A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Evolving Public Libraries

by on September 30, 2019

A Focus on Patron-Centered Service

by Stephanie Chase / acornsandnuts@gmail.com. Stephanie Chase is Director of Hillsboro (OR) Public Library. Find her on Twitter @acornsandnuts. She is currently reading “How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States” by Danie Immerwahr

When our public libraries are asked to defend their relevance, we often rise to the bait, drowning our detractors in the myriad of services, programs, and events we offer. But what if we took a step back and considered whether we’re telling the right story? What if we took a step back and investigated whether the library of those detractors’ youth — which is almost certainly what they are imagining — is still useful today? It the story we’re promoting about input (how big our budget is) or output (our circulation and visit statistics) really what people want to hear? Or does our public want to hear how we can help them change, help them reach new goals, help them make a different to their community? And can we acknowledge that our users need a very different service model to succeed in meeting these goals?

The question is not whether public libraries are still relevant; the question is whether we are, as a profession, willing to engage with our users and consider a radically new service model. The expert-behind-the-desk model has disappeared from most of public life, even as many libraries have clung to it. Are we willing to leave behind bureaucracy and give our patrons what they are actually asking for? Are we willing to support staff in providing that service? A radically new service model calls for staff interested in and empowered to deliver that service. A radically different service model means we understand not only that what works for one community may not work for another, and it requires a diverse, empowered staff to provide.

Public libraries need staff who work collaboratively to identify creative solutions, and who can and will respond to questions and concerns with empathy, but also with firmness when needed. We know that one interaction can change not only a community member’s whole perception of the library, but also our governing organizations and the places we live. Why wouldn’t we make that interaction spectacular?

Redefining the Work of the Library: How Hillsboro Got Started

Several issues in Hillsboro came to a head around the same time that presented us an excellent opportunity to review our service philosophy. Hillsboro (OR) is a rapidly growing city of more than 100,000, part of the Portland metro area and the locus of the so-called Silicon Forest, a concentration of many high-tech companies, including Intel, which has its largest research and development facility in Hillsboro.

Hillsboro is the most diverse large city in Oregon. More than 40% of its population are people of color and residents show significant diversity in their education and income levels. Such diversity deserves a diversity in service, and we knew our traditional model was providing good service to only a small portion of our nearly 3,000 daily users.

As we considered how to transition Hillsboro to a patron-focused service model, we needed to ensure staff were working to the top of their class (and compensated for doing so), so that our patrons could best take advantage of staff time and staff strengths. We started with the management team, working first to achieve consensus and understanding among team members, and then pushing supervisory-level tasks and duties where they belonged — with our supervisors. We committed to a huge investment in staffing and professional development, and in growing and supporting our supervisory team to embrace flexibility and help have the tools needed to be involved and on message.

This work required a significant change management process that emphasized the constancy of change and the necessity of our becoming comfortable in its gray areas. We based this mindset on the business school maxim that in striving for excellence, you must recognize that you cannot do the same things you’ve always done. Maintaining the status quo wasn’t going to help us meet the changing expectations of our users or the rapidly changing environment driving those expectations.

Next we turned our attention to staff, addressing significant inequity in duties and schedules between part-and full time staff. We believe strongly that all staff are part of the team, and that staff who work part time should be viewed simply s fill-ins for full-time staff. We worked to transition all nonexempt staff to either a Tuesday through Saturday or Sunday through Thursday schedule, ensuring we provided consistent access to service for patrons throughout our seven-days-a-week schedule. We established consistent schedules for part-time staff, combining hours through vacancies and open positions. We then established a true on-call or substitute pool, where all staff who did not want regular schedules could still be part of our team and still have access to hours. All of this change was done by rethinking how to better allocate the existing staff hours we had budgeted without additional funding.

Throughout, we strived to break down silos often created in library work, to better serve the public, free up staff time for additional public service duties, and ensure cross-training. We first removed the distinction between “circulation” and “reference” by creating two new departments: Public Services and Materials Services. Next we assigned direct public service time percentages for all staff by their classifications rather than their departments (25% for supervisors, 50% for librarians, 60% for library assistants). We knew we needed staff to be more flexible, resilient, and empowered to provide excellent customer service and exercise their authority. We also wanted to address scheduling for events, outreach, and special projects, working to ensure the full scope of public service opportunities were represented in our schedule. While this is still a work in progress, we have achieved our goal of having in-library service, outreach, and programming included in each staff member’s public service allotments. Our changes allow for generous project time for all.

