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




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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“Work Like A Patron” Day

   October 7th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Working at a public library computerLast week, a library volunteer and I were working on a project together. We each needed to work on a computer, but be close enough together to talk. The only arrangement like this in the library are the public workstations, so we worked out there.

In addition to getting the work done, I learned a few things:

  • some of the keys of the keyboard didn't work very well
  • the monitor had streaks and fingerprints on it
  • it was hard to concentrate with people walking and talking around us
  • both of us forgot to bring a flash drive to save our work

This experience reminded me of a post I read on Walking Paper (but I couldn't find it again). Aaron mentioned how important it was to put ourselves in our patrons' shoes, so we can see the library as they see it.

That's why I'm proposing "Work Like A Patron Day" on October 15th. In honor of the day, I think library staff should (when possible):

  • enter and leave the library through the public entrance (not the staff doors)
  • use the public restrooms
  • use the public computers to do your work
  • reserve public meeting rooms for meetings
  • follow all library policies

Obviously, exceptions will need to be made. But, much like a sheriff spending a week in his own jail, this would give library staff a different perspective on the library. Experiencing the library in this way will make sure the library isn't just the place we work, but it's where our patrons work. And play.

As for the date, I picked October 15th because it is six months after Library Appreciation Week, which was April 13th-17th. Not that working like a patron is the opposite of appreciating the library, but it seemed to fit. Or maybe the week surrounding Oct. 15th should be "Library Patron Appreciation Week," of which "Work Like A Patron Day" is just one day.

Update: Thanks to a comment below, I added a Work Like A Patron day page to the staff training section of the Library Success wiki (http://www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=Work_Like_A_Patron_Day) for general information and a flickr group (http://www.flickr.com/groups/worklikeapatronday) for sharing photos of the day. Please also share your experiences from the day here in the comments.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/13/08

   July 19th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Pizza for TwoI got these two reference questions within an hour of each other - they can be filed under "All Patrons are Local" (or "Yogi Berra sayings").

First, an older couple walked up to the desk and the husband said:

Patron: We're just in town from Florida for a funeral, and don't know our way around. Can you suggest a good pizza place for lunch?

I am a big fan of pizza, so this is a question I can answer with some personal expertise. There are four pizza shops within walking distance of the library, so between the yellow pages and a local map have at the desk for patrons, they were on their way in just a couple minutes.

A little while later, the phone rings:

Different Patron: Hi, I'm one of your local patrons, and am in Florida for vacation. We don't know our way around and don't have a map, but we're looking for this particular pizza place. Can you look it up on the internet and give me directions?

Finding the pizza shop wasn't hard, and me giving her directions from where they were was a bit tricky, but we worked it out.

Before we hung up, I asked out of curiosity why her solution to this problem was to call her library in Massachusetts. She said it was because she had our phone number in her cell phone, and since we had access to the internet (and Google Maps), she felt my answer would be more reliable and safer than asking for directions from a stranger or at a gas station.

I thought that was nice, and something I hadn't though of before. Maybe libraries should encourage patrons to add us to their cell phone contact list, to make it easier for them to call us when they need to know something. Or maybe we should all install pizza ovens.



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Ich Bin Ein Patron

   June 24th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Rocking chair with hand-caned seatLibrarians can spend so much time thinking about how to run a library that we forget that we're also patrons, and get to use the library, too. At least, I did.

I mean, I read a lot of library books, and also watch a lot of our DVDs. Popular materials are a valuable core library offering, but my own personal entertainment doesn't feel like it should count as library use.

So I was happy that I was able to use the library for a bit of research and practical knowledge (and just a little bit embarrassed that using the library wasn't my own idea).

A friend of mine gave me an old wooden rocking chair a few years ago, which was in pretty rough shape. I'd always meant to fix it up, but doing it right would have entailed recaning the seat. I'd put it off and put it off, but a few weeks ago I finally got around to starting the project.

Since I had to buy some caning supplies, and hopefully learn how to do it, I went to a chair store that did this kind of work. While talking to the guy there, he suggested I use The Complete Guide to Chair Caning as a guide. He went on to suggest that, instead of buying it, I should try to get it from the library - and then he asked if I ever go to the library. That led to a nice little discussion about the benefit of libraries, but it also left me feeling a little sheepish that I hadn't already checked to see if my library had something that would help me with this project.

The next day I searched our catalog, and ended up requesting the book from another library in our consortium. After consulting the book, and a few days of work, I was able to fix up the chair's seat, good as new (check out my progress).

For whatever reason, getting this book from the library and finishing this project is such a more rewarding and positive library experience than DVDs or audio books. I don't mean to detract at all from popular materials, and perhaps I'm kind of biased being a reference librarian, but hooray for non-fiction. I'd forgotten how good it feels to be a library patron.

(and as a completely unnecessary sidenote, some of my other "research" was caught on video. At this year's Westford Strawberry Festival, a woman was doing seat caning demonstrations. I probably watched her and asked questions for a good half-hour, and was so engrossed that I never even noticed the video camera five feet away from me. I'm the headless one in the gray shirt, about 0:54 seconds into it:

I know, I'm a dork.)



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Yes-Based Library Policy

   April 22nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Unshelved Comic StripThis is a long story, so I'm going to try to summarize as much as possible. It's a good story, though, so stick with me.

A few months ago, an incident at my library finally brought a long-smoldering issue to the surface. My library doesn't charge overdue fines, and we rely on patron integrity to get things back on time. So far, this policy works very well, and I know the staff enjoys not dealing with fines.

That being said, our system is abused from time to time. The culture in this library is to put customer service first, to give patrons a good library experience, with "getting to yes" as our unwritten rule. But since we had no written policy to that affect, and what rules we do have are considerably flexible, different staff would enforce overdue items in different ways (some would allow patrons to check out new items, some wouldn't).

But worst of all, this situation allowed some patrons to "shop around" amongst desk staff until they got the answer they wanted, and this is what finally caused a blow up.

We (the department heads) decided we needed to ensure that patrons received consistent service, no matter who helped them. We rewrote a portion of our circulation policy, with the goal of making it clear and fair, while making sure it allowed for the highest degree of service but still punished those who flagrantly abused the system.

It took some time, and as Reference Librarian I was only marginally involved. But I was so impressed with what our Circulation and Childrens Librarians came up with that I wanted to share. The beginning of the new policy contains this preamble:

This library makes certain assumptions when dealing with the public:

  • The staff of this library works to “get to yes” with patrons
  • The vast majority of patrons are honest; therefore, we take patrons at their word
  • Patrons appreciate courtesy and understanding. Gentle reminders, along with compassion toward extenuating circumstances, are used to prompt people to return overdue items

    It goes on from there into the technical nitty-gritty for enforcing the policy, and in general staff was very satisfied with the result. The goal is still serving patrons, but the more black-and-white desk staff now have an up-to-date policy in writing to guide them.

    And since this policy has been in place, the number of abuses and difficult situations seems to have gone down.

    I'm generally a rules-based person, but serving patrons as well as possible should always come first. It's a fine line between completely meeting one patron's needs and also serving the next patron in line equally and fully, but having a written yes-based policy goes a long way towards making everyone happy.



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