How academic libraries annoy academics

Here’s a story I’m telling because I think libraries need more allies in the academy. As a librarian-slash-researcher-slash-professor I have these weird insider/outsider (or emic/etic) experiences with academic libraries from time to time. In these experiences (here’s one from last year) I can absolutely rationalise why libraries as institutions are behaving the way they are, yet I am also acutely aware of how these behaviours serve to irritate and even alienate academic faculty members based outside the library. The faculty members where I work my research-librarian job value librarianly expertise. They also pretty much never set foot in any of the libraries on campus, to my knowledge. I think this story exemplifies the reasons behind this behaviour.

A little while ago, I  got a revise & resubmit decision on a manuscript under review. As part of the revisions, I needed to find a couple of citations  for something I’d written. I knew what source I wanted to use, and checked the book’s availability in the OPAC. Its status was “available,” so I schlepped across campus in the rain (of course) to get it. However, the book was not on the shelf.

I logged into the nearby library computer terminal to verify that the book was still supposed to be available. This process took me 4 minutes of standing there waiting for the login to load, authenticate and update software. I checked the record. It still said “available.” I second-guessed myself and figured maybe I’d just missed it, so I decided to go back to the shelf and look again. In order to do this I had to log out of the computer to protect my private library account information that I’d had to input as part of the 4-minute process to check the book’s availability status. Back to shelf. Still not there. Checked all carrels and book trucks on the floor. Nowhere to be found.

So, in an attempt to be helpful, I logged back on to the computer terminal and eventually clicked the “report a problem” button on the record’s display. In the form provided, I explained that the book, while listed as available, was not on the shelf, and that given that I didn’t find it lying around anywhere on book truck/carrels or anything on the floor, it might merit placing a trace on the book so it could be found and/or be labelled lost/missing and replaced. I added that it’s was a fairly hot new volume, so I was sure I wouldn’t be the only one looking for it.

Then I logged out and left the library, of course getting caught by the gates on my way out because any public library books in my bag trip the academic library gates all the time and vice versa.

Got back across campus to my desk. Electronically, without leaving my seat, and using Google rather than a library database, I found an openly-accessible article or two that would suffice. Then I received an email from the library, thanking me for reporting the missing book and informing me that requests to have books traced have to be made in person at the circulation desk at the appropriate branch where the book should be located.

Are you kidding me?

I was feeling pretty patient, if disappointed, up until this point. But, first it’s raining (not the library’s fault!). Then, the book that’s supposed to be available isn’t there (these things happen…). Then the dinosaur computers suck 10 minutes of my time logging in and out to verify the status of the missing book and report it missing (okay, this is getting annoying and why does the library still use computers with floppy disk drives in them?). And now you want me to walk back across campus in the rain to go wait in line at the circulation desk to tell you the information I already reported to you? (This last bit is where I run out of rationales…um, perhaps someone frivolously made up and emailed fictitious trace reports once upon a time?)

I didn’t file the report. Sorry. Maybe the next person who fails to find this “available” book will do it. Not me. I have work to do. I’m on a schedule. I’ve already located two freely accessible substitute resources online and ordered a copy of the book I wanted from an online book retailer.

This is why people who have the means to do so avoid going into the library. Because the library is stuck in archaic systems that suck time. And those systems are presented as normal. When you’re grant-funded, or you’re racing the publications clock for tenure, time is money. Spending half an hour or more wandering back and forth around campus with nothing to show for it, all because electronic systems of communication aren’t yet in this century, is not normal to everyone. And it’s certainly not normal for the most productive faculty members on our campuses – those whose voices could be the most meaningful as allies.

I want my faculty colleagues to be advocates for our university library. So I do what I can to give them warm fuzzies about it, pointing out new acquisitions in their areas, noting that online access to the Journal of Important Stuff is brought to their desktop by the library, etc. But some days the library doesn’t make this easy for me. Some days I’m afraid to tell them too much about the library, in case they actually try to use it and have an experience like the one above.

I absolutely know there are budget constraints, time constraints, people-power constraints and bureaucratic time-suck constraints on academic libraries. I can explain why any given problem with the library systems might exist. But I can’t make archaic systems less frustrating and more worthwhile for people who have the option to avoid contact with the library most of the time. And those are the same people I really want out there speaking for the importance of the library. What a conundrum.

