everything i needed to know about library policy i learned from "generation kill"

The last episode of the HBO miniseries “Generation Kill” contains a conversation between the Commander of the First Recon Battalion (nicknamed Godfather because of his voice) and the embedded reporter traveling with the Marines. Straightaway the reporter asks Godfather why he didn’t take disciplinary action against a deranged and sadistic Captain (nicknamed Captain America).

Godfather responds by telling the reporter that sometimes the boundaries of acceptable behavior are larger than expected. He compares Captain America’s irresponsible actions to the insubordinate attitude of a sympathetic character on the show and says he must trust his soldiers. His explanation highlights the fact that even though the USMC is a highly structured and disciplined organization, or at least it is often perceived that way, there’s still plenty of room for personal judgment. Which brings me to libraries. Are libraries more disciplined than the USMC? Is it easy for library staff to follow unpopular policies and procedures?

Generation.Kill.S01E07.HDTV.XviD-0TV.aviIn a staff meeting the other day we reevaluated how we were handling web access guest passes for people who forgot their library card. This lead to a long, difficult and great discussion about book checkout without library cards, access to print materials vs. non-print materials, customer service, fairness, the potential of implicitly limiting access to young people without ID, protecting people’s library accounts, and the best use of staff time. More libraries don’t have user-centered policies and procedures is because writing them can be hard work. The easiest thing to do would have been to skip the whole discussion, not worry about all of that stuff, end the meeting sooner, and come up with a policy that everyone would have ignored, including me. There are too many situations that fall within the boundaries of reasonable behavior to think it would always be followed. Instead of doing this and instead of coming up with a unrealistically restrictive policy in the process, we took the time and came up with something useful.

The NPPL’s staff want to provide a great customer experience. Doing things like knowing people’s names when they approach the circ desk and starting to check them out even before they have time to find their library card are a part of creating a good experience. And because we spent the time detailing exactly how we can best serve our patrons, no one has to break any rules to do it. The ability to provide good customer service is built in to our procedures.

4 thoughts on “everything i needed to know about library policy i learned from "generation kill"”

  1. I wouldn’t agree that it is writing the policy that is hard work, it’s having too many policies. If the staff are really customer service focused (rather than the policy being so) that policy writes itself.

  2. @Jeff,

    I see what you’re saying, Jeff, and taking it a step further, there’s no way to *make* staff service focused with policy, that’s for sure.

    However, it is still nice to have policy/official procedures in line with what service focused staff want to do. And it is nice that their attitude drives that procedure making rather than the other way around. I think that’s what you meant by “that policy writes itself.”

  3. I agree with the knowing of the patrons, learning their names, greeting them, etc., being an important part of good service to our patrons. It is also very important with dealing with problem patrons. Our branch has it’s share of perverts, gang members, etc., and it certainly helps us to keep problems under control by letting them know that we know who they are, and are aware of their being there….
    The concept of starting to check out the books for them as they come up as part of the recognition and “appreciation,” is lovely in concept, but we have had to go to requiring the patrons to have their cards physically with them because of the amount of fraud involved with internet usage, checking out materials on someone else’s card and not being returned, etc. We try to maintain a fair, consistent policy within our branch, but since we are part of a 33 library system, there are variations in interpretation and enforcement everywhere. Application and interpretation become very complicated at times.

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