The Three Simple C’s of Librarianship

If the three L’s of buying a house are “location, location, location”, then the three C’s of librarianship should be “communication, communication, communication”. I don’t think what I’m going to list is anything revolutionary; I do think it might be a novel way to remember the basic interactions that keep the library moving forward.

(1) Communication with Patrons

There is a symbiotic information cycle at work here. Patrons ask for things from the library collection; in return, we ask them what they want for future collection development. A no brainer, right? But take a moment and think about how it’s being accomplished in your library today. Is it done through face to face staff interaction? On the phone? On the web? Text or Mobile? Or [shudders] Signs? (How many library “issues” do library staff try to solve by posting signs? Seriously.) What medium is being used to facilitate this staff-to-patron interaction?

I think libraries can tie themselves up into knots attempting to solve this riddle. They want to be sure they have staff on hand to handle any issues that arise or to be available for those patrons who prefer human-to-human contact, but they try to make the system as accessible as possible for the “Do It Yourself” crowd. We’ll never be able to completely satisfy the multitude of potential interaction points, so we just try to present as many as possible.

There is no proper answer for what medium is best; it’s wherever your patrons prefer. What is important is that this communication be as open as possible.

(2) Communication with Staff

You can call it whatever you want: staff awareness, staff buy-in, staff communication, or some other term with connotations of togetherness. It’s the communication that happens across the organization planes, whether it is horizontal (within a reference department) or vertical (from the janitor to the director).  What matters is that it is an important and integral aspect of running a library.

Librarians tend to separate staff around organizational function: circulation, reference, adult, children, programming, serials, subject specialties. But there are details and points of information that need to be mentioned outside of the function. It helps the circulation staff to know about programs for children; it helps a reference librarian to know about changes to circulation policy; it helps subject specialists to know about catalog alterations to their field.

It’s organizational knowledge, plain and simple. Do you know what is going on in other departments that could affect what you are doing? What information are you sitting on that could allow others to help you do your job? We’re not exactly spies; we don’t need to operate on a ‘need to know’ basis.

Otherwise, it becomes a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

(3) Communication with Governing Bodies

And by governing bodies, I mean the people who write the checks for your institution. Whether it is a mayor, town council, freeholders, county administrator, state assembly, or another political body, it’s up to you to keep them informed as to the value of the work you are doing.

And this is not a call to shower them with statistics. Five thousand people visiting the library in a month doesn’t mean anything without context; what does a number like that mean? Even so, it helps to put a human face on it. Show them who is using the library and what it means to them. This is a time to shine on your behalf (by showing them how the taxpayer money has been well spent) and their behalf (for continuing to fund you and making a good investment).

As local and state budgets tighten, it is critical to show what the library means at the constituent level. Even in better times, it is the maintenance of a good  relationship that will see the library through the bad times. Let those who watch over your budget know the meaning and value of what the library does for the community it serves.


As I said at the start, I don’t think I said anything really revolutionary here. But a good and timely reminder never hurt. It’s up to librarians everywhere to keep the channels open and maintain healthy relationships within and throughout the institution.

8 thoughts on “The Three Simple C’s of Librarianship

  1. Pingback: Les 3 C « das bib experiment

  2. Great post. #2 has made the public libraries in my area practically not worth visiting anymore. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a question over the phone or at a service desk to be told the person doesn’t have the password to look at the database they need or my question should be directed to another department and the person who works there isn’t around. The consistent thing about these encounters is that none of the library staffers have made an effort to get the info. Instead, they’ve just pointed me away.

    A story from this weekend is pretty typical: I’ve recently begun mentoring a 12yr old girl through our local Big Brother, Big Sister program. She’s never used a library and I’d like to introduce her to one. To prepare, I went to her town library and introduced myself and my need. The staff person (pleasantly) grilled and disparaged me in a circular discussion for being an out-of-town resident inquiring about a card. No matter how I tried to explain that I wanted this to be a learning experience – that both of us having cards would make it more of a shared experience – it just didn’t sink in. She finally conceded with “okay, but you’ll have to pay $2”.

    Prefacing my next question with how I wanted this to be a really good experience for my Little Sister, I asked what I thought was an easy question: “Can you make any recommendations for how to introduce her to the library?” Person stared back blankly, so I elaborated “er … are there better times to come … is there anything you’d recommend we check out …”

    “How old is she?” the person asked. “12” I answered though I’d already shared that info. “That’s young adult — so you’ll have to ask the young adult librarian and he’s not here right now.”

    Person was smiling the entire time, as if that was the only requirement for good service. A second employee was standing alongside at the desk inserting paper bookmarks in a pile of books. He did nothing to join the conversation even though it seemed pretty clear it wasn’t going well. Not his job, I suppose. He did look up and smile at me though, so I got the obligatory personal touch.

