Finding a Balance
Improving and Extending Services
There are barriers to change, but a library that isn’t changing is, almost by definition, stagnating. Healthy libraries change, continuously and with continual feedback from your patrons and the rest of your community.
You can find ways to deal with barriers in the process of discovering, evaluating and implementing changes. Change can revitalize your staff. Effective change may free up time and money to do new things and reach new patrons by doing old (but still important) things more efficiently. One virtue of web-based techniques is that they are frequently inexpensive or free: Cost need not be a barrier to change.
The next few chapters consider aspects of balanced change in libraries: Improving and extending existing services, implementing and promoting new services, telling your story and hearing other stories while avoiding hype, thinking about competition and cooperation (trying to minimize the first and maximize the second) and coping with success—or failure.
I’m not going to list lots of possibilities for improving existing services and extending services to new groups of patrons. I doubt that any library-based readers of this book have not carried out improvements and extensions in the last five years. I suspect most of you are in the process of improving and extending right now.
There are plenty of resources for better ways to do things. Logon to WebJunction, a key and growing resource for sustainable improvements in public libraries (particularly smaller libraries). Check the catalogs of ALA Editions and other library publishers. Follow the professional literature. Check the Library Success wiki and related wikis. When you have success stories, contribute them to the appropriate resources at Library Success and WebJunction.
Two sources may help you think through what your current services actually are—and what they should accomplish, since your library’s story is, first and foremost, its effects on your patrons and community. The first comes from the Public Library Association (PLA, a division of ALA) in the form of an ambitious proposed set of “new service responses.” Each service response couples a desired outcome with the category of service a public library should provide to achieve that outcome. The PLA Blog (plablog.org) has a post with comments for each of the draft service responses (choose “Service Responses” as a category), and there’s a summary page that links to PDFs with further draft descriptions for each of the responses. The service responses below appear in a draft post provided before discussion at the ALA 2007 Midwinter Meeting, stripped of the brief description for each item. While the wording may change, this provides an excellent way for you to consider your service array.
Be Informed Citizens: Local, National, and World Affairs
Build Successful Enterprises: Business and Non-Profit Support.
Connect to the Online World: Public Internet Access
Create Young Readers: Emergent Literacy
Discover Your Heritage: Genealogy and Local History
Express Creativity: Create and Share Content
Explore Our Community: Community Resources and Services
Get Fast Facts: Ready Reference
Learn to Find, Evaluate, and Use Information: Information Literacy
Learn to Read and Write: Adult and Family Literacy
Make Career Choices: Job and Career Development
Make Informed Decisions: Health, Wealth, and Other Life Choices
Satisfy Curiosity: Lifelong Learning
Stimulate Imagination: Reading, Viewing and Listening for Pleasure
Succeed in School: Homework Help
Visit a Comfortable Place: Public and Virtual Spaces
Welcome to America: Services for New Immigrants
Alice Sneary posted a set of “13 ways of looking at a public library” at It’s all good on February 8, 2007 (scanblog.blogspot.com). It’s another way of checking your library in terms of “what a public library is, was, and is in the process of becoming” (again stripped of descriptions, so you should read both posts in the original):
1. Technology center.
2. A resource for small businesses.
3. Workforce training center.
4. Source of all government forms/applications.
5. Resource for job seeking.
6. Resource for tax preparation.
7. Health Resource center.
8. Teen center.
9. A community center.
0. Immigration center.
11. Music and art center.
12. Research Center.
13. Social center.
That list omits two service areas that are fundamental to public libraries, as was noted and recognized in comments: reading for pleasure and services for children. Taken as an extension of the PLA list and a different way of looking at some aspects of library service, I believe it’s helpful in evaluating what you do and what you should be doing.
Continuous improvement requires continuous evaluation—and continually improving ways to involve your user community in that evaluation. You can’t evaluate everything at once, of course, but you should revisit most of your policies and services periodically. Just to throw out a few examples:
Ø Do you have a carefully developed acceptable use policy for internet access within the library? Why? What makes internet resources different from books or magazines, in terms of acceptable use within a library setting? Wouldn’t it be more straightforward to have an overall acceptable-use policy that applies to all library resources? Eliminating redundant policies saves time and makes application more consistent (and defensible). For that matter, you might be able to simplify library policies in general by taking a different approach. Read and think about “Don’t doesn’t work” by Michael Sauers (at Webjunction). I find his case for consistent, simplified, behavioral policies compelling—and almost certainly time-saving.
