Access Services in Libraries highlighted at the "Back in Circulation Conference 2014"

By Thomas Mantzakides

New circulation policies, evolving service models, and yes, even Legos were some of the topics covered during the "Back in Circulation Conference 2014" held at the Pyle Center Oct. 6-7 in Madison, Wisconsin. The Conference is held every two years and is sponsored by the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year's event saw attendees from 22 different states, along with a speaker from Canada. Below are some of the highlights:

The conference began with a keynote speech entitled "The Power of Leading to Achieve Great Service" delivered by Dee Dee Rapp who for over 20 years has specialized in leadership and customer service training. Rapp's presentation featured partner exercises in which attendees turned to the person sitting next to them. Volunteers were asked to share their answers, which she recorded on a flip board.

Rapp highlighted 4 key concepts during her presentation:

Connections - Making service great by building authentic relationships and using creativity to solve problems with good common sense.

Challenges - Knowing both the expectations of customers and what employees expect from the libraries that employ them.

Communication - Both customers and those providing customer service want respect and good communication. Communicating optimism by helping people believe that they can do/accomplish something, while expressing gratitude and appreciation to colleagues for all their work.

Consistency - Taking time for training and promising to deliver the best quality service by being and doing your best everyday.

The next session entitled "Leading the Way to Yes: Building Good Will through Circulation Policy and Practice" by Heather Jett, Access Services Librarian from the Murphy Library at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse was split into two parts--Creating a Culture of Yes and Learning while Leading.

Jett solicited answers from the audience about when saying "no" is necessary (e.g. policies, state law, license agreements, etc.) but also emphasized the importance of establishing goodwill with library patrons. Goodwill is defined as exhibiting a benevolent attitude of kindness and friendliness. Jett relayed an example of a technology policy at her institution in which a student had to sign a 3-page policy, which was then scanned as a PDF for library records. She edited the document down to one page and used friendlier language by removing all the "no's" and "do not's" and replacing them with more positive language such as "abide" and "agree."

In Learning while Leading, Jett described a workplace's culture as one that shares basic assumptions (e.g. how a group learns to solve problems). Oftentimes, a policy is there because it has worked "well enough" and is taught to new employees as the "correct" way to do things. The culture she was working in was based on a worst-case scenario model guarding against the possibility of anything going wrong. The Library's role as protector was a relic of the 19th century and had to be changed to one that anticipated a best-case scenario instead.

The overall goal was to focus on the 3 P's:

People: Respect, listen, and understand their concerns.

Policy: Always ask why something is being done.

Practice: Talk about creating a culture of yes and address "what if" concerns as necessary.

In Necessity is the Mother of Community, Librarians from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia discussed how training brought together staff from the four campus libraries. One way to build a greater sense of community was for library employees to attend a training session dealing with emergencies. The goal was to increase staff familiarity with one another while ensuring that everyone felt prepared and confident.

Training was held at the beginning of fall semester; facilitators enticed students from all public service locations to attend by offering free pizza. A training session was also recorded and made available on-line for students who could not attend.

Instruction was becoming familiar with what supplies were needed for emergency situations (e.g. bags containing flashlights, glow sticks, etc.) and at what service points they could be found. Also a red visibility vest was set-aside for training leaders so they could be easily identifiable to patrons, other staff, and firefighters/police.

Presenters concluded the training was worthwhile since it afforded staff the opportunity to meet new people and to put names and faces together. The creative ways in reviewing information (e.g. through interactive games) resonated with participants and were a fun way to interact while learning procedures. While it's clear that the training is an evolving model with continuous effort required to sustain what has been achieved, the session garnered enough positive feedback to make it worthwhile as an annual event.

In "An Access Service Model Responsive to Change," C.J. De Jong, Access Services Coordinator at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada described the challenges of reorganizing the Circulation/Reference Desks into a one stop service desk amidst staff departures.

One of the challenges faced involved the economic situation at the University. Nine library staff, including De Jong's supervisors, took retirement packages. Even though student assistants filled full time staff vacancies, losing experienced staff meant carrying on without valuable expertise and knowledge. Deadpanning that "running away" was not an option, De Jong tried to make the operation more efficient by looking at possible solutions.

He evaluated the results of the workflow stemming from the reorganization of the library's service points. Cross training between staff in different units was implemented. He looked at the services offered and times of peak use to plan staff/student schedules accordingly. He increased student assistant productivity by making it a goal to discharge all items the day they were received, and changed the processing of the requested items report to multiple times throughout the day. De Jong justified the purchase of new scanners by making the case that processing would be faster and more ergonomic (less strain on the wrists of staff doing the scanning).

Internally, the environment wasn't conducive to change as many long time employees were disgruntled and a divide existed between the Access Services and Reference departments. De Jong made sure that staff members were aware of why the reorganization was necessary. He shared statistics with staff, showing how the library was hit hard with an 11% decrease in their budget. Other stats showed decreased usage of the print collection along with a drop in the number of questions asked at the reference desk.

De Jong brought problems to staff and gave them the opportunity to provide feedback or offer possible solutions; and while not all suggestions could be implemented, it was important for staff to know that they would be considered.

The conference wrapped up on a humorous note with a session titled: The Lego Approach: Skill Sets for Today & Tomorrow, by Kelly Krieg-Sigman, Library Director at La Crosse Public Library in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Krieg-Sigman wasted no time in placing participants into four groups, giving them Lego toy blocks to build whatever they wanted within five minutes.

Group members could offer encouragement to the two people who volunteered to build objects but couldn't touch the work in progress or negatively judge it. Some of the objects built by the groups included a totem to all lost/damaged books in libraries and an object resembling a wall made of yellow cheese! The inventions were then disassembled and a new assignment given to build specific objects such as bookmobiles and book returns--the group members surrounded the two builders and offered advice.

The first exercise was intended to display personal skills such as imagination and teamwork that employees bring to their jobs while the second set represented the library organization's clearly communicated expectations of what skills are needed to succeed.

Through imagination, collaboration and by having fun, employees could enjoy picking up new skills needed to remain viable in today's work environment. The attitude and confidence brought to the table is important but so is the organization's willingness to be patient and supportive of employee attempts to meet the fast paced and ever-changing technological demands of the 21st century.

The conference, highlighted by sessions on service, leadership, and continued skill building offered varied perspectives on addressing problems and taking on new challenges. Many attendees were better equipped to return to their workplaces with a stronger understanding of core access service values and how they can contribute to the health and relevance of the library profession.

Thomas Mantzakides (MLIS, 2011, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is a Library Specialist at the Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the Circulation Librarian at Morton College in Cicero, IL. This is his first year as a member of the NMRT Footnotes Committee.