Category Archives: TELIS

Running Telephone Reference Like a Branch

What has a physical location, professional and paraprofessional staff, a budget, a print collection including periodicals, dedicated computers, an e-mail account and a skyline view?

Telephone Information Service (aka TELIS or TEL) is a centralized service located at Central Library and staffed by Central staff.  Our 27 branches have unpublished numbers; the only way to actually TALK to anyone at the library is to go through TELIS.  There, staff provide library hours, renew books, update expired cards, reset PINs, place holds, provide instruction in the use of our web site, databases, and downloadable media, register people for programs and answer reference questions.  Thousands of transactions each month pass through the phone lines. Most callers are thrilled that their needs can be met in one call, right now, even if their branch happens to be closed.

I’m currently in charge of making sure the service runs efficiently, buying the materials it needs to answer questions, and training staff to answer the variety of questions that our callers ask.  This means that Circ staff needs to learn to answer simple reference questions (directory information) and Ref staff needs to learn to handle issues with patron accounts (claims returned, billing issues.)  It also means I need to turn in IT service requests, order supplies, and post publicity for system public programming.

In practice, TEL operates like a branch, but I don’t supervise any of the staff answering phones.  All the fun without many headaches!  My point in bringing this up is that we are shifting our service model one more time at the end of this month, and I’m re-thinking the mission of TELIS as it intersects with the library system’s model for service.   We have a number of newer staff who weren’t here during the indoctrination period 20 years ago, and have questioned the decisions behind some of our policies and procedures as expectations and abilities changed over time.  We may end up with a completely different idea of what good telephone service looks like!



I’m a late-comer to some of the networking gizmos that have been around the blogosphere for the last couple of years.  I still haven’t quite got the hang of Facebook – seems to me most like a “hooray for me” type of site, but maybe I just need to be more forward about starting conversations with my “friends”.

Today I joined Twitter and set it up so I can send tweets via sms messages from my cell.  Heard there was a way to use it for Facebook status updates, but that will have to wait till tomorrow – I’ve depleted my mental energy for today.

Aside from the sheer pleasure of trying new applications, I’ve always got half an eye on how something like Face book or Twitter could help us communicate with our remote users.  I manage our centralized telephone service desk – we answer all the phone calls for library administration and all 27 branches in our system.  We have a TTY, but it gets very little use because most deaf patrons would rather text or use the video relay service.

It would be nice to be able to connect with our remote patrons in other ways than just by conventional telephone and e-mail.  We haven’t really talked much about this, but I can see benefits to providing such service.  Although cell phones are on the list of dying technologies re-posted by Stephen Abrams, rignt now, virtually everyone has one and uses it, and we ought to be creating services for the small screen.  For example; a phone-friendly way to search the catalog, manage “my account”, and to contact library staff via sms. (When was the last time you actually heard your kid talking on the phone? At any rate, my kid had over 1,000 text messages on our last phone bill.)

Asking the Right Questions

Six weeks ago, we were attempting to coordinate the merger of our circulation help desk and telephone reference desk into a single phone system.  Coordinating the event with AT&T,  IT staff, Circ staff, our pbx system vendor, and me was a delicate balancing exercise, but It all come together early yesterday morning.

Under our old system, callers to the Telephone Reference desk were queued, but callers to Circ Help were handled by a different phone system with no voice mail and no queueing ability.  Now, there are two groups in our Telephone Reference system, each with the ability to queue.  The new greeting asks callers to select “questions about your library card or checked out items” or “all other questions.”

The bottom line is that calls to the reference desk have been about 60% circ-type questions, and we want to direct those questions to circ staff.  Our new tree allows callers to self-select the appropriate desk, and this seems to be working very well.

The next step is to monitor the volume of calls to each side of the house, and develop appropriate staffing levels to handle the calls effectively.  We are still tweaking the software to add flexibility to each workstation: we want the staff person to be able to select which group to log in to: ref or circ.  This isn’t quite happening yet, so we’ll be fine-tuning next week.

We hope this will shorten the time callers need to wait in the queue for help.  I am convinced many of our callers are cell-phone users, and so anything we can do to get them their answers quickly will go a long way towards providing better customer service and generating a little goodwill.

What is a Good Phone Ref Collection?

I am weeding the collection used by the librarians who staff the telephone reference service for my library system.  When the service was inaugurated a generation ago, the collection consisted of about 500 titles and was the equal of the reference collection at community branches.  In those days, we had no Internet, and we actually used some books daily, others less often.  I remember fighting to keep the Thomas Register and Martindale Hubbel sets, and agonizing over the choice of Ulrich’s vs Gale’s Directory.  Now, we could go weeks without touching hard copy, and the budget is slashed.  The collection is old and needs to be weeded.  The Big Question is whether to replace what’s going away, or rely on online sources.

Part of me wants to keep a basic reference collection against the day that the computers are down.  The other part wants to buy electronic resources, either titles like those in the Gale Virtual Reference Desk, or databases like Marquis Who’s Who. The kinds of questions we get has changed, and we find we are doing a lot of directory assistance and account management for our callers, with “real” reference questions trailing by a noticeable margin.

When I look at the number of titles I am pulling, and see the dwindling remainder pitifully occupying a quarter of the space of the old collection, I’m wondering if we even need a collection! That’s heresy!  But I have said in the past that I believed we could answer the majority of all the questions we get with a dictionary, the World Book Encyclopedia, and the World Almanac.  Add the Kelley Blue Book, a science encyclopedia, an etiquette book and the Internet, and we’re good for anything our callers can throw at us.  Our Internet goes down so seldom, now, that I don’t believe we need to factor it into collection decisions.  <Sniff> Our callers have outgrown our little service ; they are doing more for themselves before they reach for the phone.

