Leadership, Professional Development

3 things I learned by trading my office desk for a service desk

As a leader in my organization, one of my duties is to understand how service is delivered to the customer. In response to that need, and to feedback from our staff, my fellow leaders and I have made a point to visit – and work in – our branches, to get a better understanding of our staff, customers and community.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work in one of our community branches. And, while I was only there for one morning, I was amazed at how much I learned and observed. In fact, I can’t wait to go back!

Here’s what I learned.

1.      It isn’t enough to talk about it, you have to experience it.

It’s one thing to talk about fostering positive customer interactions, but it’s an entirely different thing to look someone in the eye and ask for their hard-earned money. We are a library, so people aren’t expecting to have to pay for our services. But they often have fines or fees that they’re not aware of. So the simple act of checking out/renewing a book, or printing a document, becomes a much more complex transaction. As a heavy user myself, I know it’s doesn’t take a long time to rack up fines. But for some people, $5 is an insurmountable barrier that may cause them to walk out empty-handed.

Greeting customers at the front desk

Fortunately, all the people I helped were happy to pay part or all of their fines so they could complete their activities. But it made me very grateful that we have alternatives such as payment plans, reading down fines, and earning waivers. And it also made me want to research more ways that we could communicate those options, in addition to the pre-overdue and overdue notices we already provide.

2.      Shelving books is satisfying

I only shelved books for a short time, when it wasn’t particularly busy, so I’m sure it’s not always so enjoyable. But the simple act of putting a book where it belongs is a great feeling (even if you – like me – have to repeat your ABCs a few times to get them in the right order). I got to “pull holds” – i.e. take the books that people have requested and put them on the shelf for them to pick up. It felt so good knowing that these books would be getting into the hands of people who wanted them.

I also got to put books away, and I have to admit, I geeked out a bit thinking of all the knowledge under my fingertips. I felt the deep responsibility of putting these books in the right places, so that people could find them. Knowing how much books have changed my life, I wanted to make sure others could find books to change their lives. It’s an amazing gift, all this knowledge stored in a perfect, portable package.

One of our volunteers shelving books

3.      Libraries are all about people

Helping people with their accounts and checking out books was great, but in the end, my experience was all about people. The amazing staff, who know their branch and their community inside and out. The moms, dads and nannies who brought their babies and toddlers to storytime and stayed to socialize with each other and me. The man who needed to print documents because he didn’t have a printer at home.  The volunteer who worked alongside us, shelving books and helping customers because she loves libraries. The elderly woman who couldn’t wait to get the next book in a series.

Baby/toddler storytime

People often ask me, “What is the future of libraries?” And while I often pause to tailor my answer to the audience, I almost always start with “people.” Libraries start and end with people – beginning with the people who gather and create the ideas contained in our books and computers and databases – moving to the people who gather, curate and share that information – and finally to the people who consume it, and hopefully create new ideas themselves. No matter the format, no matter the delivery method or technology, libraries will always exist to serve people. As information hubs, gathering places, community partners, and so much more.

Yes, I only scratched the surface on that morning of working in the branch. I have so much more to learn and experience. But I am grateful for the opportunity to work alongside and with these great people. Keep an eye out for me – I’ll be back!

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