Monday, 5 November 2007

Customer feedback and social inclusion

Anecdotal evidence of what people think about libraries has to be treated with care. As a performance indicator it would be much better to have a figure for the percentage of users who rate the library as "satisfactory" or whatever and then compare the trend for this over several years and with other libraries. Figures could be compared for different age groups or ethnic backgrounds and from this hard management data can be obtained to inform the planning of services.

Anecdotal evidence on the other hand is "soft". It can provide instant feedback and produce a "feel-good" or "feel-bad" response but it is more difficult to extract data that can be used by managers. However its impact should not be underestimated. Good feedback can inspire and motivate staff and it can be a powerful tool to alter the perception of a service among decision makers. Bad feedback can cause alarm bells to ring much more effectively than a slight drop in a percentage figure.

Sheffield Libraries has published more customer feedback from a recent 'Post-it notes' exercise "What does your library mean to you? Comments include:

  • Centre of the community

  • My children and I have made friends

  • Fulfils my curiosity and desire to learn. Without libraries life would be pointless and dull.

  • I wouldn't have achieved these results in my studies without the valuable assistance of librarians.

  • Helped me rebuild my confidence after a nervous breakdown.

These comments show how libraries contribute to wider "quality of life" issues that are important to local authorities but hard to achieve.

On the down side, I mentioned in my previous post comments I had received about libraries and the Deaf Community. My corespondent has provided further information:

"While I am Deaf, I am very highly literate and so able to use the library fully. I saw for myself the difficulties and barriers Deaf people face for themselves while going into libraries, one says to me - "The library is not for me - it is for hearing people - what's there for me?" - this is just one comment being made to me. I could go on but that will do for now!"

Librarians might respond that libraries provide books and that books can be used by deaf people so what's the problem? The key however is the word Deaf with a capital D. The word deaf indicates lack of hearing while Deaf refers to the Deaf Community - a minority group with its own language (British Sign Language) and culture. See the SINTO wiki page for more details. I think that the complaint here is about a lack of material in libraries in this particular minority language or about this culture.

It may be that the complaint is that libraries are not sufficiently socially inclusive of the Deaf Community - but that brings up a subtle point highlighted recently by Kevin Carey in the October issue of Managing Information. Kevin criticises A Blueprint for Excellence by John Dolan for promoting a social inclusion agenda. His argument is that libraries shouldn't promote any government agenda. Instead they should be completely neutral. He suggests that if libraries promote social inclusion, we might in the future be expected to line up with government policy that was not so liberal. He says that the role of libraries is "giving customers the materials to encourage them to be rampant individualists and leaders of the anti government awkward squad".

I think that Kevin's mistake is to see social inclusion as only a government policy. Some librarians have been promoting social inclusion, often using different terminology, for many years. This is because they have recognised that the quality-of-life benefits that libraries provide are often restricted to certain sections of society and exclude other groups. Social inclusion in libraries is not about promoting the interests of certain groups - that is government policy - but about removing barriers so that everyone can become 'rampant individualists'.

(Photo. Tree in grounds of Sheffield Hallam University Collegiate Crescent. Carl Clayton)

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