ASSOCIATES (vol. 7 no. 3, March 2001) - associates.ucr.edu
Customer Support Librarian
Library and Learning Centre
University of Bath
The University of Bath has over 6, 800 full-time and part-time students and three faculties, which are Engineering and Design, Humanities and Social Science, Science and the School of Management. Within these Faculties are 15 departments. The academic year is divided into two fifteen-week semesters. The first begins in September and the second in February with the usual Christmas, Easter and summer vacations.
The University Library and Learning Centre is open 24 hours a day during semesters, and has a collection of over 400,000 books and periodicals. As well as normal study places, we have 380 desks equipped with PCs and other computer workstations accessing the campus network.
The Library has over 40 staff, operating with a few exceptions through the two main departments: Academic Services, comprising Subject specialists and Information Librarians based on four of the five floors of the library, and User Services, which covers the technical support, the library workroom staff, and the Issue Desk. The Issue Desk is led by The Customer Support Librarian as line manager, a Senior Library Assistant and four full time library assistants. During semesters, there are two more staff who work a full week, and one job-share which makes a further four staff working at the Issue Desk. During semester times, the Issue Desk is open from 9:00am to 9:00pm on weekdays, and 10:00am to 5:00pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Fifteen more staff cover the evening and weekend periods while the desk is open, but do not work semesters, when the staff is reduced to the four full-time staff and the two senior staff.
All daytime staff work in teams: the Holds team (reservations and books that are "claimed returned" items), and The Short Loan team, which operates all procedures relating to the Short Loan area of a number of books and offprints of journal articles in high demand. These are limited to a three hour loan period. Smaller teams work on the registration of users, and the administration related to serious overdues. In 1996 a Staff Development Policy was drawn up within the library which led the way for a number of initiatives created to further staff development for the library assistant.
Some areas of the Policy were more difficult to implement than others. In particular:
The Issue Desk staff, half of whom are part-time staff, were also very much affected by the difficulties of being released for staff development while the Issue Desk was busy.
There had been increasing concern at all levels of library staff that communication between departments within the library was poor and needed addressing urgently. Therefore, a Communications Review was commissioned from external consultants and a report was published in August 1998. One of its recommendations was the need for regular meetings with operational teams, and it also highlighted the importance of training as a communication medium. Most departments were able to implement these recommendations in some form, but once again, the Issue Desk was under constant pressure to maintain an acceptable service while doing so.
As a result of discussions at Library Management Team level, it was agreed that an opportunity should be made for the Issue Desk to meet together once a week and that for this period the Issue Desk should be closed to enable all staff to attend. Taking example of good practice from other service industries we publicised that the Issue Desk would open at 9:30 am, rather than 9:00 am on Thursday mornings during the academic year. This has proved satisfactory, as we have had no adverse reaction to the closure from users. Ideally, an hour would have given us more scope for training, but this would have collided with the loan periods of our Short Loan Collection, and so was not feasible. A second initial idea of carrying the training sessions into vacations was also seen to be divisive, because half the Issue Desk staff works semesters only.
A final decision was made to start the training sessions from January 1999, and I, as Customer Support Librarian, had to put together a brief for their content. The half-hour period was inviolable, given that staff had to have time to return from the training room for a prompt 9:30 start. We are fortunate in the Library in having two training/meeting rooms, one equipped with PCs for IT training. I consulted with the Issue Desk staff, and a very obvious training need was seen to be the recent arrival of the new Library system (Unicorn Sirsi in July 1998). The Issue Desk staff had been busy during the past six months getting to grips with their teams' routines on Unicorn. They felt that this would be the perfect opportunity to get to know how the system operated in depth.
Initially, I mapped out a programme for the period January to Easter, covering areas such as Holds, Academic Reserves and Short Loan, and began to develop the sessions in more detail. I quickly realised that I just didn't have the hands-on knowledge to deliver them and turned to the Systems Librarian who pointed out that the real knowledge came from those who used those routines daily. This brought me to the suggestion that the team members should hold their own training sessions on their areas--that the Holds session should be run by the Holds team and so on. This suggestion was received with some concern, perceptions being that they were not trainers and did not know how to deliver trainings. However, the Staff Development Policy states Library staff with the relevant expertise may deliver training and development and it had become obvious that these were the staff with the relevant expertise in this case.
After some reassurance that the trainings were only to be delivered to their Issue Desk colleagues, the appropriate staff was recruited and dates handed out. Because of the immovable timing of the meeting, one member of the part-time staff on job share could not attend in her working hours, and it was perceived as being too short a training to bother to attend outside normal hours and claim time back. Evening staff and weekend staff were not able to attend because of family commitments. Their attendance would also change the nature of the group, as their concerns and priorities are different to those of the day time staff, as they are a "caretaker government" when in residence. Training evening and weekend staff is an important issue for the Library, but as yet we have found no ideal solution.
The Systems Librarian, who had been overseeing the implementation of Unicorn asked if she could attend the Thursday sessions as it would assist her to understand problems "at the coal face", and so she was included in the exclusive "Thursday morning club" and the sessions started.
