Teenage Dreams

Most definitely my own views and not those of my employer, in case you thought MMU was ever a shiny-faced 16 year old.

At sixteen I thought it would be terribly romantic and grown-up to run away to Paris and have an affair (torrid of course) with some mustachioed Frenchman. Oh how we would read our poetry to each other and drink wine, whilst feeding each other Brie (the only French cheese I knew of at the time) until we were sickened by our own cliché.

As we probably all did at that age, I wanted to be a grown-up and responsible for my own life, making my own decisions without my parents constantly asking where I was going and why and commenting on my choice of spangly boob-tube.

But now, as an adult I know the truth about those decisions; the nightmare of buying plane tickets online and self check-in and taking liquids in 100ml bottles and the travel insurance and the language barrier and exchanging my money and who would pay for the hotels and would I have a job and if so would I pay taxes and do I really want to live in Paris with the high rents and expensive living costs, and just what is so great about moustaches anyway….

Ah responsibility, that cruel siren calling us seductively through the smelly fog of adolescence. Yet now I have reached the mysterious land of Adulthood I find the very thing that I longed for is a pain in the backside.

It is this responsibility which I think lies at the heart of so many user problems (see, I was going somewhere with this…) and, by looking at responsibility and who is in charge of what, perhaps we can improve or at least understand what is going wrong. Especially considering many of our users are experiencing this leap into adulthood for the first time (and how a university deals with this is a discussion for another day.)

Self-service machines are at the centre of the majority of my interactions with students. They were installed a year or two ago and I have been told how they have reduced the pressure massively on library staff, who can now focus on meatier tasks and ultimately work more productively for the good of the students. From my own experience, I can see how having to issue and discharge every single bloody item would completely eat up my time. But of course I can’t really explain this to the sad, puppy-eyed student who is basically just bashing the machine with a book in the hope that it will issue.

Despite my grumbling, I do enjoy showing people how to use them; it feels like I am helping them once so they can help themselves. It also gives us a chance to enforce the behavior we want to see; books in the correct bin, receipts checked and kept. However, this isn’t the Mary Poppins dream that it seems.

For starters, people just don’t like using them. Whether they truly do not understand or they would rather someone else do the job (and in a sense it is what we are paid for), a number of people will still come to the desk to get their books renewed or discharged. These machines also bear the brunt of complaints when people are faced with fines: they say the machine gave them a receipt with the wrong due date (to which I say HA) or it didn’t issue it correctly in some undefined way.

Considering that these books are the main real, physical part of the library that users are interacting with, placing issue and return into their hands is important. They have to be engaged, checking each book has made the Pavlovian bing bong sound and reading their receipt to find when each book is due. It is this responsibility, tied in with checking their online account to ensure their items are up to date and not accruing fines, that has coloured most user issues I have encountered.

Responsibility crops up like a verruca gnome in other interactions. Some users place the responsibility of returning their books in the hands of their friends or the postal service, often to their deep regret. Others don’t want to search for books themselves and reserve items we have in stock so that they will be ready to pick up from the counter. Now that we allow food and drink it seems our hungry students don’t want the responsibility of cleaning up after themselves.

In a recent GT training session we discussed customer service and what our responses would be to a variety of user interactions. One example that caused a difference in opinion (much gnashing of teeth and spillage of tea) was that a student complained about paying a fine when the library system went down and did not send out a notice informing them that their books needed renewing.

My response was that “of course they should bloody well pay, they took out the book and it was their responsibility to check when it was due back and renew accordingly. Any emails sent out from the library are a courtesy, not a right,” spoken whilst banging my fists and frothing at the mouth. Yet the older experienced librarians said they would waive the fine because it was the library’s fault and although these emails are meant to be a courtesy they are, in reality, the only way people remember to check their accounts. Such shades of responsibility seem to be down to our interpretation; it seems to be that the student is responsible until they are not.

Such an annoying conclusion, I know.

This is an ongoing idea that I am chewing on and I am keen to see how this plays out in other library user issues. The question is, once we have given the students and other users this responsibility, do we stick to it or do we shoulder some if we can and make their experiences more positive. If the same student continuously waves their card upside down under the laser scanner without managing to log in and drops their returned items into the wrong box (argh), needing attention every time they use the library – should we quickly issue their books for them to save staff time? Should we check the book-return boxes to make sure they have been taken off user accounts or let the fines build up if they have not?

I guess it depends on what sort of library and librarian you are. Having only been a GT for less than two months, I currently feel strongly that it is our responsibility to make sure that every user of our library, be they new or old, takes responsibility for their own account and experience. Self-service is becoming necessary as our student numbers increase but staff decrease, and perhaps it is more cost effective for employers to use their staff for only more complex user issues. Yet I can see how being this rigid can cause more problems and as I gain more customer-facing experience perhaps my view point will change.

So whilst I may be a slightly reluctant grown-up working in my first adult job, at least I can type this in a house that I pay rent for, using money I have earned and under the same roof as my lovely boyfriend. And I can still be responsible in my polar bear pyjamas, watching Horrible Histories with Arthur by my side.