Ø If most of your users have email accounts, wouldn’t you save money and serve your patrons better by sending email reminders just before items are due (and early overdue notices by email), instead of paying printing and postage costs to send out overdue notices (many of which, I suspect, bring in less money than they cost to prepare and mail)? Your library system should be able to produce such reminders automatically, and library patrons who can renew, reserve and be reminded online should be only too happy to provide email addresses.
Ø If you’re carefully preparing new title lists (overall or by subject) to post in the library or on your website, you may find that new-title blogs fed by your ILS are faster and easier. Sure, these primarily serve connected users and serve aggregator users best, but such blogs can also feed your website—and, with a little stylesheet work, you can probably print out decent-looking physical lists from the same blog. For many libraries, this could be a way to save time using new technologies, serving some users a little better without reducing service to other users.
Ø Do you have programs that have outlived their usefulness? Don’t automatically eliminate a program or service because it’s now used by a small percentage of your community, any more than you’d automatically weed classics just because they’re not circulating much anymore. Instead, find out who still values the programs, services or collections. See whether you can meet their needs as effectively through more contemporary substitutes. I discussed the need for libraries to pay special attention to exceptional patrons and needs before. I won’t attempt to suggest percentages, but will note that advocates of IM reference have called it a success with 2% of reference transactions using IM. They may be right: That 2% may represent patrons who should be part of your community aren’t able to come into the library and find IM the most effective way to ask questions. The percentage isn’t the issue. Balancing services and their users against resources may be.
Ø Ariel made article-level interlibrary transactions faster and cheaper. Regional delivery networks and union catalogs do the same for physical interlibrary transactions. Are there other ways that cooperative action and new technologies could reduce the costs (time is always a cost) of traditional services that are still important.
Some decisions will be difficult. Some may not. Does your library have a solid collection of title CD-ROMs (that is, CD-ROMs other than reference and games) purchased during the glory days of such CD-ROMs? Are they circulating? If not, you might do a little sampling: Will they even run on the computers your patrons are using today? If the answer is No (as it’s likely to be for CD-ROMs that rely on direct access to hardware functions or CPU speed for timing functions), then you have an easy way to free up some shelf space and maybe make a few bucks from patrons who do have older computers or think they can provide compatibility tweaks. Since shelf space is also a finite resource, that’s a savings.
There are two ways to extend a service: Add new features to the service or find ways to provide that service to new audiences. The latter may be more valuable, particularly in a time where feature-rich services are overkill in many situations.
You have placebound services and place-independent services. Are there placebound services that could easily and inexpensively have “virtual” analogues? An obvious example is e-audiobooks that can be circulated and downloaded remotely: These extend audiobooks to new places and new audiences. If you haven’t done so already, offering holds (including “holds” on books on the shelf) and renewals via your website should be a natural extension of existing circulation services. If your budget allows it without constraining more important services, offering delivery to patrons who legitimately benefit from such delivery might be a natural extension as well.
Another range of possibilities extends existing services to a broader range of patrons in a way that might be transformational. If your library is like many public libraries, you specialize in local history—collecting, recording, reformatting as needed. If you’re able to digitize those materials and provide enough metadata to make them findable, you can add substantially to the numbers and types of uses—and you may find it makes sense to go farther and become a center for creating publications (digital, print on demand or otherwise) based on local history. If that sounds like a strain on your resources, consider the possibilities. Friends groups might be delighted to fund and support such projects. So might local history groups or funding agencies. Once you start mounting well-described, high-quality elements of your local stories on the web, they can become part of a wider body that supports all sorts of new stories—genealogical research (family histories), specialized historical research, what have you.
Improvements can be trickier. You need some assurance that changes constitute improvements for your patrons, rather than being hypothetical improvements that patrons find irrelevant or annoyingly complex. Each community is different. Each service has a different set of potential users. Graphical extensions to your online catalog may provide valuable new ways for patrons to explore your collection (assuming most patrons care about your online catalog one way or another, which I suspect is not the case in most public libraries)—or they may represent little-used distractions that make your website look gimmicky. I honestly don’t know. I do know that some local research is warranted (with the results publicized) and that results are likely to be different within different communities.
