A few posts back, I mentioned how I often feel like librarians are our own worst enemies.
There’s a lot of factors that feed into that feeling but one of the main ones is that we often get so bogged down in trying to enforce “consistency” when that’s both impossible and also impractical.
Even when you think about businesses that are held up as exemplars of “consistency” – McDonalds, Wal-Mart and the like – you realise that the “consistency” aspect only applies to certain core aspects of their business – the taste of the burgers, the blue smocks of the workers – but other things are completely customized – the decor of every McDonalds you go into is different, the product selection at each Wal-Mart is customized to the area it serves (I don’t know for sure but would imagine they have a lot more NASCAR gear in their stores in the deep south than they in the northeast US for example.)
The same thing applies in libraries – there are very broad “consistent” elements in that any public library in the world is going to have – books, CDs and DVDs for loan, computers for patrons to use, programs that people can attend, some rules around how many items people can take out, what fines are and so forth.
But after that, all bets are off.
How are we inconsistent in libraries? Let me count the ways…
In my own system (as I would suspect is the case in most library systems) every branch has a very different collection – both in number and type of items. Every branch, even when they offer the same program in title (“Toddler Storytime”) has staff who will deliver that program in often very different ways. Each branch has a widely varying number of computers that patrons can use. Some branches have things that other branches don’t have at all (four branches in my system currently have self-check machines while six don’t – although that’s going to come eventually.) My branch is currently the only one in the system that loans video games. Another is the only one that has laptops available for patron use. All staff interpret and enforce the policies we do have in slightly different ways. Or occasionally, in ways that are significantly different. (If you’re ever in Regina, go to our Central branch and ask if you can have a bit more time to keep surfing Facebook. Then go to a branch and ask the same thing.)
Beyond that, even in areas you might expect a bit more consistency, there isn’t. My branch happens to be one that waives fines very generously compared to other branches. There are a variety of reasons for this – ranging from precedents established by previous branch heads to our demographics to a lack of set guidelines for what are legitimate reasons for waiving. (And even if these guidelines come – as is the plan – there will ultimately still be a judgement call element on behalf of the front-line staff enforcing them.)
This inconsistency isn’t just part of front-line service. At the higher level, there might be inconsistency in overriding vision and strategy – as management staff turn over or priorities change or new innovations are adopted or whatever.
It’s not a big revelation to observe that the reason libraries are inconsistent in their practices is that people who work in libraries are human. And those humans are trying to meet the needs of the communities they serve in an ever-changing environment.
I keep thinking of the staff member at Edmonton Public Library who replied to my question about user fees in Alberta Public libraries by saying:
The main difficulty here, of course, is that the “policy” in regard to waiving the fee is likely not applied uniformly across the system — or even consistently by me from one week to the next.
That quote was in reference to waiving the user fee for patrons in the library. But it might as well be a maxim for how libraries are inconsistent by their nature.
We’re inconsistent but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, personally, I think that’s a good thing and that we should work on embracing inconsistency on a system-wide basis in the name of providing the best customized service on a branch-by-branch basis.