Sunday, 31 July 2011

Doing it wrong

'How academic libraries annoy academics' is a recent post by one of the blogging team at Social Justice Librarian (tip o' the cursor to Kristine Chapman for bringing it to my attention).

The post itself is worth a read (although I'll summarise it here, too) but it's the comments that are really, um, enlightening.  So go and read them. It'll give much-needed context to what follows here.

Firstly, the post.  Greyson went to the library to get a book previously found on the catalogue.  The visit was unsuccessful. Put very simply, a book marked as available on the catalogue couldn't be found in the library, and after using the 'report a problem' button on the record Greyson was told that that sort of problem had to be reported in person at the circulation desk of the library in question.

As horror stories go, it's not a classic. But it does reveal at least a couple of problems in the library system: no easy catalogue access in the book stacks, and unclear reporting mechanisms. If 'report a problem' means 'only report certain kinds of problem' then it ought to say so, and it ought to say what to do for the others.

But the details in this case really aren't the point here.  Greyson points out that a wasted half-hour like this is precisely what will make academics advocate less forcefully or frequently for the library:
"I want my faculty colleagues to be advocates for our university library. So I do what I can to give them warm fuzzies about it, pointing out new acquisitions in their areas, noting that online access to the Journal of Important Stuff is brought to their desktop by the library, etc. But some days the library doesn’t make this easy for me. Some days I’m afraid to tell them too much about the library, in case they actually try to use it and have an experience like the one above.
I absolutely know there are budget constraints, time constraints, people-power constraints and bureaucratic time-suck constraints on academic libraries. I can explain why any given problem with the library systems might exist. But I can’t make archaic systems less frustrating and more worthwhile for people who have the option to avoid contact with the library most of the time. And those are the same people I really want out there speaking for the importance of the library. What a conundrum."
In short: we're alienating the very people who could help us the most. Ouch.

This is a hard message, and an important one to hear, understand, and act on.  But what do some of the comments say? They say "Greyson, you're doing it wrong".
Example 1: "I kept waiting for the line where you went to the staff and asked for help locating the book instead of schlepping back to your office."
Example 2: "Don’t blame the library! We are here to help. Any faculty member that has contacted me directly gets my priority response, as nurturing that rapport with them is at the top of my list, since it “trickles down” to students too and helps them in the long run as well."
Example 3: "I think you should have asked the reference librarian before leaving the library. Computers are excellent starting points for information seeking, but nothing can replace good old fashioned face to face contact. Others have mentioned the following as well: just because it’s not on the reshelving cart or lying on study table doesn’t mean it’s not in the library. As a cataloger, when adding a book to the collection, the book is typically in the OPAC for about a day and a half before it actually physically becomes part of the collection. Why? Simple. After tagging the book in OCLC, and entering the holdings information for Voyager, I still have to take each book and write the call number on the inside cover, print the spine label, cut the spine label, apply the spine label, apply the protective sticker, and use a boning tool to make sure all those stickers stay stuck. Thus, new acquisitions are on the cart in my office for a day or two after they begin to show up in the OPAC, depending on how many books I have to process."
(To be fair, many of the comments are fair, balanced and constructive.)

"You're doing it wrong". Is that the best we can come up with?  I was really surprised and disappointed to see such a hostile and unhelpful reaction to a post written with the explicit attention of drawing to librarians' attention a perceived problem.

If the reasonable reader (which I would say, in this instance, Greyson is) finds something difficult, then maybe the problem is with the system and not the reader.  And it's our job to find the ways in which it's broken and to fix it. That's not always easy: it's hard, once you're inside a system, to view it as an outsider does, and to see what's illogical and what could be improved.  And even if you can see problems, it's hard if you're at a junior level to instigate change.  That's why it's great if and when readers point out what's not working for them.  (I would, of course, advise Greyson to send a link to the post to a librarian at the library in question - they ought to want to know about reader experiences.)

Yes, sure, it'd be nice if people always asked us when they're stuck, and told us when things don't work right, but people on the whole don't like doing that.  Honestly now, how many times in Sainsbury's do you actually ask where they've moved the mustard to, and how many times do you just wander about cursing under your breath hoping it will leap off the shelf into your basket?

Back to libraries... Not only were people annoyed that someone who did something in an unexpected way dared to complain, a few of the commenters seemed personally offended at an apparent attack on their work.  This misses the point. There's no point trying to defend a broken system by pointing out how hard you and/or your colleagues are working, or how much you yearn to help people with their queries.  (Indeed, maybe if the system worked better you'd feel less like everyday at work is an uphill struggle.) The broken system isn't (necessarily) reflecting badly on your work ethic, but it is still broken.

