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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/13/13

   January 19th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Here's my own reference question this week - why are so many of our magazines arriving in the mail torn and mangled?

Usually it takes our patrons a day or two to make the magazines look like this.

The damage is worse than the photograph shows - most of those rips are 20+ pages deep, and these were just three damaged issues we got in the mail delivery in one day. We've been getting them like this (or other variations, from minor tears to just a cover with no pages inside at all) almost daily now for a couple weeks, whereas before it seemed like maybe once a month, if that, a magazine would get damaged in the mail.

The first few I claimed through EBSCO, our magazine subscription aggregator. But finally it seemed like the problem must lie with the Post Office, so I decided to register a complaint there.

I went to USPS.com, and spent probably too much time looking for a "make a complaint" or "ask a question" email form. Eventually I found their Customer Service page, and submitted an email explaining that more and more of my library's magazines were getting damaged during delivery.

Not five minutes after I clicked send - and I'm not kidding, it was like five minutes - the phone rings and it's the local Postmaster for Chelmsford. Holy smokes, now that is impressive.

He said this is happening all through the USPS right now. The problem is that they've been using sorting machine with letters and envelopes for years, and it worked so well (as in, saved money and sped up the mail) that the USPS decided to use it for magazines, too.

However, the machines have not yet been calibrated for magazines, and routinely rip the crap out of them. He apologized, of course, and said they're working on it, but that it will continue until they figure the machines out. I hate answers like that, but I'm sure in this case they're highly motivated - he said they get daily calls from residential customers who are also getting badly damaged magazines delivered.

Anyway, I wanted to share this experience, in case other libraries have also seen their number of damaged magazines jump. And also to commend the USPS for such amazingly prompt customer service. Now just stop ripping up the magazines.

Postscript: something else the USPS could stop is their ridiculous (I felt) "How are we doing?" post-contact survey. It came into my email a couple days after I submitted the form on their website - which, in and of itself, was fine. But I think surveys like that should be five questions long, tops, and take less than a couple minutes. This one just kept going on and on - it even repeated questions, but varied them slightly, as if they wanted to see if I answered consistently. Seriously, this survey was probably 20+ questions and took more than seven minutes to complete. I could have quit at any time, of course, but I went through to the end because I was so fascinated by its complexity. Also, they seemed to know exactly the point at which I got annoyed, because after that point they no longer provided an open text comment box, so I couldn't tell them how much I disliked the survey itself. Oh well.

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