What if members won’t come to your library?

Just imagine a situation when you observe over a period of time that the number of users of your library is dropping off dramatically, though you spend huge amounts on the acquisition of relevant and up-to-date library materials. What would you do if the visit of members is less frequent even if the number of queries for information keeps on rising?

The Royal Society of Chemistry faced such a situation and found the solution by transforming its very traditional learned society library into a virtual library for its 45,000 members worldwide. It converted its print collections into electronic resources and innovated by providing remote-access to its registered members. “From small beginnings in 2004, the virtual library of the Royal Society of Chemistry has grown to include 235 full-text e-journals (from Elsevier and Springer), 1445 e-books (from Knovel, Springer, Elsevier, NetLibrary), millions of full-text articles from over 3,600 journals in Ebsco’s aggregated full-text databases, 8 databases in chemistry, business, the environment, general science, TOCs (Table of Contents) and news, specific chemistry databanks and compilations, pre-paid download tokens from Elsevier and Wiley to supplement full-text.” Read the full story as reported by Nigel Lees at http://web.fumsi.com/go/article/share/2818.
Very inspiring for librarians!
What if the situation described earlier existed in Mauritius? I personally know of one case of public library in Mauritius, namely the Mauritius Institute Library, which had been closed following the recommendations of a Committee composed of big shots in the LIS sector in Mauritius. If my memory does not fail me, it was on the basis of statistical data showing a dramatic fall in usage of library materials (borrowing services) that the Committee recommended the closure of the library. I wonder if there had there been any investigation on the reasons explaining this downward slope in usage of library materials. Was there any user survey carried out to have their views? Was it the right solution? Had the Committee members considered all the alternatives before making their recommendations? In a developing country like Mauritius, was it wise to close an institution like the Mauritius Institute library when every body knows the Herculean tasks in convincing authorities to open new public libraries. Many people who have benefited from the services of the library still have good memories of the library as a place for learning, research and scholarship. The borrowing facilities provided by the library have not been taken over by any other library since then. There is a strong case to believe that there was some “hidden agenda” behind the closure of the library. Some day the lies will be revealed and the truth will come out!
R. Hauroo

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Know Your Users to Better Serve Them

Why do people turn up to your library? The question sounds very simple and your answer may vary depending on the type of libraries you belong to. A very broad answer acceptable to one and all, irrespective of the type of libraries, would be that they come for ‘library and information services’ we provide. Organisations having developed a customer-centric culture, may disagree as the focus is on the product / service of the library rather than the benefits we provide to our users. Users turn to our libraries not for the books or information service we provide but for the value that they derive from the services and content of the libraries. We are used to the stereotyped image of the library whose basic business is to acquire, process (organise), store and make accessible (disseminate) library materials to its patrons. It is time now to shift the paradigm from the library operations to the customer.

The whole process of value addition begins with knowing exactly what our users want. Are our libraries in the information / knowledge business or in the learning / education business? Are we providing solutions to the problems of our readers or are we just providing a piece of information? Are our library services a means to an end or an end in itself? Answering these questions are equally critical in determining what the library core business is. There is obviously no ‘one-size-fits-all’ single business that defines all types of libraries. Each library differs somewhat with respect to its organisational culture, type, size and community it serves.

In order to add value to our services, one needs to first know who our customers are and what are their needs. If the question relating to determining who our customers and potential users are loooks fairly easy, assessing their needs requires much efforts. How to know about their needs? If we are sure we know their needs, it is excellent. We may align our services to match their needs. If we barely know or do not know at all what their needs are, then the simplest way is to ask our customers directly or indirectly. For this purpose, we may talk/ discuss with them, observe and analyse their information-seeking habits, analyse records of use of the library, administer questionnaires, conduct surveys, carry interviews or even desk researches to obtain the necessary data. The more we know about them, the better we can serve them.

