Friday, March 6, 2009

Quality service = Priority one

"Why can't librarians learn to serve?" OK, maybe I shouldn't try to re-write My Fair Lady, "Why can't the English learn to speak," and maybe I shouldn't judge librarians before I technically am one, but with budget cuts and the pressure to compete against book stores, the Internet, television, and more, I believe that as individuals and as a group, when we are faced with an opportunity we need to step up.

In the last several weeks I have observed some exceptional librarians: ones who can answer multiple requests simultaneously and who can often predict upcoming questions; who in many cases have prepared pathfinders and brochures to answer them before they are even asked. I have seen librarians doing three different things at once with ten successful results and am in awe of how they do what they do!

Sadly though, not all librarians are as talented or as committed. I have seen school librarians create atmospheres that cause teachers and students to stay away; whose strategy seems not to be to collaborate but to hibernate. I am frustrated each time I see a school where the library seems "off-limits" and the librarian unreachable, but I am just as frustrated each time I visit a community library where patrons are not offered the best service possible.

A couple interactions I witnessed at a larger, local public library recently are representative of the type of failure that I find most irritating. I was aware of complaints regarding the service at this library but was truly frustrated to witness the lack of motivation firsthand. I was trained in retail with a customer first mentality and I believe, as did my reference professor who works as the head of reference at a local university, that librarians should be pro-active, often in front of the desk, in their approach to library service.

Contrary to this approach is the lack of service I saw offered during a one hour visit last week. In one instance, a young adult patron asked where the Stephanie Meyer books were located. The YA librarian, as indicated by a badge she was wearing, who was building a rather pathetic display, answered, "They'd be under MEY in the next aisle, but they're all on waiting lists right now because they are so popular." With this she ended the conversation. She made no effort to offer this student the option to join the waiting list and, in my opinion, more importantly, she made no effort to conduct a readers advisory interview and suggest possible alternative books.

In another case, just a few minutes later, a patron approached the reference desk while I was seated nearby. This patron asked if the library could get copies of a rather obscure television program from the 1970's that he had already discovered was owned by another branch. The librarian checked and told him the tape was checked out and not available. Again she did not offer a hold or any other alternative and was in the process of turning the patron away.

In both cases I took it upon myself to help the patrons, the first one without the librarian's knowledge, and the second right in front of the librarian at the reference desk before she had time to dismiss him altogether. The first patron, a veteran of Harry Potter and Eldest series', left the library with the first two books in the series by Rick Riordan beginning with The Lightning Thief. (I have not read them but my son has and says they are very good.) I suggested to the librarian and the second patron as he was leaving the desk, that all 24 episodes of the TV series he was looking for were available on and showed him, on library computer I was using, how to access the site.

Both patrons, and a third that I assisted before leaving the library, thanked me. The reference librarian (working the desk) also thanked me, claiming she had never thought to search Hulu, but sadly, she never thought to search anywhere. She and the other librarians at this branch and, sadly, many others are willing to put forth minimal effort and the easy answer without regard for the true, often underlying needs of our patrons. If our patrons can't get more from us than they can from their own search online or poring through the stacks themselves, what good do we serve, and what right do we have to be employed in this "non-essential" service position?

Part of what we learn as librarians and what good salespeople and retailers and even doctors, lawyers, and therapists learn is that customers, patrons and patients do not always know how to ask for what they want or need. It is the job of the professional to discover and to satisfy the true want or need. If we do not step up, as individuals and as a group, to make this satisfaction a priority, we will, as individuals and as a group, be out of a job.

Putting our current economy aside for a moment but not putting aside the reality of our modern, techno-savvy environment and communities, it is my opinion that library services and hours are not usually cut because of lack of need, but because of lack of perceived value. It is our job as professionals to prove our worthiness every day through the benefits that we return to our patrons and community. If we do not offer these services and benefits, the perceived need for the library and the librarian plummets and it becomes our own fault that jobs are lost.