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


The Language of Service

   January 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Hitting a nail on the headI love Kate's recent post about the words we use and the impact they have on customer service.

Language is very important. Just yesterday I had an unpleasant exchange with a patron. She came up to say she was having trouble with the printer, and I started giving her printer tech support. All of this was unhelpful, because she was actually having trouble with the copier. It was frustrating for both of us, and could have been avoided if I had listened to what she was saying instead of the words she was using.

I'm going to make a point of using Kate's "yes, and..." suggestion from now on. It's such a simple thing, yet it encapsulates so much of what libraries do right (and wrong). Great observation, Kate.



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Yes-Based Library Policy

   April 22nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Unshelved Comic StripThis is a long story, so I'm going to try to summarize as much as possible. It's a good story, though, so stick with me.

A few months ago, an incident at my library finally brought a long-smoldering issue to the surface. My library doesn't charge overdue fines, and we rely on patron integrity to get things back on time. So far, this policy works very well, and I know the staff enjoys not dealing with fines.

That being said, our system is abused from time to time. The culture in this library is to put customer service first, to give patrons a good library experience, with "getting to yes" as our unwritten rule. But since we had no written policy to that affect, and what rules we do have are considerably flexible, different staff would enforce overdue items in different ways (some would allow patrons to check out new items, some wouldn't).

But worst of all, this situation allowed some patrons to "shop around" amongst desk staff until they got the answer they wanted, and this is what finally caused a blow up.

We (the department heads) decided we needed to ensure that patrons received consistent service, no matter who helped them. We rewrote a portion of our circulation policy, with the goal of making it clear and fair, while making sure it allowed for the highest degree of service but still punished those who flagrantly abused the system.

It took some time, and as Reference Librarian I was only marginally involved. But I was so impressed with what our Circulation and Childrens Librarians came up with that I wanted to share. The beginning of the new policy contains this preamble:

This library makes certain assumptions when dealing with the public:

  • The staff of this library works to “get to yes” with patrons
  • The vast majority of patrons are honest; therefore, we take patrons at their word
  • Patrons appreciate courtesy and understanding. Gentle reminders, along with compassion toward extenuating circumstances, are used to prompt people to return overdue items

    It goes on from there into the technical nitty-gritty for enforcing the policy, and in general staff was very satisfied with the result. The goal is still serving patrons, but the more black-and-white desk staff now have an up-to-date policy in writing to guide them.

    And since this policy has been in place, the number of abuses and difficult situations seems to have gone down.

    I'm generally a rules-based person, but serving patrons as well as possible should always come first. It's a fine line between completely meeting one patron's needs and also serving the next patron in line equally and fully, but having a written yes-based policy goes a long way towards making everyone happy.



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