Recent views of other universities plus personal experience across three I have worked in has led me to reflect today on what might be termed ‘the back-room librarian’, i.e. someone whose role does not involve any front-line interaction with customers in the sense of transactions or enquiries face to face.
I’ve always regarded the ‘back-room’ people as essential to the service, but with a potential to be somewhat remote from what is going on day to day. However, as long as there are strategies in place to counter any such feelings of isolation, it should not be a problem and indeed, frees up valuable time within areas of high impact to the service where specialisms can be developed. These specialisms can then feed into front-line services in an effective manner.
Example 1: A single site university, mid-sized. Library assistants work half their time in their specialist departments, and half on the issue desk. Librarians work regular shifts on the enquiry desk. There are also dedicated customer services staff as supervisors, but everyone takes part in basic customer service work (reservations, overdues, fines). Everyone works a late night one day a week. The service does not open at weekends. Some staff also staff a dedicated photocopying and binding section. IT have their own helpdesk and shop.
Pros: Students have access to IT professionals from point of arrival. Staff get to know stock and customers well. Specialist equipment is supported within a seperate section. Rotas are fairly static so teams get to know each other well.
Cons: Late nights mean staffing problems when people are on leave or ill. No flexibility available on working hours (for e.g. to have more people available at the busiest times of the day). Specialist sections sometimes fail to meet KPIs, keep the stock moving, etc., as their time working in that area is limited. Little or no interaction with IT even though the service is converged.
Example 2: A multi-site university, large. Dedicated customer service staff work on the issue desks and in the enquiry office. Specialists are available for drop-ins and/or to come out to the helpdesk to provide second-line support. All ‘back-room’ staff are involved in cross-team groups and projects, and in teaching or assisting with teaching. They also provide an enquiry and troubleshooting service by email and telephone within office hours. Every member of staff works one evening to 7pm per month, which does not affect service provision as this time is generally taken as flexitime at a later agreed date. IT have their own helpdesk and drop-in.
Pros: Staff not on helpdesks can concentrate on their own specialisms in order to improve the service and be more efficient. A dedicated enquiry service with relevant training can be a definite bonus to staff and students alike. Students have access to generous IT support face-to-face. Staffing hours can be very flexible amongst teams not doing front-line work. Recruitment can be targeted to detailed job specs.
Cons: Staff not on helpdesks or seeing students day-to-day could feel isolated from what is going on within the institution. Teams could become specialists silos unable to see the bigger picture. There may be issues relating to adequate communication. Progression opportunities may be restricted unless job shadowing is made available.
Example 3: A multi-site university, mid-sized. Everyone works regular shifts on the helpdesks, which are described as ‘information points’, with some staff also staffing the enquiry desks. The information points cover 1st line IT support, student service queries, equipment loan, and printing and photocopy support. Although some staff are based in customer services doing dedicated work relating to invoicing, interloans, etc., all other staff have their own area of specialism.
Pros: All staff can feel engaged with the student experience. There are good opportunities for progression and gaining new skills. Staff can develop more flexibility and time management skills. Students have one point of call where they can expect a professional resolution to basic queries, and effective referral for complex ones.
Cons: Staff can feel overloaded and under pressure as they need to have knowledge of every area of work. Back-room tasks can suffer even if they are important to supporting learning, teaching, and research, because of time constraints and lack of ability to concentrate for a long period of time on a complex task or clearing backlogs. Recruitment might focus more on front-line needs and lose potentially valuable specialists.
My conclusion? All systems are perfectly workable, but some may lead to more pressure than others, or pressure of a different kind. We are serving a physical audience who come into our library buildings as well as a large virtual audience who may never visit us – both have high expectations in terms of the service, stock, and resourcing. Whichever path we choose, we must not let them down, and we must nurture, value, respect and develop both our front-line and back-room staff, as well as those who are both.