Our work pushed us next to evaluate the library’s use of isolated service points. We learned that the traditional library structure — for example, having Reference and Circulation departments — did not accurate represent the expectations our patrons have for service. Patrons expect to be helped by the staff person they approach and it is our responsibility to deliver great customer service each and every time. (How do we know? We asked!) A new idea formed in response: the collaborative service model. In it, collaborative service points offer seamless and consistent service across locations, current, and future. Staff answer patrons’ questions whenever possible or guide patrons to other resources, including different staff members. Staff feel comfortable and empowered to turn to one another to gain expertise and insight.

Over the next two budget cycles, we made a number of changes through individual staff reclassifications and the reclassification of vacancies from retirements. We transitioned all of our library clerk positions, which were responsible for circulation and account questions, into library assistant positions, which could answer a much broader range of questions — traditional circulation and traditional reference. This too, had relatively little immediate budgetary impact, as the majority of our clerical staff were very senior and had topped out on the pay grade scale. Through the reclassification process, these staff began to receive pay increases again; the budgetary impact of these pay increases represented about a half a percent increase in our annual personnel budget.

Making the Space Match the Service: Or, Going Deskless

At first, Hillsboro did not intend to move to a deskless service model. We were simply concerned with consolidating our service points and ensure that staff working at the remaining service points were reclassified into library assistant or above. With the exception of our page staff, everyone was expected to handle both account and informational questions. New library assistants were given significant training and shadowing experience with the former reference staff, and librarians were given significant training and shadowing experience with the former circulation staff.

As we reduced our staff desk footprint, we began an intensive process to look at how patrons used the library and how they might react to different modes of service. Two staff-led teams — the merchandising and display team and the innovation team — began working to discover the best ways to support patron use.

The merchandising and display team inventoried signage; established guidelines for signage, posters, and displays; created the staff picks program; offered training to their colleagues; and generally completed our first steps toward a more self-directed library experience through passive programming and displays.

Using design thinking principles, the innovation team studied how to best serve patrons in our collaborative service model. We wrote an article for our state library association periodical on this process, highlighting how we used design thinking as well as our findings. As mentioned in the article, “Rather than thinking about our current service model as a problem that needed to be fixed, we wanted to explore ways to improve the patron experience and bring more value to staff.”[1]

We learned that patrons didn’t have any sense of what the desks were for, and that a good number of questions for library staff ended up being asked first at our coffee shop. We learned that many patrons didn’t know we offered any self-service options since the large former circulation desk blocked patrons’ view. We learned much of what was coming to staff in terms of volume could be perhaps better answered through self-service methods, or better signage, or other non-staff-time-intensive ways, leaving staff more time to interact with patrons who wanted face-to-face interactions. We learned patrons hated waiting in line, especially if they had to wait in more than one (and who doesn’t?)

We held a special prototyping day, where patron and library volunteers, moved through three researched modes of service, first as themselves and then in a variety of crafted personas, to test what might be most useful. The clear winner: centrally located service, with both staffed and self-service options visible.

Moving around the library frequently soon became a staff favorite — perhaps driven by our high volume, as staff soon found themselves unable to get out from behind the new consolidated service desk. We experimented with reducing staff assigned to the consolidated desk but found that staff when taken away from the desk to offer the kind of personalized service we hoped to provide, often found it difficult to get back — patrons would grab them for help on the way. The opposite was true too : staff who came to the service desk only to use a computer frequently stayed to help with the significant lines.

Around the same time, Hillsboro’s leadership team visited the Anything Libraries just outside of Denver. The team was struck by the relatively small size of the main service point, as well as its innocuous appearance (no Fort Reference here!). Another notable feature was the sprinkling of staff “perches” — staff computers on even smaller, more innocuous desks — throughout the service floor. This was a lightbulb moment, which seemed the perfect answer to the staff frustrations of the single service point and its lines, as well as providing the ability to incorporate even more feedback and lessons from our research, testing periods, and staff training.

