library don’ts and dos

Yesterday there I was sitting in a coffeehouse doing some writing (for an exciting project! stay tuned), and the guy next to me struck up a conversation, which started with Macs (my laptop, his iPad, the just-announced Air) and ended up with something like this:

Him: “You know what would be a great app for you to develop? Something where — instead of just searching the Minuteman consortium — I could search everywhere, and see if any other libraries had what I’m looking for when Minuteman doesn’t?”

Me: “You mean like WorldCat?” (Which I then showed him on my laptop, to his elation.)

Him: “Yeah! Exactly! So like…I could go there and borrow the book! Wait, can I borrow stuff from those libraries? Sign up or give them some money or something and get a card? What if I can’t, but they’re the only ones with the book I have?”

Me: “Well, you could ask your library to get it for you with interlibrary loan…”

Him: “They do that?!? Whoa.”

So, two things.

One, I see that graduating from library school has, in fact, given me that forehead tattoo that says “Yes, please ask me for information, I can totally help you.” Sweet.

Two. Ah, two: not so sweet. Here we have a guy who’s clearly smart and information-driven, probably educated — mind-melded to his iPad, iPhone beside him, owner of a niche software company, seems to actually understand technical details of how his product works. He is, I’d inferred from the conversation leading to this point, a regular user of his library. And he didn’t know this stuff.

It reminded me of the conversation that was floating around the blogosphere a while back about library signage. What are the library signs I’ve seen? Don’t eat or drink, don’t use your cell phone, don’t leave your laptop unattended or it will get stolen. A tiny handful of encouraging signs about lending Playaways, but mostly don’t, don’t, don’t. And what’s that stereotype of librarians? Oh, yeah. Shushing. Don’t talk. The other day in a local children’s room, my 3-year-old was super-excited about the miniature pumpkins they’d put on all the desks, and she was gently picking up and putting down each one, and a librarian yelled at her, don’t touch.

When I talk to librarian colleagues, the interactions are overwhelmingly generous and positive. But when I interact with libraries as a patron, I mostly get told about what I can’t do. It took going to library school for me to learn about WorldCat and, yes, even ILL (and I have an MA!) — to learn what I can.

How do we do a better job of telling patrons what they can? Who’s got some happy examples of libraries doing this?

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14 thoughts on “library don’ts and dos

  1. I really like the LibGuides our school (University of Iowa) uses. They’re a great way to show users what resources are available on a specific topic, and which librarian specializes in it. While a public library may not have to make a ton of LibGuides, staff could even just set up a couple WordPress sites that talk about resources (genealogy, kids, etc) and are updated regularly with events and notable new acquisitions. It would be really helpful if they also mentioned things like ILL, because I don’t even have my MLS yet and I’ve already shocked and awed several people with its existence 🙂

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    1. Feel the power! Awesome :).

      I like the power of blogs (or, maybe better yet, an updating news/tips box on the web site) to expose people to a variety of content, but I’d also like to see physical-world signage or interactions that are more educative/welcoming…what if people never see the blog, you know? (I read lots of library-world blogs, but I don’t think any of them is actually the blog of a library…on the other hand, a thoughtfully designed box on the catalog would get my attention. Hm.)

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      1. Hmm, true true. Especially for folks who aren’t comfortable with computers (or who aren’t likely to hunt down a blog), the signage would be helpful. I like your idea of a delightful box on the catalog–that’s a great way to integrate web content with parts of the library’s online presence that many patrons are using. I’ll have to ponder on what sorts of physical signs would be good–to be honest, I have not seen many.

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    1. Yay, I’m glad that’s working for its patrons (i.e. you)! I am getting a kick out of how it’s a Drupal site, too (Drupal being trendy in the library world right now).

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    1. Lunch alone would make such a difference to me. So many times I need to go somewhere with wireless to get stuff done, and I *would* go to the library except I can’t eat there, so I can’t stay there. Instead, spend too much money at coffeehouses. :/

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  2. Word of mouth is one great way to show or learn your patrons what they can do and what the library can do for them.

    I work in the metropolitan public library of Brussels, Belgium. A few years ago we had a patron looking for (if I remember correctly) publications about Yiddish language and literature. I not only showed him what we got (in fact not that much), but I also explained that they have a fine collection in the Amsterdam University Library. I showed him how he could search in the catalogue of the university library and I explained to him the possibilities of ILL.

    So, that’s a bit like the story Andromeda Yelton is telling us here.

    But most of all: try to be a librarian every day. Don’t stop informing people or answering questions about how to find information when you leave the physical library (building).

    Be a librarian when you’re on social network sites like Twitter or Facebook. Help people out when you sense that they are looking for information.

    Be a librarian when you are with family and friends. Use your knowledge to help them out.

    Be a librarian when you are active in a local society. I’m the secretary of a local genealogy society in Brussels. Recently, we’re working together with a local archive to establish a little genealogy library for our members. I’m using my library skills to advise the boards of both organizations.

    So, my motto is: Every day, I’m a librarian!

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  3. Interesting story. I am not sure why we don’t look to our libraries for guidance on information technology and research. The best help I ever got on research was from library staff in Boston.

    So here is a true story of mine from a couple of years ago. I was at a meeting of various agencies concerning upgrading gazateers with new modern computer technology. A gazateer is a list of locations and placename information. It is kind of vital to have everyone on board with the same name of a given place when communicating. Not unexpected, right? So when they were suggesting adding new technological features everyone with a stake showed up.

    That included State Department, NSA, CIA, various other intelligence groups, some vendors (I was in that group) and representatives of Library of Congress. I got a bit of a chuckle talking to the guy next to me wondering how many black skimask operations LoC runs a year. Anyway…

    In the end it was the LoC guy that has the best input both in terms of questions and ideas and having a handle on actual research techniques! I was really impressed and it changed my attitude.

    Libraries are where we all can exchange data and were true experts on research technology exist. If I want to explain how the process of discovery is different from search, usually I don’t have to say much to library technicians but MBAs are so thick they need repeated tellings!

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    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I am not sure why we don’t look to our libraries for guidance on information technology and research.

      I think this depends on setting. A lot of the school librarians I know are very tech-savvy and are big resources for their school. Buffy Hamilton and her Media 21 project is an obvious example. And the librarians here at Fessenden, where I used to teach and now tutor & volunteer, are on the forefront of tech adoption & education for this community. Teachers, unless they’re early adopters by nature, are often too busy to reseach instructional tech changes, whereas it seems to fall more naturally into the library sphere, and librarians end up being community resources.

      But in other scopes, yeah, often not so much. In part I think this is because librarians’ tech ability varies so widely that some of them really aren’t good resources — but in part you’re right — this is definitely an example of how librarians need to be better at communicating a “do”! Those personal experiences like you had are highly effective; I wonder how we can get more people to have them, or communicate this message in a less time-intensive or more one-to-many way?

      Also, LoC black ops. Teehee. (Reminds me of the Rex Libris comic I’m reading right now…)

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    1. Thanks for keeping me honest :). I try not to be jargony here, but I do slip.

      Playaways are loanable audiobook devices — so, just like borrowing a physical book from the library, except it’s an audiobook (with an extremely simple interface, since it’s a dedicated device). I thought this was a bit odd when I heard of it (why not borrow a CD? or download an mp3?) but apparently they’re quite popular.

      (Well, and “why not download an mp3” runs up against severe DRM issues, which Playaways don’t have.)

      http://www.playaway.com/ <– the company

      You can also get them from at least some places in the Minuteman system. I know Lexington has them. (I haven't, because audiobooks and I don't get along, so my knowledge here is superficial.)

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