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


Shopping for a Library

   February 16th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Shop for a librarianI liked this post about a library experience Marilyn Johnson wrote while researching her book, This Book is Overdue!* - actually, I like reading any non-librarian review of a library experience, because it's the best way to learn how well libraries are serving patrons.

Another post worth reading is Do Library Staff Know What The Users Want? (via Jessamyn). Good user experience has to start with library staff making an effort to accommodate patrons' needs and wants, but we will not out-smart (or out-stupid?) patrons about everything.

"Anticipate and respond" are words to live by, but it's also a good idea to go right to the source. Here are a few ideas for that:

  • Easy-to-find suggestion box at each service desk and online (and promote it)
  • Teen advisory board, or Adult Advisory Board, or ESL Advisory Board, etc
  • Focus groups (private and confidential) and open forums to invite comments, reviews and suggestions
  • Encourage members of the Friends of the Library to regularly relate their library experiences, good and bad
  • Trustees organize a "secret shopper" program - especially to test out library policies, which will help keep them up-to-date with patron needs
  • Have evaluations at the end of each program (library-sponsored as well as club/group meetings) and ask open questions as well as specific questions about the facility
  • Pay attention to what people ask - if everyone needs to ask where the bathroom is located, that might be an area to improve
  • If a patron comes to you with a comment/complaint/suggestion, listen, and encourage (but don't require) them to put it in writing to make actionable paper trails
  • Ask friends and family what their experiences have been
  • Visit other libraries for a fresh perspective, and share ideas with other librarians
  • Then of course, celebrate Work Like A Patron Day

[Please share additional ideas in the comments]
And when you do make adjustments based on patron input, get feedback on the new setup, too. Nothing is static, and it's possible to improve improvements.

Using the library shouldn't be annoying or complicated or antagonistic. Occasionally patrons tell me that they come to my library because the staff at their town's library was rude or unhelpful, or they can't find parking, or the policies are prohibitively restrictive. It should make me feel good about where I work, but really it makes me sad they had to shop around for a library.

I am glad they came to us, but I also always tell them to make sure they report their complaints to their home library to make sure they know about it and can work to improve it. Most of the time they laugh at that idea, as if they've washed their hands of their home library. What really worries me are the people who have a bad experience at one library and never go back or to another one, and instead take their information needs, community participation, children, and votes elsewhere.

There has to be a balance between what the patrons need and what each individual library can offer, but if we don't support our patrons, why would they support us?

 


*Full disclosure: I was mentioned in the book (page 20 and 258!), but absolutely read it anyway. And if you're interested in obituaries, I also enjoyed her previous The Dead Beat.

And check it out - there's a contest to win a This Book Is Overdue! mousepad



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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."

Answers?
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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