April 20, 2018

Librarians Are Not Worth Waiting For | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellCollege 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.”

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. This was an interesting read, but you missed a very important point. You correctly point out that no one likes to wait. People perceive value in waiting when they have no alternative for the desired or needed service or product. In the case of the librarian, it isn’t that students don’t value getting the right information; it is that they perceive this information can be obtained from other sources more easily or readily. The problem is librarians compete with Google, et al, and students don’t find librarians more helpful than these other offerings. The goal of librarians should not be to have students happy to wait. The goal should be to actually deliver services that are more valuable to the students than Google, have students recognize that value, and then deliver the service with the least friction (including wait) as is practical.

    • agree totally. People always seek the best value for their resource (money, time, etc.). Librarians need to create value-added services just like any other industries/services in order to exist and thrive.

  2. stevenb says:

    The availability of more convenient options could certainly be a factor in why students would choose not to wait for a librarian. But I’m more inclined to say that is a factor that would keep them from coming to the library at all – or even considering it as a resource of value. I’m looking more at the student who is already in the library and came for assistance. They must see some value but not enough value to wait to meet with a librarian. Perhaps the student decides to resort to an Internet search engine.

    You say “People perceive value in waiting when they have no alternative for the desired or needed service or product.” Yet they also must perceive value in waiting when there are alternatives. How else do we explain a student waiting in line for 15 minutes at Starbucks when they could get a bigger cup of coffee for less money at the convenience store that is a 5-minute walk in the other direction. So there could be plenty of alternatives, but people still wait because they value what they are getting in return for waiting. I think your statement applies more to student services such as advising or financial aid. There are no alternatives – although some of those functions can now be accomplished online. I will say those offices are working harder to improve the experience.

    Where we see this the same is that we have work to do in convincing students that library services do offer more value than all the other resources they can access for information – and that interacting with a librarian is a superior experience. – one that is worth waiting for.

  3. I’m a librarian but not in an academic setting, so bear that in mind as I offer some suggestions.

    Maybe you could engage your front desk staff in collecting some more information for you. Have them ask some follow up questions like: “Would you prefer to make an appointment?” or “Oh, where are you going to look instead?” And if the patron starts to walk away have them say, “Do come back if you are not finding what you need and perhaps a librarian will be available then.”

    Once you have more information about your patrons’ expectations then you can address them. Also, we know our value and it is important to communicate that to the patron. More, we should be helping to meet our patrons’ information needs regardless of the value they ascribe to us. It might just change their minds if we do.

    • stevenb says:

      Thanks for those suggestions. A bit of follow up could be helpful – and we do that. Some folks are concerned about being overly invasive so asking them where they are going instead or what they plan to do next may be off-putting to some librarians.

      It is likely to be more difficult than expecting them to value us because we think they should (because we know our value). It’s the community member that defines what is truly valuable about the library. Our challenge is exposing them to library services and resources that will help to elevate the library’s value in their minds.

  4. Perhaps part of why students are reluctant to wait for library assistance is that they didn’t expect to have to wait, and so did not allocate the time to do so. If a student needs help from the financial aid office or their advisor, they know there’s a good chance they will need to make an appointment or have significant waiting time. They will plan accordingly. Often, they come to the library in between classes, expecting quick answers, and do not allocate enough time either to wait for assistance or to receive that assistance if, as you correctly point out, a deeper dive is required. I haven’t seen many walk-ins leave because no librarian is available (even if those manning the reference desk are busy, they or the circulation desk staff will call someone else from out of the back office to help). I have seen many who had to leave for class and come back later because their question was more complex and time-consuming than they thought.

    • stevenb says:

      That makes good sense Nikki – but why are they assuming they don’t have to wait for library assistance? Because surely no one else is going to be at the library asking for help. Who uses libraries these days? That was part of my point. Does creating a waiting area communicate the message that you MAY have to wait – so plan accordingly? Or does a purely walk up service suggest you will always get help right away – no matter how much time it will take? Or is the problem that we try to do it all at one desk – quick and time consuming questions. At a bank I know I won’t have to wait long for a teller – even if there is a line – because I know they only handle basic transactions. If I need more complex help there’s a separate area when I get more in-depth help.

      It may be that we will need to experiment with different service models to find out what would work best to capture those different needs – but which often come to us in spontaneous ways.

