A Tale of Two Library Cards

I think out loud a lot about library value but a second topic dear to my heart is service friction: what can we do to make access to services and information as frictionless as possible.   Library card renewal is one of those things that you think we’d have mastered, but a recent experience contrasted two public libraries’ renewal process.  One was great.  And one wasn’t.

I’m a heavy library user, because I figure I might as well use what I’m paying for.  I may be a bit unusual, but I qualify for 3 public library cards – one where I work, one where I live, one from a reciprocal library – and I use all three.

About Library Cards

I like library cards.  They are a physical manifestation of my connection to my library.  And because of that, I think they are a good thing for membership and courthouse law libraries to offer.

You can buy them embedded in a sheet of paper (like this, not PVC which is more pricey), on which you can print a welcome or annual renewal letter.  Then you can print them as needed, with their name and a member ID so you can personalize services and record interactions.

Law library cards probably don’t work so well in academic and private environments.  Students, faculty, and law firm staff have ID cards already.  They may or may not associate use of those cards with use of law library services: accessing reserve material or after hours physical access, perhaps, in an academic environment.  But if you can get a law library card into someone’s wallet, then it becomes a visible reminder of that connection every time they come across it.

A Story of Renewal

One thing that none of my library cards say is when the card expires.  One of them has a renewal sticker that says when it was last renewed, which is fine so far as it goes.  But it means I have to know that it is only good for a year from that date.

It’s not reasonable to expect library cards to have expiry dates.  They’re usually printed plastic for durability and it’s wasted cost for a library to keep reissuing cards. It’s also fair to expect a limited lifespan for a library account.  Publishers and government funders want to make sure that the people using the licensed content are complying with their understanding of who account holders are.

Which means that the library has to have a process that will make renewal as smooth as possible.

For me, the ideal world would be to be able to renew online.  None of my libraries allow that.  I have to physically attend the library, and in one case, show something with my current address for residency purposes.

I knew my card had expired from Library A when I attempted to log in to an online resource.  The error was something along the lines of this card is no longer valid.  That’s not an ideal way to find out your card is expired.

First, it means that I am literally blocked from accessing a resource at the moment I was about to engage with it.  It’s a digital version of slamming the door in my face.  It’s an unnecessary experience to create for any user.

Meanwhile, on a different customer service planet, Library B has sent me an email.  It lets me know that, in 3 weeks time, my card will expire. It also made me realize that the library has a 2 year account period.  For people like me who use fewer print books than in the past, or rely on databases more than in-library services, the fewer needs to visit the physical library, the better.

If I have to visit though, it’s nice to have some time to plan the visit.  And, more importantly perhaps, to know that the deadline is within my control.  I can continue to access resources up to that date and if I don’t get my act together, I’m up the creek without a paddle.

All About Process

This isn’t hard, although I realize how it could be pricey.  But the basic rule is simple:  warn people before they run into the obstacle.  There’s no point in warning them afterwards.

Ideally, an integrated library system would support this for a public library user base that could easily reach into the tens of thousands.  A law library is unlikely to have that many users, and so even a manual process could work.

If it’s a membership-based law library, it’s even easier.  Run the cards with the dues year.  Cards expire at the dues year end, and you will already have sent out a renewal notice with a warning about the impending deadline.

There are lots of small examples of service friction, and some are easier to fix than others.  Lengthening or shifting hours can be cost prohibitive.  Remote access to more things can be both cost prohibitive and violation of licensing.  But I think it’s worth reviewing periodically the back end, business operations of a library to see if we’ve left unnecessary friction points that will impede access.

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