Libraries are in the business of change, making small and big changes to services, programmes, spaces, collections. However, often these changes are made behind the scenes, without much involvement of the community.
Is transparency a core customer expectation in your library?
Can your customers easily get the answers they want and need about a library’s services, collections, policies, programmes, funding and outputs? Do you, or could you, easily share the story of the statistical data you routinely collect – from membership numbers, to collection sizes, to circulation figures, to numbers of programme attendees. Is this type of information routinely shared and distributed to your community, not just to your funding agencies?
What about also sharing the quirkier and more interesting data with your community? Share the unusual and more meaningful data from your community, instead of focusing on the overall numbers.
Can you tell the story of your average library user? Who are they? What do they borrow? When do they visit the library? What services do they use most often?
Can you tell the story of your most prolific borrower of your community? How many items does your most frequent user borrow? What types of items do they borrow?
Can you tell the story of your non-member library users? What do you know about the people who use your library but who aren’t actually members? They might still access services, programmes, materials, but they aren’t often “counted” in your statistics because they don’t appear on your membership database. How can you tell their stories if you are only focused on the data?
It comes back to the question of why you collect the data in the first place. Being clear about what data you collect, and why, is about being transparent with your community. If you collect the statistical data to demonstrate your measureable value to your funders, because that is what they need to make decisions, then be honest and tell your community that is why you collect the data.
The 6 statements for The Usable Library are radically simple and transparent. Being interested in your library’s customers is key. Could you tell the story of your community differently? Not based on measurable statistics and numbers, but based on community stories.
Can you demonstrate how many customers have been able to find a job, complete their studies, trace their family tree, undertake research, secure funding for their community project, start a business, learn new skills, simply by being a member of your library’s community?
These stories can’t always be told purely by the numbers. It involves asking your community to share their stories with you. It is about asking your communities to open up about their role of the library in their lives.
Identify someone who uses your physical space on a regular basis, and ask them if they would like a coffee and to tell their story. Be honest about what you want. You want to know more about them, and about how they use the library. You want to know what you could do to improve things.
Invite people to share their ideas about making it better. It might be the layout of the space doesn’t work for people with mobility issues. It might be that you shift the start time of your story time program by half an hour to accommodate that many parents have to drop off older children at a school that is further away. It might be that your students want more, not less, quiet study space.
Transparency about how and when and where and why we do what we do in libraries is at the core of our existence. Could your community benefit from knowing more about the decision making processes that typically take place behind the scenes in libraries?
For example, If you cancel a digital subscription, how do you communicate your decision making process to your customers? Do you have a clear checklist of criteria against which you make decisions? What would happen if you shared this with your community? Invite them into the decision making process by being transparent about what you do. They might make suggestions about the validity of your decision making process, so be open to the discussion to improve the process.
Sharing your decision making process with your frontline staff is also important, as they are the ones who will field the question from customers about the decisions you make. Withholding information from staff is withholding information from our community.
Why do we limit the number of holds per customer?
Why do we charge from premium services?
How do we set the ratio of items per number of requests?
Why is the key word behind being transparent.
Answering why can be hard if we aren’t prepared to be open to discussion, and be honest and transparent about our practices.
What if we truly considered all suggestions for change, and looked at implementing some of the seemingly smaller suggestions, and aim for a culture of ongoing, consistent change. Sharing the reasons for change, and the results of change.
By implementing regular incremental changes, we can aim towards a different service model in five years, which is easier to achieve in small steps than a radical shift all in one go.
Identify some of the most common “complaints” (also known as feedback) from customers and staff about library services. Which parts of your services or collections are most frustrating for your customers? Is it the charges? Is the lack of being able to tailor the services to what they want or need? Ask for their input on ways to improve your services.
Is it the jargon used? If you need to explain the terms used in your signage, maybe you need to change the terminology. Simplify the language to be understood by the majority, not the minority.
Is it cost of borrowing? If you need to raise a percentage of your annual operating costs, then be honest with your community about the amount you are expected to cover through charges. Invite them to offer suggestions on how you could achieve this in a fair and equitable way. Ask if they agree that those who want “preferential” treatment could pay a premium to be at the front of the holds queue. Be open about the expected total income that you need to bring in annually, and ask for their input into ways to grow your income stream instead of charging for services.
Is it the difficulty in getting hold of items in accessible formats? If the cost is prohibitive as an individual institution, could you partner with other organisations to build a larger shared collection?
Is it the different length of borrowing times for different materials? Ask yourself what might be the impact of with implementing one single borrowing period for all materials, or implementing a policy of an indefinite check out period until someone else requested an item.
Or could you find a different way to assist customers to identify what is due back when?
Does your library list items on the checkout receipt alphabetically by title or in the order they were issued? What if you changed the way you laid our items on your checkout receipts? Reorganise the list of items, clearly identifying which items are due back first, rather than the order in which they were issued or as an alphabetically ordered tile list. Be clear, make the due date bigger than the title and the author. Aaron Schmidt clearly demonstrated this in a 2012 Library Journal column – Consider the Checkout Slip – but I have never heard of a library who has actually done it. Is it because we are afraid we’ll lose revenue collected from overdue fines than if we focus on creating an environment where the community returns the items on time?
Treat everything you do as a trial. Share the results with your communities, and that includes your professional community too. Do you know of other libraries using the same library management system (LMS) as your library? Other than using the same LMS, what else could you learn from one another? Even if it appears that your community demographics aren’t comparable, in sharing the small scale trials that you have undertaken, you can learn and adapt from one another. What works for one community could be tweaked and adapted to also meet the needs for another community.
Could you share your cataloguing expertise? Could you share your promotional expertise? Could you share your programming expertise? Could you set up a monthly online meeting session for staff to share their knowledge and experiences? An online lunchtime session, over a cup of coffee, sharing collective knowledge about what you have tried, what you’d like to try and also sharing tales of what worked, and what didn’t with your community.
Developing a culture of ownership and transparency about is admitting to not having all the answers, but a willingness to trial new ideas. Being upfront about your philosophy behind the small scale trials means owning up to looking at ways to make small changes which add up to big differences. It might be that you and your community have identified some clear big picture goals about what the library will be in five or ten or fifteen years time, and you want to work towards those goals, with small achievable steps along the way.
Be transparent about why you do what you do.
Open up to your communities and walk alongside one another into the future of libraries.