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TL v59n1: Library Customer Service Receives the Ivory Tower Treatment
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 59 Number 1



Library Customer Service Receives the Ivory Tower Treatment

by Mary Vaughan Carpenter and Sam Richardson

University of Tennessee, Martin


Academic libraries face a puzzling dilemma as their customers, while using information to a greater degree, are often utilizing the traditional library less.  As Jeffery Gayton (2008) stated in his article “Academic Libraries: “Social” or “Communal?’”,
“If academic libraries do nothing more than store books, then patron’s increasing reliance on electronic resources accessible anywhere may indeed mean the death of the academic library as it currently exists.” 
The librarians at the Paul Meek Library at the University of Tennessee at Martin have refused to stick their heads into the proverbial ivy and have developed several resourceful initiatives to create an innovative atmosphere, more effective student training and more useful and pertinent electronic resources. All of these initiatives lead toward greater customer service and are applicable to any library type.

The campus living room – not the recreation room

The notion of the library as place is an interesting concept that has implication for all libraries.  The Paul Meek Library has successfully implemented a full-service coffee bar and allowed beverages with lids in the building.  The result has been a large increase in attendance and a general positive buzz around campus. About one in four college libraries now have some food component – at least an open pot of coffee or vendor cart, according to Julie Todaro, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries (Horovitz, 2007).  Open-mic nights featuring acoustical music has added another level of activity.  Comfortable seating areas have created additional opportunities for students to connect both academically and socially.  Rotating faculty and student artwork is prominently displayed each semester and an exhibit is currently featured on the second floor – a first for this facility. Policy and procedures have been created which insure that selection of artwork is democratic and appropriate.

To encourage awareness of the Paul Meek Library’s leisure reading materials, the “New Book” section was moved to a more prominent location and an attractive display purchased.  As a result of this move, statistics show that the use of the leisure reading materials has gone up 85%.  Anecdotal evidence coming from the Circulation Department suggests that many customers did not know that the library offered such materials. The Media Department has also begun merchandising their more current and popular materials in wooden display units.  A drive-up depository for returned materials is soon to be added to the library parking lot.

The importance of aesthetics toward quality customer service is not to be denied.  Libraries face a great deal of true competition, paradoxically from themselves.  Library attendance numbers can be a casualty as students are able to access resources remotely therefore making the institution a victim of its own success. C. A. Gardner (2005) warns in an article published in Virginia Libraries,

“While reading for pleasure is declining among our youngest generations, there is another important threat to library use – competition from online resources and physical bookstores that have become popular meeting places for today’s youth.  The convenience of ordering online is made even more attractive by the possibility of easily reselling items, while much content is available for free or for minimal fees as downloads to handheld devices.”
That is but one reason that environment is important.  Our customers can now choose to be elsewhere.  For many customers, a library’s look and feel is as important as its functionality and performance.  As John H. Sandy (2008) states in PNLA Quarterly, “patrons respond to the surroundings they encounter, either favorably or not so favorably.”  Sandy states later in the article,

“As libraries become more user- centered, the aesthetics of interiors is becoming a standard for measuring success.  While books and digital resources are the core of library services, the ambiance of the library environment is the mortar which melds library content and patron behavior.”

At the Paul Meek Library, we are actively seeking means to merchandise and improve our public space.  An interior designer has been consulted to insure textures, colors and themes that speak to a young college-age audience.  Attendance has increased 40% over the past year at the Paul Meek Library; due in part to displaced classrooms, but mostly influenced by the cosmetic and cultural adaptations, mentioned earlier.

Empower staff with the knowledge and desire to serve

If the classic adage in real estate is location, location, location; perhaps for library staffing it should be training, training, training. Even old lessons need review and most especially new merchandising concepts and customer expectations.  Service quality goes beyond reference service and views the entire library as an interlocking network, with each unit contributing to the well-being of the organization and the meeting of the mission and the service vision (Hernon, 1996). Without active communication that network is weakened and, therefore, so is customer service.

The treatment of customers is the library’s single most important concern when it comes to customer service.  The library can offer every resource and convenience a patron desires, but if they feel unwelcome or an annoyance they will not return to use the resources.  To combat this problem, the Paul Meek Library has produced a Student Employee Handbook to supplement the training that every student employee must undergo.  The handbook reinforces the view that customers are to be treated with respect and high regard.  This not only refers to the patron standing in front of the student worker, but also the patron on the phone.  The handbook also includes a map of the facility and a detailed glossary of library lingo.  Also, all library student workers are provided with a lanyard which denotes their department, yet another means of empowering the patron/customer.

One of the new mantras being heard among libraries both public and academic is “go where your users are”.  Libraries are doing this to varying degrees from providing online databases to setting up Facebook profiles.  To provide greater convenience, Paul Meek Library found one way to go where both student patrons and faculty are; all electronic reserves are now placed on Blackboard, a web-based system for accessing course materials.  At one time the library purchased an electronic reserve module that provided students with electronic reserves, but at the same time some faculty were putting their reserves on their Blackboard account.  This was both confusing for students and pricey for the library.  Students were already required to use Blackboard for many of their courses, so it was decided to end our relationship with the reserve module and offer to add reserves to Blackboard for faculty who do not want to do it themselves.  After some initial difficulties, the transition is now complete and running efficiently.

