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.
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.
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.
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:
[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.
I can't talk.
I'll call you back.
I'll call you back.
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.
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.
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.
A 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):
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:
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:
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?
I didn't get to spend as much time as I had hoped, but I did notice a few things:
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:
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.