Access Services Conference

Thanks to having an employer who actually sees the value in investing in its employees I was able to attend the Access Services Conference for the first time, this year, in Atlanta. If you’re not aware, this is a smaller conference that is dedicated — not surprisingly — to the Access Services zone of academic libraries; an area of the field typically neglected at other conferences and occasionally maligned by other areas of the profession. This is everything from ready reference and circulation to emergency preparedness. A sampling of the sessions conducted include:

  • Re-Evaluating Library Space Usage AFTER a Library Renovation
  • Badges of Service: Engaging, Customer-Oriented Student Employee Training
  • Librarian or Emergency Responder
  • Accessing Virtual Reality: Challenges Met and Lessons Learned
  • Are daily fines effective in reducing the number of days an item is kept out past its due date
  • A Bibliometric Analysis of ILL Data at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s management and practical advice from those of us really in the trenches of our profession.

Day 1

The conference ran from Wednesday, November 15, through Friday, November 17. The first night was an opening reception of drinks and finger foods. About half-way through awards were given to those who won the travel scholarship and one for excellence in Access Services Librarianship. There was a recognition of the committees and members, as well. Mostly, though the event was a social time for the school-reunion aspect that these conferences inevitably have. For my part, my only reunion was with my former supervisor who is now the University Librarian at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He introduced me around a little and suggested I get on one of the committees, myself.

Committee work is very important in professional academic librarianship. Most of them, I believe, don’t take too much extra work, and it shows potential employers — or tenure review boards — that you are engaged in the profession at more than a day-to-day level. I used to be on the RUSA: STARS ILL Committee, but had to resign after I’d a) missed several meetings because I couldn’t get to the conferences, and b) stopped working in ILL.

I made a joke at the time that the new guy always gets put on a committee — at least, that’s how it was at every church I ever went to — but it’s something that I really should consider doing. If for no other reason, it’s hard for your boss to tell you can’t go to a conference when your on one of the planning committees. Furthermore, it gets your name and face out in the profession and people can start to get to know you. The more you do that, the more you show up to these things and have friends and colleagues there with whom you’ve built a relationship and it makes conference much more enjoyable. Also, you could get a job or another exciting opportunity out of it.

Day 2

I started the day off right by oversleeping, only to follow that up by spilling an entire “tall” coffee on the floor of the front row right before the keynote speaker went on. Classy! The speaker, Brian Matthews, Associate Dean for Learning at Virginia Tech, talked about a variety of ideas, but the gist that I got out of it was that he encouraged the room to get out of our comfort zones and take risks in our leadership roles. Also, that sometimes break-dancing in the library is a good thing.

My first session was “Re-evaluating Library Usage AFTER a Library Renovation” (emphasis in original title), presented by Jo-Ann Cooley and Kari Mofford, which described a recent renovation at U-Mass Dartmouth’s library and how they made changes and improvements after the renovation was complete. From where I was sitting I feel that the most beneficial aspect of the session was the process they used to get the feedback to make those subsequent changes. There was a lot of open communication, survey’s, and focus groups of both students and staff that informed what needed to be done after the major changes that had already taken place. This reminds us of Raganathan‘s fifth law of library science, “The library is a growing organism.”

Next came “Badges of Service: Engaging, Customer-Oriented Student Employee Training,” by Bryan Feyerherm and Lori Hilterbrand of Oregon State University. This was one of the better sessions of the conference. OSU designed a standardized student assistant training and retention program that rewarded skills earned and time served with “flair;” colorful buttons that displayed achievements. Their training included a patron experience scavenger hunt that new employees do that ends in a pot of candy, and online quizzes to test knowledge and comprehension. This was one of the best sessions of the conference in my opinion.

…people were randomly walking around with ice cream treats…

After that was the most important part of the day: LUNCH. I haven’t said this yet. Wednesday night at the (complimentary!) wine social I was told that the food at this conference was awesome, and constant. Boy howdy! Was that correct! I’ve never had such good spreads at a library conference before. Plus, people were randomly walking around with ice cream treats both days. There was a constant supply of ice cream, people! Needless to say, no one went hungry.

