The Limitations of Self-Service Start with “Self”

9 May

I went to my public library last weekend. It was the first time that I’d been there in several months and “WOW!” was I in for some surprises. The first thing that I noticed was the space that used to be the Friends of the Library’s book store was now reconfigured and contained a really long series/system of conveyor belts and other such equipment. Bright red. My first thought was that they’d purchased an on-demand printer, the kind that prints copies of books that a library doesn’t have right there on the spot. “Cool!”, I thought. But then I saw a sign that explained that this was the new material return system. Quite fancy, indeed. 

Next, I walked the few steps forward into the main area and noticed the entire front desk was gone. The check-out stations, the reserve shelves, the people there to help… all gone. In its place was a cafe stand with coffee, tea, and assorted other goodies, some tables and chairs, and a very nice new bookstore for the Friends group. Then I saw an “Information Center” (round) prominently placed in the middle of the main entry. It was staffed with several people, each one of them helping patrons. I saw more self-serve check-out counters/machines for videos, DVDs, and books. I saw more stand-alone computer stations for searching the library catalog. In brief, I saw a complete “Do It Yourself” library.

The DIY movement is big, you know. You can check-out your own groceries. You can add channels to your cable package through your remote control. You can serve up your own yogurt at the frozen yogurt store. And of course, you can pump your own gas. This we’ve been doing forever.

Back in the 50s and 60s, my grandfather, Granddaddy Gore, owned a service station in Alexandria, Virginia. It was right on Route 1, the main thoroughfare into and out of Washington, DC. I remember stories my granddaddy told of senators and members of congress, and often their drivers, stopping in for service on their way to and from work. We used to kid him that he knew everyone in Alexandria and it really wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Friendly and outgoing, Granddaddy Gore would strike up a conversation with anyone. When I delivered his eulogy, a number of years ago now, I said, “The world is a little less friendlier today, without Granddaddy in it.” 

Granddaddy Gore_ESSO Pics_Page_2

Gore’s Esso Servicecenter

I thought of my grandfather and his SERVICEcenter this past week after visiting my public library.  I thought of him again as I was putting gas in my car this morning and couldn’t get the darned gas cap off, spending a good 10-minutes prying the door open with a screwdriver. And as I thought about how much we’ve replaced with self-service in our lives, I thought about some of the things that we’ve given up for the sake of “convenience.” 

My own library has moved many once-mediated tasks to self-service. It makes good sense, economically. You really don’t need people to staff a desk and check-out books now and then. You don’t need a person to get a reserve item for a medical student. We’re an academic health sciences library. We don’t check out many books and we serve a bunch of people who are used to doing things themselves. Their way. And that’s A-OK by me. 

However, as I sat in a planning meeting for a symposium that the mammography study team is hosting in a couple of weeks and I listened to the discussion between the researchers, the representatives from Quantitative Health Sciences, the representative from Information Services, and the representative from the Library (moi) each offer our input and stake our claims to the aspects of data management we provide, I thought again about my grandfather’s servicecenter and what perhaps is an unplanned (and unwanted) repercussion to our self-service world… we do everything ourselves

"How can I help you?"

“How can I help you?”

Now don’t get me wrong, the idea of self-sufficiency is a good one, for sure. It’s good to know how to do things for yourself. It saves time and effort and money. It saves the hassle of fitting into someone else’s schedule. It saves the embarrassment of admitting you don’t know how to do something that you think you should.

But does it?

Are our efforts at doing everything ourselves really the most efficient? When multiple people end up duplicating work, are we really saving money? When you continually have to teach yourself something new, rather than going to someone who already knows it, are you saving yourself any time and/or any effort?

As I’ve written in the past, I believe that one of the biggest hurdles preventing us from making great strides in research (in many things) is communication. People simply don’t know what other people know. They don’t know what other people do. And when you don’t know these things and you live in a culture that promotes DIY behavior, that’s exactly what you end up getting, i.e. everyone doing everything for themselves. And more than a little frustrated in the process.