Our educational programs and one-on-one teaching are having an effect, and we’ve “taught” ourselves out of a job – in reference, anyway.   The directory and account management calls are spiking, and we are now looking into the feasibility of having clerical staff answer all the calls, and referring the caller to a reference librarian only if it’s a reference question. This will require that we take a critical look at our service model, and that is in the works for this quarter.

Tax Season Arriveth

taxing Every year, during the last week of December, Telephone Reference begins receiving calls from go-getter patrons looking for tax forms. For the next four months, staff will be living, breathing, and distributing answers to tax form questions.

Our library distributes a few of the most frequently-requested federal and state forms and booklets, provides links on our OPAC to the IRS and Franchise Tax Board forms pages, prints handouts with urls, phone numbers and filing addresses, and even, at some branches, provides free tax preparation help for seniors and low-income families. Other resources include links to the taxing agencies of each of the other states (Legal Forms Online), and a directory of other places people can go for free tax prep help. This year, we are working with InfoLine Sacramento, who will handle the scheduling of tax prep appointments for three of our branches again this year.

My involvement comes with the management of our Telephone Reference Service (TELIS). Ours is THE phone number for the library system, and from now until April 15, our calls will more and more frequently concern the availability of forms and tax prep help. I poll the branches about which forms they are distributing, whether they are hosting tax prep help, and whether an advance registration or same-day sign-up is required. I will need to prepare the flyers we distribute at the service desks regarding assistance from the two taxing authorities, and keep all the information current for the entire season.

Today, from 12 to 1 p.m. I was alone in Telephone Reference, and by 12:30 there were NINE callers in the queue. By 12:45 they started dropping out, and by 1:00 the queue was manageable, at 1-2 callers. Sigh… I need to ask for a higher staffing level until April 15.

When I Was Younger and Learning to Code …

… I spent hours – days – weeks perfecting a simple web page. I pored over html textbooks; I took online css classes; I incorporated what I learned into both work and personal web pages. Since then, xhtml and xml are being taught in library school, and hand-coded library web pages are both more sophisticated and fewer in number.

Today, blogs take care of most of that automatically. One selects a template, adds content and a few links for personalization, and a new web page is born. Although my home-built page is still out there, I no longer maintain it. It’s so much easier to blog and link to photos in my Flickr account. In fact, it’s so easy, I now have multiple blogs: for family news, for family history and stories, for work, and for Central Library. Anyone can be a web publisher – no coding skills needed.

Some say traditional library professional skills are going the way of hand-coding. With the advent of “Web 2.o” and “Library 2.0”, with the delivery of services and materials online, traditional cataloging is giving way to tagging; traditional print materials are giving way to playaways and graphic novels; traditional face-to-face services are now available online. Supervisors in several library jurisdictions are placing paraprofessionals at reference desks, because the kinds of questions that are asked has changed, and no longer need a professional librarian to answer them. Technical aides provide assistance at the public computers. Administrators are looking for ways to keep libaries’ profiles high and their publics satisfied in order to continue receiving government funding.

It’s very easy to get swept away by the “2.0” excitement and begin adding toys and services willy-nilly. The hard part is choosing which ones will ultimately be useful, which ones staff are willing to embrace and adopt, and which will endure instead of being made obsolete by the Next Big Thing.

In my opinion, mobile telephones will become more and more important, and libraries need to look at how their services can be tailored to fit the capabilities of those devices. “Smart phones” like Treos, Blackberries, and the iPhone connect their owners with information in ways not even dreamed of just a few years ago. Prices of both phones and service plans are coming down, and new applications are being developed almost daily. Who would have thought, just two years ago, that gps would be standard on a cellphone? That regular web pages could be viewed on a small screen (iPhone)?

Working in the Telephone Reference center at my library puts me in touch with the spectrum of library users, from those who automatically think to call us first, to those who have already tried to find their answers and use the library as a last resort.  What surprises me is the number of people who use us like directory assistance, and ask us to find phone numbers of lost family members, customer service departments, celebrities, owners of local properties, and city departments. The phone company now charges for directory assistance – and the library doesn’t!

How can we use this knowledge? About half of those who call actually do NOT have a home Internet connection. The other half has already used the Internet and needs either more help or more information.  I think we need to re-think our phone service – maybe instead of an e-branch, create a p-branch.  There should be a way to route phone calls to the appropriate circulation or reference staff and have the questions handled – not throw roadblocks up because our “procedures” don’t address real telephone service – just information about how the patron can do something else to get service (like phoning another number or coming in to a branch.) What would it take to deliver outstanding telephone service?

Best ways to communicate

So, two events are coming up soon: the beginning of a new year, and my job performance evaluation. I’ve been thinking about a better way to keep salient information handy for our TELIS librarians, and my supervisor and I have danced around the edges of trying something else. My JPE seems like a good time to talk about it, and the new year seems like a good time to implement it, if approved.

My idea was to use a blog (no, really?!) to replace the decade-old “TELIS Tipsheet” that requires hand-coding and severe editing to remain relevant and readable. Information that is removed is lost and gone forever; using a blog would keep the info archived and findable with keyword searching. Some issues that need thinking about are: what info is for internal consumption only and should not be visible to the public; a way to allow others to make additions when needed; whether the blog could be public; and whether we should lobby the library to purchase a blogging package or make do with the free blogs that are already available.

Our GrandCENTRAL blog seems to have launched well with a loose consortium of staff making entries at lib, so it shouldn’t be hard to encourage the rest of the reference staff to adopt something similar for the Telephone Reference service. Items that would be good candidates for posts are: holiday schedule changes, tax prep help info, branch closures, renewal line status. Other items we use frequently actually “live” on our internal server, and are NOT accessible to the public.  My challenge will be making those items available without compromising server security. Such items include forms and employee contact information, among other things.