Sunday, April 06, 2008

If I Have A Degree And I Can't Find Anything, Why Should The Regular Patron Have More Luck?

I went down to Lakewood Public Library tonight.

Even though it's my local library, and I've voted for the levies, I don't use Lakewood Public Library. I use Cleveland Public Library, West Park Branch. LPL's collection doesn't appeal to me, and the old building was awful. Cramped, but made worse by the fact that they seem to be think disorganization is a virtue.

If you wanted a book and you knew the title, it could be in one of many places. If it was a recent fiction title or a title recently acquired (but how would you know?), it could be over in the stacks by genre or by the new books. Or even in one of the standup displays. In addition, I've also looked for books that are listed in the catalog as being on the shelf, but when I enlisted the help of the staff I was told the book was "in storage. Or maybe missing."

You were constantly hunting. Could you ask for help? Maybe, but the reference desk was upstairs, and circulation didn't seem to do more than check out books. I once overheard an elderly woman ask for a list of movies that they had with Bette Davis, and be told that there was no way to get her such a thing.

Well, yes there is. It's called searching the catalog by keyword, and if you don't want to help her, send her to reference.

Compare this with Euclid Public Library, which is the freaking master of layout. There is nothing Euclid does better than putting the books in front of you, and the staff to answer your question, no matter what it is.

But I digress, and I'm biased.

I was over at the lovely new wing, which looks like a freaking temple but has no signs. No, really. A couple of weeks ago I went over to find a copy of Three Bags Full, which is a new book, and wandered through the new and popular materials room downstairs for a full 20 minutes before I realized that the new fiction is apparently housed in the bookshelf in the far left corner. I say apparently, because I don't know, as it's not labeled and that begs the question of what the hell is on the (also unlabeled) half-filled shelves filling the room.

And it's just not me, because of the other patrons I encountered tonight.

One was a couple down by music who were trying to figure out CD system. At one point in their discussion they said they can't find anything and asked me how the CDs are arranged. I told them that I think they're arranged alphabetically, but at some point they get categorized by genre, but you can't tell because there's no clue to what genre you're looking at from the spine of the CD case. Unprompted, they expressed disgust and confusion about the lack of signs and wondered how they were supposed to find what they wanted.

Then I had to try to find something in the paperback ghetto upstairs and as I was striding purposefully through the nonfiction a woman behind me said "Excuse me--can you help me? Do you work here?" I told her that I didn't work there but I certainly could try to help her. She was looking for a travel guide for Portugal and had asked at reference and been told "it's in the 900s."

I restrained myself from punching a wall.

First off, you don't let patrons wander off into the stacks with "it's in the 900s." You tell them a number, you write it down, and it's better if you walk them over, especially when you have no signage.. If you can't walk them over, you especially need to write down the number. And why you'd build a library and not put staff by the books they'd be directing people to is beyond me, but hey, I didn't design the place. And I'm biased on the libraries should have professional staff issue, but I do think that a willingness and ability to interact with people is, you know, mandatory.

So I help her find what she's looking for, and she asks me what I think of the library. And I tell her I'm looking at it with different eyes because I'm a professional, but I think it sucks. Lakewood Public Library is the worst example I've seen of making it pretty but not useful. It's fundamentally disorganized. And if a professional can't easily find her way around the collection, can't find the book return bin because it's hidden, and thinks the upstairs stacks are too tall and ripe for a flashing incident, how can a civilian find her way around?

There's a lot of talk in library world about how we don't connect with our users, why people get disgusted with us, why they won't ask questions, and this is why. The physical plant is alienating. The staff is absent or unhelpful. The patrons aren't necessarily lazy or dumb. Even when we're pretty, we're not perfect.

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