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Epic First Month Post

For all my excitable library blog reading over the summer, I haven’t done much of my own now that I actually have something to write about. 

I do have an excuse though, and that is that I have been quite tired. Well, not quite tired, more like one more early morning away from being in a coma. Being a Graduate Trainee is so utterly worth it though, and I am loving my new job an embarrassingly large amount.

Looking back over this past month, I still feel utterly exhausted (shagged is the word I would use between you and me) but I am quite chuffed that I have managed to get up early and function during the day. Dare I say it – I have a routine! Of course, this does involve getting home and staying awake long enough only to stuff some form of carbohydrate into my face but still, I do it every day!

Speaking of things I do every day, one of the best things about this new job is the structure. There is a daily timetable, which is usually a variation on two hours on the issue desk, two on the help desk and the rest is spent working on projects and tasks.

I start most days at 8.45 (or 8.30 when it’s my turn) and then spend about 45 minutes straightening the shelves. I told my parents this and I could tell they thought I was an unpaid serf doing the library’s menial tasks. Yes, straightening can make you go blind but it is actually quite a relaxing and gentle start to the day. I’d rather straighten then have to operate on someone’s brain or drive a train before 9am. Besides, it really is an important job, as we are on the look-out for misplaced items, some of which would otherwise be lost forever.

Straightening is something I am very slow at. After doing it for a month I had hoped to be as speedy as everyone else but I am still perched on my little stool mouthing the alphabet to myself, whilst everyone else is on the other side of the room. So yes, I am a library dunce but I would rather it was done right even if I only manage a few shelves every day. Hopefully my managers agree, as I am still on probation for another few weeks.

The rest of the day is split between customer service and office work. This makes the straightening even more special as it gives us a chance to actually be in the library, rather than shuffling through it as quickly as possible to get to the staff room.

At Didsbury there are two GTs; me and Phil (hi Phil). We each have a certain subject we are working on and then in six months it’s presto change-o. Phil’s area of expertise is journals but if you want to know all about that exciting world you’ll have to ask him yourself or await my blog post in six months’ time.

My project is book ordering, which is kind of tangled up with the work of the academic librarians and digitization. Students at MMU have online reading lists in collaboration between their departments and the library. This seems quite cushy to me and it involves a lot of work for the library. We have to manually assemble each list using an online programme and create links to all sorts of resources. 

This can start quite pleasantly but then quickly devolve into a crushing exercise in frustration. If you don’t want to read my rambling grumble about book orders then skip ahead now.

Didsbury Library is for students of Education and Social Work and so naturally, the books that I order are on these subjects. And I order a lot of books. The funny (i.e. utterly soul destroying) thing about the authors of these books, is that they are giving their texts incredibly similar titles. In some cases, they reach into the corners of their cobwebby academic brains to produce such titular gems as Social Work or Primary Education.

Do you not want your book to sell?

Are you totally devoid of any sense of creativity?

Ok, so I might be a little bit bitter about this but I really am enjoying this project. Besides, at least I know that the books I am finding are essential texts that students need for their courses, and that this is a crucial aspect of the library. No books, no library (well, so I used to believe).

It is certainly worth pointing out that one of the most popular Education books is called, quite racily, Getting the Buggers to Behave. I’m sure it is a gripping read but I can’t help but think its success lies in the memorable title.

I quite like recognizing the same authors and academics now, as I can see a progression from when I first began as a GT. I was so worried about working in a library with a specialism so far removed from my own. I wanted to frolic amongst the books on Chaucer and Bede, not dyslexia and abuse. But now I am feeling quite pleased (smug actually) that I am at least passingly familiar with certain books, as I can hopefully filter this down into my contact with students. It has also brought it home how much work PGCE and Social Care students have to put in.

Such hard work puts the book stamping I have to do to shame. Well, almost; sometimes the date stamps aren’t correct and I have to write it out by hand. Using a pen. A pen!

When I am not foaming at the mouth and covered in post-its, I actually have to be pleasant and smiling. Over the past month, I think I have encountered enough student issues and queries to fill a whole blog. Some come up daily, especially as this is the start of the new term and so all the new students are blundering around the library reserving books willy nilly and trying to print without printer credit.

I love any contact with the students; we spend two hours on the issue counter most days and two on the help desk. The issues counter deals with minor things, such as reserved items, fines and renewals. All the juicy stuff gets passed to the helpdesk which, if I may say so, is the place to be. Here we help students with their research, demonstrate library services such as journal access and show new students how the library website works.

I seem to be spending more and more time showing students how to use the self-service machines. It’s a tricky one, because I find them so natural to use but for others they are horrible lumps of robot junk. Tough luck though, as students have to use them in most instances. (The self-service element of library front line services is something I want to write about later.)

So after one month how do I feel?

I’m no longer afraid of students, which is quite useful. I’m starting to find my feet and feel confident in the information I am dishing out – and I am only running for help during every other query. I want to work on my customer service skills, as I feel fine speaking in person but become a gibbering Pokemon when I speak on the phone. But you know what? I feel really, really good.

This was a good decision and long may it continue*

*actually only 11 more months.