College students seem perfectly willing to wait in long lines for odd and mundane things alike. So why do they tell us they are in too much of a hurry to wait to talk to a librarian?
The same day that I learned what a Hatchimal is (visit this page at your own risk), I listened to a student worker, assigned to our information desk, describe an interaction with another student. Upon being informed there was a wait of a few minutes to speak to a librarian, the student responded “I’m not waiting five minutes to talk to a librarian.” As a prototype for a future single-service point, we’d moved librarians off the desk to a nearby meeting space. Occasionally, a student needs to wait a few moments to receive research assistance while a librarian finishes assisting their current patron.
Now, this is a fairly common occurrence. Students are familiar with waiting on campus: For an academic adviser, for a financial aid specialist, for a health counselor. But for a librarian…NO WAY! If I walked out the library door right now and went across the street to the Starbucks in our computing center I can guarantee that the line would have at least ten students in it, all happily waiting to buy an overpriced coffee concoction. I’ve been in that line, and it can take ten or 15 minutes. Why are college students willing to wait everywhere for just about everything on campus—except to meet with a librarian?
Why We Wait
That evening I watched a news report about people waiting in line for many hours to get a Hatchimal. I knew nothing about Hatchimals in particular, but I did know that parents will wait in line for hours, possibly days, to get the gift their child can’t live without. It could be Cabbage Patch Kids or Beanie Babies or some other toy I have never heard of, it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s toys, restaurants that don’t take reservations, concert tickets, or even a chance to get Mike Tyson’s autograph (I witnessed a ridiculously long line for just that at a sports memorabilia shop on a recent trip to Las Vegas), people will wait because the time they spend doing it is all about getting something they value. The opportunity cost of the wait exceeds the value of how that time would otherwise be spent. There is a considerable body of research on line waiting, examining everything from the mental state of line waiters to the optimization of the line waiting experience. But no research is needed to tell us that waiting in line stinks—though being the first one in line makes you feel good.
Waiting Equals Value
On a college campus there are a multitude of waiting points for students. Online systems have helped to alleviate some of them, such as waiting to register for courses or to purchase books the first week of class. My library is now home to the advising services of our liberal arts and science/technology colleges. On any given day there are students sitting in that office waiting patiently to speak to an adviser. I imagine some are there because they have no choice, but others may be waiting voluntarily to get some guidance. It’s the same story over at the computer help center. Students willingly wait to get what they need and what they value. If they resist waiting five or ten minutes to meet with a librarian, what does that say about the value they place on obtaining research assistance?
Is it the Service Model?
What seems most frustrating about students refusing to wait to talk to a librarian is the sense of a missed opportunity. Librarians know that even just a few minutes with a student could make a big impact on their success. I am wondering if we got this whole reference thing wrong. Our information desk model is based on fast turnover. It builds an expectation that you just walk up and get what you need. Fast. No wait. That model may have worked in the past, and it can still work well for a one-on-one spontaneous learning moment, but with the decline or disappearance of ready reference questions, it’s less well suited to queries that require more time and deeper dives with students. Wait to talk to a librarian? Who has time for that, and anyway, why would I want to? Putting ourselves into the place of our students, we need to ask why they place so little value on our research services and why they are unwilling to sacrifice a small amount of time to meet with us—when we know that small time investment could reap big time savings.
Make ’Em Wait
If you are having more success with getting students to wait to talk to a librarian, even if it’s just five or ten minutes, we could all benefit from hearing more about it. I am wondering if we might have been better off to abandon the information desk model in favor of a waiting room model—just like every other service office on campus. Want to get help with your research assignment? Take a number and have a seat. We’ll let you know when it’s your turn. I have this crazy sense that students would find it perfectly normal and possibly even value it more. I know, you’re saying, “But that’s not how we offer customer service…we never want anyone to wait.” Why then does student waiting work perfectly well at the writing and tutoring center or student health, plus just about every other student service on campus? Another option is to abandon all walk-up reference service and go entirely with consultation appointments. Supplement that with an “on-call” librarian who can handle the occasional walk-in research question or schedule limited walk-in, no-appointment-needed hours. That offers great convenience for students, but also makes it easy for them to blow off keeping their meeting with a librarian.
Time for a Schmoozer?
There might be another way to get students to hang around when they are told it will be a few minutes until the librarian is available. Schmoozers. Restaurants in New York City face heavy competition, from other restaurants and from food delivery services. Getting people to wait is the challenge. This is especially true for newer upscale fast food based on cafeteria-style service. At peak hours the lines will get long. Enter the Schmoozer, who engages you in a conversation, makes the customers feel welcome, and answers those quick questions. Schmoozers get to know the customers by name. You get the idea. So if you are one of those librarians who has been resisting the idea of a greeter, now you can go for a Schmoozer. For academic libraries, I still think the core of the problem is a lack of value on what we do, further complicated by a lack of understanding about the nature of our work. The writing center helps with writing. The computer help desk fixes technology problems. The library…helps me find a book? What is the value proposition of what we do and why it’s worth waiting for? I’ll know if I’m on to something here when library conferences feature sessions on “How to Get Students to Wait and Love It” or “A Strategic Analysis of the Optimal Location for Your Library Schmoozer.”