Be Selfish, Promote Service

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

Now, more than ever we need to deliver our best customer service. No library users should walk away feeling that their questions or needs were not fully addressed. No teen should come to the reference desk only to be met by a sarcastic answer and a hand gesturing them to some distant region of the stacks. No senior should be expected to use our newest technology without being offered a training session.
Is this hard in today’s tighter economic times? Absolutely. Time is at a premium, as is money, but right now you need to be selling yourself.
This isn’t about “the library,” but as in “Reasons for Optimism” {LJ5/15/09, p. 20), it is about you, the librarian, and the individual, making yourself stand out. You need to be the most energetic, multitasking, forward thinking, driven librarian you can because administrators, managers, and your fellow workers (who may be your future bosses) are all watching to see what you’re doing.
Economic hardship and crisis make life difficult in libraries. Budgets are being cut, staffs are being stretched thin, and morale is being tested with every cutback and increased job responsibility. Many staffers respond with complaints and unproductive annoyance.

Smiles and energy.
So what can you do, especially if you’re already busy and working as hard/fast as possible? As silly as it sounds, bring a smile to your tasks. Volunteer for teams and committees. This is a great way to get yourself recognized by administrators and management.
Ask your supervisor if you can cross-train in another department, perhaps filling in for someone on leave or simply helping an understaffed section. This is a great way to grow your big picture understanding of your library.
When, you’re at the desk helping customers, be sure to get out from behind that counter and walk customers to the shelves. Use that time as an opportunity to tell them about new services your library might have. Are there up-coming events you can bring to their attention?
Spend a little time talking to the customers. Find out what they’re looking for in a library. Do they expect to see or find things that you don’t offer? Do they want training or classes in areas your library doesn’t currently provide? Potential new initiatives abound.

You’re a librarian, so read.
Begin reading a bit more about libraries. Cruise the many librarian blogs for new ideas and initiatives. Read through the professional journals to find out what other libraries are doing to address today’s economic challenges. Keep an eye on other organizations for how they might be adapting to deliver quality customer service more efficiently.
Read outside the profession, too. Seth Godin’s Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us (Portfolio) and David Weinberger’s Everything Is Miscellaneous (Holt) are two favorites that can illuminate your thinking and your work. Scan the best sellers lists. Spot trends in Wired, Fast Company, and other publications. Check out TEDTalks to hear some big thinkers share their insights for free.
Look for ways to improve efficiency and see what you can do to share and implement them. Is there a team or taskforce that accepts ideas for review? Can you talk with your manager? And remember: always couch your ideas constructively, not critically.

No immunity for the boss.
Administrators and managers don’t get off the hook when it comes to standing out in times of crisis. But if you’re the boss (or one of many) and you’re working 60-hour weeks, your staff may have no idea. Take a walk out onto the floor before you leave for home so everyone knows you’re still there. Make it a point to talk to staff about the increased workload, mentioning that you, too, have been pulling extra hours in an effort to keep the library on track. Stop by a branch library while driving home and ask how everyone is doing—facetime is very important.
We don’t work in a for-profit world but rather in public service, nonprofit agencies. We need to serve more people with less because what we do is so darn good and important. Everyone from front-line staff to the top dog needs to understand this. But it is possible to excel during times of sacrifice.
If you can find it within you to embrace this downturn as an opportunity to shine and to grow as a team player, you will find that when better times return, you will be rewarded. Anyone can shine when money and time are in abundance. It takes a positive and progressive individual to stand out when things are difficult.

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

June 15, 2009 Library Journal