    I was the only patron at the desk the entire time; no one else entered the building during the 8-10mins I was there. After I left, I wonder if the staff who worked with me put two tick marks on her stat sheet for my visit…

    I’m ranting here because these types of experiences have been the norm in 3 of the 4 libraries I’ve used in the past year. I continue to visit because I want to better understand how libraries work, how the public is using them today and how they might add value ten years from now. As you suggest Andy, staff communication and cross-training are vital to adding value – otherwise libraries are just buildings with books and DVDs.

    • I think your issue is a #1 issue, not a #2. It doesn’t sound they offered alternatives to what are otherwise ‘dead ends’. (“He’s not here right now, but I can take a message if you’d like for him to call or email you.”) It’s doesn’t seem like they were effective in determining your needs and the solutions that apply or doing so in a manner that didn’t seem burdensome. Personally, I wouldn’t want to leave someone on a dead end unless there is truly no other choice.

      I’m also not certain what you expected from Circ Person #2. Would you have wanted them to join the conversation, saying the same thing as Circ Person #1? Where would that leave you? I think you’d be twice as unhappy to hear the same thing from another person when you already aren’t satisfied. I don’t think Circ Person #2 was holding out on you; I think they didn’t have anything constructive to add. Hence, no need to join the conversation.

      The other thing I note is that you save this story for ranting on the internet rather than providing feedback to the library in question. How exactly will ranting on the internet help this library? Not a bit.

      For some background: What’s your experiences overall as a library user? Have you worked in a library? Are you a library volunteer? Friend? Trustee?

  3. Jean again, with a good postscript to the rant.

    I phoned the YA librarian and he totally got it. We scheduled an appt for this Saturday and he’s going to set us up with library cards, show us how to locate the book my ‘little’ is dying to read (39 Clues) and he’s going to show us around some of the cool things about their library. Whew!

  4. Andy, in response to your questions to Jean Costello, especially “What’s your experiences overall as a library user? Have you worked in a library? Are you a library volunteer? Friend? Trustee?” I recommend you click on the link under her name. As the Radical Librarian blogger, she is knowledgeable, insightful, and worth reading. Plus, she’ll participate in the plenary panel of the 2010 Reference Renaissance Conference in August.

    rcn, a reference librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area

  5. Thanks for the dialogue, Andy.

    I completely agree with your point about addressing these types of complaints to people who can do something about them. I actually did email the library director who replied:

    “I am so sorry to hear about the reception you received on Saturday. I’m trying to figure out what the concern was about the card, and why they couldn’t have readily understood your request for what I would call a “teen tour”. I am pleased you spoke up, so that I can review responses that would be more appropriate with staff. They missed a great opportunity to engage a new library user. ”

    I ‘ranted’ on your blog because your post seemed to precisely address the root causes of my lousy experience and I thought sharing how what you wrote about actually affects a patron would add to the dialogue.

    Re: the second person at the service desk who was literally side-by-side with the other person, I hoped he would have chimed in, particulary on the second question. My goodness, to leave a new user hanging over questions like “are there better times to come … is there anything you’d recommend we check out” … If neither of those staff had anything to add, then perhaps they shouldn’t be at the service desk.

    BTW, I am a regular volunteer at my library and often work the service desk. I never leave a patron hanging. Never. Folks seem to appreciate that no one individual can answer every question and wait patiently while I take 10 seconds to get a discrete answer or fetch someone who can assist them.

    My library background =
    * Patron at 4 public libraries in Massachusetts. I visit so many to broaden my sense of the library landscape.
    * Patron at Harvard Medical Library for my job.
    * Patron at Mount Holyoke College library as professional copyeditor for an economics scholar based there.
    * Consistent volunteer for my hometown library since 1996, doing everything from shelving, weeding, stats, service desk, processing new acquistions, ILL, entering materials into catalogue, website updates, mopping floors when ceiling leaks, dusting (sound familiar 🙂
    * Friends Board of my hometown library.
    * Student library staffer from 2002-2005 for the academic library at Mount Holyoke College. Because I went to college mid-career after being a casualty of the 2001 dot-com bust and had advanced tech skills – they scooped me up and had me working directly with faculty at the in-library help center and on special assignment. I was also a tech resource to the library staff … so it was a pretty rich experience.

  6. When I worked as a Young Adult librarian I still worked the Reference Desk and served customers of all ages. I would have never dreamed of refusing to recommend a good book for an adult reader. We have reader’s advisory tools that we can show customers how to use!

  7. Pingback: RoundUp from 7/5/2010 « Trolleyed

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