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


Promoting Library Services Through Live-Staging

   April 1st, 2013 Brian Herzog

Real Person (not an actor) shirtMy parents downsized from a house to a condo last year, so we went through the process of getting the house ready to sell. Which means, each room had to be "staged" to show prospective buyers the house's potential.

But you know, I thought, why stop at just arranging pillows on a couch to suggest how comfortable it would be to take a nap in a sun-lit nook, or strategically placing chairs to show how enjoyable it would be to relax in a certain room? I mean, instead of just staging furniture and decorations, why not just use actual people to flat-out perform these nice homey tableaux? I call it "live-staging."

My suggestion was met with eye rolls all around, but I'm finally getting to implement this idea - at my library.

See, one thing that always astounds me in the library are the patrons who say things like, "wow, I've never been on this floor before," or happen to notice our very prominently-displayed public fax machine and say, "I had no idea the library had a fax machine!"

I'm always trying to think of better ways to publicize everything the library offers, and it occured to me that live-staging is the perfect method.

So, my library hired a group of actors to live-stage library resources.

For instance, one will very conspicuously (and enthusiastically) use the fax machine. Another will "discover" that the library offers ebooks and ask staff for more information in a very noticeable way. Two will play chess to promote our gaming table, while another will excitedly find out about home-access for our databases, and someone else will talk up an upcoming evening program.

Really, the possibilities are endless. And the actors are excited too - we've given them the resources we want to highlight, and general guidelines about how to get the attention of other patrons without actually being annoying about it. Otherwise though, they're free to ad-lib and interact with patrons and staff however they feel will best draw attention to these services (and we're not telling staff who the actors are).

So as not to be too obvious, we'll be rotating different actors and services, so our cast of actors is currently up in the hundreds. After all, we didn't want our patrons seeing "reruns" of the same "patron" learning over and over that we have a typewriter.

I can hardly wait to see how this works. It launches today and will run for the entire month of April. We did a benchmark survey last year, to find out which services people know about and use. We'll do the same survey again after this live-staging, and I am 100% positive patrons' awareness will be through the roof.

After all, we're paying for these actors with our entire year's materials budget, so it better work.



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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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Computerless Email

   April 15th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Presto Email Printing ServiceOccasionally spam email messages catch my eye. I recently saw one with this subject: "Send Email and Photos to Loved Ones Who Don't Use a Computer."

I'm not promoting this service, but I think it's an interesting idea, and I'd never heard of it before. The company is Presto.com, and what they sell is a way to electronically communicate with someone who doesn't have email.

The product is a printer that plugs into a home phone line, and their service converts incoming emails into color printouts - with no user intervention.

The demo is worth watching, but how it works seems fairly simple. Each HP printer gets an email account (which is managed by someone who is comfortable with the internet), and in addition to printing messages from loved ones, the company also provides free content like crosswords, recipes, and newsletters. And since you control the "approved sender" list, it means no spam and no ads.

I keep thinking this might actually have a place in a library, but I can't exactly figure it out. I certainly would rather teach someone how to use email than give them a crutch, but lots of people don't have the time or desire to learn - but do want pictures of their grandkids.

The catch would be if each printer is only associated with one email address. If it could handle more, then this might be a service we could provide to patrons. They set up an account with us, and then we hold whatever printouts they receive just like we hold their requested books. That would definitely strengthen the library's sense of community, but perhaps this product is better suited for senior centers or retirement homes.

Besides, kids today are practically issued cell phone numbers and IM handles at birth, so this type of technology is probably pretty short-lived.



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