the customer is always … what?

Benjamin over at InfoBreaker has a good point. As we try to open our communities and have patrons “join the conversation” and bemore interactive with users, how do we learn to set new boundaries? He outlines a case of a patron not wanting to make a phone call to renew books when she was on vacation, thinking that should be something the library could do themselves, knowing she was on vacation. I think about other examples that have been getting a hearing lately.

If the library was totally democratic, would users still fine themselves? Implement noise policies? Shirt/shoes dress codes? We know they would be unlikely to, as a group, create their own ILS or their own classification system (no, folksonomy is not a classification system, yes it is very useful on its own). So my question is and has been, what is the role for the librarian, the supposed “information expert” in our 2.0 vision of ourselves? We facilitate access to information surely. However, there are many people, librarians and patrons, deeply in love with the idea of library as place. Then there are our board members and taxpayers who also like the idea of “money as thing,” that is the money that funds the library, pays the salary, keeps the lights on and leaves the pockets of taxpayers who are convinced that libraries are a Good Thing. Once your library is 100% in Second Life and not a side project of librarians who work in brick and mortar library buildings, who pays for their health care?

I know that in my job at MetaFilter, the money that pays me comes directly from user signups and advertising that others see on the site. Since we’re not claiming to be a public-sphere institution, I don’t have a problem with ads helping pay the bills of keeping the site running. I’m fairly secure in the site owner’s scruples, as well as my own. However once the library has ads for Amazon in its catalog, or preferences iPods as MP3 players over other available products, or stops buying VHS tapes in favor of DVDs, we’ve made a consumer choice, and we’ve made it for the public. I always get a little fidgety when people talk about brand consciousness and “markets” when they’re talking about the library, but I also realize that’s really the way the world of information is going. That’s getting a little off the topic of whether or not a patron on vacation should be able to have the library just say “oh you’re on vacation, we’ll just auto-renew your books until you come back.” but it is along the same spectrum.

How much do we bend to meet our users? How much do we expect them to bend to meet us?

6 comments for “the customer is always … what?

  1. rainmaker
    23Oct06 at 2:55

    People will authorize automatic payments to the cellphones, credit cards and etc, and don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to auto-renew or get autopayment deductions for their fines (through paypal!).

    One library I work for, just got rid of the 3 DVD limit. This makes life easier as the people who kept arguing or haranguing us for more DVDs or try fenagling with the system are plain and simply gone. Now instead, I get to see a family check out 19 DVDs and watch the late fees accrue.
    I get to pull out 100s of those yellow locks day in and day out. My poor wrists! and naturally I don’t get benefits for working there.

    People have expectations of service and are disappointed when we the library do not meet them. see a need, fill a need. However, at what price?

    Now with respect to that,
    “The customer is always, needy.”

    It’s the price we pay for being so popular, so perhaps we’re doing something right afterall.

    Much like Stephen Covey’s bias against quick-fix paradigm solutions, we have to consider the balance of long term results over the short term results.

    Sadly enough, one conversation I had with a old-fashioned eccentric customer, who complained, “It’s too noisy in here and everything new is always checked out.” where I replied “We’re a lot more popular now.” to which he responded, “You should exclude or be pickier who gets a library card.”

    At this point I shutup before I told him what was on my mind, “That is a short-sighted maligned version of a selfish despot if I ever heard one.”

  2. 23Oct06 at 1:12

    I think you worry too much. Most library users are too set in context – if you don’t bring these ideas up then neither will they. Likewise, most still treat the internet as a combination game machine, letter box, and vertical file. Those other apps won’t even occur to them. -And don’t even whisper terms like auto-renew and auto-pay!

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  4. Sarah Mae
    24Oct06 at 6:55

    Kind of off topic but about stopping VHS and moving solely to DVDs: our suppliers have stopped selling VHS and cassette tapes (except for books on tape) and now only sell DVDs and CDs. Our VHS movies still circulate well although I do deal with the occasional patron who ONLY has a DVD player.

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