hi – 09mar

Hi. It’s my Mom’s birthday today. Happy birthday Jessamyn’s Mom, the woman who instilled in me an early and eternal love of reading, helping people, and learning oddball trivia and other wacky facts. You can go check out her web page and learn where I got a lot of my general chutzpah and above-average writing skills. Her contributions on Flickr put mine to shame. I must note in the interests of fairness that I also get my bizarre sense of humor and my [insert adjective here] fashion sense from her as well.

I went to one of my many libraries yesterday to check out some books for my Mom’s upcoming visit that I thought she’d like. She gets up at the crack of dawn so I figured good reading material might be in order and my library has a great photography collection. Turns out that, like many librarians, I am a terrible patron and had a book that was way overdue. I had just returned the book but there was still a “block” on my card and the software wouldn’t let the desk staffer check a book out to me. The woman there couldn’t remove the block (“They won’t give me the override password”) and couldn’t let me check out any other books. This was not a fines issue since the library doesn’t have fines. I asked her how long it would take to remove the block and she didn’t know, “Maybe a week?” I asked her what the policy was on blocked accounts and she didn’t know and didn’t seem to really care. She wrote my home number down on a piece of paper and said the librarian would call me and let me know how to unblock my account. I checked out all my books on my boyfriend’s card. I wonder if there will be some sort of essay component to this unblocking procedure?

The only reason I bring this up is that I keep thinking about this photo that Jenny Levine put on Flickr. When I was a student library worker, I was on the other side of the desk in this transaction. The software would do something that I either didn’t understand or wasn’t deputized to fix. I’d have to make a difficult decision about whether this was worth calling the librarian at home. The patron would be told that their problem couldn’t be handled until the next day, or if it was the weekend, Monday. I know this isn’t true for all libraries, but many libraries have these arrangements where there are times the library is fully staffed by people who have the authority to solve problems, and there are times it isn’t. At one library I used to work with, whenever the director was on vacation we weren’t deputized to fix many problems. If the systems librarian was on vacation, we couldn’t fix anything that went wrong with the OPAC. Both of these women got four weeks of vacation, at least. At many libraries the web site can’t be changed to reflect current conditions at all, though this has been changing and changing rapidly in many cases.

As a librarian and library patron, I don’t expect to be treated any differently than anyone else in someone else’s library. However as someone who goes to many libraries both for work and not for work, I’ve seen systems that work, and systems that don’t work as well. When the systems don’t work, I often ask a lot of questions: is this a software problem? is this a staffing problem? is this a policy problem? is this a failure of imagination problem? is this a problem of one person who just needs to retire? is this a communication problem? is this a problem money can solve? As I’ve said before, I can handle slow change, but I’m often curious as to whether some of these interactions are seen as problems at all?

5 Responses to “hi – 09mar”

  1. emily alling Says:

    Great post….It is always interesting and illuminating to see how libraries’ policies and procedures affect patrons by switching over the other side of the desk. I recently described a couple of encounters I had with a local public library on Our Future, a blog for the Massachusetts library community (My post, I must admit, is somewhat less thoughtful and more strident than your own description! must have inherited my own mom’s poison pen…)

  2. Rick Roche Says:

    Your Mom takes really nice pictures!

    On to the other topic – I see no good reason for there to be a block on your card when you returned the items and have no fines. That library needs to wake up and either fix the computer or fix the policy. At our library, there is always someone with the authority to fix problems, make exceptions, see that that our readers get their books.

    I have been cringing every day the past two weeks as the Chicago Tribune has been running a very early series of Peanuts strips in which Charlie Brown is very worried about the library book he lost. All the kids tell him he is in really deep trouble and he imagines the punishment he is going to get from the librarians. Blocking your card when the book is back seems retro – it seems like it comes from a time when the librarian made you justify your worthiness to borrow a book. I guess we have not gotten as far as some of us like to think.

  3. Brian Says:

    Years ago, I read a farinaceous* anecdote — I think it might’ve been in Dale Dauten’s book The Perfect Boss — about a company that actually did empower its customer service staff to do whatever they thought needed to be done. The phone-answering CS rep in the story hired a helicopter (without having to ask permission first) to make a delivery or something to set things right.

    *My new slang for “cool”.

  4. Angel Says:

    I see this as a management problem. As the picture displays its all about who has authority. I’ve discovered that most people who have control over authority issues don’t want to give it up regardless of how this reduces customer service. Passwords have become the new power trip. If it’s a recurring problem or issue, someone should reconsider giving up some of the authority and realizing that the staff on the front lines might just be able to make competent decisions regarding patron accounts.
    But that’s just my two cents.

  5. Scott Says:

    Given the description of the transaction I doubt this would have worked either, but…

    … maybe you could transformed the interaction into one of a “Claims Returned”. Perhaps they would know how to handle that transaction better, and since the book had been returned… :-)