Insights from the Front Line

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

This column is directed to front-line librarians and staff, who deliver customer service and have damn good ideas for what can be done to improve things. It’s often a hurdle to get library administrators and managers to listen to your concerns and views. But there are ways. And we believe this advice holds true for everyone on the desk, from reference librarians to support staff.

Be vocal but not obnoxious.
You know the story probably better than anyone as to how your users perceive the library. You know how they use (or don’t use) the catalog. You know what questions they ask. You know how they react to policies instituted by management.

Tell these stories in your own meetings in an even manner. Present them as evidence, because that’s what they are. Keep track of how often a policy or procedure stands in the way of good service. Send your data collection upstairs, framed as a request to improve service. Center your requests on user needs, not your own whines.

A tactful approach is better than a public standoff; carefully presented data, spiffy charts, and reviews from library publications and the biblioblogosphere can help you make your case. Then hit them up for a more streamlined mechanism to share the data: a blog? a wiki? a team sharing reports via Google docs?

Be honest with yourself about library use. More than once in our careers we’ve heard librarians say, “Most of my patrons don’t care about….” Oh, really? Or is that just you and what you think your patrons need or want?

Tap into reports.
Some 30 percent of folks polled for OCLC’s 2005 report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources didn’t know what “electronic databases” were, and over 80 percent were starting their own information searches at a search engine. Pew’s December 2007
Information Searches That Solve Problems tells us that younger people really do use the library.
Use this as a foundation for change–maybe it is time to disband the ten-person reference department for new workflows and job duties.

Request an online suggestion box.
These mechanisms have done wonders for some libraries. Front-liners can share their stories and ask questions; management should respond with answers and actions.

We’re reminded of the rules posted for the Library Loft teen space at the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, NC: “Respect yourself, respect others, respect the space.” Both front-line staff and library management and administrators should follow these simple rules. Request a hard-copy box as well, placed in a staff area for those folks who prefer paper.

Embrace change.
The folks upstairs may be waiting for you to pitch a fit. Don’t do it. Use the tips above to respond, learn, and grow. When an idea comes down that you don’t think will work, don’t be knee-jerk. Talk to your coworkers, and listen to your customers.

Exactly what about the new change is bad? Good data will always trump hearsay and conjecture. Keep a log of customer comments, good and bad. Or, if the new change is primarily internal, draft a brief memo stating how much time is being used to implement the new initiative. Point out where that time is coming from–the front desk, shelving, etc.–and make an argument for how the time could be better used.

Set the example.
You may be in a position to make local changes in your office or branch that, while still complying with your library’s policies and philosophies, are just different enough to stand out as a positive alternative.

Perhaps the programs your library offers will embrace more new technology. Perhaps your story hours will be held at different times or go on the road and visit local schools in an effort to reach users where they are. Maybe your book displays will be more dynamic and more frequently updated than elsewhere in the library system.

The key is to gather data and illustrate the impact these changes have. Are you circulating more books with those new displays? Are more people attending your story hours when you hold them at new times or go offsite? The goal is to show the powers that be that there are affordable benefits to your new plans.

Be a strong yet positive voice.
Keep your criticisms and concerns constructive. Couching your worries in a positive light will get you on teams and committees where you’ll be better poised to make long-term alterations. Set your example locally and others will take notice.


OCLC report

Pew reports

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

February 15, 2008 Library Journal