January 31, 2007

So I guess I touched upon a good topic last week? Seriously, I want to thank everyone who has emailed me and left comments here for their support and comraderie. I especially want to thank my colleagues in the blogosphere who have pointed people in this direction. It means a lot.

Many people have asked me what prompted last week’s post. Two things influenced me: first I wrote it for my staff. They are a great group of hardworking people who, in the short time I have been at MPOW, have made me feel welcomed and respected. They provide excellent service and deserve a big pat on the back. (Aside to Jeff- Thanks for the blog name!)

Secondly, when I interviewed for my position I was asked where I thought access services fit in the library. I was delighted by the large number of heads nodding in agreement when I responded, “it is the most important department in the library.” As I met with administration and saw that my sentiments were echoed, I left my interview thinking, “I have to work here,” and quickly called a friend and fellow access services librarian to tell her all about my wonderful interview experience. At two weeks into the new job, I had another conversation with my friend detailing how happy I was with my position and we swapped ideas and talked about library stuff (y’all know how that goes). All was right in the library world.

I can not accurately describe the dismay I felt last week when the same friend and colleague called to tell me that she was leaving access services. She had not been enjoying the work environment for the past several months and the situation came to a head last week. She described feelings of isolation, unimportance, and a general sense that her work and her department were not of value to the organization.

This is a person who worked in access services throughout library school and really has a wonderful personality and customer service ethic that make her an ideal head of access services. Now she no longer wants to work in the department. That made me sad. And angry. And slightly depressed. And very grateful that I don’t work someplace like that.

So that was the impetus and judging from the responses I have received, a lot of people are grateful that we are finally talking about these types of issues. I also want to publically give a shout out to all of my colleagues who work in all other library departments. We in access services do recognize that without the work you do (selecting, purchasing, cataloging materials, reference, etc) that we would have nothing to reshelve, check out, or use to fill requests and no one to answer the patron reference questions we refer. The library would be pretty boring if none of us showed up for work!


While other librarians are busy teaching BI, answering reference questions over IM, or building the interactive content that will sit on the front end of the library’s website, we in access services are checking books in and out, reshelving the current periodicals, scanning articles for e-reserves, and searching OCLC to locate that article you requested this morning.

Sounds exciting, right? Makes you want to run straight out of library school and find the first job in access services. What’s that you say? Oh…You’ve never even heard the department mentioned in library school.

It wasn’t mentioned in my library school experience, either- and I have heard similar tales from other graduates. We didn’t even take a trip to the campus library to look at the ILS in action, or even learn what an ILS was. We get absolutely no love in the library literature. Sure Journal of Access Services exists, but have you ever looked at how many titles are devoted to all flavors of reference, education, collection management and digital collection development?!

Making us feel even more like red-headed stepchildren is the fact that our national association doesn’t even have a committee or special interest group devoted to access services. Yes, there is a discussion group that can meet (if there is any interest) at the annual meeting, but there is nothing formal. I have lived in three different states and none of the chapters have had a circulation/reserves committee. I will give some credit however to the fact that ILL/document delivery does seem to get more love in being recognized as “resource sharing” and committees, task forces, and special interest groups devoted to the concept do exist.


Taking all of this into consideration, some in access services can’t help but wonder sometimes if what they do matters. Is it important? Do other librarians think it is important? Are we not “real” librarians, just like those working in any other part of the library?

I call this our professional self-esteem issue. It has been known to poke its head out during conferences when we are surrounded by people with really snazzy job titles, who sound like they do really exciting things with technology.

