I attended another program at ALA, the RUSA President’s Program, which was called “Quality Service in an Impersonal World” (if I remember correctly). That’s the program that began with several librarians singing a song called “R-U-S-A” to the tune of The Village People’s “Y-M-C-A,” though they weren’t dressed as colorfully at The Village People. Regarding the song, let’s just say that it was very long.
The first speaker was Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way, which apparently has something to do with the great customer service at Nordstrom’s. Having never shopped at Nordstrom’s that didn’t mean much to me. However, the guy was definitely a great speaker, which is always a pleasure to find at these conferences. Personally, I’ve never found anything insightful in “customer service” talk that isn’t already contained in Kant’s categorical imperative, and Spector more or less agrees, it seems, since he said something like, all this is just the Golden Rule applied to sales. The impression I got from the whole program was that we’re all supposed to think it’s about the services. Everything is about good customer service, and it’s the people who make up the organization that really count.
I sat with an old friend during the program, someone who also works at a private university with a large research library. When discussing the program later, we both agreed that this all-about-the-service-and-the-people ethic wasn’t necessarily the case at our libraries. Instead, the collections are the important thing. Certainly, there have to be people to acquire, catalog, and preserve the collections. Naturally, we also have people who instruct library users how to find what they need, which is where the “customer service” part would come in. But even without these people, and I’m one of them, the center would still be the collection.
Scholars don’t necessarily want people; they want stuff. They want books, journals, archives, manuscripts, data, and if the library has the stuff they’ll use the library regardless of the people. I’ve heard various stories about inhospitable research libraries, especially in Europe, that seem to make it as difficult as possible for scholars to get at their resources, but scholars go even to these libraries because they want the stuff. I’m not saying having a lot of desired resources means we should act like that librarian in The Name of the Rose or that we shouldn’t be helpful and friendly. I’m just saying that for large libraries, the collection takes precedence in a way that it doesn’t elsewhere, and that the service-is-everything attitude doesn’t seem as prominent.
I know this isn’t the case in smaller libraries. I worked for a couple of years in a liberal arts college library, which was probably adequate for most undergraduates, but definitely wasn’t designed to support scholarly research at too high a level. The library usually didn’t even have the books I wanted to read, for that matter. In smaller places, that’s what ILL is for, but for ILL to work, the desired articles actually have to be somewhere. From the way some librarians speak, ILL means libraries can stop buying a lot of stuff, but for a resource to be shared, some library has to purchase it in the first place. There have to be just-in-case libraries for the just-in-time approach to work at other ones. No library has everything, of course, but some libraries must have a lot for the system to work.
It seems that most of what I read about customer service comes from public librarians, who want to attract as many people as possible in libraries with relatively small collections. In fact, another interesting speaker in the program was a public librarian who talked about a service her library provides, where librarians greet patrons at the door and walk them through the library helping them find what they need. I think I’d find that a bit too much if I were the patron, but then again I’m already a librarian. I’m sure there are plenty of library users who really like this program, and it sounded like a good way to get out of the reference desk mentality, where the librarians sit and wait while fewer patrons come to seek them out. I’m all for a service mentality in research libraries as well, but still I think it’s important to remember that in research libraries, collection development is a customer service.