Some disconnected questions and thoughts about library customer service:
It is the end of the semester and thus, in my library, as in many academic libraries, we are facing the task of trying to get library books (and other stuff) [tangential question: has anyone come up with a catchall phrase that isn't as librarianly as "library materials" to refer to all of the stuff that people can check out of libraries?] back from our students, alumni and other library users. We make this big push at the end of each term because…um, why do we do this? Because experience shows that if we don't nag them now we'll never see our stuff again? Have we ever tried doing otherwise? No. Hm. Why nag alumni now? What bearing does our academic calendar have on them? And then there is the fine question. We got rid of a lot of our fines this year. We don't charge students fines for "regular" overdue stuff (books from the general collection), we just bill them for replacement (and will drop charges once books are returned) once they get "really" overdue. We still fine students for overdue media and reserve items. Why? I guess the theory is because we want to have tighter reigns on this stuff. For reserve items, there is good reason for this I suppose. Why do we need to be "meaner" when it comes to media? I'm not sure. And then a student doesn't return a $300 DVD and I start to freak out and think the fines maybe aren't such a bad idea after all…[sigh].
While grappling with the question of TO FINE OR NOT TO FINE here in my library this fall I have simultaneously been having a bad experience (which worked out ok, but has left me unsettled) with another library (playing the role of "patron" in this case). Because, let me admit this publicly, I was bad. I returned a bunch of books late, a big stack of picture books for my daughter. And it was totally my fault and I was delinquent and should be flogged. But the thing is, I really *don't* feel like I should have been flogged. (No excuses, there's just more to my life than being a library patron.) And I feel like I was. I tried to renew the offending stack of stuff online (when, yes, admittedly, it was already overdue) but the system wouldn't let me (because it was overdue)…so the fines kept growing. And then I didn't get a bill. So, no bill, no worries, I figured there were fines, I just planned to pay the next time we made it to the library. And then the library notice from h**l: "your account has been referred to a collection agency." Agh! But, but, but…
Anyway, this was all resolved and made nice. My credit rating should still be fairly intact. But it has led me to consider what happens in our libraries when things go wrong, when library customers break the rules, violate the contract, return stuff late or worse, don't return stuff at all. I think the response of a library in this interaction (including the wording of notices) is the one that library customers are going to remember most vividly. (Note that in 6 years of commencement ceremonies at my institution the only mention of the library that has ever been made on the podium was one student speaker attempting a joke about how serious the library was about its $2.00 fines [groan, at least I wasn't Director then…]
But how do you balance the need for stuff to come back (we are not, after all, just a free bookstore where anyone can just take anything and not bring it back) with the need to stay on good (preferably excellent) terms with our users? Netflix has come up with an answer for the retail sector: no late fees. (But will they freeze your account if you lose a movie? Do they freeze it "nicely?" How does one freeze an account nicely?)
What does this have to do with Library 2.0? With moving libraries into the future? Everything! Because no matter how many cool services we offer, if we just layer these services over an infrastructure of crabby notice texts and an expressed attitude that patrons "can always call us and we'll be glad to take care of it for them" (it is my firm belief – albeit assisted by my sincere dread of calling strangers and institutions, even institutions I love like libraries – that library patrons SHOULD NOT HAVE TO CALL in these situations; we in the library know what is going on…or we could know…so we should take care of it proactively) then we're not moving into the future. (I say this but I know we fail at this in my own library sometimes.) We're going to lose the new users we've fought so hard to gain when their lives take a turn to the busy and their library books get buried under all of the other need-to-do stuff that gets fit in around dance class and soccer practice and work and bills and malfunctioning windsheild wipers and aging parents and we hit them with "your account has been referred to a collection agency."
I have no solutions. Perhaps I'm too soft, too intent on making sure everyone loves the library (thinks we're f****** cool!) Because what fun is all of this – my job, I guess I mean, and the profession in general – if they don't love us?