After lunch, I attended “Accessing Virtual Reality: Challenges Met and Lessons Learned,” in which someone from North Carolina State University (his name is not noted in the program) presented an overview of VR technologies he’s piloting in his NCSU library. I went to this because a) I know next to nothing about VR and haven’t used it since my early teens (tweens?) in the early 90’s at St. Louis’ VP Fair. You might remember the giant headsets, circular platforms, and polygonal digital environments of those early setups. Or, you might not. And b) Lied Library has a VR setup we’re piloting in anticipation of our new Knowledge Production department which will begin full swing operations by next fall. This presentation was interesting and informative, but not practical based on my professional interests outside of giving me a basic introduction to the technology without the opportunity to use it.

Next was the poster sessions. I usually don’t pay too much attention to poster sessions, but this time I took photos of a number of them and talked to one of the presenters about how she communicates en masse with a bunch of student workers who WON’T READ EMAIL! ARRRRRGH!

But I digress.

All of the poster sessions over both days that I was most interested in were concerning managing, training, and mentoring student assistants. Reasons for this I should get into in a later blog post.

Last session of the day was an outlier for me: “A Bibliometric Analysis of ILL Data at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center,” by Brynne Norton. While I do have a fairly strong ILL background, anyone who knows me knows why I went to this, and it’s spelled N-A-S-A. I’m a life-long space nerd and just being in proximity to a NASA Librarian is enough to make me fanboy.

Another Digression: My friend Nick Fry, who’s now the curator of the Barriger Railway Collection at Mercantile Library in St. Louis is also a former NASA librarian. In short, I know some really cool nerds!

Brynne talked about measuring the impact of Goddard’s ILL service using title, keyword and regular expression searches, as well as tools like Openrefine.orgRegexr.com, and Sublime text editor. While I’m not sure I understood it all (I’ve never been a blood-and-guts librarian) I found her talk way more interesting that I thought I would have by the title and description. Good job Brynne!

Day 3

“Holding onto the values of the past is the quickest path to irrelevance.” — Katie Glaeser

Friday began much better than Thursday did. I got plenty of sleep, woke up on time, and still got breakfast at the conference. I chose another student assistant management session to start my day with. This time Christopher Bishop (of Agnes Scott) and Jalesia Horton (of Augusta University) talked about their parallel experience working in small academic libraries in which they included — and expected — their student workers to do so much more than shelve books and sit at the circ desk. Their students were active in outreach, advocacy, and marketing with an eye toward building student skill sets for transference to other later opportunities. They gave their students real responsibilities, and received buy-in from them. While much of what they talked about wouldn’t work in a large institution, they did say something I liked a lot, “The student employee who understands the big picture becomes the ideal student employee.” We have to include the students in what we are doing and thinking so they can understand their jobs in a larger context and perform to their highest degree.

The second session of the day was “User-centered Access: Planning and Implementing a Fine-free Policy” by Maryke Barber and Karen Ryan of Hollins University told us all how they went FINE FREE in their library; fantasy I have written about before. What a wonderful thing to do.

According to them — and why wouldn’t I trust a librarian? — there’s more an more data that says that fines do nothing to preserve a collection or encourage quicker returns for the average circulating monograph. Hallelujah! What does work is longer lending periods, more frequent communication, billing for replacements, and blocking accounts of the worst offenders. From my experience at UMSL I can say anecdotally that this pan’s out. One thing that they did that I thought was genius was to increase the undergraduate loan period to 120 days with a single renewal, just like faculty and grad students. Brilliant! Oh, how I want to do that at UNLV! The caveat to this is that it’s only standard overdue fines they stopped collecting. They’re still fining for reserves, tech, and replacements, but still, good on them!

Poster sessions, then another totally awesome lunch.

The last regular session of the conference that I attended was “Navigating the Storm: Leadership in Times of Crisis,” by Katie Glaeser (Sweet Briar College). Another fabulous session that provided my favorite quote of the whole conference, “Holding onto the values of the past is the quickest path to irrelevance.” OMG, I was so happy to hear her say that! The presentation was really about empathetic leadership during stressful transitions to manage not only the events, but the psyches of the people affected by that change. There was a lot in this forty-five minute presentation, but I’ll sum it up with Katie’s own bullet points.

Summary:

  • Focus on Mission
  • Clarity precedes competence
  • Lead with Care
  • Information & Communication

And…

Emergency Toolkit:

  • Remain Calm
  • Focus on the Mission
  • Prioritize the Welfare of Others

Like I said, that was the last regular session I attended. There was one more, but instead I spent that time networking with my former boss, Paul Sharpe.

