was a kid my mom used to take us here often (she homeschooled all five of us up until high school), and each time I would immediately run into the children’s section, grab a stack of books, and go make a little fort under the carpeted play place they had in the corner. I’d always leave with an armful of new stories, so excited for the upcoming week of reading. Obviously that love for books has stayed with me to this day, where you can see it littered all over this blog :)

Milwaukee’s Central Library is housed in one of those grand old 19th-century buildings you enjoy stumbling upon in most of the older cities across America. Sometimes if I’m passing by, I walk in the front door just to hang out in the foyer for a few minutes and admire the marble staircases and domed ceiling.

It’s funny how much more I appreciate it now, when in the past it was just a means to an end. For instance, during my late teenage years, I went to college out in Denver but was home during the summers. It was a couple miles to the library, so I’d walk there once a day to check my email . . . because back in those days the web was brand new, and personal email was a novel thing (and of course we didn’t have a computer).

So interesting how much times have changed, when just 20 years later everyone is walking around with a supercomputer in their pocket. And now instead of walking to the library to browse through the card catalogs, I’m creating this site from my kitchen table in order to instantly connect collectors to one another, worldwide, from the palms of their hands. So cool to think about!

Oh, and just for fun, I did explore back into the bowels of the library to find the one card catalog they still have in existence (probably for nostalgia’s sake).


“Look like that winter wheat gon’be a problem this year…”
– Great-Great-Grandpa St. Pierre, March 1880

Today’s discussion is about something you have to deal with every time you try to build something new: understanding how much you don’t know, and working to get that down to a manageable amount of ignorance.

Creating the Collector Directory Survey

The one thing I do know very well is how to concept, architect, develop, market, and administer large digital communities brought together for a purpose. Examples, examples . . . here, I just stole this from The #GivingCards Project FAQ (but don’t worry, I wrote it in the first place, so it’s fine):

Nate was one of the first micro-giving pioneers online, and he’s been doing this kind of work since 2009. Community projects include:

  • ItStartsWith.Us, Founder (10,000 members giving time)
  • Love Bomb, Founder (5,000 members giving support)
  • Love Drop, Co-Founder – with J. Money (1,000 members giving money)
  • GiveForward, Director of Communications ($100,000,000 raised for medical need)
  • Rockstar Finance Directory, Chief Strategist – with J. Money (1,200 personal finance bloggers indexed and connected)

Hans Christian Andersen stained glass window

Hans Christian Andersen stained glass window

So that part I got. Once I figure out exactly what I need to build, I can take care of the rest. The part I don’t know much about is the book collecting community, and how they interact with each other, especially online. I know they skew older, male, private, and not particularly tech-savvy. But I myself am not a book buyer, collector, or seller, nor do I plan to be . . . so it’s not like I’m a member of the community and can experience everything for myself. Therefore, I either need to be a passive observer (which will take forever), or put together a mechanism to gather the data I need (not my first choice, but it’ll do in a pinch). And so, since I happen to be in just a bit of a pinch, I went ahead and created the Collector Directory user survey!

I’ve been talking to people individually over the past two weeks – a few dealers here, a couple collectors there, and I’ve been getting decent feedback, but it’s felt pretty anecdotal, not to mention it was taking a long time to gather. So I decided to suck it up and just build out a detailed potential user survey that would ask every question I wanted to ask (at least the big main ones) of every type of user: dealers, collectors, club members, librarians, and bloggers.

So I spent 10 hours coming up with exactly what I needed, phrasing it correctly to make sure I would get legitimate answers, and putting it together in a Google Form. Then I had my guys Jay and Steve go through it to tell me why it was terrible (they did), and then I spent 5 more hours on another round of edits and segmentation until I felt it was pretty good, and that people would actually understand it and complete it.

Once I was done there, it was a simple matter of coding it to stand out on each of the three pages of the Collector Directory pre-launch site, so that anyone who visited had the opportunity to give me feedback on what they want to see this tool do once it’s live. Here’s how it looks on the page: Collector Directory

A picture on the wall of some old-timey kids, which I found interesting because if you think about it, all these children are dead today (especially that goober down in front). Isn’t that crazy to think about?

Once I did that, the next step was to find a place full of collectors and dealers to ask if any of them would mind giving some feedback. I did this with no small amount of trepidation, because as I may have mentioned offhandedly before, I’ve been somewhat less than impressed with the warmth of my welcome in this community so far. Outsiders and tech kids and new ideas seem to be anathema to many of these people, so I posted to a Facebook group, and held my breath…

You can see the county courthouse out one of the windows

With that, this article is already 1,000 words long and needs to be finished, but I’ll make a note to write an article on how it feels to be someone knocking on the door of this industry, coming from a different one. I do believe the experience so far warrants a full-article treatment, especially because the lessons learned apply just as much to most other creative endeavors as well.

As a little preview, I’ll just tell you that today, within an hour of putting this concept into the wild, I was accused of spam (and more spam), of building “another worthless startup,” and of trying to get other people to fill up a database for me, that I would then . . . sell? Maybe? It wasn’t quite clear. I was also accused of – and I am not making this up – “compiling a list of innocent collectors who might have valuable books in their unguarded houses.” Yes, the implication being that I would then use this list to physically go and rob people’s homes.

Welcome to the world of rare book collecting, Nate!

Anyway, the survey is working, good data is coming in, a dozen people have taken it so far today, every single one of them (plus a half dozen more) have joined the email list, and I think I’m done for the day. Goodnight, all.

Milwaukee Public Library

About Nate

I’m building a web platform to index and connect serious book collectors in every topic, while documenting the entire process here on this site.

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