Going to the Field

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

How many times have decisions been met with resistance and misunderstanding in your library when word reaches the front lines?

Sometimes it seems like higher-ups create policy without a feel for what actually happens on desks throughout the library. Often, those higher ups are labeled “out of touch.”

And those staffers who are on the front lines or working in the branches-whether they’re public or academic libraries-do know what goes on every day.

You know what it’s like. You know how you must juggle immediate customer service needs with longer-term issues such as training, staff evaluations, community outreach, event programming, collection maintenance, and more. You know that when a ceiling-mounted light bulb goes out that you need to request maintenance to come out and get it fixed. And you know that the daily deposit forms must be filled out exactly as required.

But you also know that you have to deal with other immediate issues-the angry customer on the telephone, the upset employee, or the crowd from the story hour that just ended.

Front-line management staff, especially, must be able to triage every situation that comes along and properly place it in the greater scheme of everything that needs to be done. Time is limited, and efficiency is required. Many managers simply do not have the option to devote an hour to looking for and properly filling out paperwork.

The effects of juggling

However, juggling these responsibilities is difficult. When you have to deal with individuals back in accounting or physical services who think that you have all day to follow their painstakingly laid out instructions for performing what should be a simple task, well, then you begin to develop a morale problem. Time is far better spent at the front end of the library than at the back, but not every department head or administrator understands that.

It’s not entirely the fault of the administration. Those people in accounting and collection development and, yes, even IT, perhaps have never worked in a library. Oh, they work in the offices of a library, but they’ve never really stood at a reference desk and answered questions during science project season, or dealt with an angry mother who just found something she refers to as “erotica” (or worse) in the children’s area. They’ve never had to juggle those “in-your-face” customer needs with administrative tasks.

Don’t misunderstand; those administrators deal with an entirely different set of demands and duties, but the purpose of the library is to meet the needs of the user. Remember, the service desks, branches, and satellites are the front lines in your library’s ability to deliver quality customer service.

To the front lines

So how do you get administrators and support staffers to understand the daily operations of the real library? How do you get them to recognize that you deal not only with their guidelines and expectations but also with those of many other departments as well, all on top of your local duties?

Bring them out.

Bring out the maintenance administration and let them see just how dark that corner area is-perhaps sending out staff to replace lighting once a month simply doesn’t work. And get those accountants out there to see how you have to count the money amidst screaming kids and a full book-drop and do it all on a tiny table without a proper chair.

Get collections staff out to see your full rows of boring fiction and your empty shelves devoid of graphic novels. Use these visits as a means to start conversations about what the users want.

Rotate administrative and support staff through the branches or various departments. Have them go through the same training that all of the front-line staffers go through. Write policies and guidelines so that staff can easily understand and comply with them.

A multitude of issues

We’re not trying to turn accountants and administrators into desk librarians. But we do want them to see and comprehend the multitude of issues that branch or department staff and management deal with every day. If support and administrative staff see the processes for what they really are, then, we hope, they’ll begin to view their roles in a new light.

The transparent library’s fluid nature and open communication allow all levels of staff to understand what it takes to meet user needs. By following this simple rule-bring them out-you’ll develop a big-picture understanding of library services among your staff, and you’ll see dividends immediately.

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

September 15, 2007 Library Journal