I’ve been sitting on this post, mulling it over for a while. I haven’t worked in a library in almost 5 years. Maybe I’m off-base here. Maybe academic libraries aren’t concerned with how the power faculty at their institutions perceive them. Maybe it’s all about the students and the have-nots of academia these days. Maybe it should be. I dunno. I do think libraries are missing out on opportunities to win powerful allies, but perhaps this is a deliberate move? Maybe you readers have insight to share?




Filed under academic libraries, advocacy, funding, technology, The Profession

43 responses to “How academic libraries annoy academics

  1. I guess you should better stop complaining and immediately look for alternatives when things went wrong in the library. This saves your time, energy and is more productive.

  2. Lesli M

    Here’s the part where I’m confused. Did the faculty member ask to speak to a librarian? Did he/she just depend on the “archaic system” to communicate? I see a failure in the faculty member as much as there might be a failure in the library (whether it’s policies, access, systems, etc). The systems in place aren’t the answer. The librarian — the supposed expert — is the answer. Why not call and speak to a librarian from the comfort of his/her office on the other side of campus before getting irritated with the rain, the technology, and the library?

  3. greyson

    Bert – I’m not sure if your intent is to be tongue-in-cheek or not. Regardless, that is exactly what my colleagues have done and what I seem on my way to doing much of the time.

    Lesli – Ah, you bring up the whole “changing users vs. changing systems” debate. You propose that we should attempt to train faculty members to personally contact librarians when they are frustrated with systems rather than update our library systems to minimize frustrations among users? Or to personally call on librarians as information concierges whenever they want something from the library, rather than self-serve?
    That’s a valid perspective, but one that I disagree will be most fruitful in gaining powerful allies. Further, I’m not convinced that our phone contact systems are any more user-friendly than our online systems. If you have reason to think otherwise, I’d be interested to hear about it.

    • Lesli M

      Actually, I’m an advocate of common sense. As a consumer, if I’m not sure that a store would have an item or I think the store has the item but I want to confirm, I call and ask. Libraries are a point of consumption. Consumers should have common sense.

      There’s no one answer to “changing users vs. changing systems.” Every library will find (or not find) something that works (or doesn’t work).

      I’m annoyed endlessly (as a librarian and as a consumer) by people blaming libraries, librarians, and systems for every failure (perceived or real) in visiting or using the library.

      Here’s a short story for you. I have a friend. She is a NP with extensive specialization. She does research. She also knows I’m a librarian that works with the library she uses. When she has a research question, I’m the person she talks to. Every time we discuss research, I tell her, “I’m a systems librarian. I can introduce you to the extremely helpful reference librarians that can really help you.”

      The reason I mention this story is because I see possibilities in the relationship I have with her librarian to researcher. Embedded librarians are a fantastic opportunity. It’s an opportunity to foster goodwill among faculty. (continued in next reply)

    • Lesli M

      Embedded librarians can be mediators between technology that can be extremely outdated and faculty. And, ultimately, embebbed librarians are an interesting stepping stone between systems-that-are and systems-that-will-be.

      There is only so much that systems can do; and there is only so much that people are willing to learn…librarians fill the gap between the two. I think we need to remind faculty of this concept.

      • greyson

        Lesli, having worked as a research-embedded librarian for 5 years myself, I completely agree that that role holds a lot of exciting potential for bridging the gap between researchers and the library. That said, I also think there will always (? at least in most places/for a very long tim) be many many researchers who don’t have the resources to access personalised librarian service, and I don’t think the potential posed by the embedded model of librarianship excuses us from improving our IT/communication systems.

        However, I will say that I didn’t think there was anyone at my academic library who would check to see if a book was on the shelf for a faculty member who called in, but – inspired by your comment – I checked, and actually if you call the circ desk and they’re not busy they may apparently check the shelf for you. Which is pretty cool for those in the know. Learn somethng new every day!

  4. opal casey

    I kept waiting for the line where you went to the staff and asked for help locating the book instead of schlepping back to your office. The book may have been checked back in and was sitting on a cart out of your vision. Perhaps it was on the in house cart? Instead of being a passive complainer you would have been better served as an active participant in providing information. Why do the libraries still have computers with floppy disk drives? Because patrons come in with information they need on floppy disk drives. What speedier computers in the library? Encourage the University to forgo the flashy stadium sign (or what every is the hot thing on your campus) and use the money to fund the library adequately.

