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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