Monday, August 3, 2009

The Tower

The sixteenth trump of the tarot, the Tower, is a symbol for abrupt and unexpected change. That is a good image to illustrate this summer in a number of ways. Firstly, due to the economic down turn, my family and I had to move. New city, new school, new house, new state. I'll spare you the sordid details.
Much more apropos, however, OCLC announced this spring that they are going to be expanding their services to include many of the functions traditionally handled by a library automation software package. The sorta thing sold by companies like SirsiDynix, Innovative Interfaces, ExLibris and a couple of others. OCLC's product is using the cloud model. Basically, the library would only need a fast internet connection and OCLC would handle the software and record maintenance. The software that you, the library, would use to do collection development, inventory management, and various patron services would all exist off site. They provide you with the code you need to embed a search box on your page. I can understand the appeal that this would have for many systems, especially smaller systems. I assume that the library in question would no longer need to own and maintain a physical server or the software packages on said server. My last system had no end of expense and headaches derived from that process (updating, patching, migrating, diagnosing issues, etc.) In the June, 2009 podcast of the Library 2.0 Gang, the mood was somewhat split. Many of the guests took a wait-and-see position, but a few took a more open position, saying that it was a good nudge to the big LIS providers to innovate. I guess I should also note that OCLC's Machiavellian grab, a.k.a. changes to the Policy for Use and Transfer of WorldCat® Records, cast a dark shadow over the discussion. The folks over at the Thingology, LibraryThing's blog have a very good update/discussion on this topic.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I tried and tried to find some sort of occult, hermetic, or alchemical tie-in for this months topic but I just couldn't manage it. Here is a nice image. A giant hand lighting a candle. Nice and occult but not especially relevant. Enjoy.

This month, I have really been thinking about service and how that applies to our field. Libraries, especially public libraries are a service industry. We often get our heads stuck up in the philosophical clouds of librarianship. Sure we provide a unique service. Sure we are one of the only sources of unbiased information (unless you are asking about libraries). Sure we are an asset to the community, serving all sectors equally. We provide secure access to information that is accessible to all. Yes, that stuff is nice and true but at the end of the day, if we provide crappy service, we will have fewer customers and much less brand loyalty.

Libraries are a brand. On the whole we are well thought of. In the 2005 Perceptions study from OCLC, 79% of respondents ranked libraries "favorably" or "very favorably" when asked to "indicate how you would rate each source/place with respect to the information available." That's 2% ahead of bookstores: Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Borders. Before your head gets too big let me tell you that faceless search engines beat us by nearly 10 %.

Here is a test that many of you may actually get to run. If your funding agency were to discuss cutting your funding, how many of your users would protest? How many would go to the meetings and speak? How many would work a petition drive or make phone calls? How many would shrug and go on with their day?

Every customer you work with on a daily basis is a voter or a paying student. When it comes down to it, they are your boss. If you take care of them, they will take care of you.

If you need a little more convincing read Seth Godin's blog post, Looking for Yes. He compares his experience at his local Post Office and at a Fedex store. He says that the people at the Post Office always hassle him about his package as though they are trying to find a reason NOT to serve him. On the other hand, the people at the Fedex store are always doing everything they can to help him.

Here is an example from my actual library. Someone in our neighborhood hosts foreign exchange students. Once a quarter or so, we get a group of teenagers who speak very poor English come in to use the computers. They are often told, rather flatly, that they can't get a card because they don't have an ID with their current address. What should happen is that the library staff person should try to find out what they want from us and try to make that happen. The majority of the time, they just want to e-mail home. We offer a computer use card (no check-out privileges) with any ID. That is the difference between a clock puncher doing their job and engaged customer service.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Following the footsteps

Atalanta Fugiens emblem number 42 shows us the Alchemist. He is attempting to follow the footsteps of nature though the obstacles be many and difficult. The moral of this allegory is that by using the right tools and with careful perseverance, he may succeed in the Art. I would like to suggest that today's library customer is in a similar situation.

In the June 2008 podcast from the Library 2.0 Gang, available here, it was discussed how most of the OPACs widely in use were built for librarians not for the end user. The guest was Taco Ekkel, the Director of Development and Medialab Solutions, the company behind Aquabrowser. In discussing Medialab Solutions' decision to target libraries with their search tool, he had this to say:

But all these vendors were focused on products for librarians and libraries internally. So they had ILSs, library systems, that worked pretty well for staff and for [inaudible] in terms of cataloging and back office integration and things related to circulation, of course. And these systems also offered front ends for library patrons to use. Now what we noticed as we went in was that the usability for most of these front ends, called OPACs in this arena, weren't as usable to end users as the examples we had seen outside the library world.

If I may paraphrase, the OPAC sucks. Other search tools are much better at producing decent results relevant to what the customer's search. [As an aside, databases are worse. The librarians and vendors who rend their garments and lament that patrons insist on consulting Google instead of a researched and reputable database should at least consider this] Our poor customers are faced with a fairly steep challenge every time they attempt to find material on their own. Firstly, the OPAC is often opaque. "Do I search by subjects or keywords?" There is often times no help if they are not using correct spelling. If they wish to search for something very specific, it gets even more complicated. I helped a customer yesterday try to find picture books about time. My system uses an OPAC from Innovative (not Encore). I had to search by call number (E for Easy) then filter those results with the subject heading Clocks and Watches -- Stories, then filter by location to find what I had at my branch. I have a Master's Degree in Library Science with an emphasis on reference. Most of my customers do not.

We can do better.