The last event of this wonderful conference was a panel discussion with Paul (UTRGV), David McCaslin (Cal Tech and editor of the Journal of Access Services), Krista Higham (Millersville Univ.), Brad Warren (Yale), and Trevor Dawes (Univ. of Delaware). Each of whom have been associated with the conference for all or most of its nine-year history. It was great to hear these very successful people talk about what access services has meant to them throughout their careers. Cheers, all around!

Takeaways

I’ve been going to conferences since 2011. I’ve been to big conferences and small ones, national ones and regional ones, but this is the first time I’ve really been to a conference focused on a particular service area — most importantly, mine. I was a pilot fish at this conference. I was to go there and report back to my AD whether or not it is worthwhile to send others in the future. Indubitably, it is! I had always heard wonderful things about this conference (mostly from Paul), but had never had the opportunity to come, myself. The way that I’m feeling right now. For anyone who works or aspires to work in access services, this is probably a far more enriching experience that even going to the big 20,000 librarian-strong ALA Annual every June. ALA has it’s own charms and it’s own value, but for area-specific content and the best camaraderie you can’t beat what happens in Atlanta every November.

book and red wine on a marble table

Moving Forward and Eating Elephants

On October 25th I have a Skype interview with UC Berkeley. Yay! But, that’s not what this post is really about.

Everyone in my workplace knows that I am looking for another job. I am well aware that my openness on this matter is a luxury not afforded to many. It just so happens that it is understood that there is no place for me to go at my current library, primarily for budgetary reasons.

Because I have this openness I can go to my supervisor freely and ask for time off for interviews, or sometimes, take an interview while in the office. It’s a convenient setup for me. It also means that I and my department are in a constant state of limbo. I have to act like I’m not going anywhere to maintain my level of service, while also keeping one eye on the door. This open setup is also inconvenient in this way.

I have a certain set of duties that I alone am responsible for, plus those shared with my colleagues. I also have institutional knowledge built up that contains the soft skills I need to be successful. The loss of my position after I leave — and I am guaranteed not to be replaced — is the cause of some fretting in my office. How will the evening schedules work out after they go from five to four closers? Who will get my weekend shifts? How will they ensure that my duties are carried out? What even are my duties?

In theory, I could get a call on Monday and two weeks later be out the door. Or, it could take another two years. This unknown causes much of the consternation, both at work and at home. No one knows how much urgency is required on the matter of succession; on when, how, and to whom the responsibilities will fall.

Let’s Back Up

Cast your mind back, if you will, to summer of 2010, a simpler and less Trumpy time. I was languishing in a position that had never developed into the job I had been promised. I had little responsibility and less to do. Three things were about to happen, though. We were getting a new Head of Access Services, the night manager and supervisor of consortial lending was retiring, and I was going on a two-week vacation to the Grand Canyon.

We were already experiencing the budgetary shortfalls that made hiring a new person impossible. So, someone inside the department was going to have to take over the consortial lending duties. The most logical person for that position was me. The Dean, however, wasn’t sure about me. After two years of my service he didn’t know me at all, really. Before making things official he requested a meeting with me to get a sense of just who I was and my suitability for the position. I didn’t think of it as such at the time, and the format was much more casual than I would grow accustomed to, but it was similar to job interview for a position I already had. We talked about service models and temperament. I don’t remember much about the conversation, now, six years later, but it was sufficient that he was comfortable giving me reigns of this position and putting me in a position of very limited power.

What was left was to train me on the actual position. For several days over the next few weeks I spent time with the kindly Iranian man who I’d be replacing upon his retirement. By “several,” of course, I mean three. I think. You may be thinking, “Three day’s training for a new job? That’s crazy!” Or, you’re thinking, “Wow! you got three whole days!?” Either way, you’re wrong. What was astonishing to me is that this man — who’d held this position for the last nine years — basically did nothing. His job, according to my “training” consisted of occasionally phoning people about overdue or damaged items, and occasionally arranging replacements with the acquisitions department.

I asked him, “What is your process? What is the first thing you do when you get here?”

“Well,” he says in his gentle Farsi accent, “I say hello to Barbara. I make coffee. I turn on the computer.