Let’s look at comments offered recently by libloggers. Some relate to extensions and improvements. Others may be new services, if your library doesn’t already do something along those lines. It’s rarely a bright line.
A post on Publib asked for suggestions for ways to improve low circulation in a library. Dale McNeill offered 17 suggestions in a long, thoughtful November 13, 2006 post. Among them:
1) Ask people in the community… If there are some common problems (hours, lack of selection, bad attitude from staff, that sort of thing), you'll know pretty quickly.
2) Weed. Weed a lot…. Look for trends…. Note: I am recommending that you examine these books. There may be reasons to keep all, some, or a few of these items.
3) Look at the books on the shelves… Are the shelves too full? Are the books dusty or worn? Are some books invitingly shelved face out?
4) Do you literally buy books that people want to read?...
5) Carefully examine use of the collection by broad areas… Now, compare these usage figures with budgets. You might want to make some changes.
6) Every time a customer checks out a book, have staff ask “Did you find everything you were looking for?”...
7) If there's a bookstore in your community, visit it often. Notice what people are reading and browsing…
9) Every single time someone asks for a (real) book, offer to get the book in some way—ILL, purchase, whatever you can offer…
11) Ask a friend (maybe start with a librarian) to look for a book in your catalog and find it in the library. Have them evaluate the experience…
12) Ask the staff for ideas—make anything fair game…
15) Talk about the library—outside the library.
16) If other staff are comfortable, make a little display of books they like….
17) Look at demographic information for your community. Then look at your customers. Who's missing?...
I think all the above can be summarized as: really know your community, involve staff, and market your merchandise.
One interesting thing about this list: While it’s very much patron-oriented and based on patron involvement and feedback, little if any of it involves new technologies. It’s a set of hints toward improving existing service, toward a balanced library with better use.
James B. Casey commented on the list on November 14, 2006, noting its excellence but also noting that other measures of use of the library may be even more important than circulation:
What you are already doing right may need to be examined more closely. Our Library has experienced growing traffic (as evidenced by growing door counter readings), sharply rising attendance at programs and community meetings held in the Library (over 50% in just one year), and dramatic increases in interlibrary loan requests (+25%) through direct patron placed holds. Even our in-house use of periodicals increased by 51% last month over October 2005. Nevertheless, circulation of books declined by 3% and has been sinking gradually during the past 4 years. The public wants—and expects—a different mix of services. We can't just “hang our hats” on circulation as the prime measure of success anymore. We have to look at different numbers. Maybe there will never be a “common denominator” of success that can be wrapped up in a statistical package…
Many public libraries show increasing circulation. Some, apparently including Oak Lawn (Casey’s library), appear to be increasing value to their communities despite decreased circulation. The goal of a balanced library is to improve services to your community—not to achieve a given arbitrary statistical goal.
Stuart Weibel notes a comment on a previous post at his blog from a future librarian from a small developing country (the comment was by “Ivans” and was attached to an August 26, 2006 Weibel lines post, weibellines.typepad.com):
This is what I would like to do when I go back: create an open space with resources for the creation of intellectual property. It would house musical instruments, a recording studio, computers, broadcasting capabilities, publishing, etc. all the material produced there will make up the collection.
It's a vision of a library (or a communal atelier, or whatever) that creates the material it collects instead of passively collecting it.
The notion of a library engaged in creation instead of collection would be radical and generally unwise for the U.S.—but in some situations, it’s not implausible. On the other hand, adding creation to collection is not only reasonable, it’s not entirely novel. A number of public libraries have TV studios to produce public-access shows. Virtually all public libraries now have what it takes to do desktop publishing (a computer and word processing software with good layout capabilities, which describes every mainstream word processing program today, as far as I know; Cites & Insights uses nothing more than Microsoft Word XP, as does this book). Turning a quiet space into a part-time recording studio is getting easier and cheaper all the time, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t public libraries with good mixing boards and the like (most likely, any library with a TV studio automatically has a recording studio as well).
Weibel finds the idea interesting and raises questions that you should consider in his original post. Here’s a little of what he has to say:
The notion of a creation library, as opposed to purely a lending library, is an idea that has a good deal more credibility in the era of the Web and the currency of long-tail perspectives.
In a bricks-and-mortar library, the prospect of a sufficient number of patrons being avid consumers of locally-created content seems tenuous, unlikely to justify the creation and curatorial costs, especially if we're talking about public funds.