  5. I think the replies show the disconnect between librarians and researchers. The irritating thing is thinking you HAD reported a problem with the book, and not needed to talk to a librarian, then finding out afterwards that you had not. If the website had just said, up front, that problems needed to be reported to a librarian at the appropriate library, the researcher WOULD have asked the librarian. That would be the reason I would use the library as a last resort – poor communication. Assuming that the researcher is lazy or unwilling to personally interact with a librarian is incorrect, and reflects an unwillingness to improve library protocols.

    • I agree. The problem is not the researcher. and blaming the researcher means we librarians don’t have to make any changes here. Yes, the researcher could have asked the librarian, but, when we provide electronic tools, they better work the way the user thinks they are going to work, not the way we want the user to think they work.

  6. greyson

    Yeah, so this is kind of my point. Scolding library users for not reaching out to libraries in ways that are not their normal/intuitive modes of information-seeking is just not winning them over in droves, is it? I mean, maybe you know something I don’t and you do find this to be a successful method of outreach in your contexts – and I’d love to hear about how that works.

    If I were a user who had no other options but to continue to pursue that one resource, I would have gone to a floor that had staff on it, stood in line at some desk in the library and eventually talked with a human who may or may not have located the volume. However, using the systems readily and immediately accessible to me seemed to make sense at the time. The point isn’t to boo-hoo that my life was made so difficult by an annoying 30 minutes not getting a book form the library. It’s more to use that tale as a starting point to discuss why most of the faculty in my department don’t even remember the last time they set foot in the library, and whether perhaps they could become stronger allies to the library if they felt more like like the institution was there for them.

    • Kathleen

      As a librarian, if I had received the on-line form (or an e-mail or voice mail) I would have immediately gone and looked for the book. I don’t care how the information gets to me or is reported. Then the response back to the patron could have either been 1) we have your book, let me know if you want it delivered 2) thank you for reporting the problem, we have noted the book as missing and will continue to search for it, can I help you find other resources for your research? We need to be doing so much more to respond to and accommodate everyone (student, staff, faculty) who are trying to use our resources. I have, at this point, a very nice base of graduate students who immediately come to me for their informational needs. I am working on expanding my undergraduate base and am doing everything I can to make life easier for the research faculty…so far it seems, for quite a number of them, nothing I offer or suggest is acceptable. So, that, from my view point, is the most frustrating: I cannot help with a need that is not expressed (and seriously, I don’t care in which way it is expressed (so long as it’s not as an insult)).

    • “and whether perhaps they could become stronger allies to the library if they felt more like like the institution was there for them.”

      Thank you for initiating this discussion; as a librarian I want very much to hear these kinds of stories and to work to bridge the gap.

      I’m hearing that one thing librarians could to do improve these relations would be to improve the systems and their library’s website usability. I think your story does a lot to shed light on this issue, but I am interested in any other thoughts you have in how librarians interact with faculty through their collection development, library instruction, and marketing/outreach activities, to the end of communicating that the library is there for them.

  7. Lisa

    This story reminds me of Seth Godin’s great “This Is Broken” TED talk. One thing that stands out to me in the story is the fact that the author had to log in just to find a book on the shelf. There aren’t library-catalog-only workstations that don’t require login? If so, that’s broken. Our book collections are already becoming marginalized, we shouldn’t make them seem even more remote by making it harder to access them.

    Also, it’s silly to require someone who has already reported a problem to you to do so again according to some arbitrary rules. The user has already helped the library by pointing out a issue. The proper response would be to thank them and move on to solving it. Don’t waste their time! This kind of hidebound response to a situation is not library-specific, but libraries do seem to offer a lot of examples of it. Flexibility is key to high-quality public service. As is seeing things from the user’s perspective.

    I also can’t agree with forcing someone to come to you in the way you want to be approached to get good customer service. The user did ask for help, via the web form, provided by the library to communicate problems! It’s the user’s prerogative to choose their method of communication, the library’s responsibility to respond effectively.

  8. Catherine

    I agree with opal. Libraries aren’t just the books the buildings and the technology – any staff member could have pulled up the back record to check the last known whereabouts of the book – whether the ‘hot new volume’ was in transit from another branch, sitting in a sorting area or on a book truck or truly missing. Because they are not an ‘automated system’ they would also be aware of what the sorting and shelving schedule was at the time and likely other places the book might be. Chances are, they would have had the item to you by the following day. If not, they would have been made aware that the item was high use and missing. Once you put a trace on the item, they might even have sent out an ILL request for you or recommended where you might otherwise find the book. It would have given you the opportunity to build a relationship with an authoritative resource – and I include both para-professionals and library professionals in that grouping.

