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David Lee King

Ask-a-Librarian Services Need a Reboot



Hippie discriminationWhat would you say if I told you that some libraries discriminate against a certain type of customer? That some customers, because of the way they asked a question, were purposefully pushed to the back of the line, told to wait 2-3 days for an answer, and that they couldn’t get an answer to some of their burning questions … because they’re “that kind” of customer?

You’d be furious, right?

Well … believe it or not, many libraries are doing that RIGHT NOW – today, in fact. Take a peek at these email and chat reference policies for a sec, then come back and let’s talk:

  • Note – not picking on any particular library – there are MANY MORE examples out there…
  • New York Public Library: “We will make every effort to respond to your question within two working days
  • San Francisco Public Library: “In depth questions will be forwarded in e-mail format to subject specialists, who will try to get back to you within 2 days.” Their IM service – “The IM reference service works best for answering brief, factual questions.”
  • Hennepin County Library: “We can provide brief answers to questions or suggest locations and sources to answer your question. We will respond within 48 hours.”
  • San Diego Public Library: “If you are in a Library building, we highly recommend working with Library staff before using these online services” … “Library staff is able to provide short, factual answers.”
  • County of Los Angeles Public Library: “Send us an email or fill out the form below. Reference staff will respond to your question within 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays).
  • Houston Public Library: “You should get a response to your e-mail within 48-72 hours, excluding weekends and holidays … If you are working against a deadline, you may get a faster response by visiting or calling your local library …”
  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh: “Every reasonable attempt will be made by library staff to respond to reference questions within 48 hours.” … E-mail Reference Questions should be limited to those that have concise, factual answers … Individuals are limited to three Electronic Mail Reference Questions each week.” (check out this update)
  • Kansas City Public Library: “Questions sent to the Library by using this form will be answered by e-mail within 48 hours excluding holidays and weekends.” Their chat service – “AskNow! is a live, online reference service for questions that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources.”

Ouch! Now, let me ask you this. If I walked into any of these libraries and asked the same question in person:

  • Would I have to wait 48-72 hours for a response? No.
  • Could I ask the same question on a weekend? Most likely, assuming the library was open.
  • Would they limit my questions to THREE A WEEK??? I sure hope not!
  • Would I be limited to asking ONLY questions “that require only short, factual answers that can be found in online resources” as KCPL mentions? No.

Is this REALLY how you want to treat your customers? Especially that growing group of customers who are already using your digital branch and are taking advantage of your digital services? Please don’t tell me that you can somehow only serve those customers who actually walk into the library and up to your physical reference desk, but can’t get to the customers who call or email or IM or txt you in a timely fashion. I’m not buying that.

The problem isn’t the volume or the format of the question, but the way your reference services are arranged. Rearrange it. Now. Please.

In essence, you ARE discriminating. Discriminating against a growing, younger, web-savvy customer base. Customers who *almost* have all the tools in place to simply ignore you and your grad-degreed, professional information-retrieval services. Especially if they are treated like second class customers when they ask a question using their preferred, and handy, means of communication.

Does this make sense? Do you really want to be “that guy?” I think not. The libraries I mention above all want to do a great job, I’m sure, as do you. So let’s work on improving our online services … like now already!

******

To be fair, I checked out my library’s ask page too (and crossed my fingers, and said a little prayer before I clicked :-). We did great! Here’s what we do:

  • We mention how good we are (“provide quick, accurate answers”)
  • We mention that the phone is the fastest way to get a response, rather than forcing customers to visit in-person (“If you want to talk with someone immediately about a question you can call us…”)
  • Instead of giving some outlandish timeframe for a response (i.e., 24-48-72 hours), we say “We will help you as quickly as we can.”

And my personal favorite – for more complex questions, we direct customers … not to the physical desk, but to email! We don’t even mention the desk or having to visit the library in person on our Ask Us page.

Why? Because those customers are already in the library, using our Digital Branch. They need to get the same treatment as any other customer with any other question.

photo by Neubie

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alison Hunt

    Re Evelyn’s point about the person who gets out of pajamas…there is at least one difference between the dressed patron in the library and the eager IM’er in PJs. While it is true that both patrons are visiting a library, the dressed patron has paid a higher price in transaction costs for reference help.

    As someone who was a stay at home mom for years, operating in a noncash economy of traded labor for carpools, babysitting and–yes–taking people’s kids to activities at the library, time is truly money!

    Given all that has been said, I know this is not a compelling argument for discriminating between patrons. But when a solo parent wends his or her way to our library on a school night with a 7-year-old in tow, I am very sensitive to the fact that the patron pays a price for every minute in the library–dinner delayed, the kid’s routine disrupted, unfolded laundry still piled. The IM patron can be multitasking or supervising at home. The solo parent paid at least 20 minutes of travel time just to talk to a reference librarian in person. This patron is very invested in getting help.

    I know the analysis can be finessed but I’m thinking of the basics here. The larger issue, as many already said, is new technology which lowers the transaction cost of information so dramatically that libraries are pricing themselves out!

    In the case of a walk-in and phone-in patron with simultaneous requests, the person with the tightest time constraint is the person I’d start with first. And I’m not picking on parents in particular…this is just a kind of situation we encounter often on school nights.

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  • http://ww.petbul.net/ sikis

    You won’t violate copyright but will facilitate it at your desk. By its nature VR services aren’t violating copyright, we’re not giving them someone else’s page, we’re showing them the page. At worst we’re guilty of the same stretching of the Fair Use doctrine we are when we give someone a World Book section to photocopy

  • http://ww.petbul.net sikis

    You won’t violate copyright but will facilitate it at your desk. By its nature VR services aren’t violating copyright, we’re not giving them someone else’s page, we’re showing them the page. At worst we’re guilty of the same stretching of the Fair Use doctrine we are when we give someone a World Book section to photocopy

  • Mark

    Now Sikis isn’t violating copyright, but he is plagerizing.

  • Mark

    Now Sikis isn’t violating copyright, but he is plagerizing.