I’ve got ten years of experience in a retail, where I didn’t just provide excellent customer service, but I worked at getting other people to provide it too. I’ve managed, coached, and written policies in order to create a team that can go above and beyond in serving customers.
When I started in libraries, I began with the same approach. I walked patrons over to the materials they wanted. I sat for an hour helping a woman figure out how to download eBooks. I did extensive research for people, emailing them with resource lists, and long, carefully-written explanations. I always wanted to go the extra mile to provide great service.
I still want to provide great service, but I’m drastically altering my methods and approach.
I’m trying move from the “pampering” model to the “empowerment” model.
A major reason for this is time and limited resources, as I discussed here. There are just too many people who need help, and too few people to help them. If there are five patrons waiting at the reference desk, sending a patron to find her own books frees me up to help the next person much more quickly. The American Library Association’s motto is “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.” Dour and uninspiring that may be, but it does hit the heart of the matter – the library is a shared resource, and time is money.
But the other part of my decision to switch to the empowerment model is because really, patrons own the library. So I want to make sure they know how their investment works.
Patrons are not pampered guests, they’re family. The library is their house too.
As nice as it is to be taken care of, it’s also great to be able to look around and say “all these books are belong to me.” Because they do. The computers too. And the DVDs. Etc. etc.
Where the customer service comes in, in the empowerment model, is this: Patrons shouldn’t just be able to operate the library themselves, they should be happy about it. They should feel comfortable and supported.
So when I’m busy, I’ll say something like, “I need to make sure I help these people behind you, so here’s what I’d like to do: You go take a look on the shelf at this call number. If you can’t find what you need, come back and we’ll cook up another strategy. Does that sound ok?” And I make very sure that they know I’d be very happy to see them, if they did come back for more strategizing. Here’s another thing I might say, if it’s less busy, “This is the call number for your book. The numbers start there at 000 and go up to the 900s. Do you think you can find it, or would you like me to come with you?” And again, I make it very clear that it is their choice, and either choice is ok by me.
It’s their library.
In the books I loved to read as a kid, libraries are crazy old buildings full of secrets. The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn sends Anthony Monday all over the library, following obscure clues to uncover something of great wealth. I vividly remember the scene from Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario where Eugene Winkleman visits the Rochester Public Library and the children’s librarian tells him there is a secret room – which he must find for himself.
I think that it’s important that libraries find lots of different ways to interact with patrons. Not only because our new post 2.0 world is participatory, but because it is important that libraries nurture discovery. As I talked about here, the library allows us to conduct intellectual experiments. The value of libraries is firmly rooted in self-directed learning and enjoyment. To underscore that value, we need to keep patrons engaged, puzzled, and on their toes.**
Below is a round-up of a few of the passive programs and experiential stations I’ve set up in the past few months:
The Ball of String
The Ball of String idea is lifted from AnyThink libraries. AnyThink is doing some really innovative stuff! They were a community where only 10% of people had library cards, and 63% were under 45 years old. Part of their recipe for rejuvenating their relationship with the community was shifting to a more experiential model of library service. There’s a good article about AnyThink here. I learned about their “experience zones” via Stacie Ledden in the ALATT FB group – one was simply a ball of string.
The Mystery Mystery
This was inspired by the “Blind Date with a Book” displays that were happening in libraries on Valentine’s day. So far we’ve had five. There is not currently a kid one, and the adult one has sat around for a while since we moved it off the main circ desk. Our library uses Encore, and I tag the books in the catalog.
After seeing the Mystery, Mystery, one of our 12 year old regular patrons had the idea to “take two books and package them together, and patrons don’t know which one they are getting.” We have done 23 Lucky Picks. Most of them were chosen by me, with the exception of the current ones, which were chosen by the patron and include picture books as well as chapter books (he chose one of the picture books because it was the first book he ever read at our library). Circulation has also slowed down after moving them to the shelves from the circ desk. At another branch in the system, the branch manager had the idea to wrap the lucky picks in some gift wrap she had. Those seem to be moving quicker – everyone loves presents.
The Craft Station
One comment we recently received was the suggestion to “make an area for 8-12 year olds.” The craft station provides more for this age to do in the library. We’ve gone through three crafts – a paper plate clover was up for a week, a paper plate Easter basket was up for two weeks, and a (non-paper plate) Garden craft just went up for April. We now also have crayons and coloring sheets out on this station. The coloring has been used, I’m not sure if the crafts have been done other than when the facilitator of one of our crafts programs didn’t show up. The April craft may be more countable, as there is a place for the finished craft to be displayed in the library.
