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 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.

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