The application of innovative technologies in the delivery of library services is another way to add value to our ‘offerings’. Today, no improvement of service can be conceived without  the use of appropriate technologies. Innnovation is synonymous with new technologies. However, we need to always bear in mind that the technologies should empower the users and lead towards self-service, just creating some sort of disintermediation between the user and the library staff. This does not mean that the library staff no longer provide assistance to users, even if they require it! Librarians, know thy customers!
R. Hauroo

Strategic planning to manage change in libraries

 

Let us not make any illusion: we are in the midst of a very unstable and turbulent world which is in perpetual mutation. There is no sector which is not affected and every organisation needs to be prepared to face the challenge of change. Change is on agenda and it has been rightly said that there is nothing permanent except change. Change remains the only constant factor. Library and information services in Mauritius also have to manage the change which could be the result of a combination of both external and internal factors. Libraries have to change to ensure a future but this change does not happen by itself. People make it happen. The future can be both exciting and challenging for libraries if they are able to change. To be able to successfully manage change, libraries and information services need to develop strategies or strategic planning. But what is strategic planning and what does it mean for libraries and information services?

 

Put in simple terms, strategic planning is finding the answers to the following questions: who are we, what the organisation is doing, why we are doing it, where it is going in the 2-3 years and how it is going there. Strategic planning is long term planning and visionary. A plan is not strategic if it lacks any of the critical elements such as internal and external scanning, redesigning and reviewing mission and vision statements to determine what the organisation should look like, and appropriate action plans to show how the organisation intends to get to the vision. A strategic plan is not a one-time exercise, once drafted and kept in the drawer, almost as a confidential document. All employees, stakeholders and even library users should be aware of the strategic planning of the library. Moreover, strategic planning is ongoing, comprehensive, participatory and systematic. Strategic plans have to be constantly reviewed, monitored and adapted to the changing environment. The response of the organisation should be appropriate.

 

What have we seen in our local context?  It may sound odd to say it but strategic thinking and analysis, evaluation of aims and target settings, involvement of staffs and communication of aims, objectives and plans for the formulation of strategic plans are not well-developed and embedded activities in the local library and information services. Is it that we are in short of resource persons to conduct strategic planning in libraries? Or is it that we are totally cut-off from the realities and we are happy in our ivory tower? We know institutions which have sponsored their representatives to attend workshops overseas on strategic planning but coming back home nothing concrete seems to have been implemented. 

 

For too long, librarians had faith in the ‘value’ of their libraries and saw their services as ‘social benefits’ which would never be challenged. They could not think of the idea of being questioned about their raison-d’être. Fierce competitions in the information industry along with the forces of globalisation and rapid application of information and communication technologies have created a new scenario. Nothing is taken for granted and each library, be it public, academic, special or national, has to demonstrate its contribution to the ‘outcome’ it is supposed to bring and provide justifications for securing funds. The two axes of reforms namely the Programme-based budgeting system and the Performance Management System recommended by the PRB report 2008 is in line with this new philosophy.

 

How to develop strategic plans?  There is no “one best way” to undertake strategic planning and what is important is the method of doing it. In the absence of such ready-made formula, very often the following important steps are recommended:

 

  • Conduct an external/internal assessment to identify “SWOT” (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats);
  • Undertake strategic analysis to identify and prioritise major issues or goals;
  • Design major strategies to address the identified issues or goals;
  • Formulate vision, mission statements and corporate values;
  • Establish actionable plans;
  • Monitor, review, evaluate results and update strategic plans

 

Benefits of strategic planning

If the exercise is conducted properly, there are numerous benefits associated with it. There is clear definition of purposes of the organisations with the establishment of realistic goals and objectives consistent with the internal capacity of the organisations and within a defined time frame. There is better communications at organisation-wide level. The use of the scarce resources of the organisations are maximised with a focus on priorities and this produces more efficiency and effectiveness. Other benefits include the building of strong teams, involvement of staffs and their empowerment to contribute effectively in the achievement of the goals of the organisations. Usually full participation of employees in a climate of trust, openness and frank discussions yields better results. For this reason, very often ‘library retreats’ are organised away from the office premises and an expert is often hired as moderator.

