Levels of Patron Assistance: too much pressure on the top? (another conceptual pyramid)

December 7, 2010, 10:20 am

So the whole pyramid thing… An Assistant Dean turned me on to them. We were talking in my office and he saw my white board– we chatted about the engagement theory and he mentioned that over in Career Services they explored a similar concept based on services. In a nutshell, they offer a hierarchy of services attempting to match different student needs:


A student might come in and need help with a resume. While she might just need a handout describing formatting, she could be directed to a career planning professional. This might be similar to a patron asking where BF637.T5 A45 2001 is located. Rather than giving him a floor plan or directing him to the BF range, it would be like setting up an appointment with a subject librarian.


The sense I got from the Career Services example is that their model is directly tied to expenses. It costs them a lot in terms of salary and time to sit down and have a one-on-one appointment. While some situations might require this, most probably do not and students’ needs could be solved through other methods.


I’m trying to get a copy of their service pyramid—if I can get permission to include it here, I’ll add it to this post. (What do you say Don?)


This got me thinking about libraries and our service model. I put it into a pyramid chart to illustrate the concept… but please note, it's not actually tied to budget or time investment anything like that—just a concept! Here is what I am thinking:


First up is the website. Obviously this is a huge investment of our resources but it has the potential of reaching the most people and being self-directed. This could be in the form of text, videos, or images. From subject guides to tutorials to policies to floor plans— all the basics are here.


Next up is the paper handout or sign. A student is in the building and wants to find the psychology books—with a glance at a map, handout, or sign, she can do just that. Or… perhaps a patron is tinkering with scanning a microfiche – a print guide beside the machine can help him through that process.


The next level is course instruction. This could be in the form of a librarian visiting a class or a drop-in session or even an online conferencing session for that matter. This is a larger commitment of our resources, but still has the potential of reaching a sizeable audience.


Next is a service desk encounter. This is the first layer of one-on-one assistance. I view these at being typically a 15-minute interaction (give or take) where the patron receives customized help. Ideally they would/should have looked at the website or handouts first, but we all know that doesn't always happen… but still… abstract model here!


The next layer is online help: email, texting, chat. Again, this is one-on-one but it takes more effort then a reference desk setting. Some people might debate between these two layers, but I consider digital help more taxing on resources than in-person. Note– some people combine their virtual reference with desk reference, but for this model I'm separating those two efforts.


At the top is one-on-one librarian assistance. This is the most expensive and time-consuming layer of service. Compare this to a handout or even to a class of 30 students… having to work with each one students individually would be a much larger investment of time and effort.


This isn't anything new. We're all familiar with these channels. But what is the ideal mixture of each?

What I am trying to explore is the ideal pathway up these levels (or the service ladder) that is common in most academic libraries. There is a lot of talk about doing more with less (money) and I think that conversation has to include a look at this type of hierarchy. Are there ways we can reduce the pressure at the top half of the pyramid by expanding methods or improving access to the bottom half? Or put another way, should librarians spend the bulk of time helping patrons one-on-one when there might be other methods equally as effective? How do we avoid something like this: (or maybe we don't want to?)


Again, this is conceptual– I’m just trying to move this off my whiteboard and into a format where it can live on. Maybe I’ll come back to this idea later with a more practical eye, but for now that’s it. 

This entry was posted in Commentary, Instruction, Marketing&Outreach and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.