About ten years ago the latest library buzzword was “patron empowerment.”That meant that library patrons were going to be able to have the ability to search the library catalog on-line and to request items themselves.How many of you remember the “dark ages” of the 1990s when you would have to come in to the Library, or perhaps call a Librarian on the phone to request a book be sent from another library for you to pick up here?Going even further back to the “ancient times” of the 1980s, how many of you remember when the only books you could pick up at the Library were the ones that the library had on its own shelves? “Patron empowerment” here at the Nevins Library happened in 2001 when the network we belong to, the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium, mounted a new internet-based on-line catalog that made it possible for you to search the library catalog from home.For us here in Methuen this new service happened to coincide with our move back into the newly renovated and expanded building.Within months an explosion of inter-library loan began.Because of the new building, and the extra business (and busy-ness) that accompanied that, it took us some time to realize the effect that the new catalog and its “patron empowerment” features were having on our circulation.Many people quickly adopted the practice of looking up books and movies on-line, and then ordering them through the catalog.Within a year we were looking at statistics that showed 1,000% or 2,000% increases in our borrowing books from other libraries…and other libraries borrowing from us.Have you ever noticed those big red bins that sit behind our Main Desk?When we opened the new library in 2002 we were getting 2 or 3 of those bins each day…when we celebrated our first anniversary here we were getting up to 18 bins daily. All libraries were similarly overwhelmed.I’ve always thought that in lots of ways it was easier for us here at the Nevins Library than for our colleagues at most other libraries.We were getting used to all kinds of new things; we had to re-invent lots of our procedures and re-adjust our ways of doing things anyhow.We had already planned to add some new staff for the new building.The “patron empowerment” revolution was just part of lots of major changes that we were experiencing, so it went by here relatively unheralded; we were so much busier in so many ways that the increase in inter-library loan was just one more thing for us.Many library staffs were groaning under the additional workload.Libraries with large collections had to pick hundreds of books each day from their shelves, package them up and send them all over the Merrimack Valley in those infamous red bins.Inter-library loan statistics and circulation continued to rise as more and more of our patrons discovered the on-line catalog and found that what they could see they could have!Really fast!And FREE!
Of course, there was a reaction in the library community.The increase in business had not come with any increase in funds, so many libraries felt that we needed to try to get the “patron empowerment” genie back into the bottle.I was on a Committee set up by Merrimack Valley librarians that sought to find ways to cut down on the amount of items going out through inter-library loan.We called it the “Limits Committee.”Personally I was not in favor of limits, and joined the group just so I could try to convince my colleagues not to limit too much.But I also heard and understood the problems that many libraries were experiencing with the added workload with no added funding.We of course heard stories of those few patrons who could not handle their new-found “power”… people who would order a hundred items at one time and then never come to pick anything up, for example.
But for the most part patrons loved their empowerment and used it wisely.Nowadays, patrons can search the catalog day and night; they can order items easily on-line, they can renew things before they become overdue, and they can be notified by email when the item is at the local library for them.Libraries have adjusted somewhat, though some limits were imposed and are still in force to keep the amount of inter-library loan traffic at a reasonable level. (Ever wondered why you cannot order a brand-new movie from another library, and must wait until we buy it if you want to pick it up here at the Nevins Library?That is one of those “limits.”Movies must be at least one year old before they can circulate via inter-library loan.)
If Patron Empowerment had been a movie, it would have been described as a blockbuster with great reviews.Naturally, something so popular would have a sequel.And sure enough, now we are in the era of Patron Empowerment II: Downloading Arrives!This sequel is featuring more options for you to obtain the materials you want to read, view or listen to.The major new trend is giving you the ability to download audios, books, and films.We have been offering audio books which are downloadable to an MP-3 player for a few years now.We are beginning to add a small collection of e-books which you will be able to download to a device like the Barnes & Noble nook, or the Sony e-reader.Eventually we will be adding downloadable films to our video selections I am sure.These selections are, and will be, available to you at home, via the Library’s web site.You can download them yourself and enjoy them without having to make the trip up here to 305 Broadway.Once you have a library card, which you still need to come in person to get, you have a growing selection of materials available via delivery from your computer.
But we are not letting any time lapse before we begin to explore Patron Empowerment III: The Rise of Self-Service!This newest trend in library service follows the retail trend of giving customers the option to serve themselves.Many libraries are installing self-checkout stations, for example.Personally I am not a huge fan of this trend in retail; I like to be waited on in a store…I hold good customer service as a high value.However, I know that many people, particularly younger folks, like to be able to check out their own groceries, and are attracted to the self-service lines at places like Home Depot.When we go grocery shopping together my 13-year-old daughter always drags me into the self-checkout line.
Here at the Nevins Library we are thinking about dipping our toes into the self-service trend by establishing a new system of picking up books and materials on hold.Many area libraries have had a lot of good feedback from patrons when they have established open shelves where patrons can go to find and fetch their own reserved materials.Items would be placed on the shelf under your name; you pick them up and take them to the desk for checkout.This will free up some space for us behind our desk, and save you from having to wait while staff goes back to look for your reserves.Eventually we plan to add a self-checkout station, too, but it is not in the budget for this year.My principal concern about this new system was maintaining patron privacy…but other libraries are reporting that placing materials spine-down, or otherwise obscuring the titles that are on hold for patrons seems to satisfy most people; and that people are being respectful of the system and not being “nosy neighbors” about others’ selections. To me the key component in implementing this latest trend in patron empowerment is making sure that we still keep the elements of good customer service and the atmosphere of friendly helpfulness we strive for at our public service desks.What we hope to do is give patrons the power to choose to help themselves, and to ensure that we have staff ready and able to help those who prefer to be waited upon, or those who want or need specialized service. Patron empowerment is not just another professional buzzword these days…it has become a pillar of better service for the Library’s customers.The Nevins Library belongs to you, and you should have the power of choice when using its services.Remember to let us know what you want and need from us…we are always happy to hear your ideas…YOU HAVE THE POWER…USE IT!