Sunday, June 04, 2006

Diary of a patron

I'm a bad patron.

I drop books all the time. I'm not talking about a little tumble. I mean spine-breaking, jacket crumpling drops. (I would never treat my own books like this. But c'mon, they're library books.) I often eat while I read, and I tend to dribble or get crumbs all over the page.

And yesterday, when I went up to the information desk to ask for help, I didn't even come close to asking a question that truly indicated what I wanted to find out. I wasn't playing secret shopper, I genuinely had a question that needed answering, and I couldn't answer it myself.

Well, that's not entirely true. I tried to answer it myself. I knew exactly where to find the information, and frankly, I would have preferred to figure it out on my own. All I needed to do was check a particular website.

So, I walked up to the information desk and asked for a guest internet login. The person I spoke with got flustered, and explained that they don't do that. They can generate a temporary login, but only if someone is having trouble using their card. I explained that I just moved here and am actually elligible for a card, but I don't have anything with my address yet, so I can't get a card. She suggested I go ask someone at another desk and maybe they would give me a login. As I was walking away, she started to explain what I should say at the next desk, but it was so confusing that I couldn't quite follow her.

Desk number two. I ask again, with the same story. I briefly considered lying, but that was just too much effort. This time I get a lengthy explanation of library policy. Which under normal circumstances I would find fascinating, but right now all I really wanted was about three minutes of internet time. I was already grumpy because I had a hard time figuring out the stairs and elevators to even reach the floor with the books and computers. Now I was being lectured about how tourists and homeless people were sitting at the computers all day so that regular people couldn't use them. Because I was feeling ornery, I pointed out that homless people are regular people, too. (Nevermind that tourists are a huge source of revenue for the city, and it's probably in the library's best interest to be nice to them.) Again, I was told to try asking someone else, although this time I received no coaching on what to say. Number three said, "Don't ask me, I'm not going to contravene the rules. Go ask somebody else."


I'm very good at following directions, so I in fact do ask somebody else. Second verse, same as the first. Only this time, she mentions that there are guest computers on every floor that don't require a login and points me in the right direction. Unfortunately, there are only two guest computers and a bit of a lineup. At this point, I'm so discouraged that I have to go call a friend. Yes, I used my cell phone in the library. I felt very naughty.

So I called a friend and told him how the library made me sad. Usually he's good for a pep talk, but he had his own sad library story that day. He was at the coast and wanted to know if it was legal to build a fire on the beach. So he called the local library and asked. The answer? "Umm, I don't know. You could try calling city hall, but it's Saturday, so they're closed." In the end, all he got was, "Well, I think it's probably okay."

It never even occured to me that I could ask someone to check the website for me. Since I'd exhausted all other possibilities, I returned to the information desk. I made sure to find somebody new since I didn't want to talk to any of the mean people again.

Here's what I wanted to find out: I'm apartment hunting, and I found a place I like. I want to know what my commute would be. So, traveling by public transit, what time would I have to leave home if I wanted to be at work by 9:30am? The Caltrain is only a few blocks from the library, and I know there's a train that arrives at 9:13. I can catch the #47 bus to the train station. What time would I have to catch the bus to make my connection? There's a nifty trip planning website that will tell me exactly what I need to know. I've looked it up before, I just need a little reminder. I suppose I could even ride my bike to the train station if that would be faster.

Here's what I actually asked: How long does it take to get from San Francisco to San Carlos by bus?

I was greeted by the sharp intake of breath and mild look of shock that instantly signals to me that this person is not familiar with public transit. I do not own a car and thus assume that all things are possible on public transit. Most car owners believe precisely the opposite.

She shakes her head for a bit and asks the person sitting next to her. I learn that it is about a half hour drive. Not particularly helpful. She then guesses a travel time of about an hour. Although this does (somewhat unreliably) answer my initial question, I am feeling grumpy because it's not actually what I want to know. I try again, and my second question hits a bit closer to the mark. "What time would I have to catch the bus?"

Let me assure you that none of this subterfuge is on purpose. I am just being incompetent.

She manages to find the parent site of the trip planner, and I point out the appropriate link. I then give her the exact departure location, arrival time, etc, and finally get my answer.