An interesting phenomenon I have noticed at several libraries is that the staff in access services often feels this way about how their work is perceived. Worse, the perception is sometimes taken seriously by others, leading to those in access services being treated differently, thus reinforcing the problem

All right, so we don’t get to play with sexy technology all day, nor do we spend the bulk of our time in a classroom with students, and as a department we often have the highest concentration of non-professionals. So what? Here’s a sampling of what would happen if we all went away for just a little while:

  • Books would not be checked in or out
  • Books would not be reshelved
  • Current periodicals would not be shelved
  • Fines would not be collected
  • Articles or books from other libraries would not be acquired
  • Other libraries would not get materials from our collection
  • The stacks would be a mess
  • Reserve materials would never get processed
  • Alarms would not be reset
  • Signs would not be updated, removed, or replaced
  • New patrons would not be registered
  • Microforms would not be reshelved
  • That leak in the bathroom would not get called in
  • That book you put on hold would not be retrieved from the stacks

Okay so maybe this is somewhat snarky, but it makes a point. What we do matters and is important. We are as essential to the functions of the library as any other service. The library couldn’t function without us. We’re the “go-to guys.” New service? No problem, we can make it happen. We say “yes,” a lot because we care about serving our patrons and assisting them in any way can.

I am extremely fortunate to work in a library that is dedicated to creating and sustaining a culture where every individual (and every service) has value. My job is to make sure that message makes its way down to the staff in the trenches. I don’t get to spend the bulk of my time using virtual reference tools, or create library Flickr sites (valuable tools in their own rights), but I do spend much of my day running around putting out fires, answering questions, listening to complaints, making improvements, creating and implementing new services, and making sure that my staff feel proud of themselves and the work they do. That pride translates into the right kind of customer service, too. When patrons compliment the library for the fast, friendly service they got? That was (more than likely) us.

So this access services self-esteem problem has got to end. Soon. Now would be good.

Service with a Smile

January 16, 2007

Since I am still fairly new to my current place of employment I have been trying to grab some shifts on the circ desk during some peak and off peak hours in the hopes of bettering my understanding of how our ILS works. Of course we use an ILS that I have no prior experience using so it is all familiar Greek to me.

Aside from the practical reasons to work the circ desk, I also enjoy it because it gives me a chance to have some facetime with our patrons. Our patrons are mainly students and faculty, but mostly students. They are overwhelmed, exhausted, stressed, and at times frustrated. A lot of times they need extensive help with a literature search to get that term paper finished, but sometimes all they need is someone to help them find what they are looking for and say “you’re welcome.”

I stress to my staff the importance of being earnest. To be sincerely pleasant even when their first response may be to jump over the desk and tackle someone. We all have our bad moments and they can rear their ugly heads at inappropriate times. In the event of an “unpleasant patron encounter” naturally I would back up my staff and try to diffuse the situation as calmly and friendly as possible. I have always reminded my staff (at all the libraries I have worked) that whatever bothered that patron enough to take it out on a stranger is all about them, not about you and that anyone who crossed that person’s path today was going to experience the rage.

But for all the rage and snottiness (and there really is not that much of it) there is a plethora of smiles and gratitude. I love working the circ desk because I love seeing people smile when I say “good night” or “have a nice day.” Sometimes all people want is a little kindness and a smile.

Tonight I helped a professor locate a journal that was up in the stacks. He had a hard time finding it and came to the desk to make sure he didn’t overlook something. I accompanied him upstairs and proceeded to find the journal he needed (in his defense it was actually very confusing to find and took me 10 minutes to get it straight). He was so happy to get the article for his class tomorrow night he insisted on buying me coffee.

I live for patron encounters like this one. They make my day. If saying “good morning” and “good night,” asking”how may I help you?” and saying “you’re welcome” is all it takes to make someone’s day/night, then I definitely want to work some longer shifts at the desk.

Don’t let me fool you, it isn’t always all smiles and daisies and sunshine, but I think that often we forget the positive experiences with patrons and only tend to remember the negative ones (let’s face it some of the negative ones are pretty unforgettable). I thought about this quite a bit and I can honestly state that the patron interactions are the main reason I love working in access services, if this component were removed I would not enjoy my job as much as I do.

Access Services 2.0

January 12, 2007

You knew it was coming….

In the entry for Library 2.0 the Wikipedia states:

“With Library 2.0, library services are frequently evaluated and updated to meet the changing needs of library users. Library 2.0 also calls for libraries to encourage user participation and feedback in the development and maintaining of library services. The active and empowered library user is a significant component of Library 2.0. With information and ideas flowing in both directions – from the library to the user and from the user to the library – library services have the ability to evolve and improve on a constant and rapid basis. The user is participant, co-creator, builder and consultant – whether the product is virtual or physical.”

