LA&M column for fall 2001
Are the Snows of Yesteryear…?*
Reflections on A Suggestion “Box” That Worked
John Lubans, Jr.
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.
ubiquitous forum for gaining customer feedback is the locked
Why is it
a box, a locked box?
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.
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.
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.
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.
arrived at Duke University in 1982 as Head of Public Services, the Suggestion Answer Book was
one of the first things I introduced.
then, I have answered thousands
of questions, gripes, kudos, and suggestions.
smooth sailing? Hardly. Remember,
there are reasons why most organizations prefer a locked box – more on
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.
does a Suggestion Answer Book
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a
sampling of user feedback gathered from the pages of the 1988 SA Book volume.
were quick to jump on some extreme policies in the mid 80s. For example
our Food and Drink Posse was much complained about:
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#.
“hard to defend” examples:
down current course books to a desk. Doing so, we prohibited
photocopying, something most users desperately wanted.
away the mice from the online catalog terminal key boards. (Presumably,
we thought fewer terminals would “freeze up”).
allowing undergraduates the graduate student privilege of borrowing
bound periodicals even if they
were taking graduate level classes.
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!
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.
always easier to argue for improvements with student complaints in hand:
the damned copiers or at least put signs on them!”
toilet paper please!”
you changed toilet paper or have I grown calluses?
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.
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.
when we did something right users took notice:
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
could not immediately implement all student ideas, many suggestions
helped us, over time, to improve our services:
catalog terminals in the stacks.
about putting some dictionaries in the computer clusters so those of us
who can’t spell won’t have to lug them around.
the closing bell so loud and grating that it makes me wet my pants when
it goes off?
us) renew books by phone.
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)?
won’t the Xerox machines print on legal size paper?
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.
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.
is your job? Do you just sit in an office all day and write ridiculous
answers to these questions?
sometimes I stand up…
did seem that the more playful and whimsical my answers, the more
readers the book attracted:
I get to the tunnels? (The “off
limits” heating tunnels under and between the East and West Campuses).
Indirectly, obliquely, occludedly, parenthetically, inscrutably and
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...
Your comment suggests:
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.
you marry me?
Leave a picture and last year's tax form 1040 and your proposal will be
given all due consideration.
were times to shift into the Dear Abby mode:
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.
no denying it, a SA Book takes
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).
I delayed answering, while on vacation or excessively lazy or “out of
taking so long (to answer)? I don’t want to study, I need distraction.
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.
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.
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:
can’t people have any class when writing suggestions to the library.
It is necessary to demonstrate such high levels of crassness?
happened to the good ol' days when people made humorous suggestions
instead of petty complaints? Oops. I hope that wasn't another complaint.
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
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.
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.
for obvious reasons, getting updated answers with quality information
from the people closest to the suggestion or question.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Villon’s poetry is symmetrically fortuitous for this column.
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.
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.
John Lubans, Jr. is a librarian and a leader of leadership and
supervisory workshops. E-mail: Lubans1@nc.rr.com