Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Customer Service for Libraries

How does a library compete for the attention of readers (or students, faculty, etc.)? After reading some articles on the business side of customer relations management, I want to offer ideas for libraries that may change how we deal with our publics. While we don’t compete for the customer’s money, we do compete for resources of the school, public or other entity that pays our bills. We are competing in a marketplace for ideas, minds, and resources.

1. What does customer-centric approach mean for libraries? How does the change in retail expectations affect what people expect from libraries?

Consumers have grown more skeptical over the past few years when spending their money. This should be good for libraries because libraries offer resources that the customer does not directly pay for. In a marketplace that customers feel mislead, the library is a place to get reliable and diverse information on every subject.

The Internet has raised expectations for the gathering of information. People are impatient and want instant answers even when the best answers take lots of careful investigation. Librarians can only point readers in the right direction and hopefully student learn from their classes the value of careful and systematic research. As customers learn from businesses how to solve or experience something, library users need to find value from library services. Libraries help readers solve problems, seek information and seek recreational sources. As other sources of these services bombard them, they may ask “Why use the library? Why finance the library?”

In a customer-centric library the librarians and staff are always asking themselves “How does this affect the user experience?” From the back office purchasing and cataloging to the direct reader interaction at the reference desk, circulation desk and everywhere in between everything must relate to the “customer experience.” Attention must be paid to the rooms, the signs and the electronic impressions made on the library users and stakeholders. For example if the physical features of the library don’t fit the needs, the features need changing.

2. What are the mistakes that organizations make when trying to appeal to library users?

Some of these mistakes happen so often that we don’t realize they are having a negative effect on the public. In the business world a company may claim they are number one in their field or they have the largest selection, or have X years experience in the business. Do you remember the ads that Avis Car Rental used to make, “We try harder?” This was supposed to indicate that they knew they were number two in car rental and they constantly want customers to know they were trying to be better. [fn 1]  When a business brags about being number one they are addressing the company perspective (the firm, the salespeople, and the marketing department). The claim is about their attributes, not what the customers are interested in.

What are library “customers” interested in? First you have to investigate who is your public. Some of the answers you will know from your years of experience; some answers will take investigate. For example the library needs computer work stations. The nature of these stations and the number required are a matter to investigate. A library needs a suitable collection. To build the collection the librarians need to know what is available and match that to the needs of the public. The library needs multiple kinds of physical space. The exact needs must be investigated.

Customers, like library users, are interested in the value they get from the organization. In a retail store the customer wants selection, service, attractive prices, and attractive physical settings. This is not much different from what readers need – a collection that fills their information needs and wants, reference services to help to find materials, instruction to learn more about the library and information services, and attractive, functional rooms to do their reading, studying or what ever else they want to do in the library.

3. What kinds of unique value could a library promise? How will a philosophy of adding value translate to the way we do business?

In business adding value is both an emotional, personal benefit to the customer and an economic exchange. Customers exchange money for the service or product and get some kind of benefit. The company promises a positive outcome when you do business with them. Too often in both education and in libraries the positive outcome is removed in time and place from the delivery of the service. When dealing with the total customer experience, we have to tell the readers (our customers) the value they get from using our services. We have to show the community the benefits so that users and non-users perceive the benefits. In previous times this meant advertising of events and public service announcements. Today this means getting a big electronic footprint including a web site and a Facebook page. Use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to build the library image and let people know about the library and its service. This is not a hard sell message.

For example I sometimes place information about new books or a message connecting this day in history to the library collection on our Facebook pages.

Think about the total library experience. Do something to encourage people to come again and again. Don’t make a promise about being number one; make sure that you have a defined mission and you do everything in your power to enhance the total customer experience. I know this is hard when you have no control over the copier or room size, but pick something you do have control over and make everyone aware of what you can do.

4. How can the library have a service platform that is consistent with a promise to add value? How can you deliver what you promise?

This is an attitude that takes institutional fortitude. No matter how much a librarian wants to do what s/he can do to deliver great services and have an excellent collection, if the funding source is not great enough, the job will not be done. If you want to offer classes, you need the teaching staff. If you want a great collection you need to purchase, catalog and store the materials. You have to figure out the value you are adding to the public or student experience and build on both the perception and the behind the scene support to make an ordinary place in a great library.