“Now, this book here is damaged. I called the young lady who checked it out and talked to her grandmother, a very nice lady. These books over here? Chris in acquisitions knows about these. Do not worry about them…”

This was my training. He had no process. He never acted proactively. He seemed to think that it was sufficient to sit back and wait to be needed and, I guess he was right because for nine years no one had made him do anything different.

As the days went by I only got the barest of nuggets of what I was responsible for, until eventually we reached his retirement party where we all said “bon voyage,” to this kindly, but, lazy man.

Then, it was time for my vacation!

Meanwhile, while I was gone, our new Head of Access Services started and began to get settled in. Upon meeting me, nearly the first thing he impishly said to me was “While you were gone it became clear that this just isn’t the right fit for me, so I’ll be resigning as of Friday.”

After the shock and laugh of the joke subsided I was left to look at my new desk in my new part of the library and say to myself, “What’s my job again?”

Two weeks after my predecessor retired, and following an eventful vacation in which I was not thinking about work at all. I was faced with the writer’s terror of the blank page. What was my purpose? What were my responsibilities? How was I to spend my time? I really had no idea.

What did I do? I did what I do anytime I’m faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem. I ate the elephant.

Eating the Elephant

How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

I had to break my job down into its most basic parts from which to build. What was my primary function? To see the proper circulation of items through our consortium system. What is that made up of? Circulation of books across the circ desk and the processing of incoming and outgoing courier shipment.

What were the circulation policies? How are shipments processed? Luckily, I had a certain amount of institutional knowledge available to help with the first question. The second question was answered by working with the two highly capable student assistants I had inherited. I had to go to my employees to learn how to do their job, and therefore mine.

I had another method for learning my new job, too. I wrote down everything.

The year before, when I was still an ILL assistant we began using the ILLiad software package to process our requests. After receiving our training, and then the software, my colleagues and I were unsure how to actually use it, so I took on the challenge of writing procedure manuals that included information from the online tutorials, but also incorporated local practice. In this way we were all able to learn the new way to do our old jobs.

With that experience behind me I applied the same technique to my new job. To make a long story slightly less long I spent six months, through trial and error, building tasks for a job that never had any before. I made mistakes along the way and irritated some of my lending partners, but eventually, I created a system that now runs nearly on autopilot and takes up a surprisingly small number of hours of my workday, so long as I have student assistants. Now, the job proactively looks for long-overdue books and reconciliations happen one-by-one. Rarely, do we have large reconciliations with another institution because I stay on top of the issues.

Over the years I have refined every one of those procedure manuals. They exist in ILL for borrowing, lending, and doc del. They exist in consortial lending for the supervisor, and the students. I have them printed in what I call the Big Book and Little Book of Merlin-MOBIUS policies and procedures. The Big Book has everything ILL and consortial lending needs, where the little book is everything that the consortial lending student assistants need.

Everyone knows these books exist. I use the Big Book regularly, just as my student assistants use the Little Book. They do not exist to supplant formal training, but to supplement it and exist as a reference for when one takes on a task they are unfamiliar with.

I created these manuals for two reasons:

  1. So that I would know what the heck my job was.
  2. So that no one else would ever be in the position that I was in when I took over the consortial lending job.

Let’s Move Forward

I never thought about it in these terms, but the truth is I was working in the realm of knowledge management. Knowledge management (KM) is something that always seemed like a buzz word to me, which my personality reflexively rejected, and my library education did not focus on — at least, not in those terms — but, the core of librarianship is just that. We are cultural knowledge managers, regardless of the realm of libraries in which we work. We organize culture in a way that is accessible to users. We manage the collected knowledge and art of our predecessors.

This is true and looks great on the “So, You Want to Be a Librarian” brochure, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on internal knowledge management. Without getting into another long anecdote about my work history I have had another experience with succession planning that was less than ideal. I was working with another soon-to-be-retired colleague to document her work. After several days of sitting with her and me asking repeatedly if there was anything else I needed to know for her successor, I was told that what I had was all I needed. Trusting her, I let it lay. Then a few months after she’d left we realized that there were significant holes she left in my training. These holes are still being repaired more than a year after her retirement.

Her attitude was that her job was hers, and hers alone. She never wanted anyone else to know what she was doing, because that would make her vulnerable. She believed that if she kept some knowledge secret, then she couldn’t be fired. I suppose that worked, but when it came for her to retire, she still didn’t relinquish that knowledge and the department has suffered for it.

