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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  1. It's an interesting positioning. But I have a question. How would the public differentiate between your definition of "leisure reading non-fiction enquiries" and "specialized reference enquiries"? Apart from fiction enquiries, which is very obvious, I can't visualize a distinctive difference. I'm trying to put myself in the reader's shoes. Is this difference in positioning very important to me? - I think not. Even if it's so different, how would it prompt me to ask questions?

    Somehow, I feel that this distinction that you are making here is boxing up the public librarian and reference librarian in two categories, but does nothing much for the public. To the public, I want my question answered at whichever library I use; I won't care whether you are supposedly a fiction librarian or specialized reference librarian. (am I right?) Meeting my needs is more important than knowing which type of librarian I am talking to. To a public user, perhaps a one-stop counter to solve all my needs when I need it is the best option.

    However, I do like the part about portraying ourselves as fallible and not Mr Know-all. The more interactive reply to user acknowledging the "process" of information search definitely sounds more palatable to the standard reply. I will adopt this straightaway and use it in my replies from now on.

  2. The differentiation I'm proposing is really more for staff rather than the public. We have to know where we stand, who we are, how are we different. We need not tell peopel this. What is important is that we know it ourselves first. You are right to say that the public won't care who answers their question.

  3. Anonymous9:41 a.m.

    Yes, drawing the distinction is more for staff so that they could stay focus of who they are serving. In fact, on one hand, one group of the public already knew that if they need detailed or research queries, they would approach NRL direct cause they know that the resources there are more in depth. However, on the other hand, the other group don't quite know where to go. Hence, this is where our "friendly neighbourhood librarians" picture should come in. It is critical to see how we can value add our role so that our presence can be strongly felt by the community. Very much our survival is dependent on the community. Can you imagine when the community voice indicated that they can DIY themselves then we won't need the community librarian anymore. It can happen if we let it happen. The point is public librarians must be seen, heard, known, acknowledged, talk about by the community.


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