06 May 2009

Putting Citizens First

Below is a summary of remarks I made on May 5 to an LAC staff session on becoming a service oriented organization.

Gilbert and Sullivan fans will know of the ditty “I’ve got a Little List”.

As someday it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list. I’ve got a little list,
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And never would be missed, they never would be missed.

It’s tempting to take on the task of filling up the list by reference to experiences I’ve had at LAC.

There are lots of small annoyances, some examples:

- Why do the security guards insist on giving out downstairs locker keys in numerical sequence so that everyone is squeezed into the same section, and there’s nobody in the other sections?
- Why some weeks after I last renewed my reader pass did it no longer work and another have to be issued?
- Why can’t there be some indication of which microfilm readers will conveniently accommodate 16mm microfilm with magnification so you can read them?
- Microfilm readers often have black dirt smears on the glass plates, literally a black mark for LAC
- Why do we pay the same for USB drive copies as hardcopies?

I like LAC, it’s one of the reasons I put up with the climate in Ottawa. Most of the staff I encounter when at 395 are doing their best within bureaucratic constraints.

So in writing my list I don’t want to set sights especially on the front line folks but more on the organizational culture. Simply put, Service simply isn’t a top priority for LAC.

That’s evident in several ways:

(1) The preamble of the Library and Archives of Canada Act states that the mandate of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is:

to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada for the benefit of present and future generations; (there are three other parts but its always the first that gets the attention),

(2) The Minister’s forward in the latest RPP says: " Library and Archives Canada is the cornerstone of our country’s collective memory. It preserves documentary sources ... The role that LAC plays in modernizing Government of Canada recordkeeping enables our Government ..."

(3) the last major building for the organization was for preservation (and very nice too),

(4) the next one is also for preservation,

(5) the proliferation of security guards.

Let me tell you about my experience on a recent trip to TNA, The National Archives, at Kew, where service is paramount.

I walked in the door and asked at the information desk about needing to renew my reader card. I was told I didn’t need one unless I wanted access to original documents. I didn’t, so put my bag securely away in a spacious locker-room and went upstairs.

At first the layout befuddled, it was different from the last time I was there. A staff member approached me within 30 seconds, asked if I needed help and directed me to where I needed to go.

I picked up a ticket for a specialized seminar that afternoon, the type I often listen to on their podcasts.

I found a computer – they were all modern with a non-sticky mouse and rapid response, not labouring with a slow CPU or inadequate memory.

I got to work and was able to photograph the computer screen with my digital camera, so saving printing costs as I only needed research quality copies. No charge, no hassle.

All the time there were staff around, all wearing name tags, willing to help with problems.

I reserved one of nearly 60 computers dedicated to the 1911 census for an hour; they had even more staff, identified by special T-shirts, to help in that section.

Part way through the session there was an announcement that the daily 15 minute presentation on introduction to researching at TNA was about to begin.

There were several large racks with helpful step by step guides for accomplishing various common research tasks.

I noticed there were a large number of reference books, including runs of city directories, and the army and navy lists, all open for researchers to examine, without my ever having gone through any sign-in or being issued a reader card. On my previous visits these had been protected by needing a reader card. Security was there, but non-intrusive, and not time consuming.

I noticed information about the next monthly meeting of the TNA Forum where senior managers would be available to hear comments, answer questions, and deliver substantive responses to questions asked previously which they were not able to answer at the time, and to give out news. The minutes, with responses in detail are posted on the TNA web site.

Everything wasn’t perfect. There was a line-up for specialist consultation, but with seats for those waiting. There was also a line up to get a reader’s pass to access the area for consulting original documents, two positions were operating out of three.

My overall impression was of an organization primarily dedicated to helping me find the information I wanted, not one primarily dedicated to protecting the holdings.

Just this past Saturday I got an email from a colleague, a librarian, and also a member of the LAC Services Advisory Board, who wrote “Spent yesterday at The National Archives. Now that is a research facility! An incredible service ethic.”

LAC should be benchmarking its performance in service against the world’s best comparable institutions like TNA. Even benchmarking against the Ottawa Public Library, which manages to give open access to stacks of rare books and microfilm reels of local newspaper archives without requiring the bureaucratic sign-in process experienced at LAC would be helpful.

There are many other things I could go on to. I’d love to explore LAC’s deplorable lack of leadership on newspaper digitization, but time doesn't permit.

What one thing would I do to make improvements at LAC? There are so many small things. I’d go for process improvement so that all those issues can be raised and addressed over time; regular monthly consultation sessions, requiring real accountability of the Senior Managers, including ADMs, to users. That's the way it happens at TNA Forum. There's prominent public disclosure on the web site of the meeting's proceedings, with only expletives deleted.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very sad for a once proud world class institution which even had "public" in its title. Nevertheless, what happened to the LAC's Public Consultations and Services Advisory Board of which you are a member? That Board's stated focus is:

LAC is putting in place a services strategy to ensure that clients receive the services they expect from a national knowledge institution. To make this strategy work, LAC seeks to provide a range of opportunities for clients to give feedback and offer new ideas. At the same time, LAC is increasing its efforts to communicate with clients, promoting better understanding of what it would like to accomplish through service innovation. Public consultations represent a critical part of this larger process.

Why is the Board NOT addressing the issues raised in your blog?