If you can’t get the institutional support you need, change your promise. Make your mission clear so that you can deliver. It is better to promise small and deliver what you promise than not deliver what you promise. Transform every contact into an opportunity to acquire not only a satisfied customer, but an advocate. At some point satisfied readers will tell others about the library and perhaps those who approve the finances will be impressed.

5. How can libraries embrace a customer-centric approach and notice results?

First the library must carefully craft a mission statement and philosophy that establishes what is the core library business. Second find and allocate resources to accomplish this mission. Third empower people to accomplish the mission. Let staff experiment to find out what works best. Give staff the tool, training and resources to accomplish the mission and help the library users.

Next the library must have a plan for examining user expectations, keep current with technology, and train for the next level of information service. Training must be an integral part of the schedule. Some staff time needs to be devoted to R&D or long term scholarship and study.
Communications between users, library staff, and stakeholders needs to be developed. Communications must take many forms – in persons, at meetings, phone, and via electronic media.

Front line staff people need to be in charge of innovation. Innovation needs to part the way we do business. Innovation includes such areas as displays, marketing, instruction, materials to help use the collections, signs, and programs. The culture has to support risk taking and inventing new ways for successful and meaningful growth. Reach out and make library use partners in innovation. Just as new books and articles are objects of innovations, we have to find the best tools for acquiring, curating, cataloging, organizing and circulating information. We not only here for our patrons, they are our business.

Businesses have changed their physical features such as wider aisles, brighter lights and more appealing store organization. This will not work in libraries because book stacks are not merchandise shelves. .Libraries do need multiple kinds of space and seating.

6. This customer-centric approach sound hard especially when there is administration push-back. How can libraries start the process?

Some activities don’t cost money. Start small and make incremental changes. Think about your library users in every area of library operations and think ways to improve their library experience. Think of how you can offer library services in the best possible way and make sure to make your promises into reality.


Changing a corporate culture is not easy.  The customer is not always right and sometimes what the customer wants interferes with the wants and needs of other customers.  The administration must be dedicated to helping the people who use the library and making the culture customer-centric.The rest is commentary.


1.  For more information see Avis’ web site:  “We try harder” was adopted in 1962.  It was designed as an indicator that their corporate philosophy was changing.  It was not an advertising gimmick.  This way of doing business increased market share from 11% in 1962 to 35% in 1966.   See also “Advertising: Trying Harder“ in Time Magazine, June 24, 1964.,33009,939058,00.html

Friday, August 16, 2013

Artzneybüech -- a 16th Century Medical Book

Cataloging a manuscript is always a particular challenge. As a unique item each manuscript must be cataloged without help from an existing record. Several weeks ago a leather bound item with a metal clasp (one clasp was missing) was placed in my queue for cataloging. I thought it was a printed book because I didn’t think anyone could write script that precisely. It is book of medicines and recipes from the 16th century written in German handwriting. I checked all the usual sources—WorldCat, NUC pre-1956 imprints and even an bibliography of 16th Century German imprints, but found no matches or clues.

German spelling and handwriting was not standardized until the 20th century. This book is hard to read because I can’t interpret the script. I took it to the rare book librarian for help. She said this was a manuscript because no one could set type like that. We showed it to several German speakers and they could not read it. No listing of German manuscript has this item listed.

Title is: Artzneybüech (A physician’s book). Note the modern German spelling would be: Artzneibuch.  The large red words are legible and I can read them. The smaller black text is unreadable.

Here is a list of ingredients followed by directions.

I was unable to find any later printed copies of this text.

If anyone can help with more information I would appreciate it. Text in the upper left reads: Ein güeter wündtranct (A good wound dressing)

I was curious about the value of this item. It is written on vellum. In the 16th century vellum cost about 120 times paper. Vellum then as now was mainly used for special legal or religious documents or for artwork. The raw materials needed to write a copy of this book today would cost about $1200. I saw similar items from the 16th century offered for sale between $6000 and $50,000.

Working on identifying this item was fascinating because I had to learn about the history of German language and writing in the 16th century, however it was frustrating because I do not yet have the final answers.

Monday, August 5, 2013

When Library Catalogs, Discovery Tools and Google Fail

As librarians we think the catalog, databases and discovery tools should lead to the articles or other library materials that we seek especially for a known item search. I found a case when the cataloger or indexer did everything right, yet the article was still difficult to find.

