Monday, October 12, 2009

The Librarian at the reference desk. How do you manage your workflow at the reference desk?

Reference desk duty is probably the most interesting part of my day, as I get to interact with users. One thing that interests me greatly is how different librarians setup their systems to respond to users.

As I see it, there are two main competiting interests. On one hand, you want to be able to work on your own library assignments during idle periods. On the other hand, you want to be able to quickly put aside your work and attend quickly to the user in front of you when he consults you.

Of course how your setup your browser, your desktop, would depends on a myriad of factors, from the types of help channels you are monitoring (some librarians handle anything from Skype to Twitter to Meebo while other more traditional librarians handle only phone calls and in-person reference transactions.), to the type of queries you usually receive (directional vs research), to the nature of your other duties (cataloguing, event planning, Library information technology etc).

In the past, I suggested that one idea might be to create a mashup of most commonly used resources into a "information dashboard" using tools from Friendfeed to Netvibes (see also RefStart by Text a Librarian -Mosio).


These tools would be designed to help you answer queries effectively and efficiently, though there are other solutions of course, such as using opensearch plugins or just opening various browser tabs.

The problem here is that these tools help you answer questions efficiently (but see this comment about the dangers of being too efficient without educating users), but they don't help you manage the interruption, one moment you are working on say cataloging a book, or answering some email to your boss, or editing your subject guide , the next you are assisting a user seeking to find some city-level China data statistic.

And if you are like me, while working you will have many windows/programs (FrontPage, Library management system (LMS) interface, Instant Messaging Client etc), browser tabs open and it gets confusing fast (to the user if not you!) when you mix that with the browser tabs and programs you open while assisting the user.

By the time, you turn back to your work, you might have forgotten what you were working at (some browser tabs might be closed/replaced already), and this can be the source of serious mistakes.

Another problem is that while working you might be viewing and displaying several screens with confidential information (loan records, financial data etc) , and you have to hide/close them before using the PC to assist the user.

This isn't ideal, you want to respond instantly to the user in front of you or the user who called you over the phone, Instant messaged you etc etc. This is less of an issue if you don't handle users in person (or don't do stuff like screen sharing!)

I'm not sure what the policy is at other institutions, some might forbid the librarian from doing their work at the reference desk, but I suspect given how busy librarians are generally, this is unlikely to be common practice.

I'm curious how other librarians tackle this problem.

For me, what I do is to login to the Reference Desk common PC as per normal then do a remote desktop access to my desktop in my office. I do my work on the remote desktop, and assist users using the "Real" PC desktop. This has several advantages


I get to work with exactly what is on my system back at the office

Depending on the policies at your institution, you might not have as many user rights when using the common PC as opposed to your own PC back in the office. Doing a remote access to your own PC, bypasses all these problems allowing you to work with exactly what you are used to.

I can continue to work up to the last minute or second while on shift.

When someone relieves me, all i need to do is to close the remote desktop (one click), log-out of the common PC, and the work still remains at my desktop PC. This isn't possible if you are doing your actual work on the common PC, as you have to waste time saving files, closing browsers etc.

Separation between work done for user and your own work.

The idea here is simple, use your remote PC for doing work, switch back to the "real" PC when assisting with queries. The switch can be done in literally seconds. This way when assisting users, you show a relatively clean profile instead of your own work PC which has many confidential windows open.

To be frank, I don't always use the "Real pc" to assist users, often I forget, then I run into problems when either printing say a map for the user (it goes to the wrong printer in my office) or when I insert a thumb drive to copy a file for the user (you cannot transfer the file from the remote PC to the thumbdrive inserted locally).

There might be technical solutions to this, but it seems easier to just remember to stick to using the local pc for assisting users.

Other solutions

I'm aware that not all institutions are liberal enough to allow users to do remote access, and that there might be other ideas so I'm really curious how other librarians handle it.

Some ideas off the top of my head

  • Use different browsers

  • Use two different physical machines side by side?

  • Use virtual machines??
  • Some smart "panic" button that closes/hides every window when a user approaches?

I'm sure there are many other workflow ideas used at the reference desk, please share how you do it at your reference desk in your comments. I'm also somewhat curious about whether there is a uniform practice within your institution with regards to such matters, or do Librarians generally use whatever method they find most comfortable?



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