- Creating the Customer-Driven Academic Library
Jeannette Woodward cites declining circulation statistics, lower gate counts, and increasing availability of online resources from off-campus as warnings that academic libraries face an uncertain future and challenges not felt by other kinds of libraries. Although she included some sections on research libraries and community college libraries in her 2005 book Creating the Customer-Driven Library: Building on the Bookstore Model (Chicago: ALA, 2005), Woodward turns all her attention to the academic library in this new volume, looking at those issues unique to academic libraries, issues that cause special problems when it comes to achieving customer-driven service. Her research is based on observations and interviews with academic librarians as well as her own 25-year career in academic libraries.
Central to Woodward’s thesis is “radical trust, the willingness of library decision-makers to trust their customers to help them redefine and redesign the library.” (p. 13) Taking the concept of Library 2.0 out of the virtual world and into physical library space, she challenges academic librarians to work with their users to design spaces that will meet their needs (rather than ours) to make library services truly customer-driven. As in her earlier book, Woodward walks the reader through the library space with the eyes of a customer—in this case, the student. She chooses three representative students to follow, students whose needs are considerably different from each other: the teenage first-year student, the returning adult student who is fitting classes around a full-time job and family, and the PhD research student. She suspects that we are best meeting the needs of our research students because we get to know them as individuals. Too often we generalize about first-year and adult students with negative stereotypes based on few encounters. On her walks through these imaginary libraries, Woodward points out the absence or inadequacy of signage, the absence of visible staff other than student workers, and the lack of physical comforts—from clean bathrooms to comfortable seats and food. Besides observing what the students experience in the physical setting of the library (assuming they even enter the building), Woodward stresses the importance of finding out what they actually need, using various means such as focus groups and communication with faculty. She even suggests that librarians visit classroom [End Page 287] buildings on weekends and evenings to meet adult students.
Although many of her observations may not be surprising, Woodward’s analysis of the causes of inadequate service is enlightening. She is most concerned with the invisibility of professional staff. Where are the librarians? In an academic institution, they may be attending faculty meetings, working in their offices on research in order to meet tenure requirements, or creating pathfinders for an occasional library instruction class. They are not, for the most part, on the front lines meeting students on a daily basis. They are not at the circulation desk, they are not near the book stacks, and they are certainly not checking the bathroom for cleanliness or straightening up furniture. She has a lot to say about who does greet our customers— for the most part, well meaning but usually undertrained and unsupervised student workers. A corollary point is the need to question whether staffing patterns and job descriptions, which were established decades ago, need to be changed (she thinks they do).
This book is not a how-to manual, but it raises important questions; and the chapters on marketing and customer service are particularly effective, with a list of resources at the end of each chapter. Although she spends a lot of time on specific ways to improve the physical space of the library to make it a more inviting and welcoming environment, Woodward is equally concerned with the quality of our public services, both in reference and circulation. She acknowledges the benefits of technology in meeting students’ information needs. However, she also cautions against halfway measures, such as calling a computer lab an information commons without expanding the available services or...