    • I believe that you have identified a problem Stevenb. The supermarket has express queues/lanes as does the bank as you mentioned. It doesn’t seem correct to process lengthy, in-depth queries at the same desk as that for the quick directional query. I feel that reductions which we see in many places of staffing levels leave little choice but to staff a desk and deal with all queries one after the other. However, at our community library we can offer to book the customer in for a one on one 30min or 1 hour session at later time to suit. This can at least acknowledge the customer’s need even if he feels that he doesn’t want to book an appointment. We can also show him where to lodge an online enquiry to an offsite helpdesk. It could be that the customer simply didn’t expect to wait rather than necessarily not valuing what we have to offer.

    • I also wonder if students have a hard time understanding the complexity of their question. In the bank teller/supermarket examples, I know I only have 1 check to deposit or 10 items in my basket and based on previous experiences performing the same transaction I know how complex the task will be, how long it will take and that these self-serve/quickie stations will be able to handle my task.

      Do students who ask different questions about different assignments each time know how complex, or simple, their inquiry is at the time of approaching the desk? Would they get in the right line if the help desk were broken up by simple vs. complex?

      I work in a public library which offers computer assistance. We have Tech Help Tuesdays for drop ins and appointments for other time during the week, as well as on the fly for folks who encounter a problem as they are working in the library. Until the staff starts working with them, you never know if this is a simple question or something that will take an investment of time.

      Perhaps through trial, error, and experience students, and staff, will be able to sort out which are the simple questions and which will require standing, or sitting, in the waiting room line. :) Do we have time to invest in this process?

  5. I don’t think anyone has mentioned the following. The other examples of people being willing to wait are for things and services that provide immediate gratification. The wait may be long, but at the end, you have the product, or in the case of, say, an advisor, you’re closer to the end of the process than what reference services can provide, as opposed to other kinds of library services. With reference and research services, the librarian is merely helping with step 1 of a potentially very long and generally unpleasant process.

    • That’s an point worth making Paula. Is the fact that doing research for a course assignment is itself a painful experience that might make it less likely a student will put off getting help.

      While the result of an interaction with a librarian might not be thought of as instant gratification, you would think that it is a step in the process that could certainly lead to a much needed injection of relief. That is, if students are putting off writing because they don’t know where to start with the research, why wouldn’t there be value in getting what we might call “ease of mind”?

      I’m thinking that stress relief is on some level par with instant gratification. Both would leave you feeling better. That “unpleasant process” would be measurably improved upon.

  6. JenniferM says:

    As a library manager, I would be appalled to know that anyone who even thought about wanting to talk to a librarian was turned off and would be looking at how to remedy that on the service side rather than the customer side. Don’t you have other librarians, other than the person at the desk? Maybe you need two at the desk, or a back-up close-by. Even student workers could be trained to triage questions. Such training and experience when I was a student worker led me to a career in librarianship. Having too many customers is a “problem” to which every library should aspire. In case you haven’t noticed, Starbucks isn’t hurting for customers. Many libraries are, or are perceived to be, and are losing funding. Fix your customer service problem.

    • We’d be glad to have a “too many customers” problem, but that’s not what the problem is Jennifer. If your library has a long line of students or community members waiting to get help research help for many hours of the day, please take a picture of the line and send it to me.

      The problem is that we may occasionally have a situation where there are 2 or 3 students who come to the desk at the same time. In those situations it would seem perfectly reasonable to expect someone to wait a few minutes (and did you read what I said about students being perfectly willing to wait at all the other student services).

      Your solution is easy. Just throw money and people at the problem. We’ve tried variations on all of them. As a library manager I could easily assign two, maybe even three librarians to be available for assistance at all times so no ever has to wait a few seconds. But is that the best use of limited resources. That cuts into librarian availability for instruction, in-depth consultations, virtual reference, etc. It’s not realistic to have staff waiting around (even as back ups) just in case two people come to the desk at the same time. I think other commenters have made good points (though worth further questioning) that people don’t anticipate having to wait for help in a library. After all, who goes to the library these days any way? Of course there’s never a need to wait…right.

      I’m glad you mention Starbucks. Did you ever notice that they don’t have back-up baristas who suddenly appear when lines get long? If Starbucks has 2-3 staff on duty, that’s it. You will wait – and you’ll be glad to do so because you want what they have – or you participate in their rewards program and you want more points – so you don’t leave to get coffee at the no-wait convenience store.

      Thanks for your comment, but if you think it through I think you’ll see there is more to the problem than just customer service…it’s a value recognition problem.

