Paraphrasing Woody Allen, libraries are like sharks; they must continually move forward or die. In the face of the ever changing technological landscape, libraries face a daily challenge to remain relevant to the users they serve. Much of the literature focuses on how libraries may fulfill this mission by creating technology friendly user space, more programs and hiring staff with skills to use the proliferation of gadgets that are flooding the marketplace. However, the one topic that seems to be missing is the one that could set libraries apart from the Apple Store or Best Buy. That item is the personal touch.
Sometimes, in our haste to fulfill our mission of providing access and same level service to all, we miss out on the very things that would make our library stand out from the rest. For example, Library A is vested in ensuring that all librarians in the building provide the best service to all their patrons. Surely this is a worthy goal, but what if in an attempt to ensure that level access, personal touches go out the window? If Library A has a patron who is interested in True Crime of any kind and they receive a shipment of the latest Whitey Bulger saga, or mafia don autobiography, would they not tell the patron about it the next time they come in? You may be surprised to learn that Library A does not support that type of interaction because it violates the rule that everyone receives the same level of service. This results in Library A sacrificing the personal touch for the rigid “level access” type of mentality. In the process Library A loses the readers advisory opportunity that is one of the foundation principles of librarianship and sets libraries apart from the book section at WalMart.
Library B, on the other hand, is vested in ensuring that they remain relevant by a combination of equal service and the personal touch for patrons. In this case, the librarian at Library B sees a shipment of books come in and notes that there are several of interest to her regular patrons who love this type of novel or nonfiction story. This librarian, knowing that her patrons come in regularly, will anticipate their wants by noting that these books came in. If she had previously spoken to the patrons and received their permission, she might even place the books on hold for them. Then when the patron visited the library, they would have hand-picked selections waiting for them. Library B is exhibiting what I would call the “Cheers” mentality. Don’t you want to go where everyone knows your name?
We live in a society where people vote with their feet and their wallets. Our patrons come to the public library for economic reasons and informational needs. In this fast-paced world where information is literally in patrons’ pockets, it makes sense to provide a higher level of service than they can obtain elsewhere. Google is a great search engine, but it is algorithm based and lacks the intuition that a good reference interview can provide. Its results are based on what it thinks the user wants and may miss the nuances of the question forcing the user to sift through hundreds or thousands of useless links before finding the information they seek. If they find it at all. Discount retailers often have a high turnover of staff and finding a consistently knowledgeable staff member at one of these organizations is almost impossible.
Enter the librarian who knows both the information resources in the library and the patron before them. By eliciting information from the patron, many librarians can quickly hone in on resources to satisfy the patron’s information needs. In addition, by going above and beyond by anticipating those needs in the future, libraries have an opportunity to build a strong and supportive library community. Ranganathan says for every reader their book. Ask your librarian – they’ll find it for you. In my dream library, they’ll even have it waiting when you come in.