I came to believe a long time ago that no one is irreplaceable. If a dictatorial tyrant can be deposed after thirty year’s in power, a penny-ante library assistant doesn’t have a prayer. That being so, there is no good philosophical reason to keep knowledge secret. I say open the gates and give away all your secrets to your colleagues. Because we librarians are not usually part of a for-profit enterprise, and the nature of the job is to freely share information, anyway, it is strange that any of my colleagues would ever feel posessive of the particulars of their job. In the end you will only hurt your organization.

It is probably not reasonable to expect — or even ask — employees to document every tiny aspect of their job. A) Most people don’t have that kind of time. B) Most people aren’t that detail oriented, even in libraries. But they can freely share their work details with colleagues when asked, and some aspects of their positions can and should be written down. This is especially necessary when tasks are infrequently performed. We don’t need to know what the rate of library fines was in 1986, but we do need to know how to bill deliquent patrons. The more knowledge is concentrated in a few people the more the library will suffer when those individuals are no longer employed.

“I’m not going anywhere.” You may be saying. “I’m only thirty-eight. I’m going to be in my job for the next twenty years, at least.”

That’s all fine and good until you get hit by a bus; something that nearly happened to me last year. Or, that’s all fine and good until you hit the lottery. My ticket is in my sweater pocket. Where’s yours?

You don’t need a Big Book of procedures like I have. You don’t even need a Little Book. But you need something. There are lots of KM products that can be purchased, but you don’t need to spend any money for them, either. We have a home-made Knowledge Base that is built on HTML code probably from 1996. KM is vital to the continued success of you and your colleagues, and more importantly, your successors.

book and red wine on a marble table

Working for a Living

Well this has been the strangest and most stressful start to a semester I’ve experienced in the last year.

Earlier, this month, I had interviewed and hired a new student assistant. I was perhaps a week or two late in doing this, so by the time the paperwork was ready she wouldn’t be able to start until the second week of classes (this week). I made a M, W, F schedule for her with an option of Sundays in the future. Tuesday and Thursday were to be covered by two other students.

First, my Tuesday student got a second job tending bar at Red Lobster (they have a bar?) which made her library schedule harder to commit to. This is less a problem for me as the work I require can basically be done at any time, but she also worked the service desk which is more concrete. She is still intending to be my Tuesday student, but already this week she couldn’t make her shift with me due to training at RL.

Then, on the same day last week, our ILL Lender called and said that her husband had just had a heart-attack (!). So, she was going to be out for a few days. Only to be followed by another phone call from my Thursday student saying, literally, “I don’t think I’m going to make it in for my shift, today. I just saw my father pass away.

Well, no, I don’t think you will make it.

This is the first week of the semester, mind you.

Friday, I take the day off for a few doctor’s appointments and to go camping with my wife. Monday, I come back to work with the expectation of beginning to train my new student worker on her tasks, only to be met with an email from her sent the Friday before saying that “for personal reasons” she couldn’t accept the job. What?

So, the new girl has bailed, and my two established assistants are both going through major transitions. Oh, and another colleague is having her own personal challenge that will require a lot of support from the department. And it’s only the second week of the new semester.

How am I reacting to all of this? For my colleague and assistant who have suffered personal tragedies, I am expressing sympathy and accommodating their needs, up to and including taking over their duties, as needed.

For the rest, I’m getting to test a hypothesis that I’ve been considering for at least a year: I don’t really need any student assistants. In the past, I’ve maintained that it takes about sixty hours a week to accomplish all of the Merlin-MOBIUS duties at UMSL, but more recently, I’ve come to feel that that number has fallen to not more than fifty.

What has happened is that with the reduction in monograph circulation at university libraries, there has simply been less need for my service. Not enough to threaten my job, or the type of service. The usage numbers are still very strong. But there is much less need for me to be flush with student workers.

So far, this week, especially, I’ve been doing it nearly all myself. With only the most limited help from other student assistants I am doing all the hands-on processing of the books, and still having time to perform the clerical duties that I would normally have done at my desk. The clerical duties are not necessarily getting done in as timely a fashion as before, but I’m still getting them done. I fully expect to be completely caught up with everything at the end of the day this Friday.

