Friday, 30 September 2016

Don't blame technology for bad management attitudes

Once upon a time, back when the millennium bug was a thing — or we thought it was — the Director of Recreation & Community Services as was told me to put together a roadmap of the IT developments the library service should be undertaking if money wasn't a big issue. We didn't have the money  and there wasn't any immediate prospect of having it but it would give him a sense of where we wanted to be and the opportunities we'd like to grab if they came along. The results included the usual suspects: we desperately needed to get all the libraries networked and onto the library management system and staff on enquiry desks needed access to the internet as well as the library catalogue, and internet access for the public would be good. I also said that we needed to invest in self-service circulation.

I'm now going to say something heretical, please bear with me. There is no intrinsic value in stamping a due date in a book. There, I've said it. The value in a staff-mediated issue/checkout transaction is:
  • The borrower gets to borrow an item
  • The loan is recorded
  • There's the human interaction, which may be the only one some people get that day
  • The library staff get the opportunity to provide information about other library resources and services ("We've got that author's new book on order," "Did you know we've started having toddlers' tales sessions on Wednesday afternoons?" etc., etc.)
The value of the return/checkin transaction is similar.

To my mind the high-value parts of any transaction are the ones you need to put your resources into. Anything that takes resources away from the high-value areas needs to be designed out.

In those days our busiest library was issuing between four and five thousand items every Saturday. More to the point, six Library Assistants were issuing between four and five thousand items every Saturday. And returning a similar number, which creates a lot more work as something needs to be done with all that incoming  stock. A lot of the time the queues at the counter were awful with staff and customers both having a stressful experience. Consequently the value of the issue transaction was compromised — the loan was effected and recorded but there was no time for the human stuff: both the staff and the customers felt under pressure to get the transaction over and done with as quickly as possible. Some customers even gave up and didn't bother: they wanted to become borrowers and our process stopped it happening. If someone desperately needed that human interaction they were badly short-changed. At the returns desk it was even worse: some borrowers lost patience and just left items on the corner of the counter and in the confusion these sometimes got back onto the shelves without the return having been recorded. The rest of the week there were other, smaller, stress points and other events and activities in the library added to the mix. By this stage we'd successfully made the case for some more Library Assistant hours but there's a limit to the number of bodies and workstations you that can physically fit behind even the huge counter that was in this library.

So I argued that we needed to include some self-service issue/return functionality to try and ease the burden a bit. Some people just want to be in and out, they want to borrow an item or return it and they're not much fussed about anything else. Some people would have privacy or safeguarding issues that could be addressed by allowing them to self-issue a book. Giving these people the self-service option would address their needs and also reduce the queue, allowing more time for the people who did need the human stuff at the counter. The director, whose background was adult and community education, was enthusiastic about the idea: "You mean that we could get the library staff off that production line at the counter so that instead of stamping books they could be doing something more interesting like helping people to find things and getting them interested in something new?" Yes, we could have.

Some years, and a couple of directors, later we were in a position to credibly rattle the begging bowl to fund self-service circulation. The world had changed somewhat. Library managers nationwide had picked up the idea that this functionality was a way of saving money on staffing and particularly cutting Library Assistant hours. Although I got cross when my library managers saw self-service as an opportunity to cut staffing costs I couldn't really blame them as individuals: they were coming late to a game that already had this established narrative. It was a massive pity but there we were. We weren't alone. And as Austerity took its toll self-service circulation became one of the quick fixes — I know of one library authority that cut staffing hours on the basis that kiosks were going to be installed at a couple of libraries and the next year cut the hours further because the self same kiosks had been installed. So self-service kiosks replaced staff instead of freeing them up to do other, more important, things.

The point to this story is that the technology wasn't to blame. Technology is never neutral — design must have an end in view — but the way that it is used and the consequent outcomes are largely down to human decision. In this case the opportunity to enrich the very many parts of the public library service that aren't the issue and return of books was passed over because neither the staff nor the service were being valued by "Professionals" in managerial positions. It wasn't a decision forced on them by outside forces, it was one they came to themselves collectively at the turn of the millennium and which they then transmitted to the people who hold the purse strings. Which makes it deuced hard for people now arguing the case that public libraries have never been only about issue counts: if front-line staff can be replaced by one-trick-pony kiosks all that other stuff can't have been all that important could it? Well, yes it was and yes it is and it's scandalous that enabling technology's been abused in this way.

Library authorities are repeating this mistake with technologies such as Open+. Open+ is a good way of extending the use of a building and some of its resources. Many of the running costs of a building are incurred whether or not that building's in use: the fabric of the building deteriorates regardless and the lights may be out but you'll need the heating on sometimes unless you fancy having a lot of burst pipes in Winter. So it makes sense to maximise the return on this investment in running costs by maximising the building's availability for use. Especially if that use is currently particularly limited: if you have a building and it only has a useful life of ten or twenty hours a week then this is a huge waste. In these cases using a technology like Open+ makes sense: it allows access to the building as a community venue or a quiet study space and you could make stock available for self issue/return, thus extending the reach of part of the library service. What it doesn't do is replace the shedload of other stuff that gets delivered — or should be delivered — by the library service in that building. It isn't a replacement for a library service, it just extends some people's access to some of those parts of that service that can be passively delivered.

Anything else is yet another abuse of library technology.


  1. When I was working, and forcing self-service through, I had the same view as you about date stamps in books. If I borrowed any books and they went overdue I could simply "pay" the charge by waiving it and using "Manager's discretion" as the reason.

    But now I'm retired and - as I used to preach - with all the time in the world to renew books, I have managed to run up 72p in fines. The reason is simple - the return date isn't stamped inside the book. It's on a flimsy bit of paper which is all too easy to lose. So now, in an attempt to stop this getting any worse, I use an online calendar to reminder me of when I need to renew the loan.

    I can't believe I'm alone in running up fines in this way and for this reason. And I can't believe I'm the only person who has more or less given up borrowing book for this very reason. Ebooks don't come with fines.

    It's particularly galling for me because I was the person who had to tell current staff and former staff that the perk they had enjoyed for decades of not paying fines was at an end, because colleagues elsewhere in our part of the council didn't get it as well. All sacrificed to the god of Consistency.

    1. I'm ambivalent about date labels: part of me thinks I'd prefer to spend money on books than stationery, part of me sees precisely your point. On balance I'd tend to keep the status quo and keep the labels in the books so that somebody can record the date on them, which is what I do if I self-issue an item.

    2. I was trying to move the regional consortium towards dispensing with date labels completely, but there seemed to be no financial advantage as the suppliers wouldn't offer a discount.

      Spending a couple of hours in the Central Library in Ghent recently, I noticed that they had given up with date labels. And they have rather odd self-issue system which I've not fathomed out yet - remember that 3M setup?