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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Reference Question of the Week – 7/25/10

   July 31st, 2010 Brian Herzog

USPS logoThis question wasn't difficult at all, just surprising. One of our semi-regular patrons, an elderly woman, came over to the desk and asked for help at a computer.

When we got back to where she was working, she explained that she had moved from one end of her retirement complex to the other, and was on the Post Office's website trying to change her address. She was stuck on the first step - the difference between a "permanent" move and a "temporary" move. She felt, at her age (86), she wanted to get a second opinion on how "permanent" I thought her move was. I know she has a good sense of humor, but I honestly couldn't tell if she was kidding this time.

We got her through that step, and I went back to the desk. The whole process is only about five screens, but over the course of the next half-hour, she came back twice more to ask for help. It was a busy day so I wasn't able to stay with her, and usually she's very good on the computer.

However, the last question stumped us both: they required her type in her credit card number, and were going to charge her $1.00 to change her address.

Well, after a half an hour of frustration, that was the last straw. I know you can do change of addresses at the Post Office for free, so she said she was going to go right over to do it the old-fashioned way, and to give them a piece of her mind.

Initially, I thought this was another annoying example of an online place charging service fees or "internet surcharge" to use their website. I see this a lot buying tickets and things online, and to my mind, it seems like a pure scam - buying online should provide a discount, since it saves them effort.

After the patron left, I went back to the website to see if they mentioned this $1 fee earlier in the process. On the first page, I found a not-too-easy-to-read note at the bottom, saying a valid credit card was required - and that you have to change your address with the credit card company before you can change it with the Post Office. It reads:

Note: A valid credit card and a valid email address are required to complete the Online Change of Address process. For your security, the credit card billing address MUST match the address you are moving from or the address you are moving to (for business moves it must match the address you are moving from). If you are unable to use a credit card and a valid email address, you will have the option to print the Change of Address form and then mail or deliver the printed form to your local post office™.

From this, and from the page where you enter your credit card number, it seems like it's more of a security feature, to deter random people from changing the address of other people. However, you can still do it for free with no questions asked using the paper form. There has to be a better way to handle things like this, so that security doesn't impede convenience.

I've got to apply this logic the next time we revamp our library website.

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