Call me crazy, but this sounds a lot like what we do in access services every day. I admit, I am completely biased in my opinion for I truly love working in access services, so my feelings may seem extremely strong. I believe that the access services department is the public face of the library. We are sitting right there at that big desk when you walk in the doors. We are usually the first library staff you notice and typically answer a patron’s first round of questions.

So can access services be included in Library 2.0? This is an interesting question that I have thought about for a long time. 99% of our interactions with patrons are transactional or directional. We check books in and out, we get LL materials, we direct patrons to the bathrooms, photocopiers or reference desk. The remaining .1% is slightly more involved than a transaction – we instruct patrons in how to lookup reserve materials or a book’s call number in the OPAC, we’ll show patrons how to access electronic reserves materials, we answer questions about authenticating into the library network, etc. Those types of interactions take a bit longer than a simple checking out of materials, but unlike reference interactions that can continue over lengthy periods of time (whether it is a term paper, or a research project over a semester), there seems to be a definitive start and end to our experiences.

To simplify it, we are a customer service desk. We handle questions and complaints all day and all night. If something goes wrong it is usually immediately apparent. In a lot of ways, how well we are doing our jobs can be gauged very simply. Go up into the stacks – is there a huge backlog of shelving? Is the director receiving complaints of rudeness? Is it taking three months for you to get that book you ordered through ILL? Sure we collect all sorts of fun statistics to illustrate what we do and how well we are doing it, but really, if a patron has a complaint it will get voiced.

So how does this fit into the 2.0 concept? Well, I can’t think of a better place where user feedback and participation is used to improve library services. We hear about all sorts of problems at the circ/reserves desk. The ones we can fix, we do. The ones that require a little more effort or another department, we pass along or work together for change and improvement. The reward is that a lot of times the improvement or change in service is immediately apparent and we get instant feedback. Since we’re the public face we have a built-in feedback loop. People have no problem expressing their anger or disapointment with a service or policy. One of the nice things I have discovered in working in access services is that most people also don’t have a problem expressing gratitude or happiness with an improvement or change.

I think a lot about the tools of Library 2.0 (IM, wikis, blogs, podcasts) and I try to think of ways that we could integrate them into our work. It is hard to find a way to utilize web-based tools when so much of our work requires us to physically be on the move. We run around shelving books, retrieving them from book drops and then checking them in, checking materials out, processing ILL materials. It is hard to find chunks of time where we can sit in front of a computer and play with the technology. Don’t get me wrong, we have our down times when the desk is quiet, but usually when that happens we catch up on shelving, scanning reserve materials, or repairing damaged books.

At a recent meeting, some of my staff expressed an interest in using IM internally to help answer questions at the desk. For example if someone comes to the circulation desk with a question about their ILLiad profile, the circulation clerk could IM someone downstairs in the ILL office and get a quick answer for the patron. This sounds like a great idea, yet I wonder if picking up the phone and calling would be quicker? I do see the advantage to having an internal department wiki where we can house all of the knowledge that our large staff posesses, but how could we benefit from one that is open to the public?  Isn’t it easier to just call, walk-in or email a complaint?

So if Library 2.0 is built mainly upon the idea of building community through positive and meaningful interactions with users, then I think we have been doing this in access services forever. We may not need all the spanky tools, but I think we are masters at the concept.

Obligatory Explanation Post

January 12, 2007

Why another library blog? To be honest, I don’t think the world needs another library blog, but I certainly think there needs to be a library blog that focuses primarily on access services. This blog will not contain moaning and groaning about patrons, interactions with other library staff, or just grumpiness in general. My purpose in starting this blog was to discuss the “real life” issues that we deal with at the circ/reserves desk everyday and the views about everything from technology to team building that impact the access services department.

I manage a very large staff and department. I would like to share what works, what doesn’t work, the major issues and ideas that are happening in my library in the hopes that othes will benefit and share as well.