Still undaunted, I decide to go look at a San Francisco guide book to read about the neighborhoods. I go to one of the catalog computers and type san francisco guide books, hoping to find out what floor the travel books are on. The first five results are:
  • The San Francisco Bay Area Jobbank

  • The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area

  • Wild Ireland: A Traveller's Guide

  • Awakening Your Sexuality a Guide for Recovering Women

  • Inside the Music

Well, at least the Chowhound should be in the right section. I click on the title, but it's an ebook, so no hints about which floor I want. At this point, I remember that I am a librarian, and I know I want the 917s. So I look around for signs and get even more confused. Eventually I find the right section, if only by accident. One book has a "San Francisco top ten" list at the front, with the library listed as number one. I can't help but wonder if that's why the library bought the book. Another book suggests the library or the Apple store if you need to check your email. I guess they don't know about the library's tourist policy.

On the way out the door, I got stopped by a uniformed guard because I beeped going through the sensor. Well, again, not entirely true. Actually, some random good samaritan decided to help the uniformed guy by yelling at me until I turned around and came back. I knew I would beep on the way out because I had beeped on the way in. I had books from another library, things I had checked out to myself and not bothered to desensitize because I exit through the staff door -- no sensor. I wasn't the only person to get stopped. Everyone who walked through at the same time had to open their bags for our accuser. It wasn't enough to explain what had happened, I had to turn over the offending books and walk through the beeper again.

Honestly, I never want to go back. I got to thinking about what the book said about the Apple store, and I think I might head there next time I'm downtown and need a quick email fix. No login, no time limit. Hmm...

Indulge me as I ask another dumb question: What if we didn't make people login?

I know, I know, there's about ten zillion reasons not to. Try to push past the "but we could NEVER do THAT" reflex. Is time management software really there to create a better user experience, or is it there to make things easier for libraries? Are we really meeting demand, or are we just managing it by imposing a bunch of restrictions? What if we started from a different place? What if the goal were no user login? What would that look like? Hmm...


At 5:15 PM, Anonymous Wendy said...

Heidi -- good luck at the Apple Store. Since I've just moved to a new city and do not yet have an Internet connection at home, I've also had to go scrounging for open internet access.

With regards to open logins, the Queen's University Library doens't password protect the machines in any way. Anyone can walk in and use a machine for as long as they'd like. The university is located close to residential areas and downtown Kingston, so townsfolk do come and use the computers. Aparently this hasn't caused enough problems for the library to start password protecting the machines. Great! However, you do need a university id to log into the wireless connection.

The Kingston Public Library is a different story. It requires a library card to log into machines, and you can only use them for one hour a day. No guest login is available, but there are four express terminals that don't require any special ID, so I was able to use them to check my email. They have a 15 minute limit and then the machine times out, but you can keep using them again and again if no one else is in line.

Interestingly, the public library does NOT require you to have a library card to connect to their wireless network; you simply need to ask a librarian (or use text messaging on your cell phone) to get a connection token that's valid for a week.

As I settle into my new apartment, I don't know what's worse: not having any furniture, or not having an Internet connection.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger Angel, librarian and educator said...

Hmm, interesting. On the one hand, that sounds like one of the worst public libraries I have heard of. When I moved to where I live now, I had to go apartment hunting and a couple other things. The public library was able to give me a guest log-in just fine as long as I had an ID (any ID. I think I showed my out of state DL at the time). They were very pleasant overall.

Having said that, I can give you a share of reasons to have your machines protected with passwords. Security being one of them. I always bristle a little at people who just want to leave the computers wide open to every Dick, Jane and Harry that can walk in and do who knows what in the name of open access to all. Maybe I just don't have that much faith in people. Maybe, I have seen my share of problems when there are no limits, which I have. We recently had to put time limits on our express terminals. Not because we hate patrons, but simply because there was abuse of the system. In conditions where resources are limited, sometimes severely, limits are often necessary for fairness as well as consistency. I just have to wonder at times why is it when this is needed, the advocates have to be labeling the limits as "impediments" to progress? Full freedom may work in the ideal world of 2.0, but there is the real world where most of us operate.

Best, and keep on blogging.


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