A spirit of caring and sharing and open dialogue with critics

I wrote to the Toronto Public Library board of directors calling for a moratorium on the gutting and defacement of old branches to install godforsaken RFID self-checkout systems, which do not actually work.

In a display of TPL technical acumen I have come to expect, Director of Branch Libraries Anne Bailey sent along a response – in the form of a scanned-image PDF. I assume this was a deliberate choice given that I am a journalist and an accessibility expert (in fact, I know a great deal about accessible PDF). I assume it was meant to frustrate reading of, quotation from, and distribution of their actual response. Let’s set that aside for a moment.

Bailey trots out various statistics that show most people use self-checkout (they have no choice) and most people like it. The latter says nothing about the endemic failures of the system, nor anything about staff who sit behind a desk and ignore you, or get angry at you when you bring a book near the antenna, or who initially tell you to go use that terminal over there instead of listening to your question, or yell at you from behind the desk when a book you’re carrying sets off their alarm, or chase you up the stairs when that latter thing happens.

Bailey is one of two people this week to insist the old Yorkville desk was not marble. Pictures or it didn’t happen, as the kids say. Neither of these people made a case as to why its replacement had to be MDF and so badly designed that staff can’t actually sit behind it or store a returned book there. Other than that, she pretty much ignores my objections and attested experience. She says nothing about gutting historic library branches, for example, just to convert its entire collection into miniature radio transmitters.

Bailey also promises that improvements to the user interface are coming. Someone else told me that to my face recently, in an actually helpful and informative way. Agincourt branch is the testbed, I was told, a fact TPL has been at pains not to publicize. Language choice on the system is better, there are fewer steps to take, and the crucial deactivation of security bit happens earlier in the process.

I am willing to accept these reports are accurate. But let’s refresh our memories here.

How to turn a fan into a detractor

This Weblog, ostensibly a pop-up blog of intentionally short lifespan, is, by any standard, past its sell-by date. It serves little or no purpose for anyone, including me. Why do I maintain it? Think of our raison d’être: This is a blog for “fans of the Toronto Public Library.” I insist the system has no bigger fan. You could really push it and claim I tie for first place with the much more compliant and soothing Cathy Raine.

I’m at one branch or another four to ten times a week. I read 200 books a year. Right now I’ve got 38 items out. My requests used to take up a significant chunk of interlibrary-loan traffic (now much less so). I feel welcome at my home branch and adore several others, especially Beaches. I schlep across town to Gladstone. I’m all in favour of sinking $30 mil into a Reference reno. The most charming thing I’ve ever seen in over two decades living here is the bookmobile (which I got to enjoy all over again at Word on the Street last week).

I am a fan of the Toronto Public Library.


Apart from that pesky issue of allowing civic real estate to be taken over by Islam, I have one significant objection. It is, of course, the proven failure and costly boondoggle of the RFID system. (Actually, Bailey contends that RFID costs are paid back within two years by keeping libraries open longer.) Well before I was a soi-disant fan of the Toronto Public Library, I objected to the atrocious user interface of this system, and was actually listened to for about an hour five years ago.

Since then, the evidence shows that TPL is happy to entertain any complaints about the system whatsoever as long as they don’t come from me. TPL will act on the same complaints I voiced in 2005 as long as somebody else voices them now. If somebody else says the same thing I do, TPL listens to that other person, not me.

In point of fact, then, at executive levels TPL has deliberately frozen me out. I’ve explained this before: The higher up in the hierarchy I go, the more terrified they seem in my presence. Every week I have perfectly delightful conversations with branch librarians. Yet branch heads seize up; publicists don’t return E-mails for ten days or more; upper mandarins greet me with clenched resignation at branch reopenings. And, of course, the TPL board blows me off. (Twice now, in fact.)

All this is, of course, consistent with the Canadian and indeed Torontonian psychology that mediocrity is to be accepted at all times. We’re all so equal, the thinking goes, that nobody could possibly know more than anybody else, and anyone who is gauche enough to correct mistakes in public is simply being “negative.” Revealing a problem is viewed as the problem. Blowing the whistle just goes to show you don’t fit in with everybody else. They obviously never needed a whistle, so why do you?

But “I don’t like your tone” isn’t a defence. In any rationally-managed enterprise, your critics are a resource. The classic example: If a hacker tries to break into your computers, go out and hire that hacker to keep your systems safe. If you can’t beat ’em, engage ’em. Now, this can be done for nefarious reasons (to “co-opt,” as they say, a persistent critic). But businesspeople who apply design thinking and don’t act as scared as a deer caught in headlights when subjected to criticism view critics as a source of strength.

Toronto is not known for its design thinking or the courage of its executives.

The “Our New System Is So Much Better Even Joe Will Like It” Challenge

I am the biggest critic of RFID and the only such critic whose ass TPL ignores. If anything at all is wrong with an RFID checkout system, I’ll find it or it’ll happen to me. That makes me the toughest beta-tester in the system.

So get me up to the beta-test site. Agincourt branch is somewhere in the hinterlands and is too damned far from my house. But somebody, somewhere, at TPL has a car. That somebody can pick me up from, say, Warden or Kennedy subway stations, give me a lift up to (later, back from) the branch, during which drive we can enjoy perfectly pleasant inside-baseball chitchat. Once there, let me loose on the system for an hour. Let me try to break it.

Don’t tell branch staff what’s happening till we’re halfway through; I need to know how they naturally deal with civilians. When we’re all done, I’ll tell you exactly what doesn’t work and what does. Surely you all agree I will be intellectually honest and will – without reservation – admit when something works or has been improved. But I’ll also tell you what isn’t working. That’s what you’ve dragged me up there for.

This project kills two vegan bird substitutes with one stone. More, actually.

  • You disprove my thesis that you’re freezing me out. (Détente has to start somewhere.)
  • You prove to your biggest critic that you really have improved the system.
  • You prove to that critic you are willing to further debug even a system you insist is already better.
  • You prove that all you want is an RFID system that really works. You disprove that all you want is for me to get lost and shut up.

Any weekday or weekend is fine. So is one evening a week. You can act like I’m a problem or use me as a solution.