ASSOCIATES (2010, November, v. 17, no. 2)


Short Staffed? No Problem: Working Through Circulation Shortages

Angela Duncan
Circulation Assistant
Davis Memorial Library
Methodist University
Fayetteville, NC.

Tighter budgets are prompting many libraries to reassess and reallocate human resources. Skeleton crews, reorganizations, and slower hiring processes have become the norm as administrators try to stretch each dollar. The library I work at is no exception and, like so many in the library profession, my job has been directly impacted.

Since June 1st, I have been working forty hours a week on a hybrid circulation/reference desk. I clock many of my hours as the sole public service person. Although it can get lonely at the front desk, I know that I am not alone. There have always been jobs that require circulation staff members to work forty hours on the desk weekly and now, more than ever before, circulation assistants are logging longer and longer desk shifts. To those who have always pulled their entire week nicely greeting and diligently helping every customer that walks through the library doors, I salute you. To those of you who are a bit shell shocked, and I include myself in this group, I would like to share some of the survival skills I’ve acquired over the past few months.

Learn, learn, and continue learning. The more you know, the more efficient you will be. First and foremost, learn circulation inside and out. Read all the manuals. Know your Library System. Next, learn everybody else’s job. Learn how to answer basic and frequently asked reference questions. Learn how to fix simple cataloging errors. Learn how to trouble shoot computers and copiers. Learn how to check the status of an interlibrary loan. All of these things (and more) are relatively easy to learn and simple to do.

Know who to call and when to call them. Don’t waste your time and don’t waste the patron’s time. After you’ve learned everything you can, know when you need to call an expert. Recognize when a reference question is too detailed or will take too long for you to answer. Make this decision as quick as possible. This takes active listening and clear communication. Mastering this skill takes practice but it is an essential part of your job. Can you answer the patron’s question in less than three minutes? Do you know immediately what resources to consult? If not, call a reference librarian.

Know when to call for circulation back up and be nice about it. Nobody, on either side of the desk, likes lines. Is the phone ringing off the hook? Do you have a line of patrons waiting to check out? It is OK to call for circulation back up. I am not downplaying the intricate art of circulation (and I firmly believe circulation is an art) but let’s be honest, anybody can check out a book. Just remember that you are the expert here and your back up may need a little coaching. Some people that come to the desk to help you may be completely out of their element. Be supportive, patient, and nice. Don’t laugh. Manners go a long way. If you want people to back you up, you have to put your best foot forward and be appreciative of their help.

Ergonomics is key. Working forty hours of public service can be a pain, literally. Make sure that your workstation is working for you, not against you. Your computer, keyboard, and scanner should be comfortable for you to use. You need a chair. Nobody should be expected to stand for extended periods of time. If you do not have a chair or need other accommodations – a mat for standing, a wrist rest for your keyboard or mouse, a telephone shoulder rest – don’t be afraid to ask.

Be careful when taking on extra projects. Yes, there is down time on every circulation desk but that does not mean you have time to do a project. You know best how much time you have. If a project you are assigned or asked to take on will pull you away from the desk too much, is too detailed to do at a desk were constant interruptions are the norm, or has too short of a deadline make sure to talk to your supervisor about your concerns. Ask for less detailed projects or projects with flexible deadlines.

Always strive to give the patron the best library experience possible. This is the one thing, above all, that can make your work day pleasant, meaningful, and as stress free as possible. After all, if the patron is not happy, nobody is happy. Customer service is a two way street. If you are nice to the patron, the patron will be nice to you.

The responsibility of providing exceptional customer service instead of merely adequate customer service is falling heavily into our hands as direct service staff since we are now operating with less team members to help shoulder the load. I could never provide an exhaustive list of the skills needed to successively provide exceptional customer service. This list is simply the basic skills that help me make it to and through the 39th hour. Circulation is an ebb and flow of constantly changing patron needs. It is exciting and exhausting, repetitive and random, frantic and fulfilling. At the end of the day, with tired feet and a do-to list that I just couldn’t get to in-between patrons, I wouldn’t change departments for the world.