  9. Beverly

    How frustrating! If you asked a librarian s/he might have said… “Oh, that book looked good so I took it off the shelf to read during my lunch break. One perk of being a librarian is you don’t always have to check out the book.”

    BTW, I always check out the book. It’s good for the patron and good for circ stats.

    • Me

      This is a big problem at my library. More than once we’ve found a not-checked-out book in a faculty member’s office that a student had been looking for.

  10. Naomi Bishop

    Are you a Notre Dame Faculty member? I am sure this is a daily issue for professors all over the world! This happens to us librarians working in the libraries all the time! I would not blame the library for providing the books for free, but I would blame the process. I think we need some library reforms to the process and to include in our annual reports why the academic library annoys professors. I think it’s because there are flaws in making the library work. Sometimes no one speaks up about what annoys them, so nothing changes. Other times we hear about the issues, but never go out of our way to fix them. Thank you for writing and sharing this! I am going to work on changing a few things in my academic library this year, but I can only bring change if I get the support from the director and staff. Here’s to a new academic year! Good Luck! Thank God for Google!

  11. Here’s the thing. Falling back to “make the patron ask a librarian or other staff member for something the system should do” is a bad long term plan.

    I’m troubled by the theme here that excuses the faults in the library system. Why aren’t there computers set up so folks can quickly check the catalog without logging in? Why possible reason could explain why a faculty member can’t report a missing book via online form or email?

    I know that when I am in a store, I normally don’t want to talk to a salesperson. I want the store to make information (prices, policies) clear to me. I like the self serve scanners where I can check prices. When things get complicated, I’ll ask for help, but the basics should be easy to do.

    There are lots of reasons why faculty should talk to librarians and build relationships. Forcing them to report missing books in person, especially when that information had already been relayed via an in place system, is not one of them.

    If we don’t make systems that users can use, we are doomed.

    • Bonnie’s response really makes me re-think my assumptions as a librarian. When I first read the post, I found myself wondering why the Circulation Desk hadn’t been approached before heading back through the rain to his office. Yet, good points have been made that the the web form should have been enough, appropriately placed, and/or included (at the very least) the suggestion of visiting/calling the circ desk.

      Also, when I think more about my experiences in stores, the very last thing I want is to have to interact with the staff and I do get peeved if I need to unnecessarily. *hello, light bulb*

      • Libraries are not stores. Research is not retail. It is sometimes messy and that’s why libraries have librarians – to help when things get messy.

      • I agree with you Andrea – I also see a point being made that we as librarians may hurt ourselves in the long run if we choose to be “right” over “happy.” I would love to think that being “right” is enough (I really do on this), but I think the internet (however imperfect & incomplete) means ultimately that “right” will end up just being cold comfort.

  12. My title is Head of Access Services, which I define as facilitating patron access to the physical resources of the library. This is the sort of thing I deal with all day.

    Sounds to me like there are problems on both sides here. Yes, an awful lot of frustration would have been saved if, the first time the writer had not found the book, he had walked to the nearest service point and talked to a human being. Or even just flagged down a student shelver in the stacks. That’s why we have staff in the library, for heaven’s sake! It drives me crazy when people complain “I can never find anything in the library” and I find out they never actually asked someone for help. (Here, our floor directory signs all include a short paragraph telling patrons what to do if they can’t find an item. If you are looking for what floor your item is on, you’ll see these instructions.)

    On the other hand, where on earth does this person work that it takes that long to get logged on and the catalog doesn’t offer a document delivery or at least a “request a search” search button right in the catalog next to the item he is looking for? Or at a minimum, a web email form that can be routed to the appropriate department? And I’d be willing to bet the “report a problem” button is the one to use to report a problem with the website, which sent his request to the library IT department, which (as happened here) doesn’t always know what the public services departments can do for a patron. Sounds like this place needs to put a little more work into its web page design — make it clear how to ask an item-specific question rather than a web page question, provide more self-service options, and put instructions at point-of-use. (As well as educate employees about what fellow employees in other departments do.)

