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

Library in Action

   December 8th, 2009 Brian Herzog

This photo from the Manchester (NH) City Library is almost a year old, but I love it:
Help at Reference Desk

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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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Top 10 Patron Pet Peeves

   June 2nd, 2009 Brian Herzog

unshelved comicUsually I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, and I really do enjoy my job. But I thought I'd share a list of the top 10 things that patrons do that can really irk me.*

Not that I expect every patron interaction to be perfect and wonderful, of course; these are just a few things that make bad days worse. I tried to limit this list to things unique to libraries, and this list (which ended up being longer than I expected) is in no particular order:

  1. Patrons who don't wait in lines When I'm helping someone at the reference desk, common sense tells me that if another person walks up, they'd stand behind the person I'm helping to wait their turn. However in practice, instead of lines, people tend to form huddles. They will stand almost next to the person I'm helping, and if a third person walks up, they stand next to the first person on the other side. This bothers me because it eliminates all privacy for the first patron. I've also noticed that the longer people have to wait, the more they inch closer to the desk - to the point where they tap their keys on the desk, or volunteer answers to the first patron's question. I always try to make eye contact with people and tell them I'll be right with them, but they often take that as an invitation to ask their question - even if I'm on the phone.
  2. Patrons who don't end phone calls with "goodbye" I suppose this isn't necessarily limited to libraries, but I've never experienced it anywhere but while at work. I'll answer a patron's question, there will be a little awkward silence, and then I'll start saying something like, "is there anything else I can do..." and halfway through I just hear <click>
  3. Patrons who won't stop asking their question long enough for me to answer Maybe this one is due to patrons thinking their question is very complex, when in reality it's not. After the first sentence or two I'll have an answer or resource for them, but they keep elaborating and explaining and I can't get a word in edgewise. I don't like interrupting people, but sometimes there is no other option.
  4. Patrons who stand in front of the printer This only bothers me when someone comes to the desk and says the printer is broken. Fair enough, it happens. So they ask if I can fix it, and lead me over to the printer. But then they proceed to walk right up to the printer and stand in front of it, blocking me from getting to it. I can't fix it until I can touch it, and more often than not, I actually have to ask the patron to move. You'd think, you'd think, this would be common sense.
  5. Patrons with no cell phone etiquette Cell phones aren't banned from my library - we just ask people use them politely. Here's one cell phone conversation that I overhear repeatedly:

    [Patron is sitting at a computer, when suddenly some horrible digital song starts playing Very Loudly from their bag. After a minute of struggling, they finally get their cell phone out and answer it:]
    I can't talk right now, I'm in the library.
    No, I can't talk...
    ...I'm in the library.
    I don't know, later.
    No, I can't talk...
    I can't talk...
    I don't know, maybe Bob.
    I'm in the library, I can't talk.
    I'll call you back.
    Around 3, and Bob and Mary.
    How about Taco Bell?
    Look, I'm in the library, I'll call you back.
    I can't talk, I'm in the library.
    The library.
    I can't talk.
    I'll call you back.
    Okay, bye.
    I'll call you back.
    Okay, bye.

    So here's my question: if you can't talk because you're in the library, why do you even answer the phone? And of course, they never turn the ringer down, so a few minutes later their bag is blaring again. Sigh.