When I was preparing to review  the book, Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity [1] I found  on page 138 a section titled “The Ahad Ha’am Affair” that was even more fascinating than other parts of the Birnbaum story. Birnbaum was an almost forgotten figure in the history of Zionism. The book’s author, Jess Olson, tells the story of how he first heard of Birnbaum when taking a course in Yiddish linguistics in Oxford. I knew of Ahad Ha'am  and his thought, but never knew about his ideological dispute with Theodor Herzl.   None of my studies in Zionism or Jewish history seem to have mentioned Birnbaum.[2]

In brief  – Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg’s pen name) and Theodor Herzl were rivals in the struggle for the soul of the Zionist movement. Ahad Ha’am believed in spiritual and cultural Zionism that is a state that would be a source for growth, development and eternity of Jewish culture. Herzl was a political Zionist that is he believed a Jewish state would solve the “Jewish question.” Looking back on the history of the movement and what eventually happened, they both turned out to be right. Israel today is a product of both streams of thought.

In 1902 Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland (Old-New Land) was published and stirred controversy between Ahad Ha’am and Herzl.  Even to supporters of Herzl the novel was problematic for its optimism and western (read Germanic) slant on the Palestinian society. I wanted to find the article that Ahad Ha’am wrote about Altneuland.   Professor Olson did not give an exact citation.  He said it was published in late 1902 in Hebrew in Ha-Shiloah where Ahad Ha’am was the editor and in German translation in April 1903 in Ost und West.  In a footnote Olson says the text can be found on the page: I wanted to find the original in HaShiloah.
Now that I know the answer, the time consuming steps of the search seem like a waste of time. Searching for the exact citation and article proved difficult. I will try to explain the step and why they did or didn’t work. Searching for a known item search should be a straightforward library search. I knew the author’s name and the approximate date. First I tried searching the library databases. None of the databases cover the publication or the years 1902-1904. I wanted to try Book Review Digest, but it started publication after 1902. I found an index of book reviews in scholarly literature that covered the period, but there was no entry. When I found the article I knew the reason these indexes would never work. The publication was not considered scholarly and the article would not be recognized as a book review by an indexer.

Since library databases would help I thought I could find another book that told the story and that author would have the exact citation. I had to learn a little more about Herzl and Ahad Ha’am to be able to continue the search. In Gershon Winer’s The Founding Fathers of Israel, [3] he profiles both Herzl and Ahad Ha’am. Winer does not deal with the ideological struggle between the Zionist streams of thought.

I went back a few years to Alex Bein’s 1940 biography of Herzl.[4] Chapter 12 is titled, “Altneuland” and describes in detail the saga. However, Bein had no footnotes. Bein describes how Herzl decided on the title. Herzl describes in his diary the thought process occurred to him on August 30, 1899. It was connected to the concept of an old and new land and the Altneuschul [5] of Prague. The chapter talks about the cultural questions that Ahad Ha’am raises, but got me no closer to a citation.

Thirty-five years later Amos Elon writes another biography of Herzl.[6] His retelling of the saga is in chapter 15 starting on page 347. Elon mentions on page 350 Ahad Ha’am’s criticism and his attack in HaShiloah, which Ahad Ha’am edited. Elon has no footnotes or citations. Shlomo Avineri in The Making of Modern Zionism, [7] talked about the utopian concepts in Altneuland such as social structure of co-operations and mutual benefit. All young men and women are required to give two years of national service, not for military purposes because there will be peace with the non-Jews. Avineri makes no comment about the controversy surrounding the novel and have no footnotes.

Since library books and searches were not helping I turned to Google Scholar. I searched for articles with “herzl” and “ahad ha’am” in them. Eventually I found an article by Yossi Goldstein in the journal, Jewish History. [8] This is a whole article about the Ahad Ha’am Herzl dispute and the second footnote had the citation that I needed, “Ahad Ha’am, “Yalkut Katan”, Ha-shiloach 10 (1902) [Hebrew], pp. 566–578.” Footnote three had Max Nordau response to Ahad Ha’am Max Nordau, ““Achad Ha’am über Altneuland”, Die Welt, 13.3.1903” With this citation I returned to
library searching for a copy that I could read.

