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Zoning and Single Service Points

San Jose Public Library

Problem Statement

In the libraries of decades past, a stern librarian waited behind a high, imposing reference desk for intimidated users to approach and, if they dared, ask their questions. Customers who were able to find the right area of the library – say, children’s cookbooks – but couldn’t find just what they were looking for had to find their way back to the reference desk and wait in line for assistance. Customers who wanted to pay fines and ask about borrowing the latest teen vampire novel had to wait in two separate lines: one to speak with a clerical specialist and another so that a librarian could search for the title they wanted. On the other hand, when there were few customers in the library, librarians and clerical staff alike waited behind their separate desks with little to do except wait for customers to approach. Reporting boredom to superiors resulted in the assignment of on-desk tasks like mending or materials ordering, so that when customers arrived, staff looked too busy to interrupt.


SJPL introduced two concepts to solve these related problems: zoning and the single service point, or SSP. Instead of separate reference and accounts desks, we’ve integrated service into one location, covered by a roaming clerical staff member during slower times (with a librarian on call for readers’ advisory and complex reference questions) and multiple staff at all levels when we’re busier. We’ve learned that 80 percent of customer questions can be answered by clerical staff, whom we’ve trained to answer simple reference questions (title and author searches) as well as the basics of referring customers to an expert when necessary. And we don’t hide these staff behind a big desk; we assign them to “zone hours” rather than “desk hours.” This means that they roam the floor, helping customers where they actually need help – in the collections, at the Internet computers, or at the PACs. When a customer asks a question, staff assist them at the PACs rather than in our ILS whenever possible – and it’s usually possible.


This is a win-win. Customers receive higher levels of reference service because they’re being helped right where they are, as well as learning the skills they need to navigate the library’s website and catalog. In turn, programming is greatly increased and improved because librarians have more time to plan programs, make outreach visits, train volunteers, and meet with community partners. Clerical staff feel empowered to answer basic reference questions but know they have the support of librarians when it’s most needed.