Eating out no treat

Pardon this rather long commentary/rant on the restaurant industry. Just got home from eating out (yeah, I know I do that way too much). Ate at an order-at-the-counter-type-chain. And once again, the experience was less than ideal. In this case, the entrée itself was good, but . . . the drink machine had a sign on it “sorry, no ice.” It’s 88 degrees today, and the soda was less than cold. The lady at the next table wasn’t so lucky. She got the wrong item, and the replacement didn’t get to her until her table-mates were done eating. And by the way, the WC had no TP. What’s up with that?

This week began with a breakfast delivered to me that was totally inedible. It wasn’t just me, 4 of the other 6 diners at the table found at least part of their meal unsatisfactory. Bad restaurant experiences have increased at an alarming rate lately. First I thought it was just to me, but I’ve observed them happening to others. And then, the ultimate authority – the workplace breakroom – confirmed my fears that the only way to be totally satisfied may be to eat at home. Someone reported that half of their dining party never received their order. Last evening, at my customary tgif observance (not the restaurant, but thank g . . . . well, you know), as we left the order-at-the-counter-person, a previous diner came up to tell the order-taker not to bother bringing out the fries and other to-follow items, since they were done eating and leaving.  Earlier in the week, I had a nicely crisped chicken sandwich that was raw in the middle and burned French fries (how do you burn french fries?) I did have a very good chicken salad sandwich at favorite-bar-and-grill, but while we were eating there was a huge crash when a stack of plates near us hit the floor. (I hope it was no one’s meal). My husband told me his regular fast-food-breakfast-after-golf wasn’t what he ordered, but then he almost never gets what he orders. Sheesh!

Two shining experiences in the last week encourage me to keep trying, however. A shout-out to Tokyo Restaurant for an amazing dining experience, like always, and another to Chick-a-dee, whose atmosphere hasn’t changed in 20 years (or more?), but the best breakfast I’ve had in a long time – piping hot, light pancakes and sizzling bacon done to perfection.

Flu and the digital divide

I’m particularly sensitive to information and connections that can only be had through the Internet. In the public library we see people every day who come in with something written on a scrap of paper – an Internet or E-mail address they heard on TV for something they want to know. Unfortunately, the address they’ve written is often wrong, and library staff has to play detective to help them find their needed information. Amazingly, the staff is pretty often successful.

Tonight’s news reported that now the Digital Divide affects peoples’ ability to get a flu shot. Park Nicollet health care system received a shipment of H1N1 flu vaccine and set up an appointment line. There were so many phone calls that they had to shut down phone appointments, and now the only way to get an appointment is by sending an E-mail. Walk-ins will not be accepted.

Where will people turn? I hope to their public library. But will we able to handle it? I don’t know. Limited hours and a finite number of PCs will limit their access. Many don’t know how to use a computer, or have an E-mail account from which to send an E-mail. Staff are stretched thin. Will they have time to help people set up E-mail accounts and send the E-mail to get an appointment for a flu shot? I don’t know. The article doesn’t say, but I assume that Park Nicollet will send an appointment by a return E-mail. That means that the person who wants a flu shot will need to check that possibly new E-mail account again (and again?)

No yen for late returns

A colleague received an E-mail from a patron soon after the patron moved to Japan. Artist and author John Becker (Japanese name Bekka Jion) told about uniformed Japanese library workers who laughed at his jokes and brought him “the hot towel to relieve weary shoulders.”

He also reports on the library workers’ answer to why they don’t have library fines: “Why should you not be responsible? If you are human, why would you want to shame yourself with thoughtless irresponsibility? And why would we shame ourselves by not trusting you, Bekka-san?”

Now there’s a different way of looking at things. Drape hot therapeutic towels over customers. Expect the return of materials as a matter of honor.

Read the entire E-mail from Japan on the East Central Libraries blog.

WalMart’s moment in the sun

Whether you love ’em or hate ’em . . . there’s one undeniable fact. As Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins’s News Cut reports this morning, “The worse the economy gets, the better for WalMart.” He also says that WalMart reported this morning that they’re adding 22,000 jobs.

Libraries are a lot like WalMart. With no cash changing hands at the point of sale (that all happens at tax receipt time), we have an even better bang for the buck than Walmart. We are seeing huge increases in business as people look for the lowest cost services possible. And, as WalMart remodels stores and diversifies product lines to improve their image, so are we struggling to do the same.

The News Cut piece links to a Forbes article that says about WalMart “The retailer has cleaned up its stores, upgraded its customer service and spruced up its merchandise. It’s hoping that an improved shopping experience will keep its new customers once economic conditions improve.” Here too is another analogy I ponder. While it seems only a short time ago that we (libraries) were struggling to demonstrate our relevance (that is irrefutable for many), with the economic downfall there is recently little doubt of the value of libraries for a steadily increasing group that couldn’t afford to pay for the services we provide. Will they continue to love us and give us headlines when things get better? Or is the popular vote a fickle but fleeting affirmation?

With WalMart we need to pay attention. Here is our golden moment to give our new visitors the best sales pitch ever. Good merchandise, well displayed , with competent sales and service will keep them coming back.

A place on wheels

I’m reading the book  The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz. The book is about the wealth of choices we have, and how their abundance leads to stress, dissatisfaction, and paralysis. I was acutely aware of the truth in Schwartz’s premise last weekend when I stood totally flummoxed in front of the array of kidney beans at my Cub supermarket. Where on earth were the plain-ol’-kidney-beans-for-chili?

Reading a survey response this afternoon, I muttered to myself, “uh huh, Schwartz got it right.” We’re preparing to shut down the behemoth library on wheels/bookmobile that is draining our budget with repair and fuel bills. It should have been replaced a while ago, but lacking the $100,000 for a replacement, we’ve kept it running. The Board has taken action that this is the last year of its existence in these parts, so we’re surveying its existing customers to find the best service alternative for each.

One response gave me serious pause. She didn’t say she couldn’t get to a library. She said she preferred the bookmobile. She said “It’s easier to find books there as the choices are limited.” Then she went on to say “Also, one does get to know the driver/librarian and it is chummier.”  Wow, I hear her loud and clear . . . the comfort of a limited collection, pre-selected to suit the clientele is preferable to a library with endless shelves. Furthermore, she likes chummy. And I thought our library staff was pretty darned friendly — guess we’ll continue to work on that.

So, where I see an expensive, diesel and aged-carpet-smelling truck, she sees the bookmobile as a place where she feels welcome and befriended. Wow! And I’m going to replace that with dropoffs of bags of books?

I miss the TV show Cheers (1982-1993). I still sing the song — maybe we could make it the theme song for our library.

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows  your name.

Another day in the life of a librarian

As I’ve said before, when something comes up twice in a short period of time, it’s appropriate to take notice of what the universe would like me to learn. Not sure what this one means, but it’s worth recording. This post also comes under the “never a typical day” category (wait, I don’t have that category — yet).

I’ve been here 8 months, and throughout this time we have not had enough technology staffing. There have been days when there are no scheduled technology staff and nothing has gone down (yeah!). In truth, I’ve been comforting that little worry in the back of my mind with the knowledge that I can hopefully handle anything, drawing on my past experience as an automation librarian.

So, last Friday when Pine City called and said their Internet was down and our PC guy was off, I looked around and discovered that the closest help at hand was at the end of my own arm. I hopped in the van and headed north and fairly quickly had them connecting to the Internet. I congratulated myself and was back in the office in just over an hour.

Today, when a similar help-desk call came in, this time from Wyoming, I had exactly the same help available (0). I was beginning to feel a little spooked. In my first 8 months I’ve not had any “Internet down” calls, and now I have 2 in less than a week. So, again I hop in the same van, head out on the same highway, but this time headed south. This time the problem was not so quickly apparent, but I wiggled and jiggled, and reset connections, and powered down and powered back up. And voila — all is well.

So, I’m feeling quite thankful that I’ve brought a wide range of experiences to draw on, and maybe the lesson of the universe is not to let any of my skills get rusty.

Oh yeah, the other part of this post is how atypical any day in this career field can be. While my raison d’etre is to provide leadership, I am often surprised by what I end up doing when I’m planning on doing something else. Besides being a de facto geek twice in the last week, on Saturday I got a crack at being the Bookmobile driver. What a gratifying experience — to bring the world of the library rolling down the street to a town full of waiting patrons. I wrote about this humbling experience on the library blog. And to memorialize that first Bookmobile trip – a photo:
Bookmobile in Onamia

Be nice

Received a reminder from the universe this morning . . . that a little goodwill goes a long ways to diffusing short tempers. I went on Flickr, and saw this error message screen. Delivering bad news with a bit of a smile goes a long ways towards good customer service. I wrote about this about 18 months ago, following the receipt of a similar message from Blogger. It bears repeating — when we have something to say (whether it’s on the circ desk or online) that has the potential to be disappointing, do it with good humor. And promise (as Flickr does) that “we’re looking into the problem right now.”