    • Actually, if the line is too long at Starbucks, I don’t wait. I mentally curse their poor staffing and customer service and figure out an alternative.

    • ellibrarian says:

      Starbucks might not, but I’ve heard that McDonalds has a system like that – that, if a bus comes through, someone at the front yells “Bus!” and anyone who was out cleaning tables or in the back etc will come to the front to help take the influx of orders. I work in an organization that is going through a lot of changes to make it more ‘lean’ and this is something they have had us implement to deal with our reference questions (in our case, public records requests – but same principle)

  7. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    I think much of it is simply the personal investment in the outcome. Most people aren’t going to put in the time to get help with a term paper that they will spend waiting in line for an iPhone, not because it isn’t perceived as important, but because at the end of it, all you have is a term paper.

    Bluntly put, people are less willing to wait on the librarian because they are less invested in their information needs than their entertainment needs. It isn’t a question of perceived value, but of desire. People know the term paper help is valuable, but the iPhone is a lot more fun.

    • As a former university instructor, I completely agree. I think the student who refused to wait was not as invested as perhaps they should have been, and I thought the student’s statement conveyed a rather rude disdain toward what librarians had to offer as well (or maybe I’m reading too much into this). Younger students, especially, are still gaining the experience they need to understand what expectations are at the college level, and generally what reasonable expectations are in life. I don’t think it’s wise to create a service model based on unrealistic expectations. One has to wonder if the impatience this student displayed is actually that common of a barrier; as far as we know, this was a single incident.

      There are lots of reasons why students might be hesitant to ask a librarian for help that have nothing to do with wait time, but the many insecurities anyone might have when they’re seeking out help from someone with more experience and expertise. No one wants to feel dumb or like they’re wasting your time for their silly little paper. At least, that’s the sort of thing that held me back when I was studying. Librarians have somewhat of an intimidating reputation. Also, a lot of students just don’t care that much, especially if what they’re working on is for a gen ed or some other class that they don’t perceive as useful to their future careers. I don’t think there’s anything libraries can do about that.

    • What if more instructors created research assignments that were designed to embed librarians more deeply in the student work product. Those standard “write a 10-page term paper” often lend themselves to students quickly hammering something out, based on whatever information they can quickly access. I imagine that many students don’t leave themselves enough time to even wait for help – if that’s the situation. Imagine instead a research assignment that isn’t disposable. For example, a wikipedia research project where a librarian could be an integral member of a team working directly with students. That is a scenario where students would be more likely to set up appointments rather than make a hurried stop for help.

  8. Interesting article that raises important questions. I am an academic librarian in a Library with a staffed Reference Desk. We are currently examining other models due to budget pressures and are exploring a single service point (among other options.) One possible way to ease the “wait” resistance might be to borrow another idea from restaurants…Give the student an estimated wait time and request a number where they could be reached by text. Have the desk (or librarian) text the student when he/she was available — or use the text number to make a future appt with the student. This would get the Library important contact information for a follow up text/contact if the student leaves the Library.

    • That idea certainly is worth giving a try. A student could go off and take care of some other things and then come back when the librarian is available. Thanks for that suggestion. Definitely worth considering.

  9. A couple of thoughts –

    Some of the examples mentioned are very unpleasant (financial aid office). People are forced to wait and it isn’t something that they look forward to. Like waiting at the doctor’s office or the DMV – a necessary time-waster dealing with the impersonal inefficiency of bureaucracy. People will generally try to avoid that. I abandon lines, even if it requires magical thinking that I can procrastinate another day or find an alternative. Or maybe these thoughts aren’t so magical because you get resourceful and find a way and things work out. So maybe people lack enough positive memories where they went to the library for research that they weren’t excited to do in the first place. Maybe they delegated the task or took an incomplete on the assignment, I know that sounds irresponsible, but life goes on and you file those things in the acceptable failures column. So, if they are dealing with something that isn’t life-threatening, required by law or has a direct impact on your finances, it is easier to postpone or eliminate it altogether.

    I think that libraries are geared towards introverts, readers, those who like to do intellectual work. The quiet environment is a harder sell for extroverts. I really wish that libraries would loosen up and adopt alternative models where people can pass the time doing other things – drinking coffee, tabletop gaming, talking with their friends – where one can feel relaxed and comfortable and want to plan your day and spend considerable time there, like you just don’t want to get in and get out and not interrupt the mausoleum of shushing. However, introverts resist giving ground to extroverts because libraries are considered a haven to introverts, so I predict they will continue to ask the question without making common sense changes to attract new users.