Is it stressful? Yes.

Am I exhausted at the end of the day? Yes.

But I feel like for the first time in years I’m doing my own damn job, and that feels pretty good. For years, the hardest part of my job has been the boredom that comes from too much down time.

My colleagues are looking at me like I’m crazy, though. They are also fretting about what will happen when I’m not there, both for sick or vacation days and when I inevitably get my new job. They are the ones who are insisting that I have not one, but two, fully trained student workers to perform the work. That way all contingencies are accommodated for. They have a point. However, this is the exact reason I have produced procedure manuals for not only my tasks as a supervisor, but also for the student tasks. It’s all written down so that there is not a complete loss of institutional knowledge. They don’t seem to find that comforting, though.

So, we’re advertising for more student assistants, not only for my open position, but for a few others, as well. I’m not likely to maintain this level of activity at my job, but I may tire of working this hard all the time, too. Part of me wishes that I didn’t have to hire anyone, and on one level I suppose I don’t. But then, having at least one to fill in when I’m not there really does make sense, and it would be worth it to alleviate the fretting of my colleagues.

I’m looking for a pithy conclusion to this post…

…Nope, can’t find one.

book and red wine on a marble table

An Idealized Access Services Model

On August 8 I have a Skype interview for a Head of Access Services position. As part of this interview I’ve been told to prepare a 10 minute talk on problems facing Access Services in academic libraries. I thought the best way to this would be first to write about some problems in Access Services. I can sit here and rant about the lack of respect Access Services gets in most “professional” library settings, which only leads me to complain about all of academic librarianship and the seemingly prevalent attitude that only librarians in your specialty are the “real” librarians, but I don’t think they want to hear that. So, instead I want to develop some ideas based on the literature I can find to build a set of problems and solutions that I could present to my would-be employers and could actually implement.

So, I guess I better get to researching…

…many minutes later…

My first pass through Library, Information Sciences & Technology Abstracts (LISTA) didn’t seem all that helpful. Most of the first several pages featured articles on combined service desks, and a few articles on going fine-free. Both ideas I endorse, generally. However, there didn’t seem to be any debates bubbling in the professional literature. But then, what is debatable about offering services to students and faculty?

I think combined service desks are great! My library installed one in January 2016, and it’s been a fabulous success, but they don’t work everywhere. In some places, they are either impractical or impossible due to the design of the building. Other libraries have tried it, and then reverted to a two desk system. These choices have to be made on a case-by-case instance.

I’ve looked up the library for which I’ll be interviewing and found no evidence of a combined service desk. But I surely shouldn’t talk to them about the benefits of a single service point when they may have no interest in or no capability of providing one.

Fines can be a touchy subject, too. My library stopped collecting overdue fines six years ago when no one could tell the then-new Head of Access Services where the money went. To my knowledge there is no evidence that overdue fines act as corrective action to the the patrons, nor could they provide any reasonable supplement to the library budgets. Plus, by removing cash fines, you remove the need for keeping a cash register in the building — and therefore, cash — which creates an inherent security risk.

The problem is that overdue fines are such an old practice that many people don’t understand libraries without them. Daily, people from all walks of life return overdue books to our library and immediately ask, “What do I owe?” They just expect it. In fact, I suspect that the idea of fines keeps many people out of libraries because they are afraid of the consequences of being a day or a week late in returning the items.

Do we charge people for lost or damaged items? You bet your sweet bippy, we do! And at an exorbitant markup, too! That’s your deterrent, people. When a college student receives a threatening letter saying that they’re going to be charged $150 for a book that might cost $40 online those books tend to get back in a hurry. And when they don’t, the student get’s charged at the cashier’s office. Too bad, so sad.

The library in question does still charge overdue fines ranging up to $.50 an hour. A mongraph from their general collection is fined only $.20 a day. I’d like to see the numbers on how much this encourages returns and supplements the budget.

But I don’t think I should spend my time with them telling them what I think they’re doing wrong.

So, if there are no bubbling controversies, and I can’t go out of my way to be critical of a practice they employ, what is left for me to say?

In December 2015 I interviewed with the University of Cincinnati for a poorly described public services position that I thought was about running their circulation desk and they though was something between a circulation supervisor and a Head of Access Services job; a combination of both, not not either.

