One-on-One Doesn't Scale

When space defines how libraries deliver services, it reinforces the belief that the librarian can have an impact on the visitor one-on-one.  This scenario makes sense in a school library, and to a lesser extent, in an academic library.  As your library user group becomes more diverse in its needs or especially more spread out in its geographic coverage, the ability to use this individual strategy becomes harder to implement.

Individual training is something of a mantra in law libraries, and perhaps it is in other libraries as well.  It is a touchstone that, given access to the researcher in person, a librarian can take the opportunity to provide focused, individual training and improve the researcher’s experience in finding information or solving a research question.  The challenge is that it requires researchers to enter our physical space and that is becoming less and less likely as our current print collections shrink and access to our electronic information expands beyond our walls.

Training, and the improvement of researcher information literacy as it’s popularly called, remains a frequently cited goal for librarians.  Even ignoring the fact that most librarians don’t have any expertise in training other than what they have picked up (as opposed to trainers who get certification or other training in … training), this goal is a challenge when the researchers are not available or where the focus is on delivering the service one person at a time.

Libraries do not have the resources – and perhaps have never had them – to make this one-on-one focus valuable to a large community of users.  If you assume a certain amount of time spent by staff for each one of these interactions and you extrapolate out to a population of 1,000 lawyers or 50,000 public visitors, you can see the huge amount of staff time required to deliver it.  If the library further constrains its ability by only allowing so-called professional librarians (who have the MLS) or remains focused on the visitors who are physically available (rather than using phone or other virtual – but synchronous – tools), the challenge becomes significant.

The approach most libraries have taken is the obvious one, which is to take our training ideas and convert them into informational resources and training documents.  This breaks the synchronous, one-on-one focus and makes the experience asynchronous.  Library researchers can access these resources at the time of need and, hopefully, within the context of the information access they are attempting to achieve.

These resources tend to be flat, digital analogs of the 3-fold brochures, the lengthy pathfinders, and the way finding tools to navigate our physical spaces.  I think this is partly because we retain the central goal of the one-on-one experience.  This should shift to the periphery of our service goals, with a greater emphasis on resources that can scale – whether Web based tools or better, simpler print tools (less dense text, less focused on service and jargon, more focused on practical steps) – so that we can get the most out of our shrinking staff count and the downward pressure on our budgets.

As I mentioned, this isn’t anything new.  There is a wide disparity between what any given library is providing on a one-to-many scale, whether you look at Facebook sites, Libguides, 24 hour chat, or even just having a Web site.  But it’s surprising how often I read about or hear that the 0ne-on-one experience remains a central focus.  It’s a high-minded goal but there are better ways for us to be using the limited resources we have available to have the greatest impact on our entire customer base.