The Viewfinder Station
This is also less quantifiable. I watched kids be amazed and delighted by the viewfinder, and some of them did write down what they saw on the sheet – “rockets” and “izrael.”
Type-spiration Station for Poetry Month
This will be up for April, so we’ll see how it went at the end of the month. So far we’ve had one kid type away and then ask “hey, how do you print this out?”
Your Library Fortune
Reader’s advisory, 3rd grade style. Fortunes are:
Books about the conclave, biographies of former popes, and the opportunity to make your own origami pope hat.
A sweet tale of requited love: Our director writes, “Dear Gone With the Wind, I’ve loved you since high school and will love you forever.” Our hearts are aflutter because Gone With the Wind has “always felt the same way!”
**Librarians might wish to think of patrons as cats, as depicted in this Monty Python Sketch.
I’m a librarian because I wanted to do social work, but I didn’t want to be a social worker. Being a librarian gives you the ability to really help people, in all sorts of interesting ways.
Sometimes this is brief. You might spend ten seconds letting someone know the cost for printing, or where the bathroom is. Sometimes your interaction can take much longer, stretching over days as you contact other organizations to, for example, find out which Pasadena high school was the one attended by a tap dancer on the Lawrence Welk Show (more specifically tap dancer Arthur Duncan, the first African American to appear regularly on a tv variety program).
The length of time spent with someone doesn’t have a direct relationship with the importance of your answer. If a patron needs to know where the bathroom is, that is an immediate need with potentially dire and smelly repercussions. The answer to “Where is the bathroom?” is very important information, and it must be provided in a timely fashion.
The attrition of staff over decades of tight budgets (in California much of this can be traced back to the passage of Prop 13 in 1978) means that libraries are short staffed, and increasingly so. Librarian time must be rationed, in order to ensure that all patrons get at least some sort of assistance. One of the libraries I work at has a loose rule for reference staff: no more than ten minutes with each patron. But many times even ten minutes is too much, when there is a line of people clamoring for attention. One of the value judgments that I am learning to make, as a new professional, is how to best spend my time. When I decide how much time to spend with patrons, how to triage, when to give up, and when to really go the extra mile, I’m making a decision about the importance of my help.
I find the importance of answering idle curiosity very hard to quantify. Many people will say “oh it’s not important, I’m just curious.” But really these questions are very central to the library vision. Libraries exist to nurture the curious. It is this sort of engagement with our world that helps create literate, dynamic, healthy communities. Sharing someone’s intellectual interest is a very good way of building a relationship. The time spent helping someone who is “just curious” is also valued differently by patrons. It is often seen as excellent customer service, or kindness, or going the extra mile. It is a way of showing a patron she is important, and it can be very validating for her.
Another difficult decision is how much help to provide to individuals with very limited skills, particularly those who are not computer-literate. I’ll admit I was shocked, when I started working in libraries, by the level of illiteracy I saw (and continue to see). These are not just patrons who are not very fast typers, or don’t know how to sort a spreadsheet. These patrons don’t know how to use a mouse. You have to say things like, “press the button on the left side of the mouse twice, this rhythm: dah-dah.” “Double-click” is too much jargon. And often these patrons come in because they need to do something to fulfill a basic need; They need to print out a lease, or a medical bill. They might need to apply for something online, e.g. unemployment or a job. Even positions that don’t require computer skills, custodian jobs, for example, now have online applications. These patrons often need someone to sit with them for the duration of what they are trying to do, and it is very time consuming. And where else can they go? What other organization offers free computer time, and the possibility of free help?
Kids also present a special challenge. Many kids are actually better library users than adults, at least as far as the Dewey Decimal System is concerned. It is more common for me to be able to hand a call number to a child, say “do you know how to find this?” and have them nod and scamper off. Adults will often sheepishly grimace, and say they have no idea. So, its not so much that kids need more library help. The kids I’m considering here are the free-range kids, the ones who don’t get a lot of positive attention from adults. Some of these kids lurk in packs with no desire for contact. But some kids will sidle up next to the ref desk and latch on, asking question after question, and often increasingly bizarre ones as they search for ways to keep your attention. Clingy adults are one thing, and difficult enough to disengage from. Clingy children break my heart.
