On Managing
LA&M column for fall 2001
May 7th.

Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear…?*
Reflections on
A Suggestion “Box” That Worked

John Lubans, Jr.


Most of us in the workplace know that customers can be an excellent source for improving what we do. Even if we don’t believe the “customer is always right” we know they are right more often than not. So to listen to them is to take a positive step toward improved library services.

The ubiquitous forum for gaining customer feedback is the locked “Suggestion Box”.

Why is it a box, a locked box?

One office cartoon of a suggestion box has the box centered over a waste paper basket. The box has no bottom, so suggestions drop into the trash. Not to be too cynical, but this is indeed more efficient than taking the suggestions to someone’s office for that person to “recycle” them via their circular file.

The box design has its limitations. In fact, most suggestion systems of the  “box” genre don’t work because they are closed. Public posting of selected responses to suggestions from the box are a step toward accountability, but the inevitable screening of what gets posted still results in many suggestions never seeing the light of day.

Because of those known limitations I introduced the Suggestion Answer Book at the University of Colorado in the early 1970s. The SA Book was deliberately an open system. My working assumption was, and continues to be, is that users are our allies. They are not the enemy.

User education was another influence on my decision. I was one of many librarians consciously seeking to liberate users, to help them become independent users of information. And, this was Boulder, Colorado in the early 70s with its 5000 hippie “street people”. Our users were into major liberation of all kinds.

When I arrived at Duke University in 1982 as Head of Public Services, the Suggestion Answer Book  was one of the first things I introduced.

Since then, I have answered thousands of questions, gripes, kudos, and suggestions.

Was it smooth sailing? Hardly.  Remember, there are reasons why most organizations prefer a locked box – more on that later.

This column reflects on why the book succeeded, and suggests that the SA Book format is one of the best ways to get user input. But, recognize that an open book is, well, an open book.  The SA Book is a public forum; there will be  graffiti and “flaming” amidst the polite and helpful commentary.

So, what does a Suggestion Answer Book look like?

Mine was rather homely: a three ring notebook, with about 100 numbered, pages in it located in a heavily trafficked public area.  Each page is formatted for three suggestions (A, B, C) and three answers.

A small sign above the opened book states what it is, inviting users to enter in their questions, concerns, gripes, and suggestions for improvements. We’d usually try to keep a pencil on a string attached to the book.

Users write their comments on the numbered pages. We periodically take out the current pages (usually three or four at a time) to answer and/or refer, via photocopy, to those staff that might have information for the answer.

Once an answer is completed it’s typed directly below the written suggestion and the pages are returned to the book. Any recently entered suggestions are gathered up to start another cycle. Updates are inserted in the SA Book as they appear. We began to insert an “update index” page to let regular readers know what suggestions, some 50 or more pages back, had been updated.

The SA Book is ancient technology (paper), involving several labor intensive steps: handwritten comments, referring comments for answers, typing and dating the answers and replacing the pages.

My responses were anonymous. Why? To give the process objectivity and a dash of mystery. In some ways, the S/A person was an ombudsman. If certain library policies displayed pettiness or foolishness the S/A person would try to do something about it on behalf of the student. Of course, because I was an administrative officer I really could encourage and sometimes implement change for the better.

Also, my anonymity appeared to free up the student to express what was on his or her mind. After all, they wrote anonymously as well. They could be angry without repercussion. If they were delighted with our service they could express It without appearing to curry favor. If it was a bad hair day and they felt lousy, they could still express themselves without having to worry about how it might reflect on them.

While the identity of the SA person remained a secret, even to most of the staff, answers or updates from other people were signed. Among the strategic reasons for the signatures was to recognize staff; to encourage users to get to know library staff; and, to promote full and helpful answers.

What Users Want

Here is a sampling of user feedback gathered from the pages of the 1988 SA Book volume.

Students were quick to jump on some extreme policies in the mid 80s. For example our Food and Drink Posse was much complained about:

What’s the purpose for having idiot “drink and food patrols” around the library at night. It’s just a hassle – who really cares if the guy takes your ID#. 

Other “hard to defend” examples:

*Roping down current course books to a desk. Doing so, we prohibited  photocopying, something most users desperately wanted.

*Taking away the mice from the online catalog terminal key boards. (Presumably, we thought fewer terminals would “freeze up”).

* Not allowing undergraduates the graduate student privilege of borrowing bound periodicals even if they were taking graduate level classes.

* Leaving the book stacks in darkness all the time, causing users to grope for light switches in the dark. (The oil shortages of the previous decade were irrelevant to these undergraduates who were more concerned about their personal safety than with conserving electricity).

Then there were the perennial requests for us to improve long standing problems, like getting books back to the shelves quickly:

Hey, have you guys given up or what? What is the deal with all the un-shelved books? Hire some more shelvers!