Frankly, I think we need to get a grip and stop blaming the readers. Whether it's broken because it's more-or-less the same system you've had for the last 30 years, or because it's something new that just isn't working, or whatever, if you find yourself saying to readers, "that's not how we do it" or, "oh no, blah doesn't mean blah it actually means thingummy" or, "you have to go and tell so-and-so that" then really, who's doing it wrong?

funny pictures of cats with captions
lolcat added to try and lighten the mood.


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this! I too felt very uneasy with a lot of the comments on that article because I thought it was a pretty fair complaint - to extend your metaphor, if Sainsbury's had done something similar to me I'd've been ranting about it.

    I sent the original article around my colleagues, but I couldn't quite put into words why I felt so much more on the researcher's side and not so much on the defensive librarians'. Cheerfully, now I don't have to word it myself... I can just link to you!

    (Though, I understand their reactions; criticism can be hurtful, even when it's meant kindly and constructively.)

    Perhaps we need to set up a course on dealing with constructive criticism? ;-) I'm pretty sure they must teach it on writing courses, for example...

  2. Thanks Samantha. You're right - even fair, constructive criticism can be hard to take. I think 'how to respond to what your readers say about you'/'how to use criticism to give the readers what they want and need' courses would be a good idea? I know that lots of organisations are wary of embracing social media, for example, because they're worried about the criticism that might be expressed through those channels. That's a slightly different issue, maybe, but is still part of an attitude that thinks that 'criticism is bad' rather than 'criticism provides a way for us to improve'.

  3. Hi Kate

    You are absolutely right about listening to readers (users, insert other favourite term here!) experiences about your service.

    Not only listenting when opinions are offered, but going out and eliciting feedback and seeking readers' views.

    There was a very good session at the BIALL conference this year, about 'mapping the customer journey which talked about some methods for doing just this. As you say, it's hard once you're inside a system to imagine how someone coming to it fresh will perceive it. Just think of your mother/grandmother faced with a computer for the first time...

  4. Thanks for the link Nicola, that's very useful. I think it's not only the difficult of putting yourself in someone else's shoes that we face, but also the difficulty of recognising that their differing experience of a system is valid: understanding that there's a good reason why they don't understand how to do something - that it's not just that they're 'not trying hard enough' or 'not paying attention'.

  5. Hi Kate,
    I've just fallen foul of not knowing how things work..
    I had a lengthy and somewhat naive comment to your posting, but selecting the preview button lost it all.
    Anyway, the system should accommodate the user. IT is slowly moving that way after years of scorning users for "doing it wrong".

  6. Oh no! Sorry Blogger ate your comment. 'Preview' shouldn't lose your comment - there must be a glitch in the system. I think the comparison with IT is very good - I suppose, again, it comes down to issues of system design.


  7. I agree, there are problems with the system, and they need to be fixed. But my point was, he didn't exhaust his "at-hand" options before giving up.

    For instance, anytime I'm in a store, and I can't find something, the first thing I do is stop a clerk or stock boy and ask... because no matter what system you're using, no system can replace a real human who knows the answer to your question.

    And that was my point; there can be a myriad "behind the scenes" reasons why the system isn't working... but instead of trying to guess what those reasons are, it's much easier to simply ask. That's all I was trying to say, and I sincerely hope that my comment wasn't read as "hostile," because that certainly wasn't my intent.

    I guess, in a nutshell, I am saying, Yes, the system has problems, yes, it could be fixed/improved, but in the end, the people BEHIND the system are the real solution. The only silly question is the one that isn't asked.

    In any event, if my comment did come across as hostile, then I sincerely apologize.

    I will also admit, in hindsight, that the use of such an extended set of examples made me appear to be on a soap box of sorts, when such was also not my intent. I apologize for that as well.

    One last comment: perhaps the answer to our common question is as simple as designing a people-based system augmented by tools (computers) instead of the opposite (a tools-based system augmented by people)?

    With my most sincere respect,

  8. Hi Christopher,

    Thanks for commenting. I think your last point is absolutely correct. We do need to design "a people-based system augmented by tools (computers) instead of the opposite (a tools-based system augmented by people)".

    I don't deny that it's the librarians that make libraries the wonders that they are. But at least some people in general will always be reluctant to go straight to a person for answers. So we need to build in the personal knowledge and advice into the sort of procedures that our users will naturally veer towards.

    I'm sorry if my post came across in an overly aggressive manner. I really didn't mean to attack any individual commentors, just to point out that I thought the overal attitude expressed might not be doing the profession too many favours.

    Thanks again for taking the time to reply!