    Libraries serve both people who will go ask a person for help and people who would rather do it all online and never talk to a human being. And this means campus administration has to provide sufficient funding to support both service models. (This is where encouraging faculty to serve on the campus library committee and librarians to serve on the faculty senate can help.) But this also means we need to educate people that we offer both options — as some online banking company is now putting it in their ads, “people when you want them — technology when you don’t.”

  13. C.R.F.

    “And now you want me to walk back across campus in the rain to go wait in line at the circulation desk to tell you the information I already reported to you?”

    As a point of interest, does your school not install telephones in your offices? It may feel like backtracking to the 20th Century, but most college libraries that still post phone numbers on their websites are also able to process patron requests over the phone. Especially in the event of inclement weather or a computer systems failure. But it is also easy to lose sight of simple solutions when one is tightly focused on a specific project.

    And I agree with Opal and Catherine, the “hot new item” could have been on a shelving cart, or being read in the library by another patron who hadn’t actually checked it out yet, or accidentally mis-shelved, or intentionally mis-shelved by someone who wanted exclusive access without checking it out. This could have been clarified by someone at the library’s circulation desk if you’d asked while you were there.

  14. Catherine (#2)

    I think that Greyson had every reason to assume that reporting the problem through the catalog WAS contacting a librarian for help. And I agree–I don’t see why that help has to occur in synchronous time in this case. Not only may the faculty member not have time to stand around, but the library staff might be able to do their jobs much more efficiently if they can order tasks within their own availability.

  15. Greyson brings up a good point in this quote, “Scolding library users for not reaching out to libraries in ways that are not their normal/intuitive modes of information-seeking is just not winning them over in droves, is it?”

    There was a reasonable expectation by the Greyson that the book was going to be on the shelf. After all the system says that it was “Available”. If the OPAC can have that status assigned to a book, why not others? “Checked Out” is probably there, but the state of the book can be more complex than a simple binary system like that can tell. As one poster mentioned, what if it was on a shelf in the back after being returned? My university library’s catalog says “Recently Returned” when a book has just been returned. This is an effective signal to the searcher that the book may either be on the shelf (if the library has efficient shelvers) or on a cart near the circulation desk. It is distinctively different than the “Available” status, as it signals a possible uncertainty of the book’s status. Another poster mentioned that the book could have been pulled by a staff member (for a cataloging check, repair, etc.). This state should have have been indicated in the catalog – and if the possibility for it was there than it was a failure on the library and its training that the book was still marked as available. A guide with definitions to the different statuses would be incredibly helpful.

    Greyson had a reasonable expectation that the book was “Available” based on the information provided by the library’s system. The same library system gave Greyson the option to report a problem. If the library is not using that particular function in the system, then why is it there? Why give the user a particular expectation for the system, and then refuse to meet it? Instead of having a form pop-up when the user clicks the “Report a problem” link, load a window that gives the instructions to go speak to a librarian. Don’t send that out in an email -especially if the user may not have immediate access to their email while they’re in the building.

    Too many commenters here have said that Greyson should have gone and spoken to a librarian – yet there was the expectation created from the library’s own system that this was unnecessary. Going back to the original quote I pulled from the comments, too many people seem to want the patrons to adapt to the library’s policies and fit into their neat pigeonhole of how patrons should behave in the library. This is a very wrong way of providing services to our consumers. Libraries are no longer the sole keepers of knowledge for researchers any longer. They have competition from all sides now. It no longer is enough to just exist and expect patrons to submit to byzantine and sometimes draconic rules and procedures. Libraries MUST adapt to the users today in order to verify their value. When I was in retail, I remember being told that a customer that has a good shopping experience will tell 3 people about it, and a customer that has had a bad experience will tell 10 people about it. The power is in the hands of the patron now. If they don’t like how you’re providing service, they will go elsewhere – and they’ll talk about why too.

  16. Martha

    Where to start? Where to start? I have so many opinions on this one…

    Catherine, you and I know that the book might be waiting to be re-shelved but we cannot expect that all users will know this. How about letting them know about this? There are many ways to do so. The academic library I work for displays “recently checked-in” for [gasp] recently checked-in items! After a day or two, it changes to “available.” Does this address the myriad of possible places that a book might be? No, but at least is one simple start. If that can be done with our ILS, it can be (or should be) done with any other.