Paul Meek Library also uses Blackboard to retain materials and resources for each library department and the library as a whole.  For example, the Student Employee Handbook is located on Blackboard so student employees not only have a hard copy of their own, but can also access it electronically.  Blackboard is also used to send both important departmental and library information to library staff and student employees.

The continual and intentional customer service training is important to all levels of library staff – student workers and professionals. Leadership and empowered staff alone cannot achieve great library service.  Continual improvement must become standard practice (Nitecki, 2000).  There are a number of important tools that help create the communication necessary to remind everyone of the importance of attitude and expectations toward customers, such as monthly staff meetings (complete with agendas and minutes), traditional routing slips (to pass along information and articles), group listservs, active participation in professional library organizations, and in-service opportunities.

Just because you can isn’t always reason enough 

Librarianship was built upon an ethos of service, but service can no longer be delivered effectively without the application of technology (Ross, 2008). No doubt, libraries have been reinvented by their application of technology, which has provided an unparalleled level of access for customers. However, just because it is available does not necessarily mean that it is appropriate. The continual exploration of useful applications must continue for true service to customers.

A few of the recent methods utilizing technology for the greater good at UT Martin’s Paul Meek Library have included tweaks to the library webpage.  A promotional feature entitled “Paul Meek Library: What’s in it for Me?” changes periodically and highlights a patron using a particular feature of the facility.  Leisure Reading, new DVD’s and the Newbery and Caldecott collections have been made more accessible by the addition of annotated audio files and digital images of the covers.  Our Electronic Resources Librarian and his student workers have written programs which include surveys, open circulation records and flash tutorials.  An institutional repository, an online site designed to collect, preserve and disseminate the intellectual output of a particular institution, Scholarship@UT Martin, has also been initiated.  The future plans include individual web sites and e-mail to new faculty promoting the library resources particular to that professor’s discipline.

A KIC II scanner, an imaging center that allows customers to scan any resource in black and white or color and save it to their USB drive, email it, or print it, has been recently purchased to facilitate the quick delivery of documents to off-campus sights and for walk-up service of students.  That service at this time is provided at no charge.  Hopefully, ILL and satellite campuses will greatly benefit due to this service.  A free FAX service for students is also popular.

When it comes to technology, librarians need to be cautiously optimistic.  It has become a fact of life that we need technology to serve our customers.  It has allowed us to provide our customers with instant information, while supplying them with resources that they normally would be unable to obtain.  But we have to be careful not to rely to heavily on technology.  Technology is in constant flux and that makes it very expensive.  Libraries do not have the budgets to continue purchasing the newest and better product.  We have to be fastidious and discerning in what technology would best suit us and our customers.  At Paul Meek Library, we look to our mission statement and carefully choose technology we feel best serves the University and the local community as a whole.


Great libraries are patron centered not self-serving.

The customer is always right is a classic axiom of the service industry.  Only our customers do not always know what they want, or even that they need the hidden riches of the library. As more people ask “what are libraries good for?”, libraries are subject to increasing scrutiny and accountability.  Libraries, like academic institutions themselves, are being called upon to demonstrate their contribution as never before (Wehmeyer, 1996). The library faculty and staff at UT Martin have been intentional in their practical and proactive approach to educating and reaching out to their community and campus.  They have researched and applied reasonable methods of utilizing resources for delivery of excellent customer service.  Best practice in customer service absolutely involves insuring that the customer is always right – but in the library world it must also involve a librarian/staff member with the right attitude.  This may involve a cultural shift which will require time, leadership and patience.

Improving customer service is not simply a passing fad.  As the information industry expands, good customer service plans and pledges are essential to help academic libraries develop a core of satisfied customers, to offset the challenges from both internal and external competitors and to enable the library to build budgetary allies on campus (Nitecki, 2000). Academic libraries which wish to remain the vibrant, well-regarded “heart of the campus” should look to customer service models which emphasize the atmosphere, aesthetics and accoutrements of the physical space, diligent training of student workers, staff and faculty and a proactive and practical use of technology.  Maintaining the status quo is not only counterproductive, but also a disservice to the student body, faculty and greater community which we serve.


Gardner, C. A. (2005). The Importance of customer service. Virginia Libraries 51(4), 2-4.

Gayton, J. T. (2008). Academic libraries: "social" or "communal?" The nature and future of academic libraries. Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.1: 60-66.
Hernon, P. (1996). Service quality in libraries and treating users as customers and non-users as lost or never-gained customers. Journal of  Academic Librarianship, 22,171-172.
Horovitz, B. (2007, September 28). Something else to check out at library: Starbucks. USA Today.
Nitecki, D. A.  (2000). Service quality in academic libraries. In Encyclopedia of library and information science ( Vol. 65, pp. 216-231). New York: Marcel Dekker Inc.
Ross, L.,  & Sennyey, P. (2008). The Library is dead, long live the library! The practice of academic librarianship and the digital rvolution. Journal of Academic Librarianship 34(2) , 145-152.
Sandy, J. H. (2008). Interior decorating offers a way to connect with patrons. PNLA Quarterly 72(4), 4-6.

Wehmeyer, S., Auchter, D., & Hirshon, A. (1996). Saying what we will do, and doing what we say: Implementing a customer service plan. Journal of Academic Librarianship 22(3), 173-180.

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