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

Doing Stuff at the Library’s Website

make real stuff for people to do at your website!Here’s something to ponder, next time you’re looking for something to ponder. What can you actually DO at your website? Can you do most of the the real “stuff” that your library offers as activities?

“Well duh David, of course we can – we have a catalog…” you might say. Hmm…

If I walk into a library today, here are some things I can do there:

  • check out a book
  • read a book or magazine
  • take notes and do research
  • put a public PC on reserve for later
  • pester the reference librarian with questions
  • check stuff out when I’m done
  • attend a training session or a fun program

Just a normal day at the library, right? How about at your library’s website? If your website is a “traditional” library website, there’s not much actual stuff to do. A traditional website exists mainly to point you to “the real thing” – the actual building and the catalog (in many cases anyway – not everyone is automated, yet!).

Anyone see a problem with that? The library can be much larger than its physical building, and considerably extend its reach without the building as the main focal point for library services.

Let’s look at some non-library examples for a sec. What are other businesses and organizations doing? Amazon? You can’t visit the “real thing” – it only exists online. Ebay? Same way. Barnes & Noble? Their “real place” exists both online and physically.

How about something boring like Sears? I can shop Sears anywhere – I don’t have to visit the “real thing” – because they’ve made their website a place where I can actually do “real stuff.” And in some cases, using the website is actually better than the “real thing” (for example, shopping for undies or pjs can be embarrassing in person – but online? Not so much). Businesses have turned their websites into the “real thing.”

So, back to your organization. Does your organization primarily exist in the brick and mortar world? And don’t tell me “well, yeah David, we have a website.” That’s not good enough anymore. What can you actually DO at your website?

Yes, in the library world, you probably have a library catalog in place, and some databases. Maybe an “email a question” service (“We’ll get back to you within 48 hours (excluding holidays and weekends)” – quote from a library’s Ask a Librarian service).

But what else? Can you browse your collection? Probably not. Can you subscribe to feeds, so you can get updates whenever a page is updated with new info? Maybe. Can you instantly contact a librarian to ask your burning question or get clarification through IM, chat, email, or Twitter? Probably not.

What if I want to start a conversation or attend a program? Can I do that at your digital branch?

Why not?