These frequent complaints were useful for getting money for shelf-reading and re-shelving. When improvements occurred some users took notice and complimented the improvement. Another “success” measure was the drop off in complaints about the condition of the book stacks. 

It is always easier to argue for improvements with student complaints in hand:

“Fix the damned copiers or at least put signs on them!”

“Extra toilet paper please!”

“Have you changed toilet paper or have I grown calluses?

We used these suggestions to leverage improvements from the University, for improving photocopying service on campus, and for assuring housekeepers were fully supplied with good quality and quantities of paper goods.

Circulation seemed to catch most of the flack., but other parts of the organization had their share. Students questioned how books could be in bookstores but not on the library’s shelves,
why some books had not been ordered,
why some service points were persistently rude to users,
why a nearby sister institution always had university press books before we did, etc.

And when we did something right users took notice:

Opening the (old front) door was the smartest move Duke has made since admitting Danny Ferry (the all American basketball player). Thank you. Thank you. It was so sensible I am shocked at Duke’s change in behavior. Using Common Sense! Thank you. Sorry about that (backhand compliment) I am really glad they did this.

While we could not immediately implement all student ideas, many suggestions helped us, over time, to improve our services:

Put catalog terminals in the stacks.

How about putting some dictionaries in the computer clusters so those of us who can’t spell won’t have to lug them around.

Why is the closing bell so loud and grating that it makes me wet my pants when it goes off?

(Let us) renew books by phone.

We need a lounge area with a soda machine, coffee machine and snack machine so that people can relax during studies. 

Why is the heat still on when it is April 27 (and 80 degrees outside)?

Why won’t the Xerox machines print on legal size paper?

An odd phenomenon occurred: Suggestions that had nothing to do with the library started to appear in the book. We found ourselves referring complaints and questions about dorm living, food quality in the dining halls, the registration process, sports, good and bad faculty members, and more. We forwarded all of these and were a little surprised when many responses came back with full explanations,  good humor and some resolve to change what was criticized.

The pages of the SA Book became a way to tangibly and publicly praise staff, inside and outside the library. Our praise of good work done by Facilities electricians, plumbers, painters, and others, was welcomed and remembered by other parts of the university. New requests for repairs were readily accepted and fulfilled in a timely way.

Style and Tone

I made an effort to answer complaints, whether accusatory, harsh, or impatient, in open and non-judgmental terms. Having a few days to contemplate an answer helped me gain objectivity and to see the possibilities within a complaint. Often it was a matter of walking the line between being stuffy or flip. My tendency to err toward the latter, earned me several rebuffs from rightly offended readers.

What is your job? Do you just sit in an office all day and write ridiculous answers to these questions?

Answer: No, sometimes I stand up…

But it did seem that the more playful and whimsical my answers, the more readers the book attracted:

How do I get to the tunnels? (The “off limits” heating tunnels under and between the East and West Campuses).

Answer: Indirectly, obliquely, occludedly, parenthetically, inscrutably and circumlocuationally.

Would it be possible, by your divine mercy, O Ye of the Suggestion Book, to be blessed with staplers by the photocopy machines?….

Answer: A few, we omnisciently thought, were already in place. Ubiquitously, we’ll ascertain what’s what.

Since so many undergraduates insist on copulating in Perkins, you should be a pal and throw some mattresses here and there in the stacks -- if you can't beat `em...

Answer: Your comment suggests:

a) that the end of the semester is upon us, and,
b) that you are extraordinarily perceptive and have anticipated the Library's Christmas party fund raiser: Rent-a-Sealy.

Will you marry me?

Answer: Leave a picture and last year's tax form 1040 and your proposal will be given all due consideration.

And there were times to shift into the Dear Abby mode:

It is summer and I’m hating life because I was dumb enough to take classes in the summer. Do you have a suggestion?

Answer: Take a walk in Duke forest, wade in the creeks. Give yourself at least four hours for solitude and exploring the forest’s floor.

Problems and challenges

There’s no denying it, a SA Book takes work.

Perhaps from guilt because I was having so much fun in the role as the anonymous Suggestion Answer Person, I wrote answers for most questions away from the office, on the weekend, on holiday breaks, at the coffee shop, etc.  I did it as a pleasurable extra, an add-on to my “regular” work. (As I look back, it was probably among my most important work).

If I delayed answering, while on vacation or excessively lazy or “out of steam”,  someone inevitably complained:

What’s taking so long (to answer)? I don’t want to study, I need distraction.

The mechanics of getting the answers onto paper and distributed further aggravated any delay I caused. The SA Book process can be “high maintenance” involving a lot of copying and distributing. And, because the SA Book was located in a public area, there was some risk of vandalism.