 

Strategic thinking v/s micromanagement

Strategic planning is a management tool and the process is strategic because it involves preparing the best way to respond to the dynamic environment (external and internal) of the library. Strategic planning requires strategic thinking which means asking questions such as ‘are we doing the right things?’, ‘are we doing the things right?’, ‘where is the library leading?’ etc.  Strategic thinking will involve making an assessment with a proper understanding of the environment and being creative or innovative in developing effective responses to those changing environment. Critical thinking and analysis is necessary in this exercise. Managing Directors or Bosses wasting too much of their time in petty things and eager to micromanage the library fails in strategic thinking. Managers who are micromanaging spend excessive time trying to control the details of work done by “competent” staff, rather than focusing their energy on the strategic necessities of managing. If Managing Directors waste their time on checking attendance of employees for example, they are wasting precious time and money of the library.

 

Are we doing the right things in our libraries? Do we have a future? Strategic thinking is necessary!

 

R. Hauroo

Virtual Reference Service

The essence of reference work is personal assistance offered to users in search of information. Will those needing information in this electronic era still require personal assistance ?  There is no clear cut answer to this question. It seems that much will depend on the future shape of libraries.  However, virtual reference service seems to be gaining ground since some years.

 

Digital reference refers to the act of providing reference service via the web in real time. It extends the technology used in chatting with friends to the reference transaction, as a way of reaching users who are using library resources remotely such as distance learning  students. It is one of the solutions to raised user expectations as it makes assistance available to the users at point of need in an easy and convenient manner: librarians are available when patrons have questions. Moreover, they do not have to leave the computer to secure the help needed, irrespective of their location or time of the day. The vast amount of unorganised information available on the Internet is just one more reason for the continuing need for libraries and  librarians to organise and provide access to information to help users find it and assist them learn the critical thinking and information use skills which are  essential to survive in this complex information environment.

 

A successful example of international library cooperation in the field of virtual reference service is the Collaborative Online Reference Service (CORS)  established in 2001 by the Shanghai Library. This remarkable joint venture  between ten academic institutions based in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States has won a prestigious award in 2007.  Features of CORS include (1) Ask-A-Librarian (offering two options, namely, a “Quick” response (within one working day) or an “In-depth” response (within two working days); (2) Request for Expert’s Help from among sixty seven subject specialists located in Shanghai or overseas to answer queries ; (3) A “Chat” with subject specialists introduced in 2005 – enabling patrons to have an online dialogue with a chosen specialist. This is available four hours on a daily basis, (4) An Enquiries Database. More than 15,000 queries have been answered via CORS, out of which 75 % have been added into the knowledge database for sharing and re-use. Users can thus browse these past questions in the database to find answers to similar queries asked by other patrons.

In short, it seems that much less emphasis will be placed on the physical reference desk than online reference service as reference tools will be more and more electronic and user-friendly while patrons are becoming more technology savvy.

 

Ibrahim

 

References:

1. Lankes, Abels, White and Haque (2005).  The Virtual Reference Desk.  ISBN 185604-566-8. 240 p. pbk.   £ 40.00

2. Mui, Law Lin & Gao, Vicky (2008). Collaborative online Reference Service (CORS): a collaborative effort between Shanghai Library and National Library, Singapore. In  CDNLAO Newsletter, No. 62. July Issue

 

 

For Whom Tolls the Bell?

 

Libraries throughout the world are undergoing sweeping changes at an unprecedented rate. Professionals in the field have no valid option than to craft the right strategies for the management of change in the delivery of library and information services. The inability to do so will spell their extinction from the competitive information industry. Libraries have never been the exclusive provider of information in society and today the truth is that information-seekers have an even larger variety of sources to select from the market. Some authors go to the extent of qualifying this phenomenon as “users facing a tyranny of choice”.  Complicating matters even further for librarians, users have become more demanding and want their information needs to be satisfied in the format that they want and at the time they want. As they are exposed to online services and probably have experienced standardised services from reputed organisations, they are not ready to compromise on quality or accept a sub-standard / poor quality service. There is no room for mediocrity and the young technological savvy “googled-generations” do not hesitate to go for alternate information service providers on the Internet.