    • I did give some example of not so unpleasant things (coffee shops, restaurants, theater tix, etc) that people will gladly wait for – because the value it has for them outweighs the cost of the wait time.

      I do suspect that getting help with a research paper is an undesirable task – maybe not the help part – but just the whole process of working on the paper. Again, maybe its our model – not that people don’t like waiting.

      I’m not so sure about your introvert theory. I see plenty of outgoing, talkative students in the library. Some sections are almost like a social scene. No doubt though that it’s never easy for some people to ask for help or appear they don’t know something. I imagine the more that is the case, the less likely someone is to take off quickly if we can’t help them right away – a point worth considering. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Thanks Steve–this is interesting!! I don’t understand why many students (and some faculty) don’t value reference assistance. Most librarians want students to excel and succeed in their studies! Thanks for putting this viewpoint out there, Jane

    • Thanks for your comment Jane.

      Good point. How do we capitalize on students self-motivation to succeed. On twitter a number of remarks have alluded to our marketing and promotion challenges. Definitely something we need to work on.

  11. Theresa R says:

    Hi Steve, this is a really interesting article. We have recently moved our reference services from the main entrance level of our Library to the top floor (2 flights of stairs up).

    One thing that we are trying to improve is to triage queries from the info desk in the main entrance. We also “try” to have a back up person available, so that if the reference person is busy with a student, a phone call to our workroom will enable one of our team to come out and help. Ideally we don’t want the student to get lost (either waiting or being redirected).

    • Glad to hear you are experimenting with different models, including triage and back-ups. We’ve explored some of these possibilities. Even with them, sometimes it is likely a student will refuse to wait. I like that idea of taking their contact info and getting back in touch with them. Guess we have to keep trying a variety of models – and it can no doubt depend on the physical set up, where you can move things, the flow of traffic, how far away back up help is, etc. What works in one library may not work in another.

  12. mfchmiel says:

    Could the student impatience to wait for a qualified librarian to provide vetted information or sources have anything to do with our current political environment, where truth is little valued? Yardsticks for truthiness have become very flexible.

    • I guess anything is possible, but in this case…I don’t think it has anything to do with that.

  13. “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.”

    Maybe this ‘reconfiguration’ has something to do with it. I mean, if I’m at Starbucks and the barista tells me I have to climb two flights of stairs, pass through a balcony, walk down some hallway and then talk to his manager — I might start thinking of making my own brew.

    Being by the front door has its advantages.

    • Relocating research help elsewhere could definitely be a factor. Here, it was certainly not a case of a challenging reconfiguration. We’re talking about pointing to a room about 25 feet away and saying, “the librarian will meet you in that room” . It’s possible, but that didn’t seem to be a factor in this case. When people won’t bother to wait, they don’t even ask where they have to go – it’s just more about “how long will it take” before they get help. Maybe that’s why waiting rooms work. Once you are there you know you don’t have to go anywhere else.

    • Interesting research question. I think I’d start with the effect of retail configurations — using one of the commerce databases.

  14. ThaBestCoast says:

    Meh, I wouldn’t have waited either. I checked the Temple website and students can send a txt or email. Why use your time to wait for info…send that email or txt and grab some coffee or wait in line for a Mike Tyson autograph. Makes sense, especially if you just need info and not a physical product.

    • I do make the point that by offering online service organizations have made it less necessary to wait. If community members prefer to avail themselves of our online help, we’ll take that – though if you use email or text, you may still need to wait until we get back to you with an answer. But as you point out – it frees up that time for something else. But something else is going on when the community member has already committed to making an in-person request, comes to the library and then refuses to wait when the help isn’t immediate. Perhaps they decided to contact us online instead.

  15. I think there should be more emphasis put on the “value”part of the equation.

    If people are willing to wait for “Starbucks”, it’s because the brand delivers something that normal coffee at the Quickie Mart can’t.

    Therefore, students who won’t wait, they don’t see the value in what librarians do. Considering that many students now don’t actually experience a librarian until they get into college, it makes sense: They don’t know what a librarian does. I have argued to my colleagues for years that they can’t assume that students know what a librarian is or does.

    And I have also believe that librarians should take time to explain the economics of information to their communities. The interaction of money and information is key to understanding Google as well as Academic Search Complete.