  6. Patrons who try to hide that they're using a cell phone Again, my library allows cell phone use. But some patrons come in and try to hide that they're on their cell phone by holding their whole hand open over the phone. Maybe we're just supposed to think they enjoy touching their cheek and ear simultaneously, and looking at desk staff out of their corner of their eye. The good thing is that these people are always speaking quietly, but it annoys me that they think they can get away with something by hiding it.
  7. Patrons with bad closing time etiquette I'm sure any public place that closes at a certain hour has people that come in a minute before closing time. We certainly do, and we also have patrons who stay on the computers right up to closing time. That's fine, I can deal with those patrons. But the patrons that really bug me are the people who get up off their computers a few minutes before closing time, and then while I'm trying to do all my closing time tasks, stand at the desk and talk to me about the other patrons who are still on the computers, and how they make it harder for us to close the library because they just refuse to leave. I guess they just miss the irony of the situation.
  8. Patrons who are passive-aggressive I work in a medium-size library, and while we have a good collection, we certainly don't have a book on everything. For instance, a patron will ask for a book on the megalodon shark. We won't have a book just about that, but after searching through indexes, I can find information about that shark in a more general dinosaur book. It's exactly what the patron needs, but their response is something like, "well, I guess it'll work, but too bad you don't have a book just about megalodon sharks." I also get the feeling sometimes that people blame me personally for not having written a book on their topic - the history of their house, how supportive families are when a child is born in Peru, etc.
  9. Patrons who have a book's call number or title written on a piece of paper, and ask if I can help them find it, but hold the paper so they can read it but I can't Eventually patrons graduate from this habit to setting the paper down on the desk. But invariably, they set the paper down facing them - which actually is fine, because I've gotten quite good at reading upside-down. But what I can't do is read in-motion, and this is a drawback because as soon as the patron realizes the paper is facing them, they start spinning it and moving it so that it faces me. While nice and considerate, it'd actually be quicker if they didn't.
  10. Patrons who say I should have been a teacher I usually hear this after I finish showing a patron how to do something on a computer. I know they mean this as a compliment, but it sort of implies that being a librarian is unfortunate somehow. I'm a librarian because I want to be a librarian; if I weren't, then I wouldn't have been here to show them all the stuff I just showed them.

Petty and nit-picky, I know, but there you go. I'm sure I missed a couple, so please feel free to vent your annoyances in the comments.


*Be sure to read David Lee King's post about being nice to patrons online. I completely agree with his point, but have a feeling he would not approve of this post.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/08

   December 6th, 2008 Brian Herzog

toy gunThis week's reference question is a series of interactions over the course of about twenty minutes. To get the full impact, I need to give some basic background on the patron.

This patron is one of our regulars at the library. He is a special needs patron, and often asks for help with spelling and things like that. However, he is a savant when it comes to anything having to do with horror films/actors, superheros and comics. Also, every so often, he lets us know he's looking for someone to hangout with, by which he means a girlfriend.

One day, he comes to the desk and asks,

How do you spell white?

I write it on a slip of paper for him, and he goes back to his computer. A few minutes later, he comes back and asks,

How do you spell girlfriend?

A few minutes after that, it's

How far away is Florida?

I try to describe it to him, and then show him on a map. Basically, the bottom line is that it's too far away to walk to, which disappoints him. He then tells me this:

I met a girl on the internet, and she's nice. She lives in Florida, and she's a sheriff. She said she wants me to get a fake gun and handcuffs and come to her house and pretend to kidnap her, and then she'll go out with me. Isn't that cool?

I was kind of stunned. Professionally of course, I can't tell him what he can and can't do. But I did give him a lecture about being careful about who he meets online and what he tells them. I also told him that showing up anywhere with a toy gun is dangerous, but he kept telling me it would be a fake gun.

Thank goodness Florida is too far to walk. I honestly don't know what I would have done if he told me this and the person was close enough for him to walk to. It feels wrong to call someone, but he could get shot or who knows what doing this.

Librarians can't monitor patrons' lives, but when a special needs person volunteers this kind of information, I do think it is our place to intervene to keep him safe. With this particular patron, I usually just need to remind him that his mom would be angry with him is she found out, and that's a good deterrent. Otherwise, I'm not sure what I could do.

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What is Necessary, What is Possible

   November 13th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Library Hierarchy imageA little while ago, I got the idea to visually represent the official relationships that exist around a public library. Turns out, it was more involved than I thought, and the resulting figure wasn't what I initially conceived.

This came about during a conference I attended. I was thinking about library services, and why some good ideas get implemented while others don't, and why libraries offer some things that seem to be of no use to anyone. This started me down the path of getting to the root of "why" and "how," which I came to refer to as "What is Necessary" and "What is Possible."

The figure shown here is what I came up with (and evidence of my mad graphic design skills). The center triangle are the relationships between the public library (in blue, in the middle), the people we serve (on the top) and the people who serve us (on the bottom). The two big arrows on either side are the flow of needs and reality - somewhere in the middle the public library is trying to reconcile the two.

What is Necessary
Reading from the top down, the needs of our patrons are basically what drives everything that goes on in a library. Be it helping kids with homework, finding recipes, or preserving historical information for future generations, the needs of our patrons are What is Necessary for the library to provide.