    If traces shouldn’t be submitted electronically, why the hell didn’t it say that on the report a problem form? How are users supposed to guess what they are allowed to report?

    Lesli – the fact that you are an empowered ‘costumer’ (I personally hate that term for library users, but that’s semantics and irrelevant in this case) doesn’t mean that, again, we can expect all our users to be comfortable with that. Plus, I’m sorry but as a subject librarian, I have way too much on my plate and although I have done my fair amount of helping faculty and students with this sort of problem, I do not think that that is the best use of my time, let alone their time.

    Why aren’t we spending more time figuring out ways to simplify things that are common sense. For instance, a lot of users sometimes just want to search the catalogue. Some libraries have catalogue only stations but if my memory doesn’t fail me, VPL had an option where you could login to the catalogue (much quicker and less hoop jumping involved) or login to use the full on computer. Maybe I’m crazy and that is not how it was, but if it wasn’t, why couldn’t it be? Why aren’t we using more common sense?

  17. Terri Cheney

    Fascinating conversation. Can’t resist adding that there is nothing so rare as common sense. 😉

  18. greyson

    Wow – thanks for all the attention, library blog folk! If I’d known that a kvetch about academic library systems would get more attention than talking Harry Potter, anti-ethnic penguins, or age restrictions for childbirth videos on YouTube, I’d have done it long ago. I appreciate all your comments (even the ones that raie my blood pressure a bit), and academic librarians are great commenters – when I write about federal government stuff they just look over and over and never comment.

    I do want to make it clear that this post *isn’t* intended to pick on a particular library. I’ve worked in 3 libraries, and been a cardholder at more than I can count, and they all havd their share of systems challenges. I don’t think the ones I’ve experienced have been especially bad either – truly, some of them are downright outstanding in various ways.

    The post *is* intended to point out that as institutions, libraries aren’t necessarily making themselves immediately, obviously worth while to some potentially very powerful allies.

    I’m well aware that the book I was seeking could have been pulled by a library staff and not checked out, or “in transit” without the status in the OPAC being updated, or waiting ot be put on “reserve” without the status having been updated, or been carried by a patron to another floor of the library and left there, or any number of like scenarios. (I mean, I do have an MLIS, folks!) That’s why I sent the note alerting the library to it’s eroneous status in the OPAC – so they could go find it, or replace it if it had been stolen.

    In terms of my anecdote, sure I could have spent more time digging up exactly what happened to that particular volume. If the item had been rare, or super expensive, I probably would have. But after a given amount of pursut time, my cost-benefit analysis bell dinged and told me to abandon the library path for the privatized path. And as a librarian who cares about the future of academic libraries on campus, I thought that was an issue worth raising.

    Privatization for faculty members in my world could mean paying and waiting for doc del at my campus. It could mean paying a student/staff researcher/embedded librarian to go deal with the library systems for them. But the most direct, obvious path to a book that isn’t on the library shelf is They do value and recognize ejournals brought to them by the library (and I work hard to remind them of this value!), but I think they’d be stronger more passionate library advocates on campus if they actually felt a personal connection – which I do recognize is a challenge given restricted resources.

  19. Are you kidding me??? At any junction in my academic career that has required me to do research, I have “lived” in the library. This has included all sorts of technological evolutions, including the card catalog. As a librarian currently working on a Ph.D., I find it convenient to already be working in a library and using the very convenient resource of interlibrary loan when necessary. I find the library to be invaluable to academic research, and questions regarding anything that is antiquated in the library, i.e., ” why does the library still use computers with floppy disk drives in them?”, should be addressed by to those who make decisions on capital expenditures, which is generally beyond the control of the library. I know that at my library we ask for the world but must be satisfied to get anything at all! Don’t blame the library! We are here to help. Any faculty member that has contacted me directly gets my priority response, as nurturing that rapport with them is at the top of my list, since it “trickles down” to students too and helps them in the long run as well.

