or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk



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Saying No In My Library, And How We Can Say It Less Often

   July 24th, 2014 Brian Herzog

I know I've mentioned before that my library has a strong "Get To Yes" policy for customer service - we want to do whatever we can to meet the patrons' needs.

To identify areas where we're coming up short, occasionally in the past we've kept "No Logs" at the service desks - log sheets for staff to track patron questions where we had no alternative but to answer "no." For this fiscal year, we're really trying to improve customer service even more, so we've made the Reference Desk's "No Log" a permanent thing.

Below is a snapshot of our "No" questions from July 1st until now - mostly museum passes this library doesn't offer, extended study room use, or printer/copier questions. But there's other good stuff in there that I think we can improve on, and that's what this is all about:

nologJuly2014

Nothing earth-shattering - which is good, really - but small steps are sometimes the best approach for improvements. I'm really curious to see how these things trend over time, too.

Also, slightly related to this is OCLC's Top reasons for no - the reason libraries report for interlibrary loan requests being denied. I can't remember where I saw this link posted, but I like this sort of thing.



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What Do You Think About E-Cigarettes in Libraries?

   August 21st, 2013 Brian Herzog

e-cigaretteMassachusetts has a state-wide library email discussion list, and lately I've been following with interest a discussion about whether or not e-cigarettes should be allowed in libraries.

The sentiment seems to be coming down on the "not allowed" side, which is where I am, too. I have not encountered one in my library, but other Massachusetts libraries have - one even felt the "e-smoker" (a.k.a., apparently, "vaper") was actually trying to pick a policy fight because he had a bunch of pro-e-cigarette material at the ready.

I've done some light research on this since the discussion started, and was surprised to find out the FDA's position is basically "needs more study, so in the meantime we're erring on the side of caution." The Mayo Clinic feels the same way: "Until more is known about the potential risks, the safe play is to say no to electronic cigarettes."

That alone is enough to sway me into the "not in libraries" camp, but I was also curious about the effectiveness of them as a smoking cessation tool. Marketing for e-cigarettes seems to be all over the map, from cessation to a healthier alternative to a method to still accommodate the smoking habit in smoke-free zones. Which is what marketing is supposed to do: appeal to everyone and anyone in order to sell sell sell.

However, WebMD had an interesting point regarding cessation and health-related side-effects:

Rather than quit, e-cigarettes might worsen users' nicotine habits, says Michael Eriksen, ScD, director of the institute of public health at Atlanta's Georgia State University and former director of CDC's office of smoking and health.

"I have seen no evidence that people switch from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigarettes or other smokeless tobacco products," Eriksen tells WebMD. "If you look at how smokeless products are marketed, they are sold as something to use at times you can't smoke. The implication is you will increase nicotine exposure, not reduce smoking. We'll just be encouraging people to use more nicotine."

This might be true because of how e-cigarettes work (also from WebMD):

  • The user inhales through a mouthpiece.
  • Air flow triggers a sensor that switches on a small, battery-powered heater.
  • The heater vaporizes liquid nicotine in a small cartridge (it also activates a light at the "lit" end of the e-cigarette). Users can opt for a cartridge without nicotine.
  • The heater also vaporizes propylene glycol (PEG) in the cartridge. PEG is the stuff of which theatrical smoke is made.
  • The user gets a puff of hot gas that feels a lot like tobacco smoke.
  • When the user exhales, there's a cloud of PEG vapor that looks like smoke. The vapor quickly dissipates.

And if nothing else, it's that last part that, I think, is also a problem for libraries. My library has a policy that prohibits the "use of tobacco products," which may or may not cover e-cigarettes (which actually contain no tobacco). However, I think the vapor put out by e-cigarettes would certainly fall under the "other activities which disrupt the library" part of the policy, because it looks enough like smoking that I'm sure many patrons would not be comfortable with it.

One message to the discussion list said their municipality had already banned them entirely. I'm curious if other libraries have encountered e-cigarettes, and what the library position is. Please let me know what you think in the comments (and being a non-smoker, I'm also interested in the smoker's viewpoint on this).



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Lost Item Replacement Policy, And When To Ignore It

   January 30th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Chewed bookMy library recently updated our policy for patrons replacing lost or damaged items.