To meet these needs, we can fall back on various groups that are in place to support the library (bottom of the triangle):

  • if we need funding, we can request it from the various funding sources (state, local, Friends, etc.)
  • if we need to alter library policy, we go to the Trustees
  • if we need an improvement to the catalog or interlibrary loan service, we bring that up with the library network
  • if we don't know how to deliver a particular service, we should be able to look to the wider library world of the State Library or various library associations for guidance

All of these groups are in place to serve the staff of a public library. Ideally, we tell them what we need in order to meet the requirements of our patrons, and they provide it.

What is Possible
But of course, we're not just handed everything we ask for:

  • the realities of local and state funding place limits on our budget
  • the wisdom of our Trustees keep library services in line with community values
  • being part of a library network means my public library is one voice among many other cooperating libraries
  • State Libraries and library associations can't always help, or aren't up-to-date with the latest software, vendors or services

It is the role of the library to take what we can get, and do the best we can with it to meet the needs of our patrons. Sometimes this means offering limited or abridged services, or services that sort of do what we want, but aren't ideal (i.e., the current state of downloadable audiobooks). But even by working within the constraints placed on us by the groups that support us, we should always strive to provide patrons with services tailored to meet their needs.

And then patrons tell us what their new needs are, and we go back down the chain, and the cycle continues.

The Public Library
In this model, the library is at the center of everything (leave it to a librarian to develop a bibliocentric view of life). I represented the public library on the triangle as both a single entity and also individual parts (I know libraries are more complex than this, but I was going for the basics). I did this because I see the same type of relationship structure within the library as without:

  • the frontline desk staff works with patrons, so they often know best how effective library services are
  • administration and support staff are consulted to change policies or procedures, and can be tasked with finding an appropriate tool to address a need
  • the IT staff are generally the people who enforce reality, in terms of what is technically possible within the limits of the library

Regardless of how a need is first identified, it usually flows around these relationships until it is either implemented or abandoned.

So, What's the Point?
Not that any of this is rocket science, or isn't discernible by anyone else that works in a library. I think I did this as an exercise to illustrate patron-centricness. When it comes to library services, everything we offer should be addressing a need from "up the chain." Offering services just because we can, or because it's something being pushed on us from "below," doesn't justify that service. If a service doesn't address a patron need, then should we really be offering it?

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Work Like A Patron Recap

   October 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Working like a patronI hope everyone enjoyed Work Like a Patron Day, and found a way to make using the library easier for your patrons.

I didn't get to spend as much time as I had hoped, but I did notice a few things:

  • We need more scrap paper at the workstations
  • We need to clean up the litter and leaves and sticks and other debris around the front steps
  • We should rename our wireless network from "CPL-g" to something an uninitiated patron will recognize and feel safe with
  • It turns out that staff congregating and chatting at service desks is every bit as distracting as patrons on cell phones

But what struck me the most wasn't what I noticed, but what kinds of things I noticed. I mean, I already know that the patron catalog interface needs improvement, and that not everyone understands how to log on to a computer or where the photocopier is.

Everything I noticed yesterday were little things. Even though I'm among the public computers every day, and we replenish them with scrap paper when we see them empty, if you're a patron sitting there and there is no paper, it doesn't help that staff put some there that morning. It's not there now. And the junk around the front door is easy to miss when you've got on the blinders of familiarity - it's always there, so I stopped noticing it. But when you do notice it, it looks kind of bad.

So in addition to the original list, I'm also going to make a point of looking for the subtle things, like:

  • Is there a glare on computers by the windows at certain parts of the day?
  • Is it too hot/cold in here?
  • Does it stink in here?
  • How easy is the phone menu system to navigate?

Even if I can't change them, staff being aware of them is a good thing, because I'm sure our patrons are.

So thank you to everyone who supported and participated in the day. I got lots of emails and saw many posts and comments about it, which is great. In fact, I only saw one negative comment about it. It astounds me that someone who writes for Library Journal would criticize the idea of making the library a better place, but there you go.

Be sure to remember this day next year, too. More information is available on
http://www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=Work_Like_A_Patron_Day and http://www.flickr.com/groups/worklikeapatronday.

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