Thursday, 6 April 2006

OPL Bureaucracy

Most of the year I'm an enthusiastic supporter of public libraries. I borrow a fair number of books from the Ottawa Public Library, not each week but certainly every month. Local library staff are almost invariably helpful. I use the library's on line resources, especially newspaper archives, every couple of days. For communities, like Ottawa, with an economy based on the skills of knowledge workers, the library is at the heart of maintaining a continuous learning environment, together with educational institutions.

A few days ago my on line access to library databases stopped working. Was it time for the annual renewal of my card? I couldn't tell as the system wouldn't let me in to check! There had been no warning that the card was about to expire. It just stopped working. Its almost the only service I know of where no warning is given of expiry. The driver license people send renewal notices, so do the vehicle license folks and the health agency to remind that a new card with another awful picture is needed. Revenue Canada, I know, they have another cooler name now, are always prompt in sending reminders that tax returns and installments are due. Perversely, the tax return reminder used to be timed to arrive just before Christmas.

But I digress.

Last year when this happened I called the library and was told I had to present myself at a branch to have my card renewed. Why? In case I had outstanding fines. In case I had changed my address and telephone number. I pointed out that these could be checked from their own files and canada411 automatically without needing to have me come in. It happens I live about as far from a library branch as you can get in the urban part of Ottawa; to go to a library is no gentle stroll, and the bus service is impossible -- I may as well go downtown. None of my suggestions last year did any good. I pointed out that if they switched to online renewal they could save employee time and create an environmental benefit by reducing kilometres driven. The argument that if they only required in person renewal every two years, as does San Diego, or every three years, as Dallas, it would save half the effort or more, was a waste of energy. The folks at the desk seemed not to be empowered to do anything about it. More senior staff must believe they have plenty of staff and see no need to be more efficient, even though Ottawa has one of the lowest per capita library budgets in Ontario. But it must be how they've always done it and being more efficient and client friendly isn't a priority -- seemingly. But isn't that just the way a bureaucracy operates?

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