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These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Best use of librarians

Our library is one of many struggling to define the best use of professional training and skills.

On the one hand, the longstanding division between circulation and reference is broken. Self-check means that attended checkout stations (at least one-staff-to-a-patron) don't make a lot of sense anymore. The old circ system didn't scale very well.

So self-check liberated circulation clerks to become a new class of library worker: the skilled paraprofessional. Their work builds on customer service skills, adds merchandising skills, tosses some database, reader's advisory and lower-level reference knowledge, and puts them out on the floor.

Patrons do need help from time to time, and there are several ways to give it. The best is the just in time staff intervention: "You look puzzled. How can I help?" The next best is easy access -- staff in the stacks, on the floor, easily identifiable and approachable.

The one most libraries have pinned our service on is the Desk: a place where librarians and other staff congregate, manage the folks standing in line, and sort through a host of different levels of requests for assistance.

I believe in a more integrated service delivery than we have used recently. That is, yes, we probably still need some counters and computers for patron and staff to huddle around (although these items don't need to be nearly as large or as expensive as we are wont to purchase). And I'm perfectly comfortable having a team of paraprofessionals and librarians: each one cross-trained to at least some extent, and each prepared to hand off functions to each other as need be.

But if librarians (folks with an MLS, and making more money than parapros, typically) wind up working mostly on the many circulation issues that are likely to hit the Desk, then, as I said to one of my managers recently, we've missed the boat. We're not making the highest and best use of the people with specialized training.

That's one of the things that drove the separation of functions originally, I suspect. And I'm not arguing for two big Desks, when a smattering of smaller ones might be better.

But I think at least two things have to happen to manage this intellectual asset of the trained librarian well.

First is a "greeter" position: someone who oversees an entry area and does brief triage. Are you just browsing? Have at it! Looking to pick up a hold -- right this way! Have a circ problem? I can help. Have a big question? Let me walk you to a reference librarian. (This position doesn't require a separate job description; either paraprofessional or librarian could handle it as a rotating position through the day.)

This way, many people would be escorted or directed to the right person, and so be served more efficiently.

Second is scheduling. Maybe the reference librarian is indeed thrown into the mix of a service desk. But surely, the expectation of how that person uses her time in the day is a little different than that of the parapro.

Our aim, as a profession, should not be to remove reference librarians from public contact altogether. I've written elsewhere about what I think librarians ought to be doing in addition to in-house work. But I don't believe that any of us, in the post self-check-world, has quite figured out how to ensure that librarians spend most of their time doing work that justifies their pay, that actually requires the additional schooling of the degree. There is certainly enough, important work for them to be doing. But I'm not sure I've got my head around how best to accomplish that.

My staff -- particularly at the branch manager level -- has been thinking about that alot, and may have something to teach me about it. Right now, though, I can mostly think of how to recognize a failure in a new model. I don't yet know how to recognize success.

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