So where is my time best spent? I make that decision hundreds of times a day. I weigh the needs of patrons against each other, not to mention against the other tasks I do that benefit them – ordering new books, weeding, making displays and book lists, planning programs, trying to stay on top of my own professional development…
I’d have to make these decisions even if libraries had better funding. But we are so short-staffed. Some days it feels like I’m holding both hands over a leaking dam.
Last week I wrote about Asanti’s Pick, a display gimmick where kid patrons can check out a wrapped book. They know from a sign that it is one of two titles, but not which of the two it is. These books circ! People take a chance on an unknown read. In the debate about whether or not to take the book, a lot of kids say something like “but what if I don’t like it?”
We then point to the fine print on the sign which says, “If you don’t like the book, you don’t have to finish it.”
This is often a revelation to an eight year old. “You mean I don’t have to read the whole thing?!” Nope. My boss says to kids, while recommending all kinds of books (not just wrapped up ones) “Take it home. Read the first chapter and the back cover, and if you’re not interested, bring it back. I don’t mind.” A long term co-worker of hers, another excellent children’s librarian, once finished a discussion with a child patron on the relative merits of two audiobooks by saying, “Take both. Test them out and just bring back the one you don’t like.”
Children’s librarians often talk about how libraries are often one of the first places that young people begin to practice autonomy. When they get their first card, they begin a process where they learn to choose, for themselves, what to read. They start to direct their own intellectual development. They can create an internal life that belongs solely to them. Due to privacy laws, here in California at least, their library records are their own – parents have no right to look at what their children are checking out, or when it is due. Their relationship with the library, and with reading, is their own private affair.
In companionship to this self-direction, is the fact that the library makes it possible to conduct low-risk, low-commitment experiments in reading. If you don’t like a book, you’ve made no financial sacrifice (or no parent has made a financial sacrifice on your behalf), and you can just bring it back and try again.
You’ve got the freedom to experiment.
This is such an important library function, both to the development of children, and to the development of the kind of world I want to live in. In that world, people are open-minded. They are free to explore new interests, and to easily set them aside if they are not captivating. They are able to listen to different kinds of thinkers, without needing to invest in one particular school. They have choice.
They have intellectual options.
So there’s another reason why libraries are awesome; Libraries give you the freedom to try new things.
I as said in my last post about pushing books, I hate to be told what to read. This is not just due to my own obstinance, its also on account of, I’m fussy. I get in the mood for a certain kind of book, or a certain author, and that is the only thing I want to read. I accept no substitutes. I particularly like to discover an author that suits my tastes, greedily devour their whole catalog, and then mopily do research until I find a new writer and can feed my gluttony for reading all over again.
Which is why I don’t get why people would ever want to check out a surprise book.
Back around Valentine’s Day, libraries were doing this display gimmick called “Blind Date with a Hot Read.” This is a photo of one I did for one of the libraries where I work. Someone actually requested, via Twitter, that we do this! (Ours was a little unusual in that we made it easy on patrons and put the books in bags, so if you wanted to cheat and check out what your date looked like before taking it home, you could.) I can’t believe these displays worked! All over the country, people were checking out and taking home books, with no idea what they were.
So when I started at another library in late February, a library where the branch manager and I were heavily concentrating on devising ways to get the kids to at least browse the chapter books, I decided to see if this principle could be expanded, and created the Mystery Mystery. It’s just as it sounds. I wrapped a mystery in brown paper, drew a few question marks on the front, and waited to see if patrons would take home a book that they knew nothing about, other than the fact that it was a mystery. And they did! There was often much debate, but kids took a chance on the book. The one for adults met a similar reception (I did put a little note on the cover which said something like “best for ages 8-12” or “best for adults”).
One of our 12 year old patrons saw the display and came up to me with his own suggestions. He said “why don’t you take two books and package them together, and then people don’t know which one they’ll get.” So I made it for him.
In Asanti’s Lucky Pick, patrons can see a sign with the covers of each book. They know they will get one of the two, but the books are wrapped so they don’t know which one. This one seems to move even faster than the Mystery Mystery or the Blind Date books.
As foreign as it is to me, people actually seem to enjoy a little intrigue at the library. They like a little risk with their reading.
I’ve been thinking about the different ways that librarians push books.
Personally, I don’t ever want to be told what to read. In this way, my teen years still cling to me: if you tell me I should read a book, I say “YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!” For example, it took me ages to crack open The Book Thief, because my sister told me it was a must-read. When I finally got around to it, I loved The Book Thief. Such a powerful story, and a brilliant look at the way small things are really large things, and vice versa – really, you must read it.