A few pages would disappear each semester, never to be seen again. Once the entire notebook disappeared. Another time, the two bound volumes of the first 1000 pages (photocopies) were absconded with. We surmise they are in a landfill or gracing someone’s shelf of Duke memorabilia.

Occasionally, coarse language appeared on the pages. Fortunately, the SA Book was self-criticizing and largely self-policing. If the language deteriorated someone would eventually ask for a halt:

Why can’t people have any class when writing suggestions to the library. It is necessary to demonstrate such high levels of crassness?

What happened to the good ol' days when people made humorous suggestions instead of petty complaints? Oops. I hope that wasn't another complaint.

Answer: Often the complaints, once we work on them, help us do our work better. Besides even the complaints have their humorous side. However, don't believe the canard that library staff laugh riotously as each day's selection of suggestions/complaints is passed around prior to being filed circularly.

While I never censored expletive laden suggestions, I did “censor” attacks on individuals. We would “white out” the name and other identifying information in the complaint. Our response always recommended that the writer talk with the individual concerned or with the head of that person’s department.  At the same time, we would share the full text of the criticism with the named individual and their supervisor. Usually, there was cause for the expressed anger and the feedback was valid, if painful to receive.

If there was a second complaint about an individual, describing a believable incident, we knew we had a problem. A few staff took these criticisms to heart, resolving to improve. Some denied the complaints - the user was wrong, they were right. In cases like that, the supervisor had the obligation (and some documentation!) to do something about it.

I valued, for obvious reasons, getting updated answers with quality information from the people closest to the suggestion or question.

But, it was interesting to see how many of us (myself included) could explain in a clear way, why we did something the way we did it. For example, the why of splitting a prolific author’s publications into two locations in the stacks can be explained in a rational and believable manner.

However, too often we did not take time to reflect on the implicit criticism in a question why we did something the way we did it.

Because the student made the effort to ask, the issue probably was  problematic for that person.  In spite of that, we rarely contemplated changing the policy or going back and changing the outcome. Too often our glib and rational answers remind me of something Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently said in disagreeing with a Supreme Court decision, She wrote:  the Court “cloaks (a) pointless indignity with the mantle of reasonableness”.

Sometimes the referred suggestions came back with defensive responses. Or, the responses were dismissive or obfuscating. An example is this ill-tempered retort from a branch librarian: “A stupid question deserves a stupid answer”.  When the responses were un-imaginative and/or humorless I would edit them, although it was my preference to insert the response as received.  Many excellent updates (signed by the authors) were inserted into the book without emendation. Their answers were informative and educationally intriguing, giving readers a glimpse into the answer seeking process.

Undeniably, there were some staff members who were discomfited by the SA Book. Our giving a voice to the user questions the staff’s absolute certainty of knowing what was best for the user.

When users pointed out the absurdity of a policy developed without user input or of a practice that no longer made much sense, this questioned the wisdom of the involved staff.

Complaints about branch libraries could bring to light some odd practices. One subject branch’s unstated policy of not lending books to all university students was spotlighted by one writer. This caused immediate and vigorous back pedaling and a rapid turnaround. Of course, non-majors could now borrow books.

Administrative support is essential for a SA Book to survive and to be influential.  While this level of support varied among my administrative colleagues, I was fortunate to have several directors as champions.

A surprise supporter was our Library Advisory Board (akin to a non-librarian “board of visitors”). They delighted in the book, reading it whenever they came to campus and unfailingly made it known at each meeting of the Board just how much they liked it and learned from it.

Another source of support was the campus student newspaper. Every two or three years an article would appear praising the library’s openness to students and the wit and wisdom in questions and responses.


Is it worth it? Yes!

We gained hundreds of improvements in facilities, services, policies and staffing. We also gained insights into how we are perceived and what our users want from us. And we had the opportunity to display the humorous, imaginative and human side of our profession. Our desire to save the time of the user was facilitated. Our desire to help students was made manifest.


*Francois Villon’s poetry is symmetrically fortuitous for this column.

I have been using weather metaphors for title columns this year - rainy day, sunshine, and so on. The “snows of yesteryear” question “primed the pump” as the first question on the first page back in 1982.

This column is based on a recent perusal of Suggestions and Answers for the year 1988. If someone would like to do an archeological dig into the over 2500 pages or 7500 entries, from 1982 on, send me a note.

We did try an e-version of the Suggestion Answer Book. But it never caught on. The online version had none of the cachet of the old technology, nor the ease of flipping pages and seeing the unique handwriting, emendations, and responses on each of the pages. 

To see an edited selection from the Suggestion Answer Book,  privately published in 1993, go to Google, type in Suggestion Answer Book and push the “lucky” button.

Author’s note: John Lubans, Jr. is a librarian and a leader of leadership and supervisory workshops. E-mail: Lubans1@nc.rr.com
Web: www.lubans.org