I once took an auto mechanics class in the adult learning program of a local public school system, just so I’d know how to change the oil in my car. And I did it. I changed the oil in my car. Twice. After crawling under my car, getting filthy dirty, trying to find the right place to recycle used motor oil, I figured that really this is a job better suited to the folks at the oil change place. The folks that do this every day. The folks that have the skills and the tools and the expertise to change my oil in under 30-minutes. I’m glad I learned how to do it, but I’m more glad that they exist to do it for me. 

Making a House Call

Making a House Call

As we find our places on research teams and in other settings that allow us the opportunity to say, “You know, I can do that for you. That’s really what I know how to do,” the more value librarians will add to the working order of things. When it comes to information, data, and knowledge management, there are a thousand steps to take and tasks to be done. No one group needs to do them all and surely no three groups need to be doing them all! I was incredibly frustrated when I first stepped out of that planning meeting, but afterward saw that it was a great opportunity to begin really dissecting these tasks and processes, and figuring out which of us does what part(s) best. Once we know that and can communicate it widely to the research community here, we’ll greatly improve the work we do. And I’m glad to report that we’re on our way in this task.

6 Responses to “The Limitations of Self-Service Start with “Self””

  1. Susan May 9, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    This is so true. A great example is the advanced complex search strategies required in systematic review work. That level of complexity really does require someone who works with the databases and constructs search strategies all the time. The challenge is how to explain the point at which something that can usually be done with self service turns into something that requires expertise.

    It is obvious that your grandfather provided more then expertise though, he also provided a friendly and warm connection with his customers and I am sure many service opportunities arrived serendipitously. I work part-time at a public library that has no DIY available. As a clerk, I check out all the materials for patrons. Nearly every transaction includes a friendly chat, there is often the opportunity to point out other books they might like based on the ones they are checking out, and chances to talk about other services they might enjoy. A patron called me the other day wanting to renew her books. She didn’t have her card number and, to protect privacy, it is against our policy to get into a patron’s record with just their name. But while on the phone I overheard her talking to a baggage handler. So I asked, “are you traveling?” “Oh, yes,” she said “we have been out of town and our flight got delayed and then canceled. We were supposed to be back two days ago. I’m sorry, I don’t know which bag my library card is in. I’ll have to call back.” “That;s okay,” I said, “just this once i can look you up by your name.” And while I was at it, I forgave the fines she had already accrued for her materials being one day overdue. Now there are whole levels of service that could have never happened if all that had been DIY and automated.

    • salgore May 9, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

      Thanks, Susan. I wholeheartedly agree that we lose an awful lot in sacrificing the human connection and interaction. I do understand budgets, but I really don’t understand an economy that continues to sacrifice people for “efficiency” and cost. What’s wrong with people having jobs to do? But, I didn’t want to go off on that tangent in this piece. I had to reign myself in. 🙂

  2. Regina Raboin May 12, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    Sally, I like this post. Some of us on Tisch Library’s Data Management Services group are involved in a data management software pilot project and the group is working very well for several reasons, one of these being that everyone brings some type of expertise and we all do ‘our job’ in making the project work. If I need help from one of our technology guru’s then I ask…self-service in this case would be ‘self-defeating’ and jeopardize the project. DIY is good too, many people learn best this way, and sometimes we find out, just like you did, that we all need a Granddaddy Gore.

    • salgore May 12, 2014 at 9:56 am #

      That’s one of the best lessons I’ve learned from the mammography study team the past couple of years, Regina. Like your data group, the team functions really well because everyone brings an expertise to the table. I guess that’s teamwork at it’s best.

  3. Brandy King May 12, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

    If you go in a grocery store, you’ll notice that there are very few people actually USING the four self-checkouts. And those who do look confused and frustrated. It’s much much quicker to go through with a cashier, even if you only have a few items. Between the machine yelling at you that you didnt put your item on the conveyor belt (even though you did, and it’s just not heavy enough to register), looking up the obscure code for vidalia onions, and then fumbling to insert cash into the machine, it’s just a much longer process than necessary!

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