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Reference Triage and the One Desk Model

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Reference Triage and the One Desk Model

Pierce County Library System

Operations & Management | 2012 |

Innovation Synopsis

Pierce County Library created curriculum and trained ninety paraprofessionals through webinar, self-paced projects and limited classroom interaction to provide a better customer service experience through a single service point in the library. Professional librarians have more time to serve in the community.


With many service points to choose from including: check out, card services, reference and youth services, customers were often frustrated trying to determine which desk to approach for their particular need. For expediency, confidentiality and efficiency customers prefer to complete their business at one service location, rather than being shuffled around to separate desks for each interaction. In addition, customer needs have changed over the years. While the library was still receiving a substantial amount of “reference” type questions (Pierce County had nearly 300,000 reference questions in 2011), Librarians are working more in the community and increasing the number and variety of classes offered at the library. We wanted to find a way to provide a better customer experience, while freeing up librarians to have more time for the difficult questions, to serve and deliver classes in the community. Also, several of the system’s smaller branches lacked any professional staff, often forcing patrons to drive many miles to get their needs met. To accomplish this goal, the library system has moved many branches to the one desk service model. Before implementing the one desk model, it was necessary to train the library’s paraprofessional staff to be able to answer approximately 80% of the most commonly asked reference questions. This would keep, and often times increase, the high standard of information transactions customers had come to expect. But, traditional in-person classroom training in the geographically widespread Pierce County Library System would have caused a major disruption to library services.

Key Elements of Innovation

While the physical changes to the library service desks were being made, the Adult Services team planned a course titled “Reference Triage” to use in training the library’s paraprofessional staff. This course helps public service staff confidently provide "first response" reference service to customers who need to get started or get unstuck on their information journeys. During the course staff is introduced to the PCLS reference philosophy, build a "first response" kit for answering reference questions, learn how to recognize when a customer needs more than first response reference service, and practice gracefully referring customers to a librarian. Due to the large geographical area of the library system, it was not practical to have all the class sessions in person. Consequently a combination of live webinars through Elluminate/Blackboard Collaborate and self-paced learning system through Moodle was developed to accomplish the training. Training also included in-person sessions at critical junctions in the learning process. Implementation of all three helped reinforce the materials and build confidence. The public service staff was divided into cohorts of fifteen and went through the course together. The class cohorts’ peer-to-peer interaction built on the library’s learning organization initiative. An online content management system (Moodle) contained the nine main lessons; Introduction, General Reference Sources, Jobs, Career and Education, Business and Finance, Consumer Information, Hobbies, and Do-It-Yourself (DIY), Local and Genealogy Reference Sources, Legal and Medical, Homework Help, and finally Technology. A unit on Readers Advisory was added after the initial training.

Achieved Outcomes

Ninety paraprofessionals were trained and several branches are now using the one desk model. Six months after completion of the course a survey showed positive results. When asked how applicable was the training to my job?, 72% responded “very” or “changed my life.” One staff member responded, “This course really helped me learn ways to better serve customers!” 84% did most of the pre-work. The survey showed 85% of staff believed pre-work “somewhat” to “very” applicable to their work. Librarians were able to increase their work in the community, visiting military base civic groups and job clubs. 421 classes were taught, serving over 3,500 people in 2011. Time was available for in-depth work with more challenging questions such as training SCORE Volunteers on resources for their clients.