Hi, my name is Jo and I'm a newly qualified librarian working in several academic libraries in Cambridge.

I originally created this blog as an electronic learning journal whilst participating in an extended shadowing programme prior to starting the MA in Information Services Management at London Metropolitan University.

The views expressed here are entirely my own.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session One - Observing the Enquiry Desk

Today my extended shadowing programme kicked off with a two-hour session observing the ALL (A&L) at the Enquiry Desk. A copy of the enquiry log for this session is posted under the Learning & Development section of this blog. This will be updated after each session spent observing the Enquiry Desk. Between enquiries, the ALL (A&L) explained how the desk is organised and how she personally likes to work there.

During the day, the Enquiry Desk is currently covered by all members of the Subject Team on a rota basis, each slot usually lasting two hours. During the evening it is covered by the Duty Librarian and on Saturdays by a part-time Assistant Reader Services Librarian who works on Thursdays and Saturdays. During the vacations the desk isn't staffed but there is a Duty Librarian rota to deal with any queries that need to be referred from the Reception Desk. This will all change after 1 April 2008 when a new staffing structure comes into effect which means that the ALLs will no longer be required to cover the Enquiry Desk. It is anticipated that a small number of Assistant Librarians will be employed to help cover the desk as well as providing general support for the Subject Librarians.

The rota system means that communication is very important in maintaining the level of professionalism and customer care at the Enquiry Desk. Changes to the rota, details of any user education sessions and special notices are recorded in a paper diary which is kept at the desk and checked by the librarian at the start of their slot. An electronic Calcium calendar is also maintained at the Enquiry Desk which is used to book appointments with the Subject Librarians. Only the librarians have access to this calendar through a personal log-in. Each member of the Subject Team indicates time slots when they are free to see students which are colour coded to easily identify which slots belong to which librarian. There are currently no service level agreements to dictate how many hours each librarian should set aside for appointments but the average is about four hours per week. Most of them prefer to put in recurring slots, e.g. every Tuesday between 10:00 and 11:00. It is, however, crucial that they regularly check these against their personal diaries to avoid any clashes with other meetings, etc. When a librarian books in a session at the Enquiry Desk on behalf of one of their colleagues they add the student's name, student identification number (SID) and brief details of their enquiry to the calendar. When the librarians add their availability to the calendar they can also set the system to send them a reminder e-mail a few days before each session. If the student can not make any of the listed slots, they are given an appointments leaflet and asked to e-mail the relevant Subject Librarian to arrange an alternative time. If the student can not wait and is particularly distressed then a call is sometimes made to the relevant Subject Librarian at the desk to see if they are free to help.

Diary management is evidently of paramount importance for those working at the Enquiry Desk but it struck me that there is some duplication of effort in the way in which diaries are managed. For example, the details that are added in the paper diary at the Enquiry Desk are similar to those that are put in the equivalent paper diary at the Reception Desk. Also, when the details of an appointment are added to the Calcium calendar they are also e-mailed to the Subject Librarian to help them to prepare in advance for the session. The ALL and any other relevant Subject Librarian are also copied in for information in case of absences. There are, however, plans to use the new Outlook e-mail and calendar system to merge these diaries into one electronic calendar which will also automate the e-mailing of details. However, as not everyone is completely familiar with the full capabilities of this software, some training and discussion is neeeded before this can be implemented.

As well as diaries, the librarians also use a Subject Enquiries Form to aid communication. These slips are used to record the date, the module title/leader (if applicable), a brief description of the query, the reader's contact details (e-mail and telephone number) and an indication as to whether a reply is required. The librarian taking the query will add the initials of the person they have referred the query to as well as their own initials. This pro forma provides a useful reminder of the details required in order to allow the relevant member of the Subject Team to respond to the enquiry.

Customer care
In order to be able to deal with enquiries immediately the ALL (A&L) opens the circulation system, the Library Catalogue, the library website and her own e-mail account at the start of each slot. The librarians often need to demonstrate how to use the catalogue and the digital library using the PC at the Enquiry Desk. As the reader sits opposite the librarian, this means positioning the monitor at an angle so that they can both see the screen which does not always allow easy visibility. There are plans to link a second monitor to the PC to enable the reader to see exactly the same as the librarian on their own screen.

