First Impressions Done Right – DePaul University Library

They use memes on their signs! You have to love libraries with a sense of humor. Be honest. This got you to read the sign, didn’t it? (They were working on a big library stacks reorganization project).

My father-in-law was very impressed by the DePaul University library, and by extension, DePaul University itself. Customer service is to commend for this.

Wait, let me back up and explain. He came to Chicago a couple months ago, one of the things we did while he was here was to take a look at DePaul University, as it is one of the possible colleges for my sister-in-law. While the three of us (him, me, my husband) were there, we decided to stop in at their library since it is publicly accessible. No, not in the sense of “must have research needs and get a pass” like the Newberry or other libraries, but in the sense of “walk on in with no need for ID” publicly accessible.

Score 1 for the library. That’s not to say that libraries with more restricted access policies don’t have a very good reason for doing so, but I absolutely love it when a non-City-library is open to all. I wish more libraries could be like that.

As my FIL always does when he visits a library, he used a catalog computer to look up how many books of his are in the library. Answer: A LOT. We also saw all of his journal articles in the results too.

Score 2 for a catalog search interface that also checks at least one major articles database. I swooned. That is an absolutely excellent way to help your patrons more effectively use the resources you do have, an important goal in times when libraries are still facing a financial crunch. It is one goal that my current library is working toward.

But the thing that had the biggest impact on our positive impression was the customer service.

While we were searching the catalog, a librarian (or a staff member?) approached us and asked us if we needed any assistance finding anything. We didn’t, so she said to just ask if we need help later on.

Bam. Score 3 for the DePaul Library. We were so impressed. Such a simple gesture makes a profound impact on first impressions. Even months later, we all are still talking about our good experience there.

On the flip side, this provides an impression that it’s hard to get good customer service at libraries. It’s probably true. Sadly. It’s not that we’re Grumpy Cat to people when they approach us for help. We’re a friendly bunch, aside from some rather cranky or sullen employees at certain libraries that I’ve been to. We went into this profession because we WANT to help people.

I think libraries seem bereft of customer service because we’re not approaching them for help.

It’s the perpetual problem of people being feeling too intimidated or awkward to approach people for help. Even retail stores have this problem. That’s why the good stores have their sales associates approach customers instead of waiting for customers to come to them. The good libraries do likewise.

At service desks in the library, the 10-4 rule comes in handy. I first learned about this concept at the Omaha Public Library. When a patron is 10 feet away, make eye contact and smile. When the patron is 4 feet away, verbally greet them.  “Hi, ready to check out?” “Do you need any assistance?” or even “Good morning!” are all good suggestions for a greeting. This pulls people into the service desk when they might otherwise keep a “healthy” distance away from us in order not to intrude on our work.

DePaul’s library apparently worked with Student Government to help keep the extended hours–how’s that for responding to student needs?

But what about other service desks? It is useful to have a permanent reference desk structure, because you can always find a librarian that way–but could it be set up to be a free-standing desk that allows for more freedom of movement? Like a goalie, the librarian could hang around in the vicinity, being generally available and aware of peoples’ needs. Then when someone needs help, the librarian can easily go back to the desk and get down to the nitty gritty of searching.

Or roving reference? Have someone rove around, looking for potential “sales,” and offer assistance on the spot. Or the simpler version of roving reference, the “walkaround” where a library staff member can walk around the library, and if someone is looking confused, ask if they need help finding anything. Then if it turns into an in-depth question, the staff member can refer the person to a librarian.

The problem is what it always is, funding. Staffing levels. Budgets. But with some flexibility and creativity, we can make simple and effective changes that will really improve the overall impression of the library. If we improve people’s opinions of libraries, that will garner support and loyalty from our users, who can help us advocate for libraries against budget cuts.

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