We public librarians recommend books all the time. We sit at a desk and people ask us killer questions like, “what’s a good book to read?” or “I just finished the new Michael Chabon, what should I read next?” Reader’s Advisory is kind of like match-making. You ask a series of questions, and then use your gut to try to match your reader client with her perfect book-date.
But I didn’t really think about a librarian’s function as a Book Pusher until a couple months ago, when I was working on a weeding project for a children’s librarian. We were going through the books and getting rid of things which hadn’t been checked out in the last five years, which really is quite a while to sit on the shelf. She rescued about a dozen books, saying “I don’t think I’ve been pushing these enough.”
Pushing books! My own knee-jerk reaction against having books pushed at me, even in the most subtle and non-pushing of ways, had really kept me from thinking about what the Action Librarian should do. An Action Librarian should push books. It’s not enough to create a great collection, you must find ways to entice people into taking them home.
This doesn’t mean you’ve got to run people down and tell them “You’ll love Gone Girl” or “If you don’t read The Passage of Power, baby’s going to be really unhappy.” But it does mean you can’t just buy a pile of books to sit on. You gotta lay them out real nice. You need to create additional content, which showcases your books in their most attractive light. You need to work your magic in order to really hook people in. You need to create in a community where, if the reading don’t happen, people’s hands might start to shake a bit.
You gotta push the books.
Here’s something I don’t get about administrator-think. When budgets are tight, they often look for ways to shrink budgets without cutting services.
But really, we should cut services.
If the taxpayers are paying less, they should get less.
Libraries need funding in order to provide all the wonderful things we do. If we try to make the loss of funding painless for patrons, then it looks like the lower amount is all that we need. It puts us in a downward spiral of trying to do more with less, and ultimately providing poor service, and looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.
In order to advocate for libraries, we need to do our jobs well. We need to create satisfied patrons. There’s more to advocacy than just that of course, but the foundation of an argument for libraries is a valuable, valued service. We need enough money and enough staff to make that happen.
It seems likely to me that the slow attrition of library jobs is a result of this desire to not cut services.
Please note that if there are efficiencies that can be found that would save the system money,we shouldn’t need to wait for a budget crisis to find them. We should enact them. We should respect taxpayers enough to give them full value for the dollar.
We should respect taxpayers enough to be transparent about what they get for their money.
A week or so ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to this:
(It’s pretty funny, you should take a look).
Here’s what it made me think of:
I, myself, lived through the 1990s. I was a teenager then, in fact.
In the suburbs in the early 90s, rap was still considered kind of a teen fad. A lot of adults thought it wouldn’t last. Many adults also thought that it was “noisy” and “offensive.”
At that time, some librarian at my local public library put up a poster of Shakespeare, wearing those old school sunglasses (you know, the squarish Blues Brothers kind), with the caption “Shakespeare was the original rapper.”
As a young person, I was actually pretty into Shakespeare. I did theater and had taken a few intensive summer classes at a local Shakespeare festival. I knew and appreciated that he was brilliant, and his use of rhythm to signal meaning kinda blew my mind.
I thought that poster was the lamest thing I’d ever seen.
Today, as a librarian myself, I can appreciate where that poster-hanging librarian was coming from. Teens can be inscrutable patrons, and the urge to find some way, any way, of relating to them is very strong. Shakespeare may not have been the original rapper, but there are definitely some awesome connections between rap and his writing.
I always think of that poster when I work with, or for, teens at the library.
I think maybe the thing to remember, is to meet teens where they are, instead of where you want them to be. As patrons, teens deserve the library service they want, not the service we think they should have. That means we should ask what they are interested in first, and let that drive purchasing and programming, rather than trying to pull them somewhere.
We don’t need to try to make Shakespeare cool. Shakespeare is already cool.
We don’t need to try to be cool. We can just be ourselves. We’re already cool too.
Today is “go through the
mess personal filing system and dump out old paper work day!”
I found a notebook from my first few weeks working as a real librarian, which included this list of questions:
Do you like to read and make lists?
When people ask you questions that don’t make sense, do you smile and say, “tell me more”?
Do you have an eye for color and a flair for display?
How are you with bureaucracy?
Do you like children?
Do you know where the bathroom is?
Do you mind telling that to people over and over?
Do you like thinking about which books are like other books?
Did you read Encyclopedia Brown or other detective novels as a child?
Do you find the same joy in online detective work?
Even though you prefer things organized neatly, do you gracefully accept the presence of relentless, ever-encroaching chaos in your life?