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TL v59n1: Ask not what your patrons can do for your library
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 59 Number 1



 Ask Not What Your Patrons Can Do For Your Library


Recia Taylor, BS
Public Services Coordinator

Bobby Lyons
Circulation Assistant

Nakia Carter, MLS, AHIP
 Clinical Reference Librarian

Rick Wallace, MSLS, EdD, AHIP
Assistant Director for Public Services

Quillen College of Medicine Library, East Tennessee State University 


Abstract:  Little things matter in customer service.  Greeting every patron who enters, and listening to them talk about their school, family and problems help to make your patrons feel valued.  Benchmarking against other quality services such as restaurants, stores, or other libraries is one way to develop new ideas.  Be adaptable and available for the patrons.  Patrons know what they want and the library should listen to them. 

The East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine Library (ETSUQCOML) Public Services staff is required to take 10 (1-hr) training classes on a variety of topics from PDAs to database searching.  The classes are required of everyone who works in public services from the student workers to the assistant director.  The classes are taught by the librarians on a rotating schedule, so they can also participate. 

To address the customers’ different needs, ETSUQCOML utilizes the marketing principle of audience segmentation.  For the student population, candy, coffee, and hot chocolate is distributed nightly; pizza is ordered when it is finals week; and the library now opens 30 minutes earlier in response to student’s request for earlier access to the computer lab.  For the Faculty and Staff, one of the most important services is the Document Delivery/Interlibrary Loan department.  The Document Delivery/Interlibrary Loan staff work to ensure the articles sent are of high quality and have a fast turn-around time of less than 1 day.  For the general public, consumer health information, classes, and reference assistance is provided for free.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Libraries should never be satisfied with the level of their customer service.  They should always strive to improve.  Edwards Deming is world-renowned as a quality expert.  Japan became an economic giant by adhering to his principles.  We tread a dangerous path by ignoring such established principles of success.  He is famous for his 14 points.  Many of these are relevant to libraries. For example, the first point is to continuously improve.  This should be the goal of any librarian worth their salt.  Another point is to institute training on the job.  Training should be ongoing and central to the library’s mission.  Another point is to remove barriers to pride of workmanship.  Library workers should be properly trained should be empowered to make improvements in their own area and want to achieve the highest quality levels in their work.  Someone who comes to the workplace with great pride in what they do will be a much better worker than someone who just feels they are a cog in the wheel.  At the ETSU Medical Library, we firmly believe that Deming’s focus towards quality should be central to our mission.  In the following are applications of these quality principles that we have implemented (Deming, 1986).

Do Not Throw Your Staff to the Wolves          

Public Services staff at ETSU Medical Library take a minimum of 10 (1-hr) training classes to prepare them to assist patrons with the library’s resources.  The training topics are on areas that can best assist the patrons with their questions.  The classes help familiarize the staff with databases that they may not use on a regular basis.  The classes are a requirement for the staff and serve as both training for the staff and are informative for the librarians who provide the training.  The feedback to the librarians after these sessions allows them to modify the classes to better provide instruction to  the patrons.  We designate someone who has had 10 (1-hr) classes as the Associate Level, 20 (1-hr) Baccalaureate level, and 30 (1-hr) classes Master’s level.  The ETSU Medical Library has a “graduation ceremony” where we give diplomas for people who have achieved certain levels.  It is a lot of fun and the library workers enjoy the attention. 

Accentuate the Positive

In economically tough times, customer service becomes even more important to ensure satisfaction, not less.  Often, many organizations will cut customer service first when funding is tight.  This is a critical error.  Customer service does not have to involve large amounts of time, money, and effort.  The ETSU Medical Library provides coffee and candy on a nightly basis to students.  If it is an exam week, the Medical Library provides pizzas for the students studying in the library, so they can keep studying without having to leave for dinner.  Friendliness overcomes a less than five-star building any day of the week.  We not only provide this to our patrons, but we walk around the library with candy and offers of coffee and actively serve as hosts. 

It Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely at the Top

Customer Service is a top down process.  There is not a single person in the library, both workers and patrons who do not deserve good service.  Deming emphasized that customers are  not only external, but are internal as well.  For example, technical services, since they prepare materials that public services make available to patrons has public services as its customer.  Although some librarians are opposed to the idea of viewing patrons as customers, we find the idea very helpful.  It  is imperative not to “play on choice of terms for ‘users’ or ‘customers’, but the concept of quality service" (Wang, 2006, p. 611). We live in a service economy, and all we really have to offer as professionals is our service.  Broady-Preston and Steele stated that “the objective is to develop a service orientation, customer –focused attitudes, and an interest in marketing amongst staff at all levels of organisation" (2002, p. 392).  We have all had bad service encounters and this should motivate us to make sure that people who come in our library only get over the top service. 

