Communicating with our users

Here in Halifax, Nova Scotia, our public library is completing a planning programme for a new central branch.  These sessions have given members of the community an opportunity to give their opinion on not only what things should be in the new building,  but also on how libraries in general support the communities they serve.   More and more people, I think, now understand that a public library has for a long time been more than just a book depository; the plans for the new central library demonstrate the city’s belief in public libraries as community anchors of arts, culture, and learning.  Public librarians in Halifax, I think, may be feeling loved right now. (You like me, you really like me.)

Just up the street from the future site of the new central library is my place of work, one of five universities in Halifax.  On our internal Yammer system, librarians, IT staff, and teaching faculty at Dalhousie have been taking part in conversations about the nature and mission of the library.  It’s the sort of group that lets us talk about what’s going on within the profession and on campuses across North America, and it lets us react, debate, and think about what we’re doing now and where we could be going in the future.  Yammer is a great service – you should open an account for your library if it doesn’t have one yet.

Yammer is a great internal communications channel, but it doesn’t help us gauge our core user group (students, namely).  Yammer’s purpose is not to help us reach out, of course – it’s there to help us brainstorm amongst ourselves.  All the same, since HPL’s last consultation occurred last week, I’m been thinking quite a bit about how well our library is communicating with its own core user group.  Our arts and social science library, the Killam Library, has a well-used Questions and Comments board – students even respond to our responses.  We have Facebook pages and a Twitter account.   And we talk to students at the reference desk and we have conducted our own LibQual surveys.   But when it comes down to it, I don’t think a Facebook page or a Twitter account cuts it.  People use Facebook to talk to their friends – not to stay in contact with their academic library.  Comment boards are used when people are driven to speak due to a spectacular or god-awful experience – they don’t capture the everyday mood.  And LibQual surveys, as strong as their samples and methods are, take forever for us to code, decode, analyze, and then put into action.

What am I getting at here?  I’m talking about real communication, people.  The people of Halifax have fallen in love with Halifax Public Libraries all over again because the organization developed interactive community consultations that captured the mood of the city.  I think most libraries could learn a thing or to from HPL when it comes to user engagement.  That doesn’t mean we have to hold large consultations, though.  What matters is not the size of the consultation but that the organization gives their core user group ample opportunity to speak and be heard.

Mary's excellent communication skills makes her a top-rate librarian (click to see video).

We can improve in this area, starting today, at the reference desk.  Let’s not be afraid to ask questions to our students at the end of the reference interview, and let’s not be afraid to keep track of their answers.   There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t ask our users what works or doesn’t work for them at the library, and there’s no reason why we can’t track and tabulate these numbers the same way we do with the number of directional or instructional questions that are asked in a shift.

Ask yourself what you’re doing to actively communicate with the people you serve, and ask yourself how you’re capturing what they say and turning it to good use.  Asking our students questions will not only give us context on their perceptions of the library, but nurture the relationships we build with them every day.