  20. Christopher

    I think you should have asked the reference librarian before leaving the library. Computers are excellent starting points for information seeking, but nothing can replace good old fashioned face to face contact. Others have mentioned the following as well: just because it’s not on the reshelving cart or lying on study table doesn’t mean it’s not in the library. As a cataloger, when adding a book to the collection, the book is typically in the OPAC for about a day and a half before it actually physically becomes part of the collection. Why? Simple. After tagging the book in OCLC, and entering the holdings information for Voyager, I still have to take each book and write the call number on the inside cover, print the spine label, cut the spine label, apply the spine label, apply the protective sticker, and use a boning tool to make sure all those stickers stay stuck. Thus, new acquisitions are on the cart in my office for a day or two after they begin to show up in the OPAC, depending on how many books I have to process. Sometimes I get three books, and there isn’t a delay; sometimes I get 300 books, and they sit in my office for 4 or 5 days. My point is, that kind of information isn’t on the computer, but the reference librarian might have said, “Oh, that’s probably one of the books on Chris’ cart, let me go ask him if he can move it to the top of the queue for you.” And processing the book is only one reason why the book might not be on the shelf. Sometimes, patrons try to reshelve books themselves, and end up putting it in the wrong place, etc. But in any scenario, in my humble opinion, you’re better off asking a live person to help; computers are useful tools, with many capabilities, but they lack the most important capability of all, and that is the ability to think. It’s not the paintbrush that makes the masterpiece, it’s the artist.

  21. I’m really fascinated by the responses to this post and the divide between those who think, you should have asked a librarian, and those that are suggesting that the library systems and procedures could do with an overhaul.

    What’s really interesting is not so much what happened in this one particular case but what it represents in general. For me what really stood out from this post was the point that, for the author using an alternative means to get his information and in fact bypassing the library altogether turned out to be the quickest and most convenient method. This implies that next time he’ll go straight to that route rather than bother with the library. Even if he had done as some of the comments have suggested and contacted staff directly to track down the book, there is the chance he would still have had a bit of a wait before gaining access. However, downloading a number of relevant articles from the internet most probably didn’t take that long.

    This is very relevant for me as I work in a library that is primarily used by academics, and we are seeing this happen more and more. As FSkornia pointed out “Libraries are no longer the sole keepers of knowledge for researchers any longer. They have competition from all sides now.” We are finding that in many cases researchers have a professional relationship with many of the people writing the articles and books they are trying to track down, and so very often will simply email the author directly to share information, and so negating the need for library staff to be involved at all.

    I appreciate this is a problem very specific to academics (and I appreciate it does depend on the type of research being carried out) but it does throw up a very real question on how do you connect with users who believe they can access the information they need without your help (and in some cases are not entirely wrong in that assumption).

  22. These posts are making this very complicated when, really, it isn’t complicated ar all.

    The client should have done whatever it was he did – in this case, follow the prompts as best he could, then pass the problem on as he saw fit.

    The service provider should then have solved the problem.

    That’s what you do when you provide a service.

    Message ends.

  23. We’ve just got to get beyond this. Our “users” are rarely under any obligation to come and use the library. Making people jump through hoops, and then telling them they were doing it wrong anyway, is the surest way of driving them away, or down the ‘privatised’ route.

    Having a “report a problem” button on your OPAC that you don’t want people to report problems with; that’s a good example.

    “…new acquisitions are on the cart in my office for a day or two after they begin to show up in the OPAC”. Surely you can see there’s a problem here?

    Here’s the thing. Falling back to “make the patron ask a librarian or other staff member for something the system should do” is a bad long term plan.

    Hear, hear.

  24. Maria

    Sorry if this is obvious but I wouldn’t necessarily put a book on trace because it was missing on one afternoon, it was probably just being used by someone studying at a desk without checking it out to their record. Come back in a few hours or the next day and if you still haven’t found it the next day then report it. Thats what most frontline members of staff in the libraries I’d worked at would have said.

  25. Peter

    For many years I was a constant and grateful user of many of the big research libraries in the UK, but recently have become manager of our institutional repository (without being situated in the library). This put me in touch with lots of discussion amongst librarians of which I was totally unaware before. Leaving the detail of the post aside, I wonder whether this whole exchange doesn’t show up a persistent mutual incomprehension in general between librarians and academics – something that I knew about from the researchers’ side, but now detect from the other ? There does seem to be a perception amongst some [note the qualification] that academics want the world and aren’t prepared to wait for it, and on the other hand that librarians see their role as to preserve their stock, not to make it available.

  26. Thanks for posting this, Greyson – so much food for thought. My thoughts and reactions were too long for a sensible comment, so I’ve blogged in response over here:

  27. As a researcher who has trained and worked in an academic library, I have to agree with the perception that sometimes the antiquated system just does not work. Many of the articles I need are not available on our databases as it’s geared up for undergrads. Sometimes the frustration is off-putting when dealing with library systems, because past experience has shown that whatever query you’re about to undertake might not result in the required item being obtained.

