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


#PLA12 Revitalizing Reference Services

   March 15th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Presenters were from the Arlington Heights (IL) Library and the Ann Arbor (MI) District Library.

Passive reference, of librarians sitting at a big desk waiting to be asked questions, is pretty much over. However, even though capital-R Reference is dying, lowercase-r reference is still a core library service. Difference is Reference desk, Reference collection, Reference staff, vs. referring people to the information, services, and skills they're looking for.

Where reference service should be going: Niche Reference
Use the reference desk only for in-person reference - keep all calls, email, and chat reference in the back room. This will improve service to both types of reference, because one person isn't trying to balance everything at once.

Identify needs in your community and address them

  • have a "start your job search here" desk
  • get a grant from the Rotary club to bring in professional resume reviewers
  • put an add in the job classifieds to "get job search help at your library" (I came up with this, but I'm not sure if I like it)

Have staff be specialists, not generalists

  • reach out to the business community to help them get started or get better
  • hold one-on-one or group classes on research topics
  • [me again: this might work for large libraries, but does not scale down well]

Focus on community interest

  • what does your community have/want that people are interested in?
  • create something like, "What's the history of your house?" and let patrons provide the content - this is something that can be built on in the future
  • run a "question of the week" in the local paper - and ask for questions
  • create a local wiki (like Daviswiki) and don't "own" it - let other people add content
  • treat social media as a conversation starter, not one-way announcement stream. ie, on Facebook have a "stump the librarian" day and solicit questions (like Skokie, IL)

Focus on programming

  • whatever's interesting: job search skills, "What is it like to be a..." series (town manager, police officer, doctor, etc), urban agriculture, etc
  • Business Bytes: how to use social media to connect with customers, how to use Google Places, Yelp, Foursquare, etc
  • ideas: Computers 101 (basics), Working Life (job skills), Digital Life (beyond 101, and online), Creative Life (painting, video editing), Informed Life (search and finding skills)

Libraries should be like kitchens, not grocery stores: focus on getting patrons to come in and discover and interact, not just grab stuff off the shelves and go.



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#PLA12 Secret Shopping in a Library

   March 15th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Presenter was a branch manager in the DC public library system. He was given six weeks in May-June to pull together a secret shopper program and run it over the course of six weeks during June-July.

Goals of secret shopping

  • evaluate patron experience, for different types of patrons (using different types of shoppers)
  • evaluate how well staff was trained on a particular product or service
  • evaluate library's space, traffic flow, signage, etc
  • evaluate collection and merchandising
  • just get fresh eyes on the library

However: A Goals Caveat

  • are you doing this to really find out something you don't already know?
  • are you doing this to find proof of something you already believe to be the case?
  • if problems are identified, are you in any position (financially, staffing, politically), to do anything about it?

DC used volunteers (teens, adult volunteers, and Friends of the Library), and developed their own tools; retail secret shopping ~$25-$35/shopping trip (~1 hour). Good to use non-librarians, so they don't already know the jargon (but nice to partner with other libraries because they won't be recognized by staff and each library benefits).

One great resource for them is ALA Publication's Assessing Service Quality. The shopper questionnaire [pdf] they created was all yes/no question (no "rate 1-5" scales, so as to be less subjective), and they had three specific uses cases:

  1. Ask staff help in finding a book on [ancient Egypt, trucks, other options given] for a seven year old [son, daughter, younger sibling, nephew - whatever fit the shopper's age]
  2. Ask staff help in finding a good book to read
  3. Ask staff help in creating a resume on the computer

Also included was calling in to ask for directions, impression of outside of library, parking lot, landscaping, etc.

Results were sort of disappointing: not enough shopping results to really have any kind of scientific impact. They did learn that 50% of patrons aren't greeted when they enter the library, and often there are no paper towels in the bathrooms.

Staff were all informed of the shopping beforehand, but only the timeframe - they didn't know exactly when or where. Afterward, a summary of the results were shared with all staff, too. Shoppers were not trying to connect individual staff with actions or experience - this was not designed to be a punitive exercise. There was no pushback from staff on the idea, and managers felt that six weeks was long enough so staff couldn't "fake it" the entire time. They never considered not telling staff, because they didn't want it to appear like a spying or "gotcha" program.

Was it worth it?
Not really - they just didn't get enough data to justify the amount of time that went into it. But it was a good exercise for managers to think about it. And they have lots of groundwork done, so it will be much better next time.

Other ideas presented as possibilities:

  • do "exit interviews" with patrons as they leave the library, to get their immediate reaction
  • do focus group of volunteers afterward, to see how they felt about it (and get them talking to each other)
  • do website/catalog usability check - informal, 10-20 patrons in a lab, 15 questions/tasks (such as, what is the director's name and email?), maybe 2 hours on a Saturday morning, and give them a gift card for participating (use Steve Krug's books as guides)
  • have shoppers ask for things they should not be able to get
  • use app isecretshop, because people typing on a phone/ipad is less obvious than people walking around with clipboards
  • do community polling outside the library, to find out why "unpatrons" don't use the library in the first place


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On Maintaining Extra-Library Websites

   December 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford Volunteers logoThere was an article in our local paper this week about a resident's experience volunteering in the community. Nice, but what I especially like is that he cited http://www.chelmsfordvolunteers.org as the way he found his volunteer opportunity.

