Making individual service a priority

How a library made one-on-one training their flagship technology assistance program
Milford, OH
Emily Wichman

My library has been offering one-on-one computer instruction for years. Generally this has involved helping patrons sign up for e-mail, learn how to navigate the Internet, or even develop mouse skills. At my branch, we scheduled appointments on-the-fly, as requests were received.

The staff found it hard to get enthusiastic about one-on-one computer instruction for a variety of reasons. Patron needs and skill levels varied dramatically. Having to lead a session was mostly a luck-of-the-draw proposition; if you were the one to answer the phone and someone requested help, you would most likely end up doing the training. Often the people who signed up would be no-shows. The situation was frequently frustrating.

Book-A-Librarian to the rescue

Late in 2011, I decided it was time to rethink our approach to providing individualized assistance. There were a number of things that I hoped to accomplish. I wanted to expand and formalize the subjects that we cover when providing one-on-one help. I wanted to develop a process for assigning incoming training requests in a manner that would seem fair to all staff. I wanted to develop a service that was easy to market. After discussing various approaches with the reference staff at my branch, and fine-tuning our ideas with input from library administration, Milford-Miami Township Branch’s Book-A-Librarian service was born.

Old idea, new service

Is Book-A-Librarian an original idea?  No. My library system, as I’m sure hundreds of others can also claim, has a long history of providing individualized assistance.  Even the name isn’t original.  Google "Book-A-Librarian" and you’ll find numerous libraries, both public and academic, using that term. Here’s the new thing I did discover: it was possible to create an individualized reference service that my coworkers can embrace and feel positive about. When I tell you how we instituted Book-A-Librarian – our offerings, our procedures, and our marketing – you won’t be reading about any radical new ideas. You will see that taking a little bit of time to get organized can make a world of difference in providing quality service to patrons and garnering buy-in for that service among staff.

So, what are we offering the public with Book-A-Librarian?  We initially spent a lot of time debating this when we started planning. We thought about what questions received at the reference desk result in lengthy interactions. We considered what assistance we could offer without straying into the ethically troublesome areas of proofreading papers and resumes, and providing tax, legal, and medical advice. We wanted to pick topics that at least half, but ideally all of the staff, felt comfortable assisting patrons with. For our initial launch this past January, we offered assistance setting up e-mail, training on how to use databases, basic to intermediate assistance troubleshooting problems in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and library tours which could include instruction on how to search the catalog and use our state-wide lending system. We had considered developing an intensive readers’ advisory session, but have instead started planning a form-based personalized readers’ advisory service to be implemented at the system-level. Christmas brought a dramatic rise in eBook questions that would regularly morph into twenty minute help sessions at the reference desk. We also found that a number of people interested in Book-A-Librarian were asking for basic computer and Internet assistance. Quickly we revised our offerings to include eBook assistance, Internet, and computer help. These have since become our most popular topics.

How do we schedule Book-A-Librarian? 

Our original plan had been to schedule patrons at times mutually suitable to both the library and the patron, while rotating through staff members to ensure an even distribution of the workload.  In reviewing our plans, Library Administration requested that we set specific session times.  Initially, those of us at the branch had reservations about this approach, thinking that it would tie-up our schedule too much, or that we wouldn’t be able to meet the scheduling needs of patrons; but in the months since, we have become converts.  Because we split our staff between Fridays and Saturdays, we only offer Book-A-Librarian Monday-Thursday.  Each week we set aside a two hour block for the service.  We rotate days and times, based on the scheduling needs of the branch.  Morning sessions seem most popular, followed by afternoon.  Though they haven’t been as heavily used, I think it’s important to continue offering occasional evening sessions, particularly because we don’t have a weekend option. 

How does Book-A-Librarian work from the staff side?

Our programming and marketing deadlines require us to submit program plans four months in advance, so our session times are always know well ahead. We began by assigning two staff members to Book-A-Librarian each week, so that we could offer four sessions, but are now scaling back to one staff member and two sessions. Staff members are assigned to specific weeks well in advance, on a rotating basis, and can swap with a coworker if a conflict arises.

We maintain a spreadsheet that we use for registration. On it we record the patron’s name, phone number, requested session topic, and any comments on their skill level or specific goals for the training. These procedures have made offering one-on-ones much more palatable for the staff. We know when we’ll be doing training and who we’ll be working with in advance. We now feel comfortable telling patrons exactly what we are able to help them with. Best of all, we haven’t had a no-show since we started Book-A-Librarian.  Only a couple of people have canceled, and they all called in advance.

How do we market Book-A-Librarian? 

Our handiest tool is a bookmark that promotes the service. The front gives a quick overview and lists two months worth of dates. The reverse describes our offerings in more detail. I pass this bookmark out all the time: when someone makes a direct inquiry, when someone’s checking out basic computer books, preemptively to anyone asking about eBooks, at outreach events. Recently, I taught an introduction to eBooks class in which there was not time to troubleshoot device problems for all attendees. I passed out Book-A-Librarian bookmarks to everyone and mentioned the service three times. Immediately after the class, two people signed up for sessions.

We also have posters around the building, dates listed in our events calendar, and an occasional special notice on the homepage of our website. Since many of the other branches in my library system are advertizing one-on-one training sessions, it’s my hope that they will start to adopt the Book-A-Librarian name, allowing us to do more joint marketing. One branch already has. I would love to get to the point where we have a logo, consistent topic offerings, and press releases. A perceived hurdle is that the staffing levels at our branches vary significantly, yet the branches already offering comparable services range from our largest to our smallest.  I believe if we allow the branches flexibility in how they choose to schedule Book-A-Librarian – at set times, by appointment, only on specific days – then we should be able to get to a point where we can all offer the service.

I think that the provision of quality reference assistance, which I believe extends to technology training, is a primary mission of the library; second only to the circulation and maintenance of our collection. As we move further and further into the digital age, personalized reference assistance is one of the ways in which we can distinguish ourselves and maintain our relevancy. There will always be people struggling to keep abreast of new technologies and in need of assistance accessing recreational and informational materials from the sea of options that daily swells larger.

Emily Wichman

Branch Supervisor and Adult Services Librarian

Milford-Miami Township Branch of Clermont County Public Library, a ten branch system located in a suburban/rural area, just east of Cincinnati, Ohio. 

2011 circulation stats: 1,551,810 items to 96,191 registered users.