The problem that arose is that patrons would check out a book (say, a non-fiction book that was five years old, with a price in the record of $30) - then they'd lose it, and eventually they'd get a bill for $30. Our previous policy said patrons could replace lost/damaged items either by paying for it or by supplying another copy of the book.

This meant that, instead of paying the $30, patrons would often find used copies of the item online, for just a few dollars, and give that to us as a replacement copy.

The problem was that often these books were in terrible condition (sometimes even discarded from another library, with their stamps and stickers still on it). Not to mention that there would often be newer versions of this item available, which we would want to get instead of the old outdated one.

So, we updated our policy to be:

Lost/Damaged item fees

  • NO REPLACEMENTS ACCEPTED FOR BOOKS
  • Book or magazine - patron is charged 100% of the full price
  • DVD, music CD, or videogame - replacement allowed only if it is new and still sealed in the original package, otherwise the charge is the same as books, 100% of full price.
  • Book on CD - $10 per CD (if the entire item is lost, then 100% of full price.)
  • Playaway, CD-ROM, kit - 100% of full price
  • Lost CD or DVD insert - $2
  • Lost CD or DVD case - $2 (so lost case & insert is $4)
  • Still not sure what to charge? Call tech svcs

What to say when patrons ask...

Why can’t the library accept replacements for lost or damaged books anymore?

There are several reasons:

  • Many of the replacements we’ve been getting are used items in poor condition.
  • Replacing the exact same isbn can mean getting an old edition of a book when a newer edition is available.
  • In some cases, we don’t wish to replace the lost item, and would rather use the fee to buy something new that we need for our collection now.

Why does a replacement DVD, music CD or videogame have to be new & still sealed in the package?

  • For similar reasons – we’ve received old and/or used items to replace things we wouldn’t have bothered to replace at all.

Why is the replacement cost 100% of the full price? I can get it for less than that on Amazon!

  • True, but sometimes the items you get from Amazon are old and used, and you might not even realize it till it arrives.
  • Also keep in mind that when we replace a book or other item, it involves staff time to get the new item, catalog it, and process it to go into circulation.

This all happened a couple months ago. Then just a couple weeks ago, we received the following note from a patron:

Replacement Book Note

My favorite part is that she drew a picture of an open book on her note. Since the replacement copy she supplied was a brand new copy, and this title is still on the school's summer reading list, we just kept it.



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Guidelines for Handling Weekend Emergencies at the Library

   January 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Hello, I'm IN CHARGE badgeThis has been in my "to blog" folder for awhile, but better late than never, I suppose.

In the fall, my library was able to reopen for Sundays for the first time in like five years. This is great news for patrons, but since our seasonal Sunday hours are voluntary (with paid overtime), we sometimes have a shortage of staff willing to work them.

In my library, there needs to be a Department Head in the building at all times. Generally this isn't a problem, but if no Department Head volunteered to work a particular Sunday, other staff (with library degrees) can be acting Department Head.

Since these acting Department Heads would be in charge of the building, we created some "Sunday Department Head Guidelines" for them to refer to if something unusual happened - and also to make sure the library delivered the same level of service on Sundays as we do the rest of the week. The goal was to have all necessary information - procedure, contact information, passwords, etc. - in one place.

I really like lists like this*, so I thought I'd share. Obviously it is primarily applicable to my library, and even then primarily only on Sundays (as other times follow slightly different procedures in certain situations), but perhaps it might inspire other libraries to also document procedures like this. Feel free to download and use these however you like (names, phone numbers, and other vital information removed):

I know the staff here appreciated it, as it can be daunting to be in charge when something goes wrong.

 


*Some people say I have a love of rules, but that's not true - orderliness and answers are what I like. Take that, entropy.



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On Helping Parents Instead of Students

   April 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Parents with studentToday's post is a response to an email I received (thanks, Amber). She said she just started working in a public library again, and asked if I had any advice on helping parents when they are looking for resources for their child's homework. This happens often enough that I've actually written it into our reference policy.

The best-case scenario is when the parent comes in with the student, and I always try to engage the student as much as possible. After all, it's the student that knows what their assignment is and what kind of information they need - not to mention I am trying to teach them research skills at the same time.

The situation that can be the most difficult is when the parent comes in alone. It is certainly a good thing to have a parent involved in their child's education, but more often than not, I get the distinct impression that the parent is just doing the child's homework for them - which makes me uncomfortable.