This stood out to me (and others at the library) because this website was created and maintained by the library - yay us! The article doesn't mention the library at all, but it's still a win because the resident found what he was looking for.

I'll be the first to admit that the Chelmsford Volunteers site isn't a marvel of design. We created it a few years ago to be a centralized listing of organizations in town that have volunteer opportunities, because this is something we get asked about a lot. It's evolved over time, and now a simple WordPress website, with a calendar of upcoming events, and one page for each organization so that it's easy for people to search.

The reason I bring it up here is because I was curious if any other libraries maintain websites under a domain different from the main library's website. My library also maintains the website for our town-wide history project.

Our logic for creating these as separate websites includes:

  • branding: it's easier to remember "chelmsfordvolunteers.org" than "chelmsfordlibrary.org/volunteers" or something else
  • shared resource: the chelmsfordhistory.org is a project involving other organizations in town, and I think having a non-library website makes us all co-owners of the project, instead of the other groups just contributing to a library project
  • focus: the library does a lot of things, but each of these separate websites are very focused on one specific area - having standalone websites lets visitors see only what's relevant to that topic, instead of all the other stuff we do, which might be a distraction
  • it's easy: all our websites are hosted at bluehost.com - creating a new website is a matter of buying a new domain and clicking a button, and it's ready to go

I'd be very curious to hear about other libraries' experiences with maintain websites beyond the primary web presence - how you do it, why, is it successful, etc. If this is something you do, please leave a note in the comments with a link to your website - thanks.



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/16/10

   May 22nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Fax Test PageThis question just made me laugh. A patron calls in and says,

My husband just installed a fax machine on our home phone last night. Can you send me a test page to see if it works?

I made up a test page and send it to her, but her fax machine never picked up. She called back a little while later and said,

We've had a fax machine in our house for years, but it was always the kind you had to answer and then press a "fax" button to receive a fax. He was reading the manual yesterday and found a way to set it so it can answer itself, to receive faxes when we're not home. I didn't think it was going to work, so I'll just set it back the old way and not tell him.

I sent her the test page again after she changed the settings, and this time it went through.

I've never been asked to send someone a test fax page before, but I'm happy she thought to ask the library, and that we could help her. But what really made me laugh was that she wasn't going to tell her husband. And he might never find out, since when it doesn't work, they're not home anyway.



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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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Redbox Rights and Wrongs

   February 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

redbox dvd rentalsI like to think I'm the kind of person open to the opinions of others, and I certainly don't expect myself to be right all the time. However, it's still rare for me to advertise when I think I am wrong, yet today is one of those days.

Last week my director received the following email from a patron and forwarded it to all the department heads to see what we thought about it:

Ms. Herrmann,

I just heard about Red Box doing a trial with Libraries across the country. This is a fantastic idea, there currently is no Red Box in Chelmsford Center. Attached is a link for you to look at.

http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2010/jan/27/henderson-libraries-become-redbox-locations/

In case you've never heard of Red Box, they are dvd vending machines which rent new movies at $1 per night. The machines are located outdoors and are available to the consumer 24/7. Red Box pays the library and also allows the library to free up cash from having to purchase current films.

It would be great if Chelmsford could get in on this trial!!

I had heard of libraries using both Redbox and Netflix, but never really gave it too much though. So I was kind of surprised at my response to my director:

Maybe this is just a reaction based on the kind of day this has been, but I have mostly negative feelings about this. Based on http://tametheweb.com/2009/07/01/red-box-rentals-at-princeton-public-library/ is seems any money we get is minimal, and I'm always reluctant to give
businesses a green light to target library patrons.

If we did put one of these in, I sincerely hope it wouldn't mean we'd be buying fewer DVDs and rely on this as a crutch, because just like Rosetta Stone, they can pull out at any time and we'd be left
scrambling to fill the holes in our collection.

Its biggest benefit would be providing patrons access to DVDs 24 hours a day, but it also means patrons have a reason to be at the front door 24 hours a day, doing who knows what - the police department might not like that idea. Then there's also the patrons who return the RedBox
DVDs in our dropbox, those who put ours into the RedBox, patrons demanding refunds and tech support from the circ desk, blah blah blah.

More reading on this:

I know Conway makes money off our printers and the FaxVend people do too, but RedBox feels way more commercial - like letting a dealership put used cars in our parking lot to make it easier for patrons to shop for cars. Or letting a bookstore set up a table of bestsellers in the lobby and sell books so patrons don't have to wait on a long reserve list.

I don't know exactly why I don't like it, but right now I'm leaning against it - but again, it might just my mood. Blah.

So my question is this: why I am wrong?

I don't feel like I'm right, because I can see positive aspects to a Redbox being in front of the library (especially for libraries that already charge $1/DVD), and it's unusual for me to be this negative. I don't think that every new idea or technology has a place in every library, but still, my answer on this surprised me.

So I thought I'd ask the wider library world for your opinions on Redboxes and libraries. Lots of good comments were posted on Tame the Web when Michael talked about this last year, but I'm still not entirely convinced. What do you think?



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