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Serving Users and The Element of Surprise

Every year we have a library retreat at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. It’s a really relaxing, reflective environment and it’s always productive. This week, one of the conversations that we were having out there centered on our service philosophy and how we go about serving our users. This meant serving them in person, via chat, in the classroom, on our website, etc.

Our team had a lot of great insights, especially in talking about our reference interactions. In reflecting on how I wanted my service to look, I realized that I dont want to simply satisfy them or give them a positive experience. I want to surprise them. I want users to walk away from a reference question thinking “wow, I didn’t realize how much time asking a librarian saved me.” I want students in a class to think “this person is a librarian? This class was actually fun and I learned something useful!”

And sometimes this happens. This semester a student came up to me when I was wandering through the library and we had something resembling the following conversation:

Student: “Can I ask you something?”
Me: “Sure, what do you want to know?”
Student: “Why do you librarians always smile so much? You seem so happy.”
Me: (smiles) “Huh, I guess we just really love what we do. Thanks for saying such a nice thing.”

Surprise is all about doing things that are unexpected. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath state that one of the factors that can contribute to an idea or experience being sticky is if it is unexpected. People may not expect librarians to be smiling all the time. Perhaps they had different experiences other places they’ve been. Students may not expect library instruction sessions to be fun and engaging. Maybe they’ve seen boring lectures before. Students may not expect a librarian to be non-judgmental and amazingly helpful in a reference encounter. When these things do happen it creates a very memorable experience.

Steven Bell did an excellent conference paper presentation at ACRL this year about this. In his paper he outlines strategies to deliver a “WOW user experience.” He points out that student expectations for libraries are actually fairly low. In fact students sometimes even think it will be a painful experience. According to the literature there are students that have library anxiety. It makes surprising students that much easier.

The element of surprise is a powerful weapon. It makes experiences very memorable. If you are able to surprise the people you’re serving, then you’ll likely have people who keep coming back and maybe even tell their friends.