In a global Long-tail economy, the notion seems less outlandish… [C]reation of local content might be thought of as a cultural cache that looks a lot like scholarly publishing.
Setting aside the notion of a purely-creation library, I wonder whether creation of local content might serve a broader niche than scholarly publishing.
There’s anecdotal evidence to support that notion. Don Litzer and Andy Barnett published “Local history in e-books and on the web: one library’s experience as example and model” in Reference & User Services Quarterly 45:3 (Spring 2004). Along with the scholarly apparatus needed to make this a refereed scholarly article, Litzer and Barnett describe an innovative low-budget project at McMillan Memorial Library in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin—to make a library’s local history holdings usable by digitizing them, then measuring the extent of that use. This form of digitizing—making material available on the web that was previously only available in one location—is also a form of publishing.
The use turned out to be substantial. Here’s part of what the authors concluded:
If the use statistics provided in this study are close to representative, they indicate strongly that, as a public service, the use of digitized local history made available by a small to medium-sized public library on the Web is significant and worthy of the investment made in it. Whether a library digitizes in-house or outsources; whether it digitizes its own materials or accepts donations of digitized documents, the demand exists, waiting to be satisfied, for digitized local history.
…Digitization of local materials is not merely a high-tech information transfer, but another way in which libraries can unify their communities by reminding them of the history and legacy they share.
McMillan Memorial’s hardly unique. Some libraries have moved to creation as well. The Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County produced some remarkable title CD-ROMs back in the day. Since then, they’ve engaged on a substantial program of web publishing to support the local community and communities far beyond PLCMC’s venue. Indeed, PLCMC now includes a traditional publishing operation, Novello Festival Press. As for McMillan Memorial, their local history site contains a substantial body of digitized local works.
These aren’t unique examples. I’d be surprised if there aren’t already hundreds of public libraries with digitized local collections and dozens engaged in some level of content creation. Libraries are largely about stories, and public libraries should be about local stories as well; once you’re acquiring, organizing, and providing such stories, moving on to create them and make the means of creation available seems like a natural extension, one made much easier by contemporary technology.
David Lee King considered the types of content you might find on a library website in an August 22, 2006 David Lee King post (www.davidleeking.com):
Traditional Content, or “Stuff we Buy”: this is the no-brainer area...
Original Content, or “Stuff Librarians Create”: Library employees create great content, and most of it should be featured prominently on our websites. [Examples:] tipsheets on using databases, topical pathfinders, Reader’s Advisory guides… digitized local history content… blogs, wikis, etc.
Attendable Content, or “Things you Attend or Visit”: My library puts on seminars, classes, storytimes, exhibits, and even concerts once in awhile.
Collaborative Content, or “Interacting with Patrons”: …content that patrons create or help to create. [Examples: polls of favorite romance videos, commenting on blogs, wiki content added by patrons.]
Library/Librarians as Content, or “Content About the Library”: Library services, locations, staff contacts, etc.—everything under that “about the library” link found on most library website pages. [Also] information on your home-bound books program [or] free wifi at the library.
King’s expansion of the first category says it should be “format-agnostic.” I’d argue that’s only partly true. Most traditional content will continue to be “come and get it,” items in physical form—and libraries should generally select formats based on patron preferences. I don’t believe King would argue with that.
Some of the 14 comments on the post may be worth noting. One person wonders whether “how people can help us”—Friends groups, etc.—belongs, and notes that libraries may spend too much time on “about the library.” Another used the post to think about “what would help our patrons the most”—and notes that, for that library’s community, paper versions of some of this content is also needed and possibly more useful. One notes that collaborative content also includes online reference and similar services. Sarah Houghton-Jan commented separately on August 29, 2006 at Librarian in black (librarianinblack.typepad. com), agreeing with the general model and agreeing that librarians “spend waaaaaay too much time” explaining governing structure and the like, time that might better be spent on “trying to reach out to the online users.”
What’s on your website? What should be there? Does King’s list provide some ideas for organizing that content to make it more accessible and useful? Does the list create possibilities for original and collaborative content that would enhance your services and make them more available?
A number of bloggers have written about ideas related to extended delivery services and the “library NetFlix model.” Those discussions get tricky. I’ll note some of what’s been said, but also my objections to certain of the extended service concepts—objections rooted in what I regard to be two fundamental bases for today’s public libraries:
Ø Radical equality, offering service without regard to the patron’s income or willingness to pay.
