Customer Services and the Digital Divide

I was reminded today of a particularly infuriating article that was recently posted on the Bookseller website.  Under the headline ‘Saving our libraries’, Martin Latham wrote an article that managed to infuriate me beyond measure (and that takes some doing).  Putting aside for one moment the thought that perhaps Waterstone’s ought to get their own house in order first (yes their performance has improved, but what a sterile environment – oh how I miss Ottakar’s) before they start offering libraries any advice.

Anyway, there were many aspects of the article that irritated me, one of which was the snobbery about the growth in recruiting an increasing number of people with experience in customer services.  Now, I have no problem with this whatsoever, although I may speaking with a particular bias in this case.  After graduating many years ago, and struggling to obtain the Holy Grail known as a ‘graduate job’, I spent many years working in the retail sector.  I didn’t enjoy it, but it paid the bills and got me through a bit of a tough time.  Now, despite graduating in English Literature and History, I never believed a career in libraries would be a possibility, particularly as I had been stuck in retail for so long.  I thought it required qualifications and experience, how could I gain post-graduate qualifications earning ten grand a year?  It all seemed so unobtainable.  And then, one day, I picked up the local paper and saw the words ‘Customer Services Officer’ and ‘library’.  Well, this looked promising I thought.  I met the criteria, why not give it a go?  So I did and, as you might guess, I got the job (go me!).

Upon starting the job, one thing became clear to me very quickly.  Even though the job was predominantly customer facing, there appeared to be a lack of skilled customer service assistants (mainly because it was not seen as a priority in the past I guess).  I actually joined at the same time as another person who had retail experience and we were rather taken aback by the differences.  It became very clear to me that the rot had set in years ago, when librarians were holier than thou, all knowing and were to be addressed as ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’, whereas ‘frontline’ staff were only allowed to perform limited functions and were pretty much treated with utter disdain by the ‘professionals’.  How alien to someone coming from the outside!  In short, it was clear that there was a real need to recruit staff with experience in customer services.  An imbalance had occurred and needed to be addressed if the library service was to prosper.  Consequently, I take issue with Mr Latham.  We need customer services in our libraries and we need to up our game.  Sure, I believe that there are aspects of retail that we shouldn’t incorporate into the library service, but we should certainly focus on providing a high standard of service.  That’s not to say that all there should be no ‘specialists’, but the scales need to be balanced somewhat.

But that is not all I took issue with in this particular article.  Take this line from the same piece:

They have tried internet terminals: another dead end, as every schmo now has the web at home.

Just how out of touch could you be to make such a statement?  Working in a public library, I see what good these terminals do (thankfully, according to the comments thread, I am not alone).  There are a great many people out there with neither the skills or the access to make the most of what the internet can offer.  These terminals are vital.  Particularly given the growth in online applications for benefits, jobs etc.  Take away these terminals and suddenly thousands are stranded.  If we are to seriously address the growing divide between the information rich and information poor, we need to ensure that there are computers accessible for all.  To deny such access, would be a gross dereliction of our duty.  After all, should we not ensure access for all, no matter what the format?


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