Measure the Silence

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

You make every effort to create a transparent library. You listen to your staff and customers and give them all possible means to talk to you-email, blogs, paper comment cards, telephone numbers, instant messaging, etc. You try to listen in via Twitter and Yelp.

You hold community nights for customers to talk to you and go out to where they are and try to hold conversations where it is most convenient for them. From all of this, you try to steer your library on the right course, paying heed to and responding to input.

Types of silence
But what are you not hearing? As with any healthy relationship, personal or public, you need to hear what’s not being said. What about the silence? What are people not telling you and why? How do you measure the silence?

First, recognize that there are two types of silence, actual and perceived. Actual silence is easy to understand-no one is communicating even though you’re listening and paying attention.
Perceived silence can be more insidious. That’s when your staff or customers are saying or doing something and you’re not hearing it because either you haven’t put the proper mechanisms in place for them to talk to you, or, more likely, because you’re ignoring the conversation.

What to do
First, review your communications tools. Are they working? Are they easy to locate and use? Do they allow anonymity? Do they reach out to the different demographics in your community by being available in multiple languages and obtainable offline in a printed format and at a variety of locations?

If you’ve checked the tools and they pass inspection, you must turn a bit more inward. You’ve got your favorite sources for information and feedback-those people you call upon regularly to give you updates on the “feel” of the organization or feedback on new initiatives and services.
Still, begin looking at the rest of the organization. Whom are you not hearing from? And worse, whom are you ignoring? Are there discussions going on that perhaps you’d rather not hear?

Some measurements
Sometimes the silence is good. If you have recently upgraded a service or technology and then help desk tickets or complaints declined, that’s good.

Still, you want to measure the change in feedback. If you put a lot of work into repairs or upgrades, you want to be able to prove that the return was worth the effort and cost. Measure the silence by highlighting the reduction in complaints, the increased uptime, or the improved use or attendance numbers.

Putting review structures in place will also greatly assist in hearing that silence. As discussed in the book Library 2.0 (Information Today, 2007), by Michael Casey and Laura C. Savastinuk, creating teams that review new services and initiatives will ensure that nothing is “planned, implemented, and forgotten.”

By regularly reviewing everything your library does, you can be certain that you’re hearing what’s being said or not said. And by including both staff and members of the community in your review process, you can invite those people who might not otherwise talk to you to participate in the evaluation and development of library services.

Bad silence is when something is wrong, but you’re not hearing about it. Are there individuals who used to complain about things but have stopped? Ideally, you’ve been placing customer comments and complaints in a database for review and follow-up. If you’re no longer hearing from particular groups, it may be because they simply stopped complaining and went elsewhere.

Go to the field
Don’t forget about “going to the field” (The Transparent Library, LJ 9/15/07). Talk to staffers who don’t talk to you. Find out what they think, and ask them what they might be hearing from the library’s customers. You’ll be surprised what customers say to front-line staff that never reaches the decision-makers.

If you target customers who have not used their cards in a while, you have another way to measure that silence-and to find out what it will take to get them in the door or onto your web site.

Public libraries’ outreach to teens is a good example. Dedicated librarians hosting teen advisory boards, gaming nights, open mic nights, and more have attracted previously underserved groups to become regular users of the library. This successful outreach effort, nontraditional in many ways, signals a way to further expand future library services.

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

January 1, 2009 Library Journal