Here are some of the tactics I use any time an adult asks for information on the underground railroad, or the Black Plague, or a very specific animal, etc:

  • Ask them if this is for them or for a homework assignment
    Rarely do people let you know right away that their question is for their child's homework assignment, but the quicker you know where you stand, the better
  • Ask if they have the homework assignment with them
    Maybe one person in a hundred actually does, but it can help a lot. For awhile the school library staff were emailing us assignments as they got them from the teachers, but this dropped off after they had staff cuts
  • Ask how much and what type of information is required, and the nature and length of the project
    If they don't have the homework assignment with them, this is the next best thing - but it's still rare that a parent would know very many details. However, sometimes they know that they need just two books*, or that they need photographs, or that the project is a three paragraph biography, etc. Whatever they can tell you will help, because there's a big difference between a five page paper and a poster.

    I also use this question to try to limit the amount of books the parent takes - some parents just want to take every single book they can find on the topic, and let the child sift through them once they get home. This is bad because often more than one student has the same topic, so if the parent says they need just two books, I try to hold them to that to leave resources for other kids

  • Ask for the age/grade of the student
    Obviously this is important in selecting the most appropriate resources, but also tells me right away if adult or teen resources are even applicable, or if I should refer them to the Children's Room
  • Ask when the assignment is due
    The answer to this is usually "tomorrow," but not always. This is especially helpful to know if I'm having trouble finding books on the topic - if the project isn't due for a week or so, that opens up the option of requesting books from other libraries. If there isn't time for that, I do remind patrons that they can drive to other libraries and pick up materials there (thanks to being in a consortium)
  • Give them our guide to accessing databases from home
    Also very helpful when I'm having trouble locating resources in the library, but this of course is limited to people who have internet access at home. I always give my speech about how databases are not an "internet source," and also write down the specific name of the databases that will help. If there is time, I show the parent how to search the database and that there is relevant information - and if we get this far, I always email one of the articles we find to them from the database, to remind them when they get home to use it
  • Tell them to have the student call or come in if they need more help or have questions
    Of course, it is ideal to work directly with the student, even if it's just on the phone. Sometimes students come in the next day after school, but I have had kids call later that night after their parents got home, asking where in the books they brought home is the information they need. I walk them through using the book's index and table of contents, and that is often enough to get them started

I'm curious to find out what other tactics are useful for this situation - it's something we face all the time, so please share your success stories in the comments.

 


*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I've been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography. Generally this confession comes from the student rather than the parent, but I probably hear this once or twice a month. I mentioned this to a middle school teacher who tutors a lot in the library, and she was shocked - enough that she said she'd bring it up at the next curriculum meeting.



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Loan Period: One Guilty Conscience

   January 13th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Returned DVDs with note "I'm sorry took these w/out checking them out"Over the last few years, we've noticed a rise in DVD thefts at my library. It seemed to happen in waves - once in awhile, we'd suddenly notice ten or so empty DVD cases on the shelf.

In general we're pretty relaxed at my library, and try to err on the side of good customer service. However, as the empty cases built up, staff started investigating ways to curtail the thefts.

But the kicker was that, when we ran the numbers, all of the security options we looked at (cameras, dummy cameras, security cases, a DVD jukebox, keeping DVDs behind the desk, etc.) were actually more expensive than just buying replacement DVDs. At least, this was true for the rate of theft we were seeing.

It seems counter-intuitive, and a little aggravating, but this is the route we took. The Circ staff was especially frustrated by the apparent "do nothing" approach, but we reviewed the numbers multiple times over the years, and replacement was always the cheapest option. Well, that combined stepped-up monitoring by staff.

And then something happened that no one expected: a stack of DVDs with a note attached ended up in our bookbox. Apparently, whoever had been stealing them got a conscience (or else, as one popular theory holds, his mother found them*). And then, a week later, a second stack of disks showed up.

We had been saving the empty cases all along, so re-adding them to the collection was easy. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and we'll end up with all of our DVDs back - just a couple years late. And we haven't noticed many missing lately, so the increased staff monitoring also seems to be working.

 


*Most of the DVDs that were stolen were Adam Sandler/Will Ferrell/American Pie-type movies, which implies the culprit(s) is probably high school boys.



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