August 15, 2022

Astonishing Public Service

Last night I dined at the bar of a run-of-the-mill chain restaurant. On the road for business this is my usual modus operandi, with the variant of dining in the hotel bar instead. You get the picture.

So my bartender in this instance turns out to be flat out awesome. She’s there when I want her and not when I don’t. A simple signal while I’m on a long phone call with my wife answers any question. She’s attentive but not hovering. She knows which questions to ask and when, and also when to stay away. She even recognizes me from previous visits, often a year apart. She gives, in other words, astonishing service. Believe me, I know it when I see it.

At this little chain restaurant in a town that most people have never heard of, I was getting the kind of service that I’ve received at some of the most expensive restaurants in Sonoma, Napa, Chicago, New York, Paris, San Francisco — you name it. And often (sadly) better.

The point is this: great service is not always tied to the money being paid for that service. I agree that if you are paying top dollar at an expensive restaurant you expect excellent service. But the converse is not true: that you will necessarily receive poor service at a much less expensive restaurant. This is because service has more to do with the individual providing the service than it does with anything else.

Sure, good training can be key. But some servers learn on the job and intuitively understand what great service means. And libraries are no different. Individuals can be given the tools they need to provide excellent customer service regardless of the monetary resources at hand.

Great service, I assert, can be boiled down to a few principles that can be employed in any organization that attempts to provide it:

  • Attentiveness. A moment of breakthrough understanding about service for me came when I was at a restaurant and I happened to notice a waitperson standing aside, surveying the tables. He/she (it doesn’t matter which) was looking for anything that needed doing. Was anyone light on water? Was a table finishing their meal? Would someone need to be alerted to bring the bill? This level of attentiveness to the entire enterprise is, sadly, rare, whether it be a restaurant or a library. What would happen, do you think, if you set a library staffer to simply observe users of the library and try to discern what they needed before they even express it?
  • Distance. What may appear at first glance to be the opposite of attentiveness is distance, but it isn’t. True attentiveness also means perceiving when to stay away. Frankly, I find it quite annoying to be interrupted in the middle of a conversation with my dinner partner simply for him/her to ask if everything is OK. One of the secrets of great service is to know when to step back and let the magic happen. Ditto with libraries, although we are less cursed with this particular mistake due to lack of staff.
  • Listening. To know what someone wants, you need to actively listen and even, as any reference librarian knows, ask any necessary clarifying questions.
  • Anticipation. Outstanding service anticipates needs. Libraries try to do this in various ways, but I also believe that we can do a better job of this.
  • Permission. I cut my teeth in libraries by running circulation operations. As an academic library circulation supervisor, I understood how important it was to provide permission to my workers to make exceptions to certain rules. For other rules, they were to escalate the issue up to me so I could decide if a rule could be bent. But you should always provide your staff with clear guidance on ways in which public service could be enhanced when necessary by variance in enforcement and the permission to apply the fix.

These are just some of the strategies that occur to me in developing astonishing public service. Feel free to share your thoughts in a comment below. Libraries are nothing if not public service organizations, so getting this really right is essential to our success.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Excellent post. Consider getting library schools administrators interested in this post.

  2. Excellent piece, Roy.. yes, it’s not about money, lots more staff (we’d love those). Simple focus on the things that matter, can make a big difference in serving our publics.