How much is too much service?

9 Jan

I’ve taken a lot of heat for my views on a certain topic.  Ever since entering library school, I’ve been one of the few who felt this way, and probably the only one who was willing to speak up in class about it.  Whenever librarians get together and pat themselves on the back for “teaching”, or for having a high-minded, lofty mission statement or goals list for their libraries, I shake my head.

You see, the view I’ve taken criticism for is: librarians often provide too much service.  We’re so concerned with our goals, missions, and our desire to help out our patrons and foster information independence, that we forget the business we’re in is customer service on a basic level.  We overlook forests for trees, and alienate some of our patrons because of it.

Some patrons adamantly refuse to become information independent; you know these people, the elderly person who complains about how much simpler things are on paper, the average (or below average) student who declares at the reference desk, “I am computer illiterate” before even asking a question.  There are some people you just can’t reach, teach, or show.  They just want you to give them their answer and send them on their way.  Assuming this isn’t a young child, I venture a guess and say that they’re not likely to have a lot of reference questions.  Strictly from an ROI standpoint, it’s a better strategy to just answer the question.

Then there are others, who have a mid-level enquiry and want some assistance.  We love our databases, ILL and resources, so we tell them all about our services…only to have their eyes glaze over, because we’ve given them a deluge when they wanted a trickle.  Pointing them in the direction they want to go, and giving a basic tutorial is generally sufficient.

The last patrons are the ones who can never have too much service.  Seasoned researchers, professional academics, people for whom finding data and synthesizing it into information, creating conclusions and contributing to a field of study are worth the time it takes to go in-depth and tease out questions, expanding and contracting research focus in order to find just the right resource.

But the bottom line: know who you’re dealing with, and be sensitive to their actual needs, not just the needs we’d like to think they have.

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One Response to “How much is too much service?”

  1. Liz P. January 9, 2012 at 16:00 #

    We’re actually having this discussion at my library right now! Unfortunately, it’s become known as “The Elizabeth Question” because during our retreat (focused on service) I asked “So wait, what do you mean by good service. Are we supposed to give it to them so that they walk away happy, or teach them, so that they learn how to do it themselves. Because teaching them isn’t always going to be what they want.” We had spent hours talking about how important it is to give good service, and how good service is the backbone, and service! But nobody had defined. And when I asked that question, it came out that all of us had a different answer. I didn’t mean to create a big discussion – I just wanted to know what our organizational priority was, but it’s been an interesting ride. We’re still working on what is the right answer, but we are having the discussion, which I guess is most important.

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