Put On Your Listening Ears

The customer is the most important part of the equation.  In the past, the collection was the central focus, but this has clearly shifted to the customer.  Ask what they want, and never quit asking.  Good organizations realize that customer expectations change constantly.  “A well-conceived customer service strategy concentrates the energy of the organization on the real priorities of the customer" (Miao & Bassham, 2007, p.55).” We need to ask when they prefer classes, what services they need, what hours of operation would best serve them, what they would like in the collection, etc?  Asking what they want does not just mean putting a suggestion box out on the circulation desk.  Talk to them constantly. 

The library staff at ETSU Medical Library makes a point of knowing the patron’s names and personal lives.  For example, students requested that the library change its hours to open thirty minutes earlier, so they would have a place to go prepare for early morning exams.  We must design our policies based on their needs and not on our own personal comfort.   “If the service provided […] does not fulfil users’ needs, they will look elsewhere for the service, and services will be provided by other providers" (Hewlett, 1998, p. 249).

Don’t be Afraid to Color Outside the Lines

Customer service should not be rule bound.   It needs to change its focus as the situation demands.  A gatekeeper mentality creates an unfriendly environment.  Using the library should never be hard, especially not if we want to encourage life-long learning. You should give them what they want, even if it involves bending the rules on occasion.  You need to give your public services staff freedom to use their good judgment to bend policy and rules depending on the context of the situation.  They should not have to work in a fear environment. 

Anything You Want, You Got It

Instructional classes provided to the students and residents are available whenever they desire them, days, nights, or weekends.  The ETSU Medical Library will also teach on their turf.  If a faculty member would rather us come to their office, then we will.  The faculty also enjoy ILL service that focuses on quality by having an always decreasing turn-around-time.  It is true that when we raise expectations that users adjust to that and then expect more.  However, this reality can add an exciting dimension to the workplace in which staff seeks to become more and more creative to meet and exceed ever rising customer demands. 

You Like Us, You Really Like Us

The Medical Library has received awards from Physical Therapy, the College of Medicine, and the College of Pharmacy for service.  From the LibQUAL survey, many students mentioned names of public services workers and how nice everyone is treated at the Medical Library.  Library workers should always look for more opportunities to serve.  Any area we serve, we try to deliver more than we promised.  Because of this, the overall impression of the Medical Library is very positive.  Yet, this positive impression occurs in a library building that is over 100 years old and needs work and with a collections budget that has allowed for relatively small book acquisitions over the past few years. 

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Customer service involves knowing your strengths and your deficits.  It requires an honest appraisal of the library and its workforce.  Nobody likes to think about their flaws; however, reflecting on what the library does and should be doing is a good way to develop a foundation for improving customer service.  A positive attitude towards customer service increases honesty.  Instead of ignoring or denying service problems, a customer service oriented library is glad to find out its flaws, because these become new opportunities for improved customer service. 

Compare Apples and Oranges

Benchmarking is an excellent way to develop new ideas and plans for customer service.  Think about how you like to be treated as a customer.  What makes you keep going back?  Think outside the box.  Do not just compare what other libraries are doing to your library.  Other libraries are not your only competition.  Marshall and Buchanan stated “the greatest pay-offs will come from benchmarking outside of one’s own industry" (1995, p. 69).  Look at what the bookstores, big chain grocery stores, fitness centers, and the local automotive parts store are doing for their customers.  Brainstorm about ways you could integrate their ideas into your library.  One way the ETSU Medical Library has done just this is by offering drinks to the students studying at night, an idea the Assistant Director borrowed from a local furniture store that offers drinks to everyone who visits.

Finally, Save the Libraries!

Customer Service is not just an add-on feature to library services.  It should be a core value of the entire library operation.  As we move towards an increasingly service based economy, customer service will play an even more important role in librarianship in the future.  If libraries fail to deliver strong customer services to patrons, then we will face the risk of going the way of the dodo bird.  We cannot just assume the existence of libraries in the future automatically. Good customer service comes from knowing assets and having pride both in your product and your profession.


Broady-Preston, J., & Steel, L. (2002). Employees, customers and internal marketing strategies in LIS. Library Management, 23(8/9), 384. Retrieved from

Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the crisis. Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study.

Hewlett, J. (1998). Performance indicators in NHS libraries. Health Libraries Review, 15(4), 245-253.

Marshall, J. G., & Buchanan, H. S. (1995). Benchmarking reference services: An introduction. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 14(3), 59-73.

Miao, H., & Bassham, M. W. (2007). Embracing customer service in libraries. Library Management, 28(1/2), 53. Retrieved from

Wang, H. (2006). From "user" to "customer": TQM in academic libraries? Library Management, 27(9), 606. Retrieved from

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