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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/14/10

   March 20th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Hours SignDue to the nice weather this week, the library has been extremely slow. I'm glad people are outside enjoying the weather, but because of that, this week's reference question is one left over from Christmastime.

So, cast your mind back to the holiday season, below-freezing temperatures, a foot of snow on the ground, and the stress of finding gifts for all the people on your list in time for the big day. That's the spirit in which the following email was sent to the reference desk:

> Date: January 11, 2010
> Subject: Researching Rip-Off Company
> This is a wild shot at trying to correct the errors of a company in
> your city. Six weeks before December 25, I ordered two gifts from the
> company called Young Explorers. They have a P. O. number, not a street
> address. They failed to deliver. January 9, I received a note to that
> effect.
> Kinda late for a Christmas gift.
> A second person I talked with had the same problem.
> Is there a Better Business Bureau?
> Any help you can give to stop the scoundrels will be appreciated.

This wasn't the first time I've gotten a question like this. In all cases, the resources I forward to the patron are pretty much the same.

Starting off with a simple search for "young explorers" chelmsford usually verifies the address and provides some good leads. More often than not, if someone has a complaint about a company, other people do to, so they will show up on various company review websites. For this company, there were a few complaints listed on RipoffReport.com.

But despite the power of Web 2.0, the resource I still like the most when it comes to company complaints is the Better Business Bureau. It may not be perfect, but at the very least it lists accurate contact information for the company. In this case, "Young Explorers" is one business under a parent company which has an A+ rating, despite having complaints lodged against them. I think means the company addresses and rectifies customer complaints, which, short of the problem not happening in the first place, is the best that can be hoped for.

Two good overviews of the complaint process are The Wall Street Journal's How to Complain About a Company and eHow's How to Complain To A Company If Your Initial Complaint Goes Unanswered, and I point patrons to these to put things in context. They contain lots of links, including government consumer protection resources.

But along with those, I also forward them a few other websites related to reviews and complaints:

Finally, depending on the patron and the company, I will also include links to the Chelmsford Police Department, the Chelmsford Business Association, and Middlesex Community College Law Center, which provides free mediation services to local consumers and businesses.

I never heard back after I replied to the patron's message, but I hope he contacted the company and worked something out. An unsatisfactory transaction is bad enough, but much worse when it's a gift. Customer service doesn't end after the transaction is complete - user experience starts with the first impression and continues through every time the customer (or patron) uses the product.

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Serve the Community or Serve the Individual

   October 27th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Can't see the forest for the treesI know that as a library, we are here to serve the community. But on a day-to-day basis, I don't work with the community, I work with individual people.

Are the two mutually-exclusive? This is all just rhetorical thinking on my part, but two interactions this month brought this dichotomy to light and got me thinking about it.

Situation 1
In my library, patrons are allowed to use a computer for one hour (or longer if no one is waiting). A patron came in to complain to the Director that our computers are full all the time, which makes it hard for him to use one. His complaint is that often, he sees kids playing games or checking Facebook for hours at a time, and he is frustrated because he wants to spend half the day looking for a job.

Situation 2
A patron who does a lot of historical research asked if we could digitize our collection of Town Annual Reports - and not just scan them, but OCR them so the text is searchable. That is, of course, a huge project, and we are in the process of indexing all historical town records, but due to limited resources, we're not going to get to the annual reports any time soon. She got agitated when I explained this, and told me "the Library is here to serve the residents of Chelmsford, and I AM CHELMSFORD."

So, what is a librarian to do? In the first situation, the bottom line was that the patron wanted us to stop other patrons from using computers for hours at a time so that he could use a computer for hours at a time. In the second, the patron wanted us to scrap our project timeline for improving access to all Town records for all patrons so we could focus on the records she wanted.

The problem seems to stem from point of view. The library's point of view is to serve all patrons equally, as faceless members of the community. The patrons' point of view is that they want whatever subset of our service they're interested in right now, without consideration to how that impacts other patrons.

Situation 1 - Fail/Win?
On the surface, perhaps looking for a job is more important than playing games or chatting with friends - but should it be up to the library to make that call? If someone "checks out" a library resource, be it by taking home a book or by using one of our computers, they are pretty much entitled to use it for whatever they want, so long as they don't damage it.

This means that if someone checks out a book and uses it for the three-week loan period to prop up a broken table leg, they are entitled to do that. Similarly, if someone spends their hour on the computer playing games, that is their business. Libraries make information and resources available, not police how patrons put them to use. But to the first patron, us not kicking someone off a computer so he could (ironically) do the same thing they were doing is not providing good service.

Situation 2 - Fail/Win?
When the second patron said that "She is Chelmsford," my first response (which I managed to keep to myself) was, "yes, and so are 32,000 other people." We have to make decisions that best serve the community, and with a project like this, we're thinking long-term. We just don't have the resources to do what she wants.

But instead of doing nothing, we're doing what we can, and eventually we'll be able to digitize the records she wants. This project will not only improve access to our collection overall, but will also help to preserve it for future generations. Put like that, we're serving the community - but from her point of view, we're totally failing to serve her needs.

I know it's always a balancing act, but it's tough to tell a patron they are no more important than every other patron - that seems like the opposite of good customer service.

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