Office Hours Extra: Save the Day!

I believe in the power of stories. I think everything we do in our libraries contributes to the story we tell – signage, customer service, the atmosphere of the building and how we interact with our users – both in person and online. At this moment in time, a library’s story is written everyday by what users find or don’t find inside, how the staff meets those users needs and what is said about the facility in line at the grocery store and online at Yelp or Google reviews.

I’ve travelled a lot in the last few years, mostly for speaking gigs at various conferences, in-service days and consortial meetings. I’ve earned a load of frequent flier miles, Hilton points and other travel perks along the way. I’ve also come away with a treasure chest of stories from the road, from meeting practicing librarians all over the world.

I use these stories in my teaching, on my blog and re-use them in presentations, couching all in a degree of anonymity as to not embarrass the folks the stories are about. I use them to illustrate points. I use them to make people laugh. I use them in hope that on some level a person listening will recognize their own foibles and ponder a new point of view. A change in service. A change of mind.

Consider these strange but true stories from the road:

An academic library had outsourced almost 90% of its cataloging to free up time for the staff to focus on organizing and digitizing what I believe is much more important: local, unique collections. The head of cataloging, however, was suspect of the outsourcing vendor and checked every box of books that came in the door to make sure the cataloging was correct. The woman who told me this story actually noted that the head of cataloging had been on a two week vacation and the boxes were filling her office. Time saved by outsourcing? Zero.

An LIS student who works part time at a public library at related this story at a recent talk I gave out east. A teen desperately needed a copy of one of those oh-so-popular bestseller wizard vampire werewolf books we stock like mad. All copies were out – except for one, currently in the YA librarian’s office. “Could I check that one out to her?” the student worker asked. The answer: an emphatic “No” – that copy was for future book club use. The book stayed in the office for weeks, while the young patron went without.

A special librarian at a recent reception reflected on what Michael Casey and I wrote  in The Transparent Library. Even in the corporate environment there is room for openness and transparency. His suggestion to the head of his information services department to found a blog and create a Twitter account to engage with other info specialists in branches around the country and to promote special librarianship to students and others in LIS was met with a sideways, suspect glance and the words: “That’s not secure. We can’t control it who might link to us and what they might say.”

The thread running through all of these stories? Barriers made by individuals acting in the interest of their library. What’s so apparent to my students, when I use these stories in the classroom, is just how wrong they actually are. How can I teach Rangananthan in Intro to LIS, knowing full well that in some libraries “Books are for use” comes with a few disclaimers, including that library that continues to put new and notable materials on a table for examination for TWO WEEKS. Patrons are encouraged to place holds for future pick up. Repeat after me: “Save the time of the reader.” Or viewer. Or listener.

While those stories cause me concern, I’ve also heard many wonderful stories that make my heart happy and demonstrate the amazing service that libraries provide.

I recently spent the day at a well-known library where the order of the day is a user-driven service philosophy. Staff are empowered to go above and beyond. In fact, they’re encouraged to do so – with full administrative support. There is no way the above examples would ever fly. The mindset is just too different. Over lunch, the staff gathered with me to share stories of what they’ve learned dealing with their users.

A patron was in desperate need of a certain title, a book that was out and overdue. The young staffer so wanted to help this person that she ordered the book on Amazon and had it delivered directly to the patron’s home. “Bring it in and we’ll catalog it when you’re done,” she said to the happy patron. Trust of the radical flavor for sure.

Another similar story ended with a staffer purchasing a desperately-needed children’s book at the local big box bookseller and dropping it off at the patron’s home. A human connection made for miles on the car and the cost of a book.

Is it out of the question to set aside a tiny bit of our book budgets for these type of “save the day” endeavors? Should we trust our users enough to bring back that book? Will the world end if someone tricks us and gets a free copy of “Twilight?”

I don’t think so when the obvious result is a user that remembers that interaction for a very long time – and tells everyone whenever the library is a topic of conversation.

Those stories offer AHAs as well to my students, many graduating this year. The ongoing conversation about user-focus and service in libraries – with participants like Shera, Buckland, and the current LIS philosophers out there making a name for themselves online – continues to shift and adapt to the times. I hope the places we’re sending them to are listening closely.

What stories would you share about barriers or saving the day?