Thursday, 17 November 2011

Navigational Aides: Auckland + Edmonton + Elsewhere

A member of the public, equipped for all terrain, uses a
check-out machine at Edmonton’s downtown library.
“Our professionally trained staff take you beyond Google with the knowledge, discernment and desire to help you navigate a universe of information.” 

To an e-(lectronic), i-(nternet) and info-junkie like me, that’s the ultimate: the best I could wish for. The Edmonton Public Library must think so, too, because that sentence features in many of its media releases, including one that trumpets the 17-library system’s win of North America’s biggest library PR award. This Canadian institution has made people sit up and take notice in places other than Libraryland, too, with its 2010 rebranding and “guerilla marketing” campaign winning eight diverse other awards.

Spreading the Words  
Messages such as “We make geek chic”, “Market stats. City maps”, “Beyoncé’s latest. Beethoven’s greatest”, “We share stories” and the all-encompassing “Spread the words” feature on posters, carry-bags and other merchandise, showing the library has gone all out to be up with the play, down with the brown, the new black (but in this decade’s version of technicolour).

Billboard on Edmonton Public Library building, downtown.
Does the public library achieve all those things? Does it help me navigate a universe of information? Here I deviate momentarily to admit that I’m the person who steps away from the dinner table, regardless of guests, to go online and track down or verify some essential piece of trivia. I’m certainly not the only one, in this universe of everything available both instantly and electronically, but my info-snobbery may set me apart. For the real gen* I often go “beyond Google”, Wikipedia and the other user-generated sources.

This year I’ve followed a Libraryland debate about the future of reference services around the world. Apparently, many public libraries have recorded new lows in the number of reference questions they receive. “Now we’ve got the internet,” some people suggest, “we don’t need trained and specialist library staff to help us find stuff.”  

We may not need some of the printed books that have traditionally been the authorities, collectively offering The Answer To Every Question. It’s unlikely the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, accessible online through Auckland Libraries membership, will ever be printed, and at the Sir Edmund Hillary Library in Papakura, I was sad to see recent international reference books on sale for a dollar apiece. The library didn’t have the space, I gathered, and people didn’t use them any more.

R is for Reference: books bought for a dollar
apiece at Papakura Public Library.

The result in Papakura wasn’t entirely negative: my partner and I found good homes for some of the rejected volumes, and anyway, as members of Auckland Libraries many townspeople are encouraged to use the extensive, authoritative electronic reference databases to which the city subscribes. 

Going Google-Eyed?
There’s a tendency, though, to assume anyone can find what they want these days by typing a word or two into a general search engine. At a public library branch in my part of Auckland, I was dismayed when a friendly staff member directed me to Google. Even though I showed him which authoritative New Zealand bird book I wanted from an official-looking booklist, he thought (after we discovered its absence from the shelf) I’d find what I needed on Google Images.

Effective reference services — ones that use trained organic brains as well as search-engine brawn — are more important than ever in libraries. I love the way Eugenie Prime, then head librarian at Hewlett-Packard, put it in a passionate, quirky doco, The Hollywood Librarian. We [Librarians] help people define what their information need is, she said. Many people ...ask questions, and it’s not the real question. We have a way of getting people to share with us what that problem is and then are able to package the answer in a way they would want. Google can’t meet that, no way.  

Today’s reference services may involve showing library users how to find things out, and where; how to assess the quality of information and access the most valuable sources. This is knowledge we all need in an age of information overload, and librarians are among the best to help us get it. Of course many simple, straightforward questions are asked in public libraries, and some of the askers may not be equipped to absorb a detailed and on-the-spot demonstration of research techniques. In those cases an old-fashioned method of reference help — serving up The Perfect and Indisputable Answer on a plate — is still good.

Empty section, downtown library, Edmonton.
Before people will consult reference services and their trained staff, it’s important to publicise their availability and value. Enter Edmonton Public Library and its marketing campaign. But does EPL go on to “help you navigate a universe of information”? Well, maybe. On the face of it, the big downtown branch didn’t do that when I was in town.