External factors impacting on the delivery of information services include not only technological changes but also a number of socio-economic and cultural factors such as the evolving knowledge-based economy, a changing educational and learning environment and a motivated labour force determined towards self-improvement through lifelong learning and continuing professional education. To maintain employment prospects in an increasingly competitive workplace, employees are eagerly taking personal responsibility for developing new competencies to become multi-skilled. All these factors are creating new demands on libraries and librarians have to leave their comfort zones to embrace new technologies, devise innovative online information delivery systems and, above all, develop a real user-centred culture. Since users are well-versed in online information retrieval systems and global networks, libraries need to quickly implement digitisation programmes. The creation of electronic contents to be disseminated to targeted customers will enhance the image of the libraries and ultimately win the trust of customers who have a tendency to vacate the physical premises of the library to go into the virtual world. Failure for librarians to acquire new competencies and skills to adapt to these changes will render them redundant.

 Libraries in developed countries have successfully adapted themselves to the changing environment. A scanning of professional literature in the LIS field shows the use of terms such as ‘Cybrarians’, ‘infosphere’, ‘biblioblogosphere’, ‘information superhighway’ and many other new terms coined to express the changing nature of the work of the librarian. Some authors have even gone to the extent of qualifying the term ‘librarian’ as antiquated as it does not reflect the actual work of the ‘professional information worker’. Is it not correct then to call the term ‘librarian’ in those countries as a misnomer?

What about librarians in our country? Those who form part of the old establishment and who have systematically refused to espouse the ideals of modernism (new ideas, new communication tools and technologies) will gradually phase out. This is a natural phenomenon. Young professionals who are starting their career in this field need to be cautious and not to follow suit. Change is the only constant factor. If you don’t manage the change, you will slowly but surely become obsolete. In that case, it would not be a surprise to hear the answer to the question “For Whom Tolls the Bell?”  to be “For thee, Librarians!”

R. Hauroo 

Empowering Your Employees

 One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men.

No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man” (Elber Hubbard)

 

Is employee empowerment just another management buzzword or empty slogan ? This does not seem so.  A simple definition of this concept is “handing the power of decision and action to employees and giving them more authority and responsibility to achieve their job and thus customer satisfaction”. There is a growing recognition that the success of any organisation (including libraries) lies more in its intellectual and systems capabilities rather than its physical assets [Jarrar & Zairi, 2002]. Human capital is being more and more considered as a priceless asset.  Several case studies report the successful implementation of  empowerment of frontline employees in the service industry. Indeed, there are lessons to be drawn for circulation and reference services staff in libraries of all types.

 

The old traditional hierarchical management style is process-driven. lt is based on the assumption that top management knows what is best.  It fosters strict adherence to rules, unquestionable obedience and support to senior staff, leaves no autonomy in decision-making for employees, measures people’s worth according to their rank and degree of submission to the boss and places little value on people in organisations. This command and control approach is totally outdated and unadaptable  for coping with the current challenges facing modern complex organisations. Employee empowerment is seen as one of the critical factors for the success for any type of organisation.

 

Benefits

Some of the benefits of empowerment include: higher staff morale, greater job satisfaction and enhanced productivity, willingness to take responsibility for service encounter, quicker response to customer needs and changes in tastes, less absenteeism and labour turnover, and reduced customer complaints because happy employees make happy customers. Moreover, it fosters a culture of openness and releases the energy and potential capabilities of staff.  In empowered organisations, employees are no longer considered as an expenditure item but an asset to be reckoned with. Thus, management has a huge responsibility to create a working environment in which the talents of its people are unleashed and broadened.

 

How to Empower ?

Empowerment can take several forms, namely: participation in decision-making and problem solving; involvement in suggestions schemes,  and team briefings to generate ideas and  feedback so as to benefit  from employees’ experience; enlist  the commitment of the personnel to the organisation’s goals by encouraging them to take more responsibility for their performance and finally, by de-layering or reducing the number of tiers or ‘layers’ in the management structures thus making the organisation ‘flatter’ or closer to its customers.

 

Pre-conditions

Pre-conditions for the successful implementation of employee empowerment include, a supportive management style, willingness on the part of superiors to delegate some of their decision-making power and other responsibilities to subordinates, transparency or the free flow of information, the progressive integration of empowerment into an organisation’s culture, training to enable staff to exercise increased authority and responsibility, a performance-related reward system, and a customer-oriented culture or commitment to service quality.

 

In short, empowerment is about valuing the individual within the organisation, rather than the organisation, per se. It implies a radical change in the mindset of top management, which unfortunately many are incapable of.

Ibrahim