As part of this interview was asked to give a presentation on library user services in five years. You can find it on my Academia.edu page. There’s nothing groundbreaking, here, or very detailed, but I talked to them about making User/Access Services about more than just getting stuff for people. It’s about the quality of service, and it’s about creating a positive and friendly feeling about the library across the whole campus.

I said to them at the time (and perhaps they found this naive) that academic librarians are lucky in that we’ve never had to justify our existence the way public, school, and special librarians have. There have been librarians as long as there have been collections of manuscripts for educational purposes. Academic librarianship goes back to Alexandria.

The problem here is that something so old and ubiquitous eventually gets taken for granted. Student’s and faculty can come to view the library as simply the place where the books live and dealing with library staff is a necessary inconvenience. Like going to the bank, it can be a chore, an errand, something done out of necessity rather than desire.

This can also instill a complacency in library staff who simply sit and wait for tasks to be brought to them; who never smile at patrons when they approach; who are visibly annoyed when their reading or project is interrupted; who actively avoid their least favorite patrons; who are impatient when patrons don’t know what they want or how to ask for it; when phone callers treat us as the university switchboard; when we are asked where we “rent” books from.

Patrons do not owe us anything. If they already had this knowledge they wouldn’t need us.

So, what is the role of Access Services? How does Access Services solve the problem of necessary ubiquity?

For this I’d like to take a lesson from the hotel industry. When I go to Vegas and stay at a nice hotel there is always a desk serviced by usually beautiful and friendly people who are there to handle any type of question.

  • “How do I get to my room?”
  • “Can I get Penn & Teller tickets here?”
  • “How late do the shuttles run?”
  • “Can I take my 5 year-old to the craps table with me?”
  • “Where’s the best drag show?”

No matter what the question, no matter how important, absurd, or menial, those concierges are there to provide the best answer possible as quickly as possible. I believe that Access Services has to adopt this model and turn itself into a service that acts as information concierge.

What does this mean?

This means placing a focus on the front line staff to greet patrons with a smile and a hello, remembering names when possible, saying thank you and goodbye when they leave. If you know the patron is a library regular there is no reason to ask for his or her campus ID every time they want to use the library. The patron should not ever feel like they are bothering anyone at the desk and should never be intimidated by one’s tone of voice or body language. There should be an air of easy service at the desk.

It means getting out from the safety and security of the desk. I know the temptation. When I worked retail the desk was always home base. A safe place to run to and take cover in when things got harried. And it was a seat of power over the customers. Library service desks can be large, and usually there are office chairs to relax in, and there are always computers where one can Facebook. But information concierges can’t be chained to a desk to be effective. Sometimes they must leave the desk to escort someone to the stacks, or perhaps teach them how the library is laid out or how the call number system works. I’d also like to see staff throw on a lanyard and walk the building once an hour when it is busy asking people if they need any help. In my ideal setting, these people carry around a small tablet device on which they can do some spot reference interviews answering questions like, “Do you have this book?” etc.

It doesn’t just mean taking services to the patron inside the building. Access Services is the face of the library in a lot of respects. We are the ones checking out the books and the laptops. We are the ones controlling the reserves material, and frequently we are the one arranging the interlibrary loans. As the face of the library we should represent the library at campus functions. We should be at student orientations. We should be at sporting events. We should be at greek week. We should be at campus festivals. Access Services should be at as many places on campus as possible meeting faculty, meeting students. Saying “hello” and building relationships.

Outreach is vitally important to the life of the library. It keeps the library fresh in the minds of the public. It keeps the library relevant in the life of the campus. Which is why libraries need to have a strong social media presence. There is no more efficient way to stay fresh in the minds of your patrons than posting regularly on the the social media outlets. Pithy tweets. Short videos. Stylized Instagram. None of them are time consuming and none of them require special skills. As the face of the library Access Services should be on top of this, too.

I believe in the library as “third place.” Not home. Not work. But someplace in the middle that can support socializing, homework, and maybe just a peaceful place for one to sit in an otherwise stressful environment.

After my presentation in Cincinnati was finished, someone asked “How do you measure success in all of this?”

I shrugged.

I don’t know. I suppose that one could spend a lot of time and energy polling library users. I suppose that one could measure gate counts and circulation number over a period of time, but I’m not sure that the improvement this service model could produce are quantifiable.