Reference Points in a Downtown Library
The purpose-designed building next to Churchill Square dates from 1967, but the Stanley A. Milner Library layout has clearly been updated over the years. There’s a new children’s library out the front, and another refit of the whole complex seemed to be underway when I returned after an inspiring first encounter

What gave me that impression? Rows and rows of empty shelves, with no indication of where books had gone or might be moving, and why. Vacant or superceded enquiry desks, with nothing to say whether they might be staffed. Mixed messages and obsolescence in signs, logos and fittings.

I loved the EPL marketing campaign, the library network’s extensive collections of CDs and DVDs, its writer in residence scheme, its wide-ranging programme of events and the EPL facilities I saw at Strathcona, the University of Alberta (eplGo), Callingwood (Lois Hole) and Woodcroft. I wanted to love the downtown library, too, but apart from the separate children’s library (where hanging out too long as an unaccompanied adult might get you some strange looks), on the day I visited it didn’t feel like a place where I could navigate a universe of information. Hell, I’d be lucky if I could navigate a single storey — or story.

Empty Desk Syndrome
Edmonton’s downtown library didn’t feel like a place with trained professionals available and eager to help. Oh, there were enquiry desks here and there. But the brilliant Access Department for people with disabilities wasn’t staffed (it opens weekdays, nine to five); neither was the Heritage Room; several other enquiry desks had an empty appearance. As I moved about the floor I saw few staff, though library users were in evidence. Even self-service supermarkets have more staff out and about, it occurred to me.

The EPL Access desk is scheduled for closure, I gather, along with most assistance areas in the downtown branch, and in future those who worked there may staff a single, street-level, enquiry desk. I’d be curious to see how that affects service and the overall atmosphere. Emptying most floor areas of identifiable staff seems a pretty strange initiative for a main branch that (I’ve read) has worked hard to deal with the security, safety and “ambience” problems faced by many downtown libraries. And while I’m all for patron power, I question whether it’s best achieved in a large building by concentrating most trained staff in one relatively small place that’s not exactly central. All these things make me wonder if EPL is putting its money where its marketing mouth is.**

Fine Arts and History desk at
Vancouver downtown library.
Compare and Contrast
While in Canada last month I visited another downtown library, Vancouver’s. Although its branding, handouts and posters aren’t as slick as Edmonton’s and some collections appear smaller, I think this city has got it mostly right. Vancouver has staffed desks on every level, signs that are relevant and a lot more handouts recommending books and reference materials on topics of current interest. Nothing seemed in a state of flux when I was there; everything was being used. I felt I could navigate — or that if I got myself lost, I could at least locate a staff member.

Admittedly the Vancouver downtown library building is much newer but libraries, to paraphrase EPL marketing, are bigger than their buildings. They’re about people, even for diehard information junkies like me.

 * It’s typical that on typing “gen” I felt the need to look it up using my mobile wireless broadband and Auckland Libraries’ Oxford Reference Online, where the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang told me it was “Brit, orig services'. noun”, meaning “Information. 1940–. Daily Telegraph A vast amount of gen is included, and this will be invaluable for settling arguments (1970).” 

** Please check comment #2, from a well informed someone reassuring me that under the new set-up, staff will indeed be out and about in EPL’s downtown branch.


  1. i know this is slightly off topic: Redundancy means librarian denied chance to share skills [] but a) does relate to the general theme of skilled professional real people are helpful & b) it's really sad & disappointing ...

  2. I encourage you to contact Virginia Clevette, Manager of the Stanley Milner Library, for details of the renovations and service model changes.

    It is not "emptying most floor areas of identifiable staff", nor "concentrating most trained staff in one relatively small place that’s not exactly central" but rather removing multiple desks (which have proven confusing to customers and has required cumbersome referral between them), and creating one clearly-defined service area supported by an on-the-floor service model. This model has staff scheduled out from behind desks, on both floors during all open hours, to help customers at their point of need and not require them to leave their computers or work areas to seek assistance at a desk. Renovations start next week!

  3. Alison and Anon, thank you for your comments.

    Anon, I guess a blog is like an album, giving snapshots of what's glimpsed through the viewfinder at a point in time, plus some captions that are the writer's take on things. So it's good to get your insight, and I've emailed Ms Clevette (I hope!), inviting her to add to your comment or to clarify further.

  4. However, a "snapshot of what's glimpsed through the viewfinder at a point in time" is exactly a customer's perspective.

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