It is the responsibility of the librarian who is on duty first thing in the morning to deal with any on-line enquiries. This often means referring them to a specific member of the Subject or Reader Services Teams. Again, other relevant members of the team are copied in for information where appropriate in case of absences. This is particularly important in this instance as there is a service level agreement which requires all enquiries to be responded to within 12 hours.

With enquiries coming in via e-mail, telephone and from readers in the library it can get very busy at the Enquiry Desk. The telephone will oftern ring while the librarian is dealing with a reader in person and often there will be more than one reader waiting by the desk to speak to them. It is important to acknowledge waiting customers whilst minimising the disruption to the reader who currently has the librarian's attention. The librarian therefore has to use their judgement as to how to best deal with these peaks in demand. This means having to assess quickly whether a particular query would be better dealt with via a one-to-one appointment and whether waiting readers should be warned that there is going to be a significant wait and and given the option of coming back later. It will be interesting to see how each of the different librarians manage these situations.

There are also many ocassions when the desk is quiet which gives the librarian an opportunity to get on with their other work. However, it is important that they do not become too absorbed and appear to be easily interruptable. This may therefore restrict the kind of tasks that they can do at this desk. The ALL (A&L) tends to take reading with her as this is easy to put down and pick up between enquiries.

As a member of SCONUL (Society of College, National and University Libraries) the library keeps a record of the number of enquiries that are dealt with at the Enquiry Desk. SCONUL collects these statics from libraries in universities and HE colleges throughout the UK to allow institutions to compare their services and to inform policy decisions as their website explains. A simple table is used to record how many enquiries are dealt with in each one hour slot and whether they are non-subject queries (e.g. where is the photocopier?, I can't find a particular book) or subject enquiries (e.g. I need help finding articles for my assignment, I don't know how to use the Digital Library) and whether they were referred to the Reception Desk (e.g. to get a refund for money lost in the photocopier). Although these statistics are useful they don't necessarily reflect the amount of time and effort spent on dealing with each enquiry.

Personal observations
Whilst observing the ALL (A&L) it was interesting to compare working at the Enquiry Desk to working at the Reception Desk. Because of the grading of the Library Assistant post we have to work within clearly defined guidelines which means that whilst we can deal with basic enquiries (e.g. helping readers use the self-service machines, demonstrating how to renew items online, etc.), any subject enquiries and requests for help using the Digital Library are referred to the Enquiry Desk. There is therefore some degree of pressure on the librarian at the desk to be able to either answer the reader's enquiry or refer them to someone who can. Although many of the queries are common and easily dealt with, the librarian could be asked virtually anything. It is therefore important for them to be able to remain calm and think creatively on their feet otherwise our readers could be in danger of losing faith in their professional ability and in the library service as a whole.

This is especially important when dealing with readers who are feeling distressed or confused by the library's systems. For instance, one student came to the desk very frustrated as they could not find an article using the Digital Library which they found previously but had been asked to pay for. She was agitated and felt that the system wasn't user-friendly enough. With some careful questionning it transpired that the student had previously found the article online without searching via the Digital Library which explained why she had previously been asked to pay for it. She was shown how to conduct a subject search for the article and how to download it to her memory stick. This search also found another article that was of use to the student and which was available in the Journal Collection. The student therefore went away happy and confident of being able to conduct another subject search on her own. However, her frustration led to her citing several other instances of not being able to access the information she wanted and voicing her dissatisfaction at the service she had received from particular members of library staff in the past. The ALL (A&L) maintained her professionalism by listening to the student but not commenting on her criticisms of other named colleagues. Instead she kept the student focussed on the issue at hand and reassured her that help was always available either at the Enquiry Desk or through a one-to-one appointment. After being given the opportunity to voice her frustrations and receiving reassurance of the help on offer the student seemed happy and her confidence in the library service restored.

This inital session observing the Enquiry Desk has made me realise that as well as being an information profressional, the librarian also has to master the secondary roles of counsellor, teacher and ambassador of the library service as a whole. Rather than deterring me from wanting to become a librarian myself, this has helped to confirm that the role can offer the daily variety, challenges and rewards that I have been looking for and has fuelled my determination to enter the profession.

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