    I don’t really understand the comments on these articles where the researcher is being criticised for not immediately speaking to a member of the library staff. Wherever you go these days, you are being urged to use automated systems. So it’s the consumer’s fault when they don’t work? Having found that the automated system you’re using can’t give you the answer you’re looking for, you then have to spend twice as long joining a queue to speak to someone – I can completely understand that there are reasons that this might not happen: lack of time being a main one. Plus you’ve already lost confidence in the service you’re trying to access by that time. We can’t criticise users for complaining about not speaking to staff when the front line service is online or automated – it’s like putting your bank details into a cash machine and then having to go inside and get a member of staff of to give you your cash.

    I really try and advocate libraries – in life generally and in academia. Many of my academic colleagues have, shall we say, a negative view of the library because it can’t deliver in more ways than one. It’s a colossal effort to advocate libraries when I have experienced shortcomings myself as an academic researcher.

    It’s not going to do anyone any favours criticising the users for the way they are using, and being encouraged to use, the academic libraries.

  28. A really fascinating chain of comments. It seems to me that most have missed the point. Faculty need information and need it now… they don’t care where it comes from. If the library can’t supply it, they will use other methods. We all know the myriad of possibilities for a book that says ‘available’, but isn’t there. Maybe our students have time to check the sorting shelves, or to try again tomorrow, but the post reveals that many faculty don’t. How can we get our systems to respond to this? I agree that the situation with the report a problem button is farcical. I also agree that a trace on a book missing for ten minutes is unlikely. But if we want our clients to consider us essential to their needs, we can’t create these sorts of barriers to how they interact with us.

    “Maybe academic libraries aren’t concerned with how the power faculty at their institutions perceive them.”
    Maybe they aren’t. Maybe they think that’s the job of their university librarians/directors of libraries, but actually it should be the job of every library staff member to create positive perceptions across the board. If faculty find they can fill their information needs elsewhere, then what then for the library?

  29. Alison

    Wow, this is a huge discussion, and even late as I am I feel compelled to comment.
    Lots of library systems really suck – people aren’t unreasonable in expecting catalogues to tell them the truth, and be able to be used in a few seconds, not minutes. Never mind stuff like full-text searching, and digital delivery. That’s a normal expectation, and even though we know the reasons our systems can’t do those simple things, it’s ridiculous to be self-righteous about it.
    We offer an Amazon/Book depository/other retailer search link in the service I work on (we have a “borrow” tab, and a “buy” tab)- it’s often cheaper and faster than ILL, and we figure we’re in the business of helping people. When people complain that a book ain’t there, which happens a lot because of various arcane systems, we apologise, and explain what we are trying to do to solve that. We never tell people that they suck for not following our procedures, and we have much better relations with our patrons because of it.

  30. Pingback: Reading round-up: July – Digitalist

  31. Carolyn

    Problem — I got an annoying email generated by the ILS telling me to report a missing book in person.
    Another Solution: Stay dry, do not overmodulate — forward annoying email to someone in the library, thereby reporting the missing book to a person.
    Was this really so complicated??

  32. Pingback: Introducing New Contributors to the Blog | Social Justice Librarian

  33. Ruth

    This comment thread has been really interesting, so thanks for the post.

    As a current MLIS student and library reference intern basically all I do is interact with people who are having trouble with the system. Unfortunately, a lot of the time all I can do is show them how to do it “properly” (rather than the way they intuitively tried the first few times) or just apologize because there’s nothing I can change. If I can, I’ll take their problem to my bosses, but often they are constrained by budget, time, and their own bosses and can provide only bandaid solutions.

    A lot of problems surrounding technology is simply because librarians aren’t (yet) IT experts and outsource a lot of that work to university-wide IT departments (who then don’t provide support evenings or weekends!!) or the library just buys something a vender has shown them. At the same time, since librarians themselves often work behind the scenes in systems the user never sees, they don’t notice these weird systemic issues that a dozen users might run into before someone speaks up.

    Librarians are, generally speaking, really nice people who want to help, but it’s hard getting out of those blinders of what is possible and necessary. And it’s even harder to take criticisms when you’ve been working the same job for twenty years with fewer resources and more demands.

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