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

Serve the Community or Serve the Individual

   October 27th, 2009

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."

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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7 Responses to “Serve the Community or Serve the Individual”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Hmm, for situation #1, I have to say I really sympathize with the patron who complained.

    It’s a bit unclear in your post, is there a time-limit on the computers?

    It does seem to me that with the drastically increased number of patrons unemployed, maybe policy should be shifted a bit. Maybe there should be a couple of computers that are exclusively for job hunting. That way at least if somebody is having to wait, they know they’re waiting while someone else is also job-hunting? I know it’s not ideal, but I really do think the patron has a serious complaint. Internet access is completely necessary in this day and age to find a job, and if someone can’t afford it in their own home, they’re already at an economic disadvantage. I’m sorry, but it simply doesn’t seem fair to me to push these people aside to let teenagers use facebook (this is coming from a 23 year old, so no old fogey here 🙂 )

  2. Anne Says:

    It’s a very slippery slope to start dictating what patrons can and can’t do with their computer time. On the surface, it seems like the job seeker should be given priority. However, each person has the right to do whatever they like in the allotted time period.

    At our library, we give people two hours, and just recently have been able to extend the time if more than four computers are empty. At certain times of the day, it is so busy there is literally no chance for extensions. but we remind people that there are better times to come and use the computer – right after school gets out is not one of them! We also let job seekers know about another place in town called Worksource, where they can use computers for their job searches.

    I’ve also noticed that people tend to exaggerate when they’re stressed out and upset. It may seem like those kids are there for hours, but that’s probably not completely true.

    As for the lady that wanted you to scan the documents she wanted first – I get really annoyed when people have that attitude! But we see that type of person almost every day…

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Amanda: Sorry, I was trying to keep the post as short as possible, but I was obtuse about our computer policy. The software we use gives people a 1 hour time limit. However, if not all the computers are in use, the timer rolls over into “extra” time, so people can stay on longer. When all the computers are in use, everyone in “extra” time gets a warning and their session is ended.

    We do not require patrons to log in with their barcodes when using a computer, so even when a patron does get logged off, there’s nothing to stop them from staying seated and just logging in again. But when there are people waiting, we do make an announcement, and people are pretty good about sharing.

    However in this case, the patron didn’t tell us he was waiting, he just went right in to complain. Obviously, this isn’t a perfect system, but it generally errs on the side of being permissive rather than being restrictive.

    As for having a dedicated Jobs computer: we used to, but then we converted it into a regular workstation. We found that it was empty more often than not, and when it was in use, usually wasn’t for job searching. So then staff had the choice of kicking that person off, which was ridiculous when there were other computers available. So now all our computers can do everything.

    We do use Anne’s idea of suggesting the best times to come in, and patrons are allowed to reserve time on certain computers.

    Again, not perfect, but we’re working on adding more computers (circulating laptops from the Ref Desk), which should help.

  4. lesbrarian Says:

    Also in the “but what about MY needs?” category:

    Patron comes up to the reference desk to request a book about wasteful government spending. We don’t own a copy, but I assure the patron that we’ll purchase it and get it to him soon. The patron then proceeds to rant about health care, Obama, socialism, communism, etc. etc. etc.

    Then he thanks us for agreeing to buy the book and tells me what a great library we have.

    (From now on, this is the example I am going to use when someone asks for a definition of “irony.”)

    The thing to bear in mind is that, even though libraries occasionally disappoint people (people who don’t have a sense of perspective, usually), by and large we offer a great number of services and resources to a great number of people. Which makes us all socialists, but anyway.

  5. erin Says:

    Brian – This was a very insightful post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. Cari Says:

    Great post as usual! I think about this a lot in my job… so many people want what they want and want it now, without thinking about others. Too often, I hear “I CAN’T BELIEVE that is CHECKED OUT” (just heard it a few minutes ago, in fact).

  7. Swiss Army Librarian » Free As in Libraries, But Libraries Are Not Free :: Brian Herzog Says:

    […] seems a little contrary to the library spirit, but I do tend to err on the side of serving the community rather than the individual. It’s a fine line to walk, and my library’s yes-based policy means we are accommodating […]