By Meredith Farkas | February 21, 2008
While I was working on compiling all of the survey data from our graduate students, I had what I thought was a crazy idea. The idea came from a common suggestion and complaint from the military history grad students in the surveys. The suggestion was that we provide more eBooks in their subject area. The problem is that the books they tend to want aren’t available in a digital format. While our digital collections do a good job of meeting the needs of most of our online programs, a lot of the stuff our military history students tend to need isn’t online. So we provide a lot of physical books to those students.
The complaint was that it takes too long to get books they request. We can’t do traditional book ILL with our distance learners since they live so far away and the loan times would not be sufficient. So instead, we purchase books (most of what they request, though we have some limits when the book price is high) and mail them to the students with a 3-month loan period. The problem is that the book first has to come to us where we quickly catalog it, barcode it, check it out to the student and send it on. While it may only take a day to do this, sending it to us adds many extra days to the shipping time. It could add as much as a week to the amount of time it takes for the student to receive the book.
So, my idea was to just send the students the books directly from Amazon. I knew there were good reasons not to do this, but I felt that the benefits outweighed any risks. Sometimes, by the time we’re ready to send out the book, the student doesn’t need it anymore. That means we’ve purchased a book for a student that won’t even get used. While we may end up losing some books this way, we’d save money by cutting out that extra shipping step, so it may even out. I’d rather see the books get at least one circ than none and this would allow us to provide a much better service to our students.
The problem is, while this was my idea, the change in the way we did things wouldn’t affect me at all. However, it would have a major effect on the Acquisitions and ILL staff. I felt weird about suggesting something that meant more work for other people. So I tested the waters by talking to our Director and the Coordinator of Technical Services before I actually spoke to the staff I knew it would affect. Our Director was really in favor of our doing anything that will improve the way we provide services. Our Head of Technical Services couldn’t think of any good reason not to try doing it other than the fact that we might lose books and there wouldn’t be a record in our circ system of the students having the books. Certainly not insurmountable problems. So, I called a meeting with the folks involved in ILL and Acquisitions.
The main reason I wanted to write about this is to really give props to my colleagues. No one objected to the idea of trying this model out. There were no objections based on the work it would create for them. Instead of talking about why we couldn’t do it, everyone talked about how we could do it. The only issues people brought up were practical ones (“who would handle ___?”, “how will we ___?”) By the end of that meeting, we had a plan in place for a pilot project that will start in March and a clear workflow that will require a lot of communication, but is do-able. As I said at the meeting, at so many other libraries, an idea like this would have met with so many brick walls. Yes, it helps to be a smaller library, but the ease of pushing this through is a credit to the service-orientation and open-mindedness of my colleagues. I’ve never had an idea of mine dismissed here, which has not been true of other places at which I’ve worked.
Shipping books directly from Amazon to our students isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it will make a big difference here. And the ease of making this change at my library is pretty, well… 2.0. Instead of being stuck on the “this is the way we’ve always done it” mantra, my colleagues were willing to try a new way of serving students based on the feedback we received from them. It may not be as sexy as IM reference, gaming, or tagging in the catalog, but it’s what our users want and I’m pretty excited about how responsive we’re being to their needs.
I’m willing to bet that we do a lot of things at our libraries without realizing how 2.0 (for lack of a better word) they are. We focus so much on the cool social software-y stuff, when often, what our patrons really want has nothing to do with blogs, wikis or Facebook. What have you or your colleagues done at your library that maybe isn’t super-sexy, but really illustrates your/their responsiveness to patron needs?