From this, the next phase of Hillsboro’s collaborative service model was born: the incorporation of “orbiting,” the term our staff coined for roving reference. Further rounds of mostly peer-to-peer testing fine-tuned our orbiting procedures. We developed areas of responsibility for orbting where staff would do their loops and return to the main welcome areas to check in if all was quiet. We decided what to call our service points (eventually settling on the patron-focused language of “Ask Me,” which appeared on buttons and aprons, rather than any kind of desk naming.) We consolidated and placed self-service checkout machines. In addition, a staff-led rapid improvement team created a new set of dress code guidelines to help make our staff more visible to patrons, which found almost immediate adoption, as it had been developed and advocated for by their peers. (Several rounds of library-funded logo wear purchases helped, too.)

Orbiting has continued to evolve, now being done “without borders.” Staff are no longer assigned areas to orbit but together cover the floor, changing their methods to suit the business needs at the time. Staff on the floor do not stand at or staff any desk or service point, but instead visit one of the perches when it is necessary to access the staff ILS client or the internet.

Naturally, we struggled with all of the things you may think of when planning to remove a desk, form where to put our supplies to what signage to put up to whether to carry devices. Aprons came to the rescue for pens and scrap paper; staff perches were paired with catalog computers to offer access to staff resources; staff ultimately chose not to carry devices with them for looking up information, but did choose to carry phones to quickly obtain assistance from colleagues. As time went on, much of what seemed like a must-have at the start of the process rather quickly became unnecessary.

Throughout, we still imagined (and planned) to replace our large former circulation desk with something more central and smaller. We ended up waiting more than a year for the desk to be removed, which was a blessing in disguise: by the time it was removed, the majority of staff were no longer particularly interested in having a desk.

After the desks were removed or had their uses transformed, we also learned a few things — the most important being that some users really, really want to wait in line. We learned that some staff can’t help but stay behind a desk, which has informed the next round of service evolution. Plans are underway for repurposing the desks we still need to better support patron needs.

Redefining Library Work

Regardless of what position you hold in your public library, you have the opportunity to consider what library work should look like — and to consider what it might require for you, or your colleagues, to provide that service with excellence. Begin by asking yourself what superior customer service is to you. What makes you go back to the same place again and again, or choose one place of business over another? Now ask yourself: is your library providing similar experiences?

Library service cannot be one-size-fits-all. Who are your library superusers? Is your service model and how you provide service personally tailored to this group? What might a patron who doesn’t fit into this demographic experience? We must consider alternative points of view. Users might find waiting in line at a desk inefficient or believe it an unlikely way to have their questions answered; and for many, approaching such a symbol of authority as a large desk (and waiting for whichever staff member is free next) is fraught with fear and feelings of insecurity.

If we intend to truly be inclusive, our service must be inclusive as well. Can a patron who wants to run in, pick up a hold, and check out the hold without talking to a staff person do so? Are you able to spend the time with a patron who needs the time? Can members of your diverse community see themselves in an equally diverse staff? Are patrons able to converse with staff in their preferred language?

Are staff in your library celebrated for their strengths? Are the staff able to contribute those strengths to your library and your library patrons? What would your library look like, and what services might you be able to provide, if staff could?

When we in libraries commit to meeting our patrons’ expectations for customer service and convenience, we demonstrate for our community the benefits of being inspired, of trying new things, and of connecting. We also demonstrate that we are willing to listen and grow.

As a public service organization, and as a customer service organization, public libraries need to constantly be thinking about services to the public. Every day, we should ask ourselves how we can better support our community, respond to the community’s needs, and meet the community’s expectations. As you being to answer the questions that arise and engage more deeply in the philosophy of library work, certain elements are essential: flexible, empowered, well-supported staff, with a high emphasis on customer service at all levels; responsive services; and a focus on community partnership and community collaboration.


  1. Stephanie D. Chase, “Design Thinking in Action: Changing the Public Service Model,OLA Quarterly 22, no. 3 (2017): 16.

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