Friday, September 24, 2004

Differentiating the Public Service Librarian

At a recent manager's meeting, I shared excerpts from The Cluetrain Manifesto with my colleagues (yes, we do book talks among managers too). In the presentation, I suggested how NLB's Public Library Service (as opposed to the Reference Service) could position us as "Your Friendly Neighbourhood Librarian".

I have fond memories of those lazy Saturday afternoons (much younger then), when there was no school, no homework. While waiting for my father to come home with lunch, my siblings and I would watch The Electric Company. On some episodes, they featured "Spidy", i.e. a guy in a Spider-man costume (with same Spider-man powers but who never ever talks!), a catchy theme song, and the catchphrase "Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-man". Their version of Spider-man was this silent superhero who goes around saving the day, and whom the residents in the neighbourhood know they can rely on.

Perhaps that influenced me when I suggested PLS librarians should position us like that (not the silent part though). Right now, both the Reference Service librarians and Public Service librarians handle enquiries. The former aims to serve more specialised research-based needs, while the latter caters more to the general public. The National Reference collection is also more specialised while public libraries cater to Fiction readers and general non-fiction, i.e. more leisure-based reading needs.

However, such differences are not very clear to our users. I think most people know that the National Reference collection is not for loan, while Public Library collection is for loan. Beyond that, they don't really know the difference.

To cut a long rambling short, the crux of this blog is: (1) Why do we need to differentiate the Public Service Librarian, and (2) How do we do it?

Why? Because Identity is important, no matter what people say. It's a natural human response to want to know where we fit in a complex world. And having an identity leads to a greater sense of pride in our work.

As to How the PLS librarians can become the "Friendly Neighbourhood Librarian", I personally draw much the ideas from Book.

We should go out there and engage potential users in the forums, chatrooms etc. As I wrote in my other blog:"... the presence that librarians project can no longer be the “Thou knoweth more than you-eth” attitude. To connect with our average information-customer, we need to show them that we’re as human as they are; as fallible, and there’s nothing to be fear from us."

In providing our service, be it answering reference enquiries or Readers' Advisory, or checking a reader's loan record, PLS librarians can distinguish themselves by engaging in conversations with the reader. In a real conversation, we don't go "Dear Mr Lee, with regards to your enquiry..." but we say things like "Hi Mr Lee, that's a most interesting question. It's something new to me but I've checked with my colleagues and...". Our tone (written or verbal) should be informal, approachable, human.

Maybe, just maybe, the kids in the neighbourhood will hum a song to the tune of "Your Friendly Neighbourhood Librarian".

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