I had another “wth?” experience at a public library yesterday. (For those of you who know me well, you know that’d I am much more likely to have said “wtf?” but I’m being diplomatic with “what the heck?” here.)   Here’s the situation: our daughter struggles with mental illness & addictions.  She & I were room-hunting for her in an urban area where she can attend programming.  We’d look at several places & then wanted to check out some other places, for which we needed the web — both for email & a bit of searching.  I’d been using my Blackberry, but the screen is pretty darned small, so I was delighted to locate the public library, and even more delighted that it was open!  I encourage her REGULARLY, to find public libraries for directions to social services & to access the web. When she was in Hamilton I encouraged her to use Hamilton Public Library.  Hamilton Public Library is outstanding, and is to be commended, for their services for those struggling in our communities.   So I assumed the urban library we were entering yesterday (NOT Hamilton Public Library) would be as wonderful for her to deal with as HPL had been.  I was delighted that we’d be able to benefit from the public library in a city (not to be named)  and that she’d now know where this particular branch was for future usage in this new city (not to be named).

However (yes, there’s a “however”)  as we went through the library front door, she said “Mom, the sign says “No Internet Access on Library Computers on Sunday.”  I laughed & said, don’t worry…..UNTIL, I saw at least 15 computer screens each covered by a sign saying  “no access to these computers on Sunday.”  As I approached the staff on the “Information Desk” my daughter had recognized the anger rising in me and was trying to pull me out the door saying “calm, Mom, let’s be calm.” (She knows me well 😉 )  I felt really sorry for the staff on the desk; I know the staff hadn’t made the policy, but there she was dealing with it.  And I wasn’t the first patron of the day to have that look on my face of “you ARE going to take those signs off the computers so we can use them, aren’t you?”  She’d been dealing with this since the library opened – and deals with it every Sunday.

When I asked why we couldn’t use the computers, she said “because we don’t have enough staff on Sunday.”  I laughed with her that she must love ‘enforcing’ this rule, and she asked me to complete a suggestion form and showed me how she was keeping statistics of the number of people asking for access to those computers.  She then said if I had my own computer, the wifi is free. I hadn’t taken my iPad or laptop with me, but there was the rub…….for those with their own computer, they could use the wifi….I guess the assumption is that if you have your own computer you won’t need staff assistance.  HUH? But if you need to use the library computer, you DO need library staff? I guess I missed the class on the correlation of library staff to computers — or the correlation of digitally/technology advantaged to library staff assistance. Hm……so, the people like my daughter, who are technologically/digitally disadvantaged can use the free resources (oh – what’s that? there aren’t any paper resources? all the rental resources…..social programs… job ads….are on the web? But she needs to come back on Monday to use those resources. Ok, got it. )

To be fair, I’m sure the library has very valid reasons for closing access to the computers on Sunday. I’m sure their decision to do this wasn’t easy.  They may even be closing access as a way to obtain people’s criticisms and suggestions that the library can then take to Council as evidence that this service is valued and “encourage”  increased funding for additional staffing.   I’m just always amazed that every time I encourage– ok, force — my kids into a public library we have a bad service experience. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I DO believe in the value of public libraries. I DO believe in the positive impact public libraries can and do have on people’s lives. I just wish we had more consistent good service experiences, especially for those individuals who aren’t library users.  Yes, there are those who have wonderful library experiences — and there are just as many who do not, and we need to deal with these experiences right from our policies, to our customer service to our performance measures. I  wish more public libraries used the Logic Model used by other public service organizations  to identify the impact they want to have, then designed the services that will create that impact, and proactively sought the measures to demonstrate that impact to  decision-makers as well as to library staff.  How can you provide valued, positive customer service with policies that, as Mary Cavanagh said are “rules based” and not “delight based” ?

Yes, the suggestion forms the library is gathering will provide some measures, as will the stats of unhappy patrons those poor library staff have to deal with on Sundays, but imagine the power of positive stories tied to positive impact measures. Let’s say the library’s  Objective for Providing the Service of Internet-Enabled Computers is to underpin the city’s strategy to increase enrollment in local colleges/university, employment, job skills, rental rates, etc.   One of the ways the library could track the success of this Objective could be to do a 10 minute person-to-person survey with a sampling of people at the library computers every 14 days for 6 months, gaining an understanding of who is using the computers, how they are using them, what they’d do if the computers weren’t available, how these computers have enabled the individuals interviewed to locate work, courses, services, enroll in college/university, use social media to job hunt, whatever.  The library could then easily report to Council on the value of the library’s computer resources for employment, housing, skills updating, etc.  They could even replicate the fantastic research conducted by  Mike Crandall & other researchers from the U of Washington’s iSchool on “The U.S. IMPACT Study:A research initiative examining the impact of free access to computers and the Internet in public libraries.”

Performance measures are to measure our performance. How do you want to perform for your community?