Public libraries face a lot of competition these days. 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.

A few public libraries have been working hard at presenting a more welcoming image. Some have incorporated coffee shops or background music. The noisy library is a happy, well-used library, with separate study areas maintained for those who need peace and quiet. Even those libraries that retain more traditional policies have incorporated popular forms of entertainment in their collections, from music and DVDs to graphic novels and comics, and even, in some cases, video games — all to satisfy changing patron desires and expectations.

Despite these attractions, many in the younger generations would prefer to surf the Internet from the comfort of their homes, or expend their disposable income on the luxury of new entertainment items from hip stores, rather than setting foot in a library. I have recently encountered several intelligent twenty-somethings who have not set foot in a public library since childhood, and have no idea that all these cool new collections exist, let alone that public libraries might be trying to foster a more welcoming image.

… will it be better in the long run to give the customer the benefit of the doubt?

In this era of transition, customer service is more important than ever. We need to maintain a positive and welcoming image — both to retain the patrons we have and encourage them to bring others. Public libraries are far from the only game in town, and we cannot afford to drive away those who actually make the effort to visit. Faced with a bad library experience, many customers have the power to go elsewhere. Furthermore, our patrons deserve to be treated with respect. The well-worn motto "The customer is always right" has served retail in good stead for years. While we may not be able to make this assertion in all cases — particularly with regard to censorship issues — there are many ways in which we can improve our relationship with our patrons without sacrificing the library's ability to provide resources to others.

In our nation, a person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Someone who reports a murder is not automatically suspected of committing it. While this may seem to be an extreme comparison, if a customer brings back an item and informs the staff that it was already damaged, what is your response? Will it save the library more money to assume that the patron is lying, and charge her with the damage? Or will it be better in the long run to give the customer the benefit of the doubt? Particularly for those patrons who have good records, the library has more to lose than to gain by insisting that the patron pay for these damaged items. Let's take a look at two real-life examples. The names have been changed, but these incidents in Virginia libraries are real, and the patrons involved are known to be honest and trustworthy.

Chuck, a senior citizen, World War II veteran, and retired English professor, and his wife, Deborah, a high school teacher, checked out a video at their local library. Upon trying to watch it, they found that the VHS case was broken and the tape wouldn't play. When they conscientiously returned the video and explained the problem, the staff refused to admit that it could have been checked out that way. This couple had been responsible library patrons for years — so responsible that, when the library refused to believe their innocence, they went ahead and paid the replacement cost — not as an admission of guilt, but so that they could continue to use the library. However, they have decided never to check out videos again, afraid of being blamed for damage they didn't cause.

Instead of receiving this honesty with gratitude, the staff blamed him and insisted on charging him for the item.

In another instance, Salim, a young man with a bachelor's degree in Fine Arts who is pursuing graduate studies in early childhood education, checked out a music CD from his local library. When he found that it skipped, he brought it back and went to the trouble of letting staff know, rather than simply dropping it off for the next patron to discover that it didn't work. Instead of receiving this honesty with gratitude, the staff blamed him and insisted on charging him for the item. Unwilling to pay an undeserved fee, Salim cancelled his library membership. While he feels that there are probably other, friendlier library systems in the area, he has not yet been back to a library, but chooses instead to patronize shops. He made the point that when you treat honest citizens like criminals, it is highly offensive.

Is it worth the price of that $10 videocassette to alienate a patron? There are, of course, obvious instances when a patron is responsible for damage, such as when an item is brought in sopping wet. However, particularly with high-use and fragile AV materials, it is much more likely that the damage occurred over time through use. In today's fast-paced world, the patron who takes the trouble to come in and let you know that the item is damaged, rather than simply slipping it in the bookdrop, is most likely telling the truth. More than that, the patron is saving the library time and effort by pointing out an item that is probably due for replacement anyway, as well as saving another patron the time and aggravation of getting the material home only to find out that it doesn't work. Consider that while the library may have a policy of glancing over items while checking them out to be certain they are intact, with a line of patrons and ringing phones, staff will not always have time and attention to be completely vigilant. Some problems aren't even visible to the naked eye, and materials do need to be replaced over time. Perhaps this is part of the price we pay to serve our patrons: to cover such damage in order to keep good patrons, rather than risk offending the innocent in order to be certain that we catch all the guilty.

There are, of course, other policies that can have a negative impact on patrons, leaving them with a needlessly bad impression of the library. Perhaps your library has a policy preventing cell phone use except in the lobby — a practice that may be entirely reasonable, especially in high-density areas like computer labs or study carrels. However, in a world in which so many expect to be connected at all times, is it wise to have both a ban on cell phone use, and a policy that prohibits using the intercom for incoming phone calls? A sister may need to reach her brother; a student may need to reach his tutor; a businessperson may need to warn another that she will be late. Recently, a museum curator — let's call her Luisa — was traveling to meet and interview Tom, who might provide entertainment for an upcoming exhibit. As a neutral meeting place, they naturally chose a public library near Tom's home. Traveling to an unfamiliar area and caught in traffic, Luisa realized that she might be as much as half an hour late. Fearing that Tom might think he had been stood up, she attempted to call his home, and found he had already left for the library. She called his cell phone and left a message. Receiving no response, she called information and got the library's number. After Luisa described her situation, the staff member informed Luisa that it was forbidden to use the intercom — even to pass along a message. If Luisa could describe Tom, the librarian would be willing to walk around and look for him — but, of course, they had never met. Discouraged, Luisa arrived at last and was grateful to find that Tom was still there. Ironically, while in the library, Luisa did hear the intercom being used to call someone else to the front desk. Clearly, there were occasions when the intercom could be used — the staff member had simply decided that Luisa's case was unimportant. Did the brief potential disruption of the thoughts of library patrons on a Saturday morning really outweigh the benefit to Luisa and Tom?

… it's okay to question the policy and see if exceptions can be made …

But customer service should go beyond sympathetic responses to problems. We need to project a positive, helpful image — to provide each patron's visit with value, rather than simply explaining our policies. Be an enabler — figure out how you can help, and provide a solution, instead of simply saying no. For instance, don't just say, "I'm sorry, we don't have a fax machine for public use." Go one step farther and let the patron know where a few local options might be, or at least direct him to the yellow pages in the reference department. If you don't have a book the patron needs and she doesn't have time to wait for ILL, recommend other libraries or even local bookstores. You aren't driving away business, you're creating grateful customers. A genuine desire to help will come through in tone of voice, eye contact, facial expressions, and body language. Assure the patron that you're on her side, rather than confronting or accusing her. And make sure you don't stand on policy all the time. Managers should make certain that employees know it's okay to question the policy and see if exceptions can be made. Encourage your staff to think outside the box. Many staff members who could have made a positive difference may be so afraid of breaking the rules that they fear to question the supervisor or think of a creative solution.

Finally, be sure to make note of customer requests and problems. Patrons' needs are changing with the times, and your patrons might just be alerting you to policies that need to change as well. Take the time to seriously reflect and reevaluate longstanding policies that may have less validity now or even present problems in the modern age.

As public libraries are supported by tax dollars, we exist solely to serve our customers — literally. Good customer service is especially important now, with so much competition from other sources of entertainment, let alone retailers and the Internet. Don't assume that patrons will keep coming back just because you are "The Library." While we know that the public library is a wonderful place, it's up to us to make certain that our patrons see it that way, too. They deserve both our help and our respect. If we want to continue to serve patrons, then we need to make that our primary motive: to serve them to the best of our abilities. It's time to go one step farther and think about how to solve problems while the customer is still on our side.VL