I’ve said this before in papers and presentations, but never as blog post of its own – a recent Agnostic, Maybe post about library advocacy has reminded me of it.
Sport is riddled with cliches, and one of the less vapid ones is “you’re only as good as your last game.” Of course, your reputation should actually be the sum total of all your actions, but the most recent of these actions is by far the most important in forming opinions. Your reputation can be absolutely stellar right up until the point at which you choke in the final; at that point your reputation will be ‘choker’ rather than ‘silver medalist’, most likely.
The same applies in a very real way to library customer service. The reputation of each library is only as good as its last customer interaction. There are, of course, a million and one caveats to this, but I’m trying to learn the art of briefer blog posts so I won’t insult your intelligence by listing them here. Serve every customer superbly and there will gradually be a net gain in the reputation of your institution; serve one rudely or lazily and there may well be an instant reputation plummet. Word of mouth is so important, and everyone knows the majority of people are more likely to pass on bad experiences than good ones; it’s just the way we are.
I wanted a nice pithy definition of ‘reputation’ to use here, so I looked it up in the OED. Turns out there isn’t really a useful summary you can fit into a single sentance, but the gist of it is this: reputation is the general esteem in which something or someone is held.
This general esteem is easy to percieve as a fixed constant, a largley solid and static ‘thing’ which is sometimes influenced by particularly significant events. The reality for something like a library is that reputation is a constantly updating, evolving and shifting entity, held in the collective (and individual) conciousness of both the library’s users and even people who’ve never set foot on its premises. The reputation of your library is in part informed by you – literally you, as an individual, based on your actions as a member of its staff.
I’m going to pull out my favourite quote here – it’s from Elizabeth Esteve-Coll, in Information and Library Manager 5 (3) 1985:
“The library is not an abstraction. It has an identity, an identity created by the staff contact with the users.”
Two things strike me about that quote – firstly it came from someone who wasn’t a librarian (Dame Esteve-Cole, as she later became, was an academic and two years after writing the article I’m quoting from she became the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum) and secondly I was five years old then, and I’m not entirely sure her message has got through over the last quarter of a century. Library advocacy is a complicated issue and something of a problem for the industry, but the one thing we can all do as indivduals to improve reputations is good customer service. If 100% of librarians are nice 100% of the time, people will start to notice…
It’s really hard to do, by the way. It doesn’t take a genius to point out that being nice to people will improve reputations; of course it will. But actually applying that maxim to the full, particularly five minutes before you’re due to close with an annoying patron who isn’t showing you any courtesy at all in return, is often easy to duck out of. But it’s worth sticking with it, for the good of all of us.