Reflecting on Reference and Other Library User Support Services
Academic libraries have provided user support services through a variety of modalities. The circulation desk would work on access issues for the print general collection, the interlibrary loan office would obtain needed materials outside the collection, reference librarians would help with research questions, liaisons would provide more proactive services on an academic department basis, and a variety of librarians would provide various types of instruction. Academic libraries have typically taken a variety of steps to rethink each of these service points and models in recent years. I wonder if it would be possible to provide user support in a way that makes it easier for individual members of the academic community to navigate the services and resources that the library has to offer while at the same time helping the library as a collective body learn from the services that it provides?
Let me provide a personal example. I recently sought reference support for a problem that I tweeted about, the fact that some journal content is delayed in being posted to aggregator services even in the absence of a formal embargo. Is it really a reference question? Addressing this matter requires a complicated exchange of information between the individual responding directly to me as well as other librarians, such as individuals with content licensing and e-resources management responsibilities. Despite the best intentions of all involved, on more than one occasion in these types of situations, I have had to send reminder messages and follow up queries because of an internal library email communications gap.
Some libraries have adopted a help-desk “ticketing” approach in which a user query is tracked from initiation to resolution. As a front line librarian passes the query along to other specialists for their contributions, responsibility for user engagement can be passed along, or retained, as suits the individual case. Outstanding issues can be monitored to ensure they are not forgotten, and in some systems users can have transparency as to where their issues are in the resolution queue. Merged library-IT organizations typically run the software necessary to perform these functions, but it is more common that they are used for the IT help desk than for library user services. I can see advantages to such an approach in ensuring the successful resolution of the user query. At the same time, such systems must be used with caution, so that they empower issue resolution rather than encourage managerialism to a counterproductive degree.
Sales and marketing organizations also run somewhat similar types of tools, often under the label of “CRM,” or customer relationship management. A library’s vendor may use such a tool to organize not only its outreach and sales activities but also to track service queries and technical issues both from librarians as well as from end-users. Doing so permits a vendor to organize and track all its interactions with individuals from a given institutional affiliation.
Turning back to libraries, there are very interesting questions that about how user services are staffed and organized. For example, in our current research project on library organizational structure, several library directors have mentioned what they see as an important limitation of liaison models: that the library’s relationship with a group of highly valued users is left in the hands of a single individual. When that individual leaves, there is no “understudy” to maintain the relationship, while should the liaison underperform there is limited transparency and accountability. At the same time liaison roles are being rethought to focus more on services and less on collecting and selection. New models, often team-based, are emerging to provide research support services in a more organizationally robust fashion.
Traditional models driven around the classic reference transaction do not get at the complicated technical support and project engagement that librarians are increasingly called upon to provide. Inside of library teams, and across them, librarians need tools to manage projects and coordinate various types of user services. This raises some very interesting questions about account management models, such as those that could emerge from liaison or “personal librarian” concepts, or other ways to ensure that librarians are engaged with the practices and needs of individual users. Software tools for information sharing and project management intersect in very important ways with the structures and roles that are emerging, and can emerge.
The opportunities to consider user services as a collective activity of libraries opens up a variety of opportunities to learn more systematically from librarians’ experience in these roles. In the aggregate, reference questions could for example be analyzed to help librarians better understand where there are more systemic issues. These might help to indicate where users are faced with challenges from a discovery service, a link resolver, or access to a specific e-resource, allowing for library resources to be applied to address it. They might also suggest new areas of need currently unmet programmatically by the library.
And at a personal level, knowing more about a user at the beginning of an interaction would make chat and other virtual forms of support more engaging and in many cases effective. Privacy issues here would be tricky for many libraries, but could be worth considering the service possibilities as well.
Today, at many academic libraries, a greater share of librarians is taking on user-facing roles. Providing structures, infrastructure, and other support to make them successful not only as individuals but collectively, seems to be of real importance.