Encounters are the best
The Helsinki Central Library Oodi has been called the living room of the citizens. It is open to everybody – those just dropping by, those spending time, and those with various tasks to do. Oodi is much more than just a library, although it is that too. Customer service is of top priority to the personnel, but what are the customer encounters like in an entirely new type of library work community?
Especially library personnel encounter people who are in need of advice and guidance or who are looking for information. Library personnel must have interaction skills as well as knowledge of literature. Oodi is an entirely new kind of library, and it has been in close scrutiny by the national media. How does this pressure affect the well-being of the library employees?
– The job of the team that investigates customer experiences is to try to look through the customer’s eyes, in other words, what works and what needs to be changed. I am visible to customers. All of us are engaged in basic customer services, which include a wide range of things. I may have to teach someone how to use a wide screen printer, or help to choose a gift book, or recommend reading related to a special topic, even sleep reading… Although many customers rely on self-service, we are often asked for advice, says librarian Toni Tuominen.
– The job description of an information officer consists of developing the work and planning work processes. All of Oodi’s employees, excluding the executive team, handle customer services and interact with customers. For the most part, the work involves encountering customers. We are available to customers and we help them to use the library services, explains information officer Ulla Leinikka.
Also logistics is one of the basic tasks of everyone who works at Oodi, including robots.
– One can actually meet also robots here, says chief librarian Anna-Maria Soininvaara.
– Our robots, Tatu, Patu and Veera, still require some programming and guidance. They mostly transport materials, but Veera has been programmed to answer also simple questions like: “Where are the travel books?” Soininvaara says and smiles.
Oodi brought changes to the library institution
Oodi has changed the behaviour of library customers in Finland. At least active participation has increased.
– We want our customers to take part in activities, to bring new ideas, and to engage in planning and implementing services. This is an entirely new approach for us, and we spend a lot of time considering what the customers’ wishes could mean in practice.
According to Soininvaara, Oodi has new kinds of tasks.
– The word library has earlier meant a place that contains books. That has changed in a big way. Here people look for support in digital skills and skills needed in the civil society, as well as spaces for working or for holding meetings. Equality is important for us: everyone should have an opportunity to try out different equipment and activities, Soininvaara emphasizes.
A strong community spirit can be seen at Oodi.
– Compared to nearly ten years ago, when I entered work life, the collective spirit has clearly increased. Here people spend more time together, whereas before people were just by themselves in a library. There is more collective activity nowadays, Tuominen says.
There are also many more groups than in earlier times.
– Previously we gave advice to individuals, but now we need to have skills in giving guidance to groups, says Soininvaara.
Interaction skills are most important
One might think that knowledge of literature is most important in the work of a librarian and information officer, but Leinikka stresses the significance of customer service skills.
– Indeed, customer service know-how and interaction skills are most important in our work. This means the desire and the ability to interact with people.
Tuominen agrees completely.
– All other kinds of know-how can be developed and acquired, but interaction skills are the basic elements needed in this work.
Top-level work guidance was needed.
Oodi was launched quite rapidly. In the beginning many things were still incomplete in the building, and the employees had to wear safety helmets when moving around.
– We managed quite well, taking into consideration how quickly we settled in. No one had any idea what lay ahead, when the building would be actually opened, or what would happen next, Soininvaara says.
– The first two months were really important. We discussed what our work community would be like. We were able to talk with the others about what we would be doing and where we were going, Tuominen remembers the times one year ago.
– Right from the beginning, the teams were very tightly-knit. We have five teams plus the management. Otherwise we couldn’t have worked together due to the incompleteness of the premises, says Leinikka.
– At first there weren’t enough employees, now there are 64, and two vacancies are still open.
Forerunners face criticism
All three employees feel that they are working in the world’s best library, which in itself is very rewarding.
– The library has received prizes and awards, and people have expressed their admiration. Many come to tell us what a beautiful library we have. The customers are satisfied; very seldom do we get negative feedback. Working here is rewarding and inspiring, says Soininvaara.
– In addition, Oodi is a very well-functioning work environment. That’s another reason why it feels so good to come to work. You can always rely on your colleagues for help, and that is important in this work. There is such a great variety of services that one person simply can’t master them all, Tuominen says.
– I am thrilled to have been here right from the beginning! Brand new concepts and exciting new projects! And like Toni said, this work community is fantastic. I feel I can have a real impact on how I do my work. That is truly rewarding, says Leinikka.
You can’t always please everybody.
– Some people come here with a critical attitude: “Let’s see, if there are any books here!” and then they say: “No there aren’t any”, but that isn’t true. We always correct comments like that. Another constant topic is our gender neutral toilets. But that happens to be the decision made by our personnel, and that’s how it’s going to be. Equality issues are our top priority. Not everybody likes that, but they just have to get used to it. Most likely the society will gradually adjust to this too, forerunners are always the target of criticism. Fortunately, there is very little of it, emphasizes Anna-Maria Soininvaara.•