During the 8 or 10 weeks that followed it became quickly obvious that, almost accidentally, we had found an excellent way to establish a number of examples of good practice.
The staff leading the sessions were, in general, unaccustomed to that type of presentation, and in consequence worked much harder at them, and did a much better job than might possibly have been received from their more experienced colleagues.
Their Issue Desk colleagues were comfortable in the safe environment of the training attended only by their immediate peers and so asked more questions and raised more issues than they may have done in a more formal environment.
The Systems Librarian found the sessions invaluable to highlight areas that she needed to work at, and always came away with a clipboard full of notes. The Customer Support Librarian marred her self-confidence in the cause of staff training by continuing on a weekly basis to be proved wrong by her staff.
The first sessions of half hours therefore proved very successful, and the concern that I had over the Easter vacation was how to continue the trainings and keep the same enthusiasm and momentum going, possibly ad infinitum.
I asked the Issue Desk staff for ideas for future training sessions on a rather wider remit, and their feedback was very positive and opened up new ideas, which once arranged led us comfortably through until the end of the calendar year.
The anniversary of the trainings came round in January 2000. We realised that staff on the Issue Desk had changed, and that a number of the routines, either by system updates or changes of policy had also changed, and so the obvious conclusion was to re-visit the original set of training sessions. This proved popular with the Issue Desk staff and the Systems Librarian, who was able to identify clearly some of the newer system problems. It was also salutary (again!) for the Customer Support Librarian, when holes appeared in the induction training of those newer members of staff. The presenting staff were more confident this time and a small competition broke out, when someone introduced their half hour with a ditty composed on the subject of Reservations--the ensuing poetry was published to great acclaim in the library magazine.
January through to Easter may well become established routine. Apart from that, "filling in the gaps" is a procedure usually started by a discussion amongst the Issue Desk staff that produces a trainings wish list, from which I can work in setting up trainings. As the arrangement settles into place, the wish list has become more of an ongoing process compiled as ideas come during discussion of other things: "Well, we could have a Thursday morning on it …"
Looking at the list of trainings held over the last year or so, they divide themselves into several rough headings:
New procedures (usually requested as detailed above)
These include areas touching the Issue Desk staff but not related to Issue Desk work, such as the implementation of flexitime, or the introduction of new schemes such as LARS (Library Article Request Service).
Creating a useful template memo on Word, or an unravelling of the policy for dealing with the increasing amount of books that hold a CD-ROM in the back. The "Thursday club" is a very good venue for talking through a potential problem or new policy, to hear everyone's ideas on it, before putting it to paper.
A look at other departments
Starting with those in the library, whose work was rather an unknown area, such as Reprographics (which needed parts 1 and 2, it became so interesting), we moved on to external University departments that lived in the library building, such as the Photographic Unit and the Computer Services. After that came other University Departments whose work touches ours. These were quite a challenge to set up, but were much appreciated and very beneficial, hopefully to both parties. Certainly those members of staff who were invited to come along and speak about their everyday work were pleased to come, interested in the response of the library staff and commented on how useful similar sessions would be in their own departments. We investigated the work of the Debt Collection Office (overdue books), the Print and Binding Unit (binding examination papers and theses), and Student Records Office (the yearly registration of new students).
All these visits have sparked off dialogue between the departments on a number of issues initiated during the training sessions and contributed to a further understanding of the needs of each side of the University fence.
At present the "Thursday morning club" is in abeyance, as we are in the summer vacation period. On 5th June a staff restructure took place as, with the retirement of the Deputy Librarian, the opportunity was taken to re-balance the two departments, and add a central pillar of systems support. The Issue Desk has now moved into the newly created Reader Services Department, comprising the "front of house" roles within the library such as information points, subject specialists, issue desk. The Bibliographic Services dept comprise "back of house" depts such as periodicals, cataloguing, acquisitions and document delivery.
There has also been a reconsideration of the role of Customer Support Librarian, which gives me certain responsibilities for all library assistant training, throughout the library. During discussions relating to the new responsibilities the Thursday morning trainings were often cited as examples of the type of training required, and I hope during the next academic year to extend the opportunities for "clubbing" to all library assistants, while keeping the successful format of small peer group meetings.
The challenge for the future then is firstly to keep the momentum going for the Issue Desk Trainings, a challenge that may well become harder as we go on. With less "first look at" opportunities there is opportunity for cynicism and ennui to creep in and it will be important to find some regular initiatives to sustain interest. One of the miscellaneous avenues of communication cited in the Communications Review was "brown-bag lunch and learn meetings."
"these are short, informal presentations or discussions given by staff of all levels on various topics, usually over lunch …"
There is an excellent cafeteria selling breakfast on campus …
Secondly, we must use the lessons learnt in these last eighteen months and transfer them effectively to the different training plans of the restructure. I find this second objective a particular worry because of the serendipity nature of the original concept, happy accidents can not often be replicated in cold blood--but let us hope that that too, will be the surprise that the "Thursday Club's" success originally was.