Ø Radical confidentiality, making sure that a patron’s reading history is their own business—and not allowing patrons to give up that confidentiality without fully understanding the consequences.
Lori Bowen Ayre argues for premium service at a price, both in dollars and confidentiality, in a September 7, 2006 post at Mentat (www.galecia.com/weblog/):
A true 2.0 library will get the information to the user wherever the user wants it. It will allow the user to specify the format of the item in and the manner in which they will receive it. A 2.0 library will let customers who wish to pay for premium services do so, e.g. Fed Ex Next Day Delivery for $15, Messenger Delivery today for $20.
A 2.0 library will find a way to get the item into their user’s hands or inbox regardless of whether that requires buying the item, borrowing the item, digitizing the item, or downloading the item. All 2.0 libraries will have reciprocal relationships for borrowing and returning items so that most any library can borrow an item from most any other library regardless of library type or region.
A 2.0 library will provide an easy-to-use self-addressed stamped envelope that can be used to return the items by mail (think NetFlix...and hold that thought).
[H]aving helped our user find stuff to read that they are going to love… we allow them to build their book queue. Now, if they choose, each time they return an item by mail (using those handy return envelopes mentioned above), the next item in their queue goes out to them. Just like NetFlix.
Because we're asking our customers to rate the books they've read (which allows us to build their customized recommendations), we will know which books really knocked their socks off. When weeding time comes up, we notify the people who loved that book (or something similar) that they can now buy that book...
I wasn’t the first to object (I was second). GeekChic put it simply enough:
You said "Why can't we charge for some services?" As a public library person, my answer would be—because we serve people who can't afford it and we're in the business of bridging the divide, not broadening it.
As well, many of our patrons would say "Why do we have to pay—we already pay taxes?" And they would be right.
Ayre’s response was that libraries should be able to charge for some services, and she goes on to deprecate the current user population of libraries in a manner that surprised me:
My belief is that we need to broaden our service offerings so that we are relevant to a broader range of people—not just services for people with little money and few options. I want the public library to be the place everyone goes to get their books, do their research, or to find the answer to a complex question. But unless ‘convenience-based services’ are offered as an option, people who can afford to spend money but not time, will increasingly choose non-library solutions.
I noted that most people, including most affluent people, do use public libraries—and that libraries shouldn’t be “the place everyone goes to get their books”: “If everyone gets all their books from public libraries, the book industry fails or becomes part of the government. I’m not sure how that’s a good thing. I also said this:
I believe and suspect that $premium$ services will have the effect of degrading free (prepaid) services over time, with the help of governmental agencies that see the library happily turning itself into a self-sustaining business. I believe this is a bad thing.
Here’s part of Ayre’s reply—and note the second sentence in Ayre’s paragraph above, beginning “I want the public library to be the place everyone goes to get their books”:
My idea is not that everyone ‘borrows’ their books from libraries (thus putting booksellers out of business). My idea is that I can go to the library and get help selecting and sourcing my information resources, some of which I may purchase and some of which I may borrow, some of which I may pick up, and some I need FedEx'd to my office overnite.
In this case, charitable reading reveals a typical problem with blogs and particularly blog comments: While Ayre has just contradicted herself, it may have been a result of fast, off-the-cuff writing. I’ve done the same. So have we all. I’m much more concerned with the paragraphs that precede and follow that one:
The idea that government agencies would decide that libraries are self-sustaining businesses and should therefore cease to be funded with our taxes is a frightening thought and one I (and every other librarian) would fight to the death against. However, I'm not sure that's a reason to not charge for any services at all.
In my mind, the $premium$ or convenience services are very much supplemental to the library's core services which would remain free.
The problem is twofold. While that might be Ayre’s intent, it’s more likely that—as with lottery funding for schools, public radio memberships and other “new revenue” sources, governments looking for spare money will find ways to reduce tax funding, making libraries more and more dependent on “extra-cost” services and less able to provide robust free services. The second is that most libraries have limited amounts of labor and time available. Time spent serving “paying customers” is likely to take priority over “baseline” services, making them less significant and less well supported over time.
