I had a hard time deciding which Thursday morning session to go to, but ultimately I chose “On Life Support, but Not Dead Yet!: Revitalizing Reference for the 21st Century” and I’m glad I did. Jason Kuhl of the Arlington Heights (IL) Memorial Library (AHML) and Celeste Choate of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) presented, and both had excellent ideas to share. As most librarians know, demand for “traditional” reference services have been declining, with many fewer “ready reference” questions as well as fewer complex reference questions. Multitudes of column inches in newspapers (screen inches in online publications) have been devoted to whether libraries are relevant in today’s world, and probably an equal amount has been written by librarians and our allies on why libraries are in fact relevant.
But as some libraries shift toward the “library as community center” model, others consider how to highlight the reference services that have always been libraries’ strength. One of the most obvious ways, Jason pointed out, was to make the reference desk visible: put it in a high-traffic area, near an entrance, or just make sure it’s not behind a wall where patrons have to seek it out. Another way that Arlington Heights increased the number of questions answered (by 34%!) was to separate face-to-face interactions from phone, e-mail, and chat interactions; that is, when a librarian was at the reference desk, s/he was only responsible for face-to-face interactions with patrons physically in the library. Librarians away from the desk handled all other types of reference questions. In addition to boosting the number of questions answered, this solution seems to me like a big stress-reliever; instead of trying to answer four questions at once, staff can focus on just one, and give that patron better service.
Jason also talked about a reshuffling of responsibilities at the two desks at the Arlington Heights library. Previously, they had an “Information” desk and a “Welcome” desk. At the info desk, staff with MLS degrees answered traditional reference questions, helped with database research, did technical instruction, and handled genealogy and business questions; at the welcome desk, staff without an MLS answered questions about the catalog, helped with technology, and did readers’ advisory. This distinction was unclear to patrons (most patrons, not unreasonably, assume that everyone who works in a library is a librarian with the same level of expertise), so the desk responsibilities were shifted and the names were changed accordingly. Now, patrons could go to the “Digital Services” desk to ask about the public computers, digital content, technology instruction, and e-readers/tablets/phones, or they could go to the “Information Services” desk with questions about genealogy and business, readers’ advisory, or the catalog. Some staff at each desk had an MLS and some did not. Though it required cross training for staff, the new system was more intuitive for patrons.
Jason noted the importance of “proactively marketing what you can do versus waiting for people to come to you,” as well as the importance of being “nimble and local,” by responding to rising unemployment by offering help for jobseekers, for example. The library also offers technology classes, and staff noticed that attendance at these classes rose even as public computer use declined. The Arlington Heights library is able to offer more than the usual tech classes: they offer sessions on blogging, Twitter, Android vs. iOS, and where to listen to music online. The library is “not just a grocery store, but also a kitchen,” Jason said, meaning it is not just a place to come get things, but also a place to make things. “Libraries,” he finished, “help people be successful in their lives.”
Celeste from AADL presented next, starting with an overview of the library system. The AADL is one main library and four branches; they have 8.8m checkouts, 1.6m visits, and about 80k attendance at programs annually, but reference questions have declined sharply, from 126k in 2003-2004 to 51k in 2011-2012. The AADL took a hard look at “What job needs to be done? Who is qualified to do it? Who answers which questions?” They have several levels of staff, from clerks to MLS students to library technicians, librarians, supervisors, and managers. Each level of staff spends a certain amount of time on the desk every week (the library is open 74 hours/week year-round), but there is a six-week training program that supports non-MLS staff on the desk. There is also peer-to-peer training in the form of a staff wiki, and a variety of ways for patrons and staff alike to ask questions.
All of these changes seem designed to support library staff’s responsiveness to the public and to each other. Staff create wayfinders and tools for the public, like homework help, and staff and the public also create resources together, like readalike lists. There is also an “on demand” digitization process; digitization can be a long, slow process, so why not let the public decide what they want to see first? Patrons can request digitized copies of articles from old local newspapers, and instead of simply delivering that item to that patron, the item is made available to the public as well. The public also helps tag items in the catalog (crowdsourcing!) with the Points-o-Matic game.
A final small outreach effort was to add a short message to the “Ready for Pickup” notices that are automatically e-mailed to patrons when their requested items arrive at the library. Instead of just saying that the item is ready, the AADL added a sentence along the lines of “Did you know the library can answer questions?” Because, unbelievably, some people do not know this. (Celeste’s own grandmother, apparently, was one of these people. “What do you think I do all day, Grandma?”)
All of the ideas that Jason and Celeste presented were thought-provoking and inspiring. I especially like the idea of a combination staff/patron chat where staff can provide answers to their fellow staff as well as to patrons (Celeste called this “the channel”), but I have to say my favorite idea is separating face-to-face reference from phone/e-mail/chat reference, and handling the latter off-desk. At AHML, this seemed to have many positive effects: it reduces stress on desk staff, improves the F2F experience for patrons, and allows library staff to answer more questions (a ringing phone doesn’t go unanswered because the person on the desk is helping someone else).
This post wound up being pretty long, so I’ll write about the remaining three Thursday sessions in the next post(s). Stay tuned, and please share your thoughts in the comments!