For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
July 12, 2001 - On Library Service
A couple of weeks ago, I was having troubles with my Internet Service Provider. My e-mail "alias" (email@example.com) wasn't working. Over the course of 14 calendar days, I made three e-mail requests to their technical support line, and four phone calls. Each time I was most careful to provide my account information, the date at which the problem began, and what I'd tried to fix it.
As time went on, I also offered another bit of information. Most of my job-related communications -- business arrangements, appointments, the exchange of time-sensitive documents -- are done by e-mail. This was creating a lot of problems for me.
The frustrating thing was that I got a different tech support response every time I called. They did eventually fix the problem. But it wasn't until the seventh attempt to deal with it on my part that somebody finally said to me what I think I should have heard first: "I'm sorry."
In the middle of all this, I got a call from a library patron. He understood, he said, the need for rules, but he was baffled by what he saw as our refusal of service. He'd come to the library to put a book on hold. He admitted that he hadn't brought his card with him, and staff offered to look it up. They couldn't find it. He suggested that we place the hold using one of his kid's cards, which staff could find. Staff said that our regulations don't permit people to place holds on other people's cards. Finally, upset, the patron left.
There's more to the story, of course (there always is!). But the bottom line was this: he just wanted us to help him get a book that we owned and was in fact available--not an unreasonable request of a library. We failed.
So I looked into it. I found his card in our database -- we'd entered it exactly backwards: first name last, last name first. (To be fair, it was a name that sort of worked either way.) And yes, it is indeed our procedure to place holds only on the card of the person who wants to pick it up. Obviously, this makes it easier to keep track of who's got what.
But, as I explained to one of our supervisors, the guy just wanted us to get a book from another one of our libraries. We should have been able to figure out a way to do that. Couldn't we have CALLED the library, asked them to send it over, while we worked on why we couldn't find his card? Instead, we lectured him about our regulations.
Here's my philosophy about this. Mistakes happen. I don't expect infallibility in the people and institutions I deal with; I don't expect it from our own. But what I DO expect is that when things break down, we try to shield the patrons, the customers, from the worst of it. We offer them the best possible alternatives. We make something happen that brings them closer to what they want.
And we apologize.
When I called the patron back, I said, "We made several mistakes. I'm sorry for that, and we'll try to do better. But the book you wanted will be at the library tomorrow, and I've fixed our problem with your card. If there are any more problems with this, call me direct. Again, sorry for the hassle."
He was most gracious about it. "Thank you," he said, "for resolving this so quickly."
I'm not infallible, either, of course. My own mistakes just since last week can't be summarized in the length of this column. But I will offer this on behalf of the library staff: together, we have enough smarts to figure out the best service an institution can deliver. Most of the time, you should get that the first time through. Sometimes, we have to take a second swing at it. If so, you can bet we'll be polite.