The discussion didn’t end there, although there were no more comments on that post. David Lee King posted on October 12, 2006 about the Netflix model—but in his case, his new library has the money to do a piece of it. $360,000 in the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library budget was earmarked for mailing reserve items to patrons—and that’s what the library does: All holds are mailed out. King commented:
Why in the world do we do this? Because our patrons absolutely love this service…
Awhile back, Topeka looked into cost[s] of the mailing holds programs vs. doing holds the normal way (a shelf in the library, constant babysitting of said shelf, staff time to shelve, reshelve, calling patrons who forget to pick up items…) The cost [difference], believe it nor not, was minimal.
This is an interesting (and also not unique) model, but note a key element: It’s a service that patrons as a community have agreed to pay for, at least by supporting library taxes. It’s a free service, available to all patrons. As such, it may (or may not) raise cost and feasibility issues, but it doesn’t raise equity issues. Since this library is mailing reserve items, not maintaining a queue and storing patron circulation records, it does not raise confidentiality issues.
I am not suggesting you offer book delivery or any other service as an extra-cost feature. I believe there are serious issues with starting to charge patrons for public library services. The claim that “basic services” continue to be free for everyone is doubtless true, but “basic” can be a slippery term. Public libraries aren’t public radio. They should not become the province primarily of the wealthy and privileged within the community or interrupt services a few weeks every year to pester their users for handouts.
A library’s website is, in most cases, its primary face for virtual users. That may change, as libraries find ways to make more of their online content and services findable, leading more people to the library—but those people will still wind up on some portion of the website.
You need to evaluate and find ways to extend your web-based services at least as often as you do more traditional services—and you should look for innovative ways that your web presence can feed back into and support your physical resources and services.
Laura B. Cohen offered her idea of an ideal “Library 2.0” academic library website on October 11, 2006 at Library 2.0: An academic’s perspective (liblogs.albany.edu/library20/). Set aside both “Library 2.0” and “academic” for the moment. Cohen’s suggestions may be worth considering by other kinds of libraries and does not require the baggage of the terminology. Portions of her idea (stripped of some elements specific to academic libraries):
[S]uch a site would run on a wiki-based content management system. This system would be flexible enough to easily restrict individual pages from being edited and open up others. In addition, links to blogs would be strategically placed throughout the site to enable conversations between librarians and users about library resources and services….
Blogs are restrictive relative to wikis in that the typical user cannot create an entry but only comment on it. In the library context, librarians are in control of their Web site content and users can only respond. This is valuable, to be sure, but in terms of radical trust (a Library 2.0 buzzword), it falls short.
So imagine an academic library Web site that does the following:
* Users participate in creating resource lists…
* Users contribute to research tips….
* Users add to technical instructions…
* Users comment on library services using blogs linked to the pages of major services…
A Web site with this type of configuration…would be a far different animal from the typical sites that libraries maintain…. The technologies exist to make library sites a joint venture, in which librarians and their constituencies work together to create an online presence that hears voices from both sides of the fence. In a way, this type of site would remove most of the fence.
“Radical trust” is a complex issue hiding behind a simple phrase and requires more discussion than would be suitable here. As you consider how your web services can most effectively and flexibly support your community and your library’s resources, you might consider whether an entirely different kind of infrastructure might make sense.
One point that’s been discussed recently is worth thinking about: The online catalog, for all its strengths and flaws, may not be that important to your patrons and how they feel about and benefit from your library. Peter Bromberg raised this issue in a January 11, 2007 Library garden post (librarygarden.blogspot.com/). Some of what he says:
How does the quality of the OPAC ultimately affect the total quality of customer experience and customer satisfaction? I think the answer to that question may be quite different from library to library, depending on the needs of our different user populations. Public library users may be more inclined to be browsers, and may not really care that much about how good the OPAC is. Academic, school and special library users may be more inclined to search for specific titles, or titles within specified subject areas, and may therefore care more about the quality of the OPAC.
But even in libraries where customers rely heavily on the OPAC, I'm not sure that the quality of the OPAC figures that greatly into the customers' overall satisfaction. (I suspect it often doesn't…)
I like this because Bromberg immediately recognizes each library is different—but also because, at least in public libraries, most collection use may have little or nothing to do with the online catalog. Personally, I’d find a card with the Dewey hundred more than adequate as a finding device in my public library; I’m a browser, as are many users. Bromberg offers areas where librarians might have “a much greater impact on customer experience”:
The quality of the library's environment (“library-as-place”), the library's customer service, the library's webpage, the library's collection, the library's programs, the library's outreach, and the library's marketing.