Flickr error screen 26 March 2008, Hold your clicks a moment please. Flickr has the hiccips. We’re looking into the problem right now.
Flickr error

Service Expectations

I’ve moved to a town with no bagels! What a shock. The rhythm of my weekend life is disrupted – start coffee maker, make quick pickup trip to bagel shop, enjoy morning paper with fresh coffee and bagel. My expectation for available retail facilities is shattered. There are no bagels in this town – and the little frozen things in the supermarket just won’t do.

I’ve moved several times; this is the 9th city I’ve called home in my adult life. In each new home I anticipate that certain services will be provided by governmental and retail business. Most times I’m satisfied: the post office supplies me with a mail delivery box, the newspaper shows up daily once initiated, the garbage truck takes away the trash when I set it by the curb, and the house of worship delivers a predictable experience. A balanced complement of retail provides food, clothing, shoes, and take-out Chinese. So, when I don’t find a reasonable facsimile to something I’m used to having, my equilibrium is completely out of whack!

What expectations do people have of libraries? Time-tested amenities include books to check out, pre-school story time, and tax forms. Other service expectations may or may not be satisfied, depending on local priorities. You may or may not find movie DVDs, audio books for your MP3 player, public computers, or a wireless signal to hook into with your laptop computer. Even more frustrating may be the inconsistencies in privileges to use the library’s resources. For instance, in some libraries you can sit at a table and read a book, but you need a library card (verified with a permanent address) to use a computer.

What can the public expect when they see a “public library” sign? Should there be core services available to all? Should there be consistent requirements for use? Should those core services be tied to receipt of public dollars? Should it be the responsibility of entities receiving taxing authority to provide funding for core services? What are the core services? And who defines all this?

And in the meantime, maybe I’ll have to open my own bagel shop.

Get your wiggles out

I walked into work this morning, and there was a sign on our library door “Storytime cancelled today due to illness.” When I asked “how come?” I learned that Vickie, our most excellent children’s storytime leader, had been at the hospital ER last night and was too ill to come in today. She had tried her regular subs and found no one available, thus storytime had to be cancelled.

Well, as the new Director, I thought — disappointing children and their parents is not a good thing to happen on my watch. So I walked through the library and offices, asking who wanted to take me up on the “opportunity” to read for storytime. No takers!

So, as my grandma would say, “the best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your arm.” I started out my career as a teacher, so this was not foreign to me. What was difficult was pulling together a storytime in a short time — but I was told the well-prepared Vickie had the lesson plan, complete with books, finger-plays, songs, and a video, all neatly piled on a cart. As encouragement, Carla said that she’d be right there for me guiding me through as my technical assistant.

So, just prior to 10:00 I went to the children’s area to greet the kids, who kept coming and coming. The floor seating area was covered with attentive little ones, and still they kept coming. We lost count after 50; they don’t stay still to be counted.

Well, aided by Carla we went through the planned program, moving from finger plays (put your hands in your lap), to stories about marsupials (it was Australian animals day), to picture puzzles (the kids assured me I draw good). Somewhere in the middle of the get your wiggles out song, I discovered we were ALL having a wonderful time.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the office, I had temporarily foisted my 10:00 appointment off on my able assistant director and technology staff. The appointment was with a network security guy, who was gathering information on our needs to prepare a proposal. Pretty heavy stuff compared to storytime.

But what is really important? Planning for secure computer networks to serve the growing technology demands or literacy training for 50+ pre-schoolers and their parents/grandparents/care givers.

Such is the life of the public library. Constant demands for a wide range of programs and services by a diverse clientele. Not enough time or resources, but somehow we get it done.

And the kids left with big smiles on their faces. And the computer network guy got all the information he needed. And although I was late to get to the start of the state library association meeting, I know I did what I’m called to do — and I had a very good day!

Be the Bridge

On Friday, when I was in our northernmost library I saw terrific customer service — and an example of the library being the bridge over the technology divide.

A man came in who needed his time sheet FAXed to his employer. The FAX machine was broken at his customary workforce center and he came to the library. Incidentally, the library deserves another attaboy for having positioned itself as a go-to place.

The Branch Manager told the man that the charge for sending FAXes was $2. The man said he didn’t have $2, and could not cash a check, since he didn’t have an account in town. Watching from a short distance away, I could see the desperation in his face and body language. Since Friday was my pay-date, I could identify with how important it was for him to be paid. In truth, I’ll bet his immediate need for a pay-check probably was more acute than mine.

The Branch Manager did what I see as the right thing — she treated him with respect, offered assistance, and sent the FAX and told him to pay her when he could. Wow! Congrats, MB. I’m proud of you and our libraries!