2007 Annual Minutes

Performance Issues of Reference & Information Librarians Discussion Group
June 25, 2007
8:00-10:00 a.m.
Washington, D.C.


Attending: Crystal Lentz, Joan Bawlby, Mark Lenker, Whitney Davison, Morrison Aronna, Mary Hogue, Steve Shaw, Ryan Johnson, Robin Megow, Louise Jones, Luke Vilelle, Phil Jones, Ben Treat, Magde Perez

After it became apparent that we did not have a leader, I (Crystal) explained who I was and that my boss is co-chair of the committee. We talked amongst ourselves and decided to have a discussion anyway.

The first question was about how libraries assess their reference services. Responses included an example of a library where evaluation forms are filled out by staff and customers for a set period of time. We also discussed what is being assessed. Is it whether or not the right answer is given? Or is it the quality of the experience based on the customer’s perspective? There was one person in attendance who is focused much more on the quality of the experience and whose library has dropped out of a cooperative because her librarians kept getting talked to about not providing the correct answer.

We then talked about follow-up and someone provided an example of a library where staff is required to follow up with a customer a certain number of times and how frustrating that is from a customer perspective. The staff is obviously focused on the steps they have to follow and they are not always listening to the customer. Another person mentioned that following-up is like being a good waiter; you figure out how much service is enough and when you need to back off.

Someone then mentions another program they went to where learning styles were discussed. According to one of the presenters at that program, people can only absorb information for 10 minutes before they need to step back and think about what they’ve learned. This brought up the issue of librarians figuring out when to stop providing information and how sometimes the customer gets overwhelmed. One librarian provided an example of how she has instructed her staff to handle questions where they are asked for everything they have on a topic. Staff are supposed to ask the customer for 3 specific things they are looking for and then to help them find the first 2. Rather than proceeding to the 3rd thing at that point, staff is to tell the customer to look through what they’ve been given and to come back when they’re ready for that third thing. The key is to tell the next person on the desk what has been provided and what is still needed.

What to do when another librarian who staffs the desk complains about students who come up to the desk asking for everything. She’s not looking for advice, but you have some, and you’re not her supervisor. This led to a broader discussion about how to have influence staff who staff the desk you coordinate the schedule for, but who do not report to you. One idea is that you contribute to the evaluation process. Another is that you arrange for 3rd party mystery shoppers and present the feedback from that exercise. In the specific example given, staff knew that mystery shoppers would be asking questions in a given month. The shoppers filled out scale surveys and provided comments.

Is there a standard of behavior that employers expect from reference librarians? One person commented that he takes it on a case by case basis. One person’s good and bad days are completely different looking than someone else’s. The key is not be denigrating or insulting to customers. Always remember that the customer’s information need is serious and important to them even if you’ve answered the same question 10 times already that day. It’s not about you. Someone else mentioned that her librarians are instructed to smile, make eye contact, and say hello to anyone who comes within a 5 foot radius of the desk. Facial expression and tone are important. Someone then brought up diversity among librarians and patrons and how is that factored in. At that point, the discussion went back to the case by case idea. Touchpoints with patrons are different for every librarian. Librarians and patrons are all different and customer perceptions of interactions will be different even if two librarians do everything exactly the same.

How often does observation happen? One person tries to walk through each service point at different times of day throughout each week, although it’s not formal thing that she keeps track of. Others also mentioned walking through and someone brought up that’s it important to try and view interactions from both librarian and customer perspectives.

How long are desk shifts? Anywhere from 1-2 hours to 4-5 hours to all day on weekends.

How do you deal with printouts? One librarian has a printer behind the reference desk and librarians spend all their time getting printouts for students. Moving the printer out from behind the desk and charging for copies are future considerations, but they’re not going to happen soon. One suggestion was to provide data on the amount of time spent retrieving printouts and to put a dollar amount to it. Another was to let students come behind the desk to get their printouts. Another was to have another staff member at the desk whose job it is to get printouts, but the staff in question is too small to do that.

Does anyone offer training sessions for staff on particular topics? Yes and they are often presented at department meetings. One person does one once a month and he pointed out that it is important to make it a regular occurrence. There’s also a benefit to having staff train each other and giving them a chance to discuss what they’ve learned and what they’re struggling with. Another librarian mentioned that she posts training materials on the staff intranet in addition to providing them in paper. That way people who like paper have it and the materials are also posted where everyone can access them.

Does anyone do in-service trainings? If so, how do you staff desks? One librarian does 2 ½ day sessions so only ½ the staff is gone at once. Other libraries close.

How do you keep student workers engaged? Students won’t do anything unless they’re specifically asked; the reference librarians seem to be doing everything. Make particular tasks part of the students’ job descriptions and/or have them answer the directional/technical questions.

How are desks set up in relation to traffic flow?

Who gets approached at the desk? An interesting phenomenon that varies depending on the customer and the options at the desk.

Are your librarians allowed to take other work to the desk? Yes, as long it is something that they can look up from often to scan the room; something that can be interrupted. Many pointed out that they wouldn’t be able to get work done if they couldn’t do it on the desk. One person mentioned that staff is not allowed to sit and read a book at the desk, but other work is fine.

Is it ok to make customers wait or do you need to have enough staff at the desk so they won’t have to? Do we lose questions by making them wait? Consensus was that waiting is ok as long as the waiting customers are acknowledged and it doesn’t happen to them every time they approach the desk. It was pointed out that how waiting patrons are treated is a performance issue. Some librarians just can’t handle the pressure; want staff who are pleasant under pressure. One person did mention that she hates to wait and often won’t.

How do you approach a staff member who is losing her hearing and/or falling asleep at the desk? Since the problems are sensitive and could have a medical cause, you should talk to HR. If you do approach the person, do so with compassion. It is a performance issue to fall asleep at the desk and you could approach the person from that angle. Be sure to document the problem.