Thursday, September 29, 2005

The "Old Rule of 1965"

My director recently pointed out the following article to the librarians:

Hyman, Karen. "Customer Service and the 'Rule of 1965.'" American Libraries. (October 1999): 54-58.

From the article's opening discussing how technology is used to actually provide poor service (54), I can only hope that we have progressed since then and that libraries enjoy a better reputation for using technology to provide service. Before we go on, the article defines the Rule of 1965 as dictating the following: "anything the library did prior to 1965 is basic, and everything else is extra; any new service must be offered begrudgingly--for decades; patrons must jump through hoops to get it" (54).

While I think that there is still work to be done in libraries, the fact that libraries provide blogs, rss, good internet access (with support), reference in virtual ways from use of IM to tools provided by companies like Docutek is evidence that libraries are moving to provide services and actually make the users jump less hoops.

The article has this little section on "what's wrong with this picture" that I found, well, condescending to say the least. Now back in 1999, I was back in graduate school working on my other graduate degree, so who knows, maybe libraries were as bad as Hyman describes. Though, I will say I was a user of both the academic library and the local public library, which, while it could have used more funds, overall provided good service. Somehow these little vignettes Hyman provides seem to be more nitpicking that ignores or misunderstands the realities libraries face in terms of funding and/or resources. For example, the author points to libraries having limits on access to the internet, "such as up to one hour if people are waiting or two hours maximum" (56). Actually, given some places I have been to, that seems generous. While the author does this with a little exaggeration to illustrate that the rules can be excessive at times, it does miss the fact at times you do need to have rules. A free-for-all is not the answer to providing good library service. In an ideal world, there would be a computer for every patron that wanted one at their moment of need. In the real world, libraries usually have more demand on computers than actual computers and funding to acquire more. A rule on time would serve as a measure of fairness to provide access to as many patrons as possible. The author also looks down on libraries that ban internet use for chat or other personal communication (57). Actually, more public libraries seem to be following this trend. One example comes from a report in LISNews about the Hawaii Public Libraries banning such activities. In that case, the decision was actually made in part due to complaints from patrons that access was slow. While I personally have mixed feelings about it (I think e-mail is fine, but like the patron in the article, you want games, get a PlayStation), I do tend to be fairly laissez faire with what patrons do with their internet access during their alloted time. I can however see the argument for such decisions.

Another example from Hyman's article I had an issue with was the example of a policy: "internet access is a privilege, not a right, which may be revoked at any time for inappropriate conduct" (57). The author suggests replacing "internet access" with "checking out books" to see how ridiculous it would sound. And it would indeed sound ridiculous. The problem is the author is comparing apples to oranges. For one, there are already inappropriate behaviors that are illegal, such as seeking child porn. It is a given that doing so will not only likely result in loss of access privileges, but it will also lead to the patron's arrest. Libraries make this type of decisions all the time. In fact, I think at times simply saying access should be fully free is the sort of thing that gets people thinking that librarians favor things like perverts looking at kiddie porn in a public terminal. And no, I am not saying I want to become the internet "police," but if a patron comes over to my reference desk complaining he or she is being subjected to someone else's porn surfing, I want more than to say "sorry, but that is his or her right to do so." Now I know some libraries use special screens to darken the screens so onlookers can look over a shoulder with ease. Maybe that is one solution. I know filters are not. And I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do believe a little common sense goes a long way. Maybe in this regard, academic institutions have it a little easier because their mission of serving an academic purpose is clear. Academic libraries, and the campus computer labs, usually have very strict rules of appropriate and inappropriate use of resources in an academic setting. Consequences usually mean loss of access, and for students who need the access to do classwork and so on, that loss can be a disaster. So, they tend to take the rules pretty seriously. I suppose this is something that librarians will struggle with long after I am done writing this post, and longer after anyone out there reads it. I believe the truth is somewhere between privilege and right. Do I believe everyone should have access to the internet? Sure. Do I think they should have some measure of responsibility when they do so? Absolutely, and it goes twice for parents who should be supervising their children. That's their job, not mine. I bet we would need less filters, or none at all, if parents did their job. Just an extended thought.

The article, bad examples aside, does provide some excellent questions to reflect on and suggestions to move towards better service. The basic notion seems to be leadership: moving forward in spite of obstacles and inspiring others along the way. I had some thoughts on leadership that readers can look over later. For now, this is how I read the article. I did like a particular reminder Hyman gave: "treat every customer like a person. When we categorize people--problem patron, angry mother, deadbeat borrower, greedy computer user--we feel free to ignore their feelings and their messages and transform ourselves into hall monitors or victims" (58). My hall monitor days were left back in my high school teaching days, and I am not about to be anybody's victim. However, I will clarify something. I am not a believer of "the customer is always right." My father taught me that, and he was pretty successful with the businesses he ran over time. I think people can be wrong, but they still deserve to be treated as a person. However, this also means that you give respect and expect the same in return. This I think is a little detail that many "service advocates" as I label them tend to forget. I treat people as I expect to be treated, and I always strive to behave in a professional manner. But, threats and abuse, verbal or otherwise, are things I will not tolerate. Now, some readers may say that is common sense, others may say I should take whatever a patron dishes out. Well, that is my boundary. To me, that is common sense; it is a matter of basic courtesy and civility. And it is something that should be made clear to students in library school. I don't think they really address this. Often in classes they tell you about how to serve a patron in spite of themselves (having to figure out exactly what they want in a reference interview for example), but they never tell you about knowing when a difficult patron has gone too far. And I don't think saying there is such a thing as a difficult patron falls under the labeling Hyman has in mind. Ask any librarian in any library, and no matter how charitable they are, they will have their stories. My two cents? It is not unlike teaching where an educator needs to discover his or her boundaries and stick to them. For me at least, such limits are part of the values I was raised on. For the rest of the readers, I leave this as a bit more food for thought.

But this took me away from the focus of the article, which is technology. The author says that technology can be a two-edged sword (58). The idea as I see it is to be a leader without falling for technolust. Sometimes, just because you can do something, it does not follow you should be doing it. Don't be afraid of new challenges, embrace them, welcome them, learn from them, and use what you learn to serve others well. But there lies the key: you have to be able to serve others well. You have to make sure that if you implement this or that technology, that you can support it and that you are ready to show others how to best make use of it if need be. So, bring on the rss, the blogs, the podcasting, and the many other wonderful toys, but do make sure they serve the patrons and their needs. And keep on learning and growing.

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