Friday, January 15, 2010

Visiting other libraries



School librarians frequently are the only librarians in the school. Sometimes as lone practitioners their voices get lost with administrators, teachers and parents who don’t listen. On January 4 I was in Brooklyn, New York. Through Lm_net, a list serv for school librarians, I corresponded with a librarian who really needed help. She wanted more students and faculty members to use the library and take advantage of the collection and her expertise. This librarian needed some words of support from an outsider. Since I had a few minutes and I was within walking distance, I went to visit this private (K-12) girls school. I met with the librarian and then we were both able to able meet the principal.

On Tuesday (Jan. 12) I attended a workshop on “Future proofing the library.” One of the points presented was that we need to take some ideas from the hospitality industry. The physical features of the library and how patrons are treated are just as important as the collection and the wisdom of the librarians. In my marketing course I teach that appearances are part of marketing. This Brooklyn school needed a major remodeling job.* The library needed the walls painted, new carpeting, new furniture, new computers, new signs, and new shelves. The room looked like a dark back room from another time and place. The librarian said that for years the library had been bypassed for painting and other improvements. I suggested asking for help from the students and making wall painting into a party. Expand the reach of the library into the hallway with art work and signs.

Meeting with the principal was eye opening to the librarian. The principal said that ten years ago the school had parents who were college educated and could help their students. More than 80% of the students were reading way above grade level. Today fewer parents are college educated and over half of the students are Title I (Title I means they get Federal money to bring the students up to grade level.) Many students are struggling just to do the minimum level of academic achievement. This makes a big difference in what book books should be bought and library services offered. Yet until January 4th no one shared that important piece of information with the librarian.

The visit had an immediate result. The following day I received this e-mail from the librarian:

I might have already seen a positive result. Shortly after your visit, the h.s. principal herself tracked me down in the e.s./m.s. library to give me an important message, instead of leaving it in my mailbox or sending it with someone else. (It almost makes up for being told how students use the public library after school instead of their school's library.)

One of the computer people told me today I can have a new computer if I wouldn't mind the school buying a laptop, and that I should shop around for one myself.

One of the other challenges in the school was the fact that many students were being sent to the local public library for materials connected to their class. Later that day I decided to visit the Midwood Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, which is the closest branch to the school.

I have to admit that I have never worked in public library. My use is limited to checking out books for diversionary reading. I was so annoyed at the lack of reference ability on the part of the reference staff, I wrote a letter of complaint. They really needed to hear the workshop I attended about how to treat patrons.

Here is a portion of the letter I sent to Brooklyn Public’s web comment site:

I visited the Midwood branch of your library yesterday (January 4) and I was very disappointed. The reference librarian I dealt with needs a refresher course in reference services. The librarian did not conduct any kind of reference interview for the young patron in front of me who wanted a book on osteoporosis. The librarian barely asked the patron any questions to determine what was needed. [The librarian did not determine if the patron was a high school or college aged student. The patron did say the information was needed for school.] The librarian typed away [without sharing the screen or telling the patron what was being searched] and then ran to the shelf to find some books. At no time did the library attempt to show the patron how to look up information on her own. The librarian did not ask whether this person was in high school or college. The librarian did not determine if a data base could have more appropriate information. The contact did not end with anything to indicate if the patron got what was needed.

Since writing the letter I did speak to two public library reference librarians. They operate differently than school or academic librarians. While I may see this as a teaching opportunity, they see it as a transaction to get the patron away from the desk in as little time as possible. In a school or academic library the librarians have a vested interest in helping the patron to learn about the library, its resources, and how to look up information on their own. I like to think we point students in the right directions.

Given that I have moderated my disappointment. However, let’s look at this from a business point of view. In a business every encounter with an employee costs money. Businesses have signs, web sites, instructions, self serve, self check-out, etc. to get the customer to help themselves. If BPL thinks on the business model they should ask themselves, “How can I help the patron now so that they will not need the same help later?” The student seeking help with a book today did not learn how to look up books in the future. Chances are the student will need to ask for more help when a new subject is investigated.

Here’s the boiler plate reply that I received from the Brooklyn Public Library

January 8, 2010

To Daniel Stuhlman,

I am writing in reference to the situation that occurred at the Midwood branch on Tuesday January 5, 2010. [The actual date was Jan. 4.] Let me take this opportunity to apologize for any inconvenience or distress that was created by our staff. The Brooklyn Public Library takes great care to ensure that its users have a pleasant experience and that their questions and requests are fulfilled to the best of our ability. It is clear that on this occasion we were not successful in meeting those expectations.

In light of this, we will properly address and examine the situation. It is our hope that this incident has not tainted your view of the Brooklyn Public Library. We trust that you continue to utilize our resources and that your next visit will be gratifying.

Please contact me should you have any further questions or cause for concern.

Returning to the teachers who send students to the public library –

School and academic librarians have an interest in helping their students succeed. They know more about the curriculum and the students than the public library. I send students to the public library for known items. After I conduct the reference interview and find a book not in our collection, I send students to a public library to get the book. Sometimes I even look for books the students can purchase. The role of school and academic librarians is just not the same as public library librarians, which have their place in the information providing universe.

We need to be proud of what we can do and tell people about it. Visit other libraries and help each other so that we are not lone voices.


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*Note: After writing the first draft of this article I found out that the whole question of physical improvements may be moot. There is a possibility that the school will move to a new campus in the next school year. The school already has a branch in another neighborhood and may combine both operations in the building outside of the Flatbush neighborhood.

3 comments:

Sandberg said...

from the statement . . . "The principal said that ten years ago the school had parents who were college educated and could help their students. More than 80% of the students were reading way above grade level. Today fewer parents are college educated and over half of the students are Title I (Title I means they get Federal money to bring the students up to grade level.) Many students are struggling just to do the minimum level of academic achievement. This makes a big difference in what book books should be bought and library services offered. Yet until January 4th no one shared that important piece of information with the librarian."

sounds like a need for better open communication and involvement of all professionals within their school!

Daniel Stuhlman said...

Open communications to help understand the community served are very important. In my first job I started asking about the school to learn about the people I would be serving. After getting an answer of "Why do you need to know that?" I starting looking for a new job and left in the middle of the school year.

Seasoned Teacher said...

Having just made the move from school library to public I am stressing education of the patron or customer to my staff. The better a patron understands libraries, how they are organized and how to retrieve information the more they will utilize the library. Sounds as if I'm on the right track. The more independent we can make patrons with this knowledge, the more staff time will be freed to help others.