Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Don't Shelve the Questions: Defining Good Customer Service for Shelvers

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Don't Shelve the Questions: Defining Good Customer Service for Shelvers

Article excerpt

Many library customers' questions never reach designated service points such as circulation and reference desks. These questions may be addressed to personnel untrained in customer service such as student shelving staff in an academic library. This article presents data from a 2005 study investigating where and when shelvers received questions