Tuesday, April 12, 2011


It's so important to study and lean staff workflows in a library. How and where does the work get done, and who is responsible for which pieces? Just as important are workflows that affect the public. How do customers get what they came for?

Let's look at a few basic transactions that patrons would have with staff. First, checking out library materials. It goes something like this: patron finds the check-out desk, gets in line, approaches staff on their turn, hands over materials to be checked out, waits while staff checks them out, receives a receipt with titles and due dates listed, gathers up their stuff, leaves the building.

Questions to consider when analyzing this workflow might include:

-Where is the check-out desk? Is there one desk in the building? Is it next to the exit? Is it labeled or signed so that people can find it?

-How and where does a line form? Is it obvious where people are supposed to stand until their turn comes up? Is there space for a line so that main walkways and the front door are not blocked? Is there a place for people to set a heavy stack of items while they wait? How many lines form: one total line or one for each available circulation terminal?

-Is a self-check station available? Where is it located in relation to the nearest service desk? How many screens do they have to go through to get to the point where they start actually checking items out? How many screens do they have to acknowledge between items?

-Are there extra pieces or parts that are necessary to complete the transaction? For example, does a case need to be unlocked, a disc found and placed in an empty case, due dates stamped, or discs counted? If these things need to be done at the self-check station, how will patrons know?

Here's another transaction: Asking a reference question. It goes something like this: Patron finds reference desk, lines up if necessary, approaches the desk on their turn, asks their question, is led to the stacks to find materials, is possibly asked to wait while librarian prints some online information, is invited to return to the reference desk if they have further questions.

Here are some questions to ask when evaluating this workflow:
-How many reference desks are there? What is the average distance to the reference desk from any given point on the floor? Is the reference desk in the middle of the room or in a far corner?

-Is there space for a line to form without blocking walkways?

-Is the reference desk signed or labeled so that patrons know it is a place where they can ask for help?

-Is there a place for patrons to sit during lengthy reference transactions?

-How often are patrons re-directed to another service desk?

-How many staff members do patrons typically talk to before they get to the reference librarian by phone? Is it clear which extension they should pick?

-How many places around the room does the patron need to go to get materials to answer his question? For example, perhaps they are led to the non-fiction 500s for some circulating books, then across the room to the reference 500s to look at some reference books, then across the room again to a computer terminal to expand their catalog search or print some articles from the databases (or do they have to find their library card, log in to the computer system, and put money on their account to do this?). Then they realize they have a follow-up question and go back to the front of the room to the reference desk to ask the librarian. This is an awful lot of steps!

Analyzing the answers
Here's where I'm going with all this. It is very important to lean operations and staff workflows by streamlining them. It is equally (or even more) important to streamline patron interactions. Find out how many steps there are to patrons completing the most common transactions. It may become clear that some procedures are awkward, redundant, or unclear. Remember: it is not the public's job to know who they can ask what kinds of questions. They do not know or care what our internal procedures are. For example, they don't care that Marge in receiving handles checking in today's newspapers; they just want today's newspaper. They don't care that the Wii games are kept behind the check-out desk; they just want to check out the game they chose. They don't care that certain books are renewed at one desk and inter-loaned books are renewed at a different desk; they just want their books renewed.

It's ok to have certain transactions take place at certain desks, as long as it makes sense. We should go around our buildings and ask WHY those transactions take place there. If a particular question comes up at a particular desk most often, then that is the desk that should handle that transaction. There's no need to refer patrons all over the building or transfer them all over the phone system to get what they came for. Services like roving reference, wireless phones, re-worded phone menus, well-placed "kiosk" computers, integrated collections (combine formats, or maybe reference and circulating collections), and chairs at the service desks could make all the difference.

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