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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Library challenges

For a long time, my library has consistently been among the top in the nation for receiving formal challenges by the public to various materials and services. We had so many I even wrote a book -- "The New Inquisition" -- in which I explored why I thought that was the case. (Basically, it came down to a generational dynamic: my community is dominated by lots of Baby Boomers in a moralistic phase of life, and the rise of parental overprotectiveness generally.)

But there was another reason, passed along to me by one of my library school professors. He said he simply required that the form in which an objection is documented could only be handed out by a supervisor. The intent was not to squelch the right of the public to complain. Rather, it was to ensure that the patron was well-served, listened to and talked with, not just handed a form and brushed off.

So I set that issue before our staff, and indicated that indeed I had noticed that many of the completed forms were so cursory that I often had trouble responding, and wondered whether anyone had even asked the patron what they were trying to find. We did some employee training in which they were instructed not only to clearly understand the nature of the concern, but also to make a concerted attempt to satisfy the original browsing or information need that brought the patron to the library. I also announced that I wanted the supervisor's signature on the forms, and then waited to see what would happen.

And what happened was this: I stopped getting challenges.

A follow-up email to managers suggested that there had been no sudden suppression of patron concerns. Rather, staff themselves seemed to better engage with the public, rather than handing out forms with a "our director loves to respond to these!" In other words, we are now focusing more on providing topnotch service, than in collecting complaints that keep me busy.

Altogether now: duh.

The lesson: listening, real engagement between people, is better than time-consuming processes that institutionalize conflict.

And an update about the last big complaint we had: "Uncle Bobby's Wedding." All is quiet. I responded politely, and have heard no more from any party.

1 comment:

israelcsus said...

Enjoyed your talk during the "What Makes Tango So Scary?" at ALA!