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




Reference Question of the Week – 2/14/10

   February 20th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Alarm clockSometimes I can't tell if patrons asks for something because they think we actually offer it, or if they just figure there's no harm in asking. To wit:

Patron: You know how when I have a book on hold, someone from the library calls me?
Me: Well, yes, but it's not a real person - we have a computer system that automatically makes the calls.
Patron: Yeah, exactly - since it's a computer, can you set it to call me really early to be a wake-up call?
Me: Um, no.

So I can go two ways with this. First, I mean, yes, technically, we could absolutely do this, without really any staff involvement. And when we could do something, I feel bad saying no - but really, we have to draw the line on the services we provide somewhere, and here be that line.

But since he actually was looking for a free wake-up service (and didn't necessarily need someone from the library to do it), I searched around to see what I could find. I knew that hotels offer this for their guests, and have never thought of this in any other context before - but plenty of people must:

Some of these are free, or at least have a free trial (which would be good enough for a one-time call). Lifehacker also has suggestions for free wakeup calls from Telepixie and automating calls with Skype. They also reference combining Skype with Google Calendar - so many options.

Happily, I never need to be to work before 9am, and my house has lots of windows, so I generally just let the sun wake me up. Ah, the blissful life of a librarian.



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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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Reference Question of the Week – 6/21/09

   June 27th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Twitter @bloglinesThis week's reference question is one of my own. I use Bloglines to read rss feeds, and a couple weeks ago they changed their interface.

I didn't like the changes, so I used their Contact Form to express this and ask if there was an option to change it back. This was two weeks ago, and I still haven't gotten a reply.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps Bloglines used Twitter, and maybe I could ask them that way. I found an @bloglines user, but even though he's using the Bloglines logo, he indicates it's not an official Bloglines account.

I asked him my question anyway (noticing he was fielding the exact same question a lot lately), and got a reply in 5 hours. And best of all, his suggestion worked perfectly, and now I'm back to using Bloglines happily, the way that suits me best.

But this experience got me thinking. It's easy for organizations to let email messages slide, because only that one person knows they sent it in. But Twitter is public, and if someone is questioning or complaining, ignoring it won't make it go away.

Unofficial or not, @bloglines did exactly what I would have expected an organization to do - respond quickly and helpfully.

This is what librarians do, and it reminded me of Kate's post about their library suggestion box. I like that she's publicly displaying suggestions and answers, because in this case, one-to-many communication seems better than one-to-one.

So I thought, why not encourage patrons to use Twitter as a suggestion box? Being public, the library has to address patrons' concerns, but it also means all patrons can benefit from the answer, rather than just one.

I know a public forum isn't appropriate for every issue, and anonymity can be necessary, so I think traditional suggestion boxes (whether physical or online form) are still useful. But I bet there are some libraries already doing this very thing. I know I came late to Twitter, but it really is turning out to be a very useful tool after all.



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Innovation In Queueing

   March 26th, 2009 Brian Herzog

I was shopping with a friend in the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine, and ended up in a check-out line.

It was a nice Saturday afternoon, the store was crowded, and the lines at the registers were long. But L.L. Bean is one of those companies that is totally focused on customer service, and they were doing something I've never seen before (granted, I don't get out much, and I avoid shopping whenever possible, but still, this was cool).

In addition to the cashiers at the registers, there was also another employee walking up and down the check-out line with a portable scanner and barcode printer. He scanned each item a customer had, and then printed out a receipt with a barcode. When the customer got to the cash register, the cashier just scanned that one barcode, instead of fiddling around scanning each item's barcode.

It was amazing how much faster the line moved, and I got to wondering if something like this could be employed in libraries.

Of course, many staff and patrons enjoy the informal small talk while the books are being checked out, and this would all but eliminate that. And self-check machines are there for patrons who are in a hurry. But still, I was impressed with the way L.L. Bean identified and launched such a simple service that had such a large and positive impact on the shopping experience.

Maybe we could at least get the moms with the foot-tall stack of picture books to pre-scan their items before they get to the Circulation Desk.



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Levels of Service

   December 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

503 Error: Service UnavailableSince the outages caused by the ice storm on Thursday, my library has been slowly reestablishing our affected services. First back up was our power and heat and catalog (day two), then wireless internet (day three), then internet to the public workstations (day four).

This progressive-improvement situation made for a good quote. When asked by a staff person if things were working again, the response was:

Everything is working, but we're still working on making it patron-proof again.

It made perfect sense in context, but when I thought about it later, it sounded both funny and counter-intuitive.

Recovering from an unintended power outage really draws a stark line between having something work, and having something work the way we want it to. Just having a computer that turns on isn't good enough - ours also need to automatically log in, track time, connect to printers and the internet, and protect the user's privacy and data. And ideally, do all this without intervention from the user.

On the surface, the answer above might sound like our goal was keep the computers safe from the public. The goal is actually to make sure the public needs to do as little as possible to use our computers (making sure they can do no harm is a side effect).



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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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