Monday, October 12, 2015

Library user behaviour and co-operative differences across state borders

As ever, opinions expressed here are entirely my own. This goes for anything in this blog, but it's worth reiterating today.

Once upon a time, a reference inquiry was a rarity in my library life. And when I went on a road trip, I could stop over for another CD just about anywhere without consideration of whether I'd stop in that town again.

Adelaide and Melbourne have very different public library behaviours and internal environments - from the little things all the way up. I've had a lot of time to observe and think on these and write down scraps of what I might say. Instead of writing a tome of minutiae I've decided to focus on two observations - customer usage patterns and inter-library co-operation. The implications of different funding models, particularly the long-term influences, are a third topic that might be worthy of future investigation but I don't feel that I am well enough informed to tackle that subject at present.

But first, some context

My public library experience has been in three library services, and these shape my observations. The first was a large suburban Adelaide library service with five branches (currently four), a range from wealthy to extreme economic disadvantage and incredible cultural diversity. The second was just outside of Adelaide, a town with two library branches, one of which was full-time, which also served a lot of visitors from nearby regional areas. The third, in Melbourne, is a large five-branch service in an area that's predominantly very wealthy.

As a serial visitor-of-many-libraries, I believe these two observations hold at least broadly true, if not universally.

On reference inquiry frequency

In Melbourne, library users understand that the staff are there to help navigate and pinpoint resources and make use of this opportunity.

Freshly arrived in Melbourne, during my first week in training, I was amazed how many reference inquiries I responded to. In Adelaide I did respond to reference inquiries, mostly local history and family history, but they were far fewer in number. Readers' advisory questions had been even rarer and I had begun to question the relevance of training in this, but now I receive several each day. Having always loved this part of the job, I am very happy! The only noticeable downturn I've observed since moving is in providing general purpose support in computer and device use outside of supporting library-specific systems and resources. In both services I worked in during my time in Adelaide libraries these were common, general website, email and word processing inquiries being particularly frequent - now inquires rarely stray outside of e-books, WiFi login and printing.

The reasons for this aren't immediately obvious, I can see the effects of differing user attitudes but the core eludes me yet. I have inklings, but nothing I can make a statement about.

Whilst I continue to observe and try to understand what makes library users in Melbourne more aware of the professional service capacity of libraries I'd be grateful to anyone who can share their own insights.

Strength in numbers

Adelaide's - and indeed all of South Australia's - libraries are recognised for their co-operation by way of the achievements of One Card / OneLMS / PLSA consortium, something I'm asked about often. Their co-operation, however, is much older and deeper. The systems providing public Internet and WiFi are shared rather than operated by each individual service and have been for years. I could visit any public library with my SA library card and log in to WiFi with the same login and no re-registration even before One Card, though that has substantially streamlined the experience. A system less visible to the public, P2, whilst no longer doing everything it was once built for, still offers state-wide consortium buying of collection materials so that even the smallest libraries are able to leverage some of the opportunities of a large buyer. Cross-promotion between library services at both staff and customer levels is quite commonplace.

Melbourne is different - the library services have a powerful individualist streak - there's the capacity to search across all public library catalogues and for customers to initiate inter library loans thorough Library Link Victoria  but asides this the co-operation I see is with other types of organisations - community centres, interest groups and other council or government bodies. Whilst there is interest and talk between library services about doing things differently, they don't seem to have gone terribly far with a myriad of reasons given - though I must add a caveat there, I'm further from such things than I once was so might be missing a lot. It will be interesting to see how co-operative efforts change over the next few years as other examples from around the country continue to appear.

Both Melbourne and Adelaide have very strong professional interactions (though in Melbourne this is more structured with many more events and the number of people involved vastly higher) - librarians talk to each other, share ideas and values but in Adelaide this has led to more joint efforts.

I believe that the difference in past and present funding models for the libraries in each city have played a substantial role in shaping the co-operative differences, however as previously stated, I don't currently feel well enough informed to analyse this with any confidence.


There is greater difference between the libraries in Adelaide and Melbourne than I expected - I knew before I arrived that differences of scale would be substantial, in the city-wide sense if not in every branch I visit. Through Twitter I had become well acquainted with several librarians in Melbourne and noticed professional attitudes were similar in each cities and so expected it to continue into the working reality.

The various environments - particularly the historical environment - are what I presume to be the driver of difference. I suspect that funding challenges of the past are especially significant to co-operative differences. The user behaviour differences are harder to understand - it appears more fundamental than a short-term publicity effect.

Most of all I see that each city's librarians have a great deal to learn from each other yet, and that moving from an area of familiarity to another geographically removed from my roots has been a professionally valuable decision

If you'd like to discuss these differences, or others, I'd welcome it either in the comments or via Twitter.