That doesn’t mean online catalog quality should be ignored. It may mean that, for some libraries in some situations, worry and energy spent on online catalog issues might better be focused elsewhere.
These are just a few notes on some of the ways you might consider extending and improving your services, and reaching new groups of patrons in the process. I’ll close with a couple of cautionary tales, one of which also offers an interesting list of uses for one of the easiest-to-implement new technologies—the blog.
As recounted in a January 12, 2007 post at The ubiquitous librarian, Brian Mathews’ library has been considering a blog, consisting primarily of “library news.” Hundreds of libraries (mostly public) have such blogs. He looked at the Bloglines subscription numbers for some existing library news blogs. The numbers aren’t thrilling—in the low two digits in each case. “So is it worth doing a news blog?” He does note that user count could be higher than Bloglines count (and probably is—I’d still use a multiplier of four for likely overall readership, but if the blog’s also on a library’s home page, it might be higher still).
The point of all this is that I am starting to feel skeptical. Will patrons care? Will they even bother to read our content? Is it worth the effort?
Mathews plans to launch a subject-specific blog, focusing on 1,300 computer science majors and bundling library news along with “messages that they will find important”—industry news, interviews with alumni, job opportunities, etc. “Rather than trying to create interest in a library blog about computer science, I am seeking to create a computer science blog with a librarian as contributor. We’ll see where it goes.”
Indeed we will. This is both a cautionary tale and a promising one. I don’t doubt that many blogs issued by libraries have relatively few readers, for a variety of reasons. That doesn’t mean they should be shut down (although, in some circumstances, it might mean exactly that). It might mean that libraries should consider alternatives such as the one Mathews is trying.
Finally, Amanda Etches-Johnson posted “a long-overdue update on the special library 2.0 survey” based on 68 responses to a short survey of special librarians. The, which appeared January 12, 2007 at blogwithoutalibrary.net (www.blogwithoutalibrary.net/), includes interesting graphs and information, but I’m going to focus on two sets of responses: One on what people use new tools for, one on “issues you might have had while implementing [Library 2.0] tools.”
Special libraries use blogs and wikis for a range of things, in addition to other social tools not noted here (RSS, bookmarking, tagging, IM):
An internal blog where we try to share some of the research gems we find
A what’s-new-in-the-library blog
Experimenting with the idea of embedding federal government RSS feeds into resource guides for our executive departments using feed2js
A wiki/blog as another means to communicate news and information internally in our library.
We use a wiki for reference service.
Wikis for compiling results of large group research projects.
A blog that only the librarians see, where we post kudos to each other, announcements and links to interesting Web sites.
But there are problems—lots of them, including these:
Hard to get our group to post to the blog or even to read it!
Staff buy-in has been the hardest. They don’t see the need for the blog.
Library staff who I am hoping will blog don’t “get it”. They want to know why they would want to keep a journal, and don’t realize this is actually a good tool for current awareness.
It’s hard to get people to write for the blog on the public site. Our intranet, however, is thriving with new additions all the time.
Our blog and the RSS feeds from our portal are inside the firewall, so you can’t use a reader like Bloglines which is easier to explain and promote than some of the desktop readers.
Firewall issues are huge!
I want to incorporate blogging inside the firewall but tech people don’t know how to set it up.
Our parent institution blocks IM.
Enterprise-wide web page “look and feel” requirements make it difficult to use off-the-shelf web-based wiki and blogging tools.
Requires a CMS for the intranet pages. CMS does not allow for wikis or blogs.
Etches-Johnson suggests identifying “low-hanging fruit”—the easiest technologies to implement and use—and getting your colleagues hooked.
As you’re looking to extend and improve, it’s probably essential not to overreach. Low-hanging fruit can provide real, visible improvements; that may help provide the energy and backing needed to do more and keep moving. Despite what you might read or hear, this is not a race, not an all-or-nothing situation, not a transformational package. The balanced library will continue to change while maintaining continuity, but each balanced library will change in slightly different ways and at different rates.
Find what works for your community and resources. Find the areas that bother your patrons most, the improvements they’d appreciate the most—and the existing services that need to be treated with the most caution.
And make sure you tell the story of what you’re doing.
This essay is a slightly modified version of Chapter 9 of Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change, a new book now available at http://www.lulu.com/waltcrawford. If you found this chapter worthwhile, why not buy the book?
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