New Presentation: Redesigning Public Services

Here’s my newest presentation, given today at INCOL (Inland Northwest Council of Libraries). It was a fun day – and I was able to hang out at Coeur d’Alene Public Library in Coeur d’Alene, ID.

Here’s the Slideshare version of the presentation!

We’ll Answer Within Two Business Days

is this your electronic reference service?Here’s a pic of the reference desk at Anywhere Public Library in Fakeola, USA. As a service to their customers, they decided to create a sign letting their patrons know that their questions might not be answered right away.

After all, some questions simply aren’t answered instantaneously – staff might need to wander out in the stacks to find an appropriate resource, or the question might lend itself to a lengthy reference interview. And once in a great while, questions really DO take up to 2 days or so to get answered, so it seemed like the right thing to do to post this sign.

When asked about their sign, here’s what library staff said:

  • “in my experience, most questions do NOT take 2 days to answer, but isn’t it better to give a max time in the event that a question needs more thorough research? Librarians actually DO have other things to do with their time after all.”
  • “While it’s nice to say “We’ll get back to you as soon as possible”, some patrons want a definitive time frame.”
  • “We posted the “factual” limits and the 48 hour turnaround to buy ourselves wiggle room and to avoid the open-ended questions”
  • “Why does every question have to be answered right NOW? Honestly, if you need an answer right away, there’s this lovely invention called a telephone.”

OK – obviously, I’m fudging a bit. My reference desk pic is fake (my Photoshop skills astound no one). But the answers from “library staff?” These are all quotes from real librarians, commenting on my two previous posts about electronic reference service needing a reboot.

Some readers who thought my post was a bit over the top said one of three things:

  1. you have to give patrons a time frame [even though we mostly answer these questions pretty fast].
  2. you simply can’t answer lengthy reference questions via email or IM.
  3. We’re not discriminating and how dare you suggest we are! [OK, you’re right. I used that word on purpose – made ya look! :-) ]

So – what do you think? Do you have to give patrons a time frame online? Are most of your email/electronic reference questions answered pretty fast? Do you think that long or detailed reference queries can be handled online?

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

ALA2008: LITA President’s Program

Title: Isn’t it Great to Be in the Library (wherever that is)

Joseph Janes, presentation
Panelists: the “It’s All Good” bloggers: Crystie Hill, Alice Sneary, George Needham, and Eric Childress

First, Joseph Janes:

Showing pics of libraries – showed a pic of a reference desk from around 1906, and said we probably recognized it as a reference desk. That’s not good. We’d have a different viewpoint if we were doctors – we’d hope that a doctor would NOT want a current operating room to resemble one from 1906!

Then he said librarians have a strong sense of tradition – what should we keep, what should we get rid of?

information environment evolves

  • as it always does
  • technology
  • competitive and volatile information marketplace (publisher and consumer)
  • societal/demographic changes
  • political, legal, cognitive domains

Highly dynamic environment!

What does it mean to be in the library?

  • physically, this is easy – you’re in the library when you cross the threshold and enter the building
  • except… branches, bookmobiles (are you “in the library” in a bookmobile?)


  • follow the same line of reasoning
  • in the library when they cross the digital threshold, hit the web site, search, ask chat reference Q, downloading an audiobook, etc.
  • in the library anywhere, anytime, any way in which people interact with information organized, provided, supported by their own community via their library staff

by implication, the library

  • is the place
  • as well as the stuff
  • and the support
  • and the interaction
  • and the values

all this implies:

an extended notion of library, librarianship, etc
there’s lots of potential with both ideas

somewhere and everywhere – you need a physical presence (you need the puppet closet) when you have physical objects, you need a physical place

but you have to be everywhere – be where your clients are when they want to use you

presences and identities are tied to environments – you can be in multiple presences at the same time. In each, you can have information needs.

be where they are

  • wherever they are (physically and virtually)
  • and whatever they want to do, or be
  • we must be available, positioned, and ready to support, assist, etc – on their terms
  • visible presences
  • in all the various places they are
  • not unlike building new branches or bookmobile routes

Plan services for these people in new digital communities!

We have to be better online

  • we do a great job in person
  • online, we have to be better
  • customers get frustrated fast online – and will go away just as fast

basic human urges

  • communicate, be heard
  • to learn
  • to organize, make sense of the world,
  • search for and make meaning
  • etc
  • We help in those areas

How do we get there?
Move beyond the building


Discussion Panel (interesting snippets):

what matters is why people use these tools – not how a library can use the tools

A priest – is ALWAYS a priest – at church, on the plane, at the cookout. In the same way, a librarian needs to be a librarian in all these emerging digital outposts.

What will make the difference is the experience around the stuff – not the stuff itself. If other places provide a better experience than the library, our customers will go there instead of the library.

We are doing the work right – but are we doing the right work?