The University of Illinois Chicago is a co-operating member of the Hathi Trust. After many searching I found an electronic copy of the December 1902 article that contained Ahad Ha’am criticism. I immediately saw why a search of authors and titles was fruitless. Ahad Ha’am was the editor of the publication and he wrote a monthly editorial without a byline. The title was always, “Yalkut Katan” meaning “A small collection.” The December column did not even start out with the criticism of Herzl. An indexer could easily misinterpret the article and record the incorrect bibliographic information. I was also led to the German translation of the article which appears in the April 1903 issue of Ost und West starting on column 227.

The UIC collection did not have the 1903 volume of Ost und West in paper or electronic format. They had other volumes, but this one was not in the collection scanned by Hathi Trust. I searched WorldCat and found that an electronic copy existed. Searching “Ost und West” got too many hits and none were correct. After many searches I found the full title of the publication was: Neue jüdische Monatshefte : Zeitschrift für Politik, Wirtschaft und Literatur in Ost und West . I used iShare (a group of Illinois libraries with a shared catalog) and found an electronic copy in the Morris Library of Southern Illinois University. It was in a system called Compact Memory, which has many German Jewish publications available in electronic format. The searching is only in German. I was able to find both Die Welt for the Nordau article and the issue of Ost und West with the Ahad Ha’am article.

With the German article in hand and the Hebrew original I could better understand what Ahad Ha’am wrote. Some of his Hebrew words were borrowed from German and not in the Hebrew dictionaries. For example he used the word, “Tscharter” in Hebrew. It means “charter.”

The article also appears page 412 in Kol Kitve (Collected Works) Ahad Ha'am.

Last Thursday I attended a webinar on library discovery tools. This search is an example of how discovery tools could help. Had I been able to enter what I thought were keywords and the discovery tool could work across all language, perhaps I could have found the article faster? But this is still a case when one has to understand the subject of a search before getting the answer. In the course of the search I had to learn more about the personalities involved and their ideology. I learned about how periodicals and how they were the mass media of the time. Arguments were expressed in publications. Today these exchanges would take place using electronic media and speed of exchange would be hours, not months. I also learned the road to finding answers contains many paths and requires many kinds of search tools.

This was all an interesting exercise and knowing all this I returned to Olson's footnote and then I understood it.  Had I understood his note in the beginning I would not have  needed all the searching.


[1]  Olson, Jess.  Nathan Birnbaum and Jewish Modernity : Architect of Zionism, Yiddishism, and Orthodoxy. Stanford, California : Stanford University Press, 2013. Dr. Olsen is a Yeshiva University history professor. 

[2] In 1975 I read the Origins of Zionism by David Vital.  Birnbaum is predominately mentioned.

[3]  Winer, Gershom.  The Founding Fathers of Israel. New York, Block Publishing Company, 1971.  Dr. Winer was one of my teachers in 1970-71.  Much of what I knew about the history of early Zionists was learning in his class. After reading about Nathan Birnbaum, I find Winer gives Herzl more credit for changing the course of Jewish history than he is due.  None of his source notes helped my search.

[4] Full reference: Bein, Alex. Theodore Herzl : a biography.  Translated from the German by Maurice Samuel.  Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1940 (c1941).  JPS spells “Theodore” with an “e’ while other sources spell it as “Theodor.”
[5] Despite the controversy or because of it two reminders from the book are still with us.  When Nahum Sokolow translated the book into Hebrew he used the title Tel Aviv. “Tel” as in an ancient archeological mound and “Aviv” meaning spring as a sign of the new.  When the first Jewish city was founded in 1909 it was called Tel Aviv.  The second reminder is the quote, “Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Märchen (Herzl wrote in German).  “if you will it, it is no dream” or in Hebrew “’im terzu ain zo agadah.  אִם תִּרְצוּ, אֵין זוֹ אַגָדַה

[6]  Elon, Amos. Herzl. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

[7]  Avineri, Shlomo.  The making of modern Zionism : the intellectual origins of the Jewish state.  New York, Basic Books, 1981.

[8] Goldstein, Yossi, “Eastern Jews vs. Western Jews: the Ahad Ha’am–Herzl dispute
and its cultural and social implications” in Jewish History (2010) 24: 355–377.