Information Update - Spring 1995

Style Training: Staff Development Or "Big Brother" In The Library

Customer service is the catch word of the 90s in virtually all aspects of business and industry. Libraries, both public and academic, have also embraced the philosophy that the customer is central to our existence, and have begun to study ways of improving the delivery of services to the patron/customer. One library system that has taken the customer service message to heart is the Columbus Metropolitan Library System in Columbus, Ohio. It uses a system called "Style Training" (Service and Technique Yielding Library Excellence) to ensure that the patrons of its city-wide library system, which includes the main library and multiple branches, are served with the utmost professionalism and accuracy.
 
The program originated with an overall consensus of library administration and staff to improve customer service and guarantee a higher accuracy rate of problem solving for patrons of the library system. In 1989, the year of the pretesting for accuracy, the rate of answered questions and patron satisfaction was at a mere 66%. An intensive training series began in 1990 to reinforce the need for accuracy, completeness and customer satisfaction with all reference staff in all branches of the system. This staff development series was mandatory, during work time, and conducted by trainers who had developed the workshops based on similar training programs in the. Baltimore, Md., Library System.
 
Following the training sessions, an advertisement was placed in the local newspaper for customer service evaluators. The concept of "secret shopping"' was explained, but the actual institution was not identified. The process, called Unobtrusive Reference Survey, enlisted "secret patrons" who were given a list of various reference questions they were to ask at the different branches of the libraries on varying shifts and days. Visiting the libraries at the appointed times, they presented their reference questions and then evaluated on standardized forms the answers received and the attitudes they encountered from the staff. Library administration analyzed the responses and determined areas of improvement. Although the staff were told when the style checking would begin, they did not have a specific time frame for the testing, so no halo effect would be experienced. Because of the size of the library system and the number of employees on duty during a specific shift, individuals were not easily singled out for poor performance. Telephone questions and in-person questions were included in the 514 questions asked in the 1993 survey.
 
The comments received from the secret patrons were used as constructive criticism for improving the staff's performance and to assure quality control throughout the library system. The results of the program were quite dramatic. Following the Style Training in 1990, systemwide accuracy improved to 76% in 1991, and 86% in 1993, up an amazing 20% from the original pretest in 1989.
 
AND THE QUESTION IS...
No "secret shoppers" are used at the Weinberg Memorial Library (as far as we know). If they ever are, let's hope they have easier questions than the following which are some of the more "interesting" items the reference staff have grappled with during the past semester. See if you can determine which are answerable and which are not.
 
What are the psychological traits of a serial killer?
Where can I find articles on reverse anorexia?
How many people have been reincarnated?
What is the most popular song ever written?
Where can I find a dictionary listing for the term "spin doctors?"
What language has the most number of words?
How many rapes have resulted in pregnancies?
How many people celebrate Christmas?
Flow many illegal abortions were performed each year before abortion was legal?
How many homeless people are there?
 
TIERS OF SERVICE
Technology has created additional demands on the public service areas of the academic library. Printers for personal computers, CD-ROM indexes, online public catalogs, microfilm machines and photocopiers all require a variety of problem solving skills to satisfy patrons' research needs. User interfaces for computerized searching are neither standard nor stagnant, with monthly updates often requiring staff's constant reeducation. In addition to the traditional printed resources, the demands to instruct and service the new technologies have mandated some creative solutions for the more efficient use of library staff.
 
Many libraries, faced with the demands of new technology and longer hours of service, are experimenting with a two- or three tiered approach to reference service. In the two-tiered configuration, two desks are required. The first desk is labeled "information" and may be staffed by student assistants or paraprofessionals. This desk would serve the many patrons who require only directional assistance to such basic things as encyclopedias, dictionaries or current periodical issues. A workstation housing the online public catalog and periodical holdings information would be sufficient for this desk. The second desk, housing a collection of ready reference materials and more advanced computerized sources, would he staffed by a reference librarian proficient in basic reference skills as well as specific subject areas. A workstation with access to the online public catalog and Internet connections, as well as services such as CARL Uncover and First Search, would enhance the reference capabilities of the librarian at this station.
 
In the three-tiered program, an additional step is included in the research process, namely appointment-based reference service. Subject specialist librarians schedule office hours in either the library building or the departmental buildings of their subject specialty. Patrons make an appointment for a block of time with the appropriate librarian to meet and discuss search strategies for their research projects, become familiar with databases appropriate to their topic, and sketch out an outline for proceeding with their research. Both Bucknell University and John Hopkins University librarians have implemented such a plan.
 
The key element to success in any of these arrangements is training. Staff at the Information Desk must be proficiently trained in the referral process. If they sense the patron needs more help than basic directional guidance, they will immediately refer them to the Reference Desk for additional help. They must also be well versed in assisting with the mechanical problems connected with the operation of the printers and computers in the reference area, thus enabling the smooth flow of information retrieval and better customer service.
 
Implementation of either the two- or three-tiered reference service would be best attempted in a gradual case-by-case situation. Peak times during the semester, when term papers and research projects require double staffing, would be an ideal time for experimentation. And a willingness by staff members to cooperate for better patron service would be essential.
 
While we have never used a formal tiered approach at the Weinberg Memorial Library, paraprofessional staff have for several years successfully aided in manning the Reference Desk. They have been particularly helpful in troubleshooting, day-to-day problems with computer equipment and software, and in double staffing the desk during peak times. Whether a more formalized system of staffing will ever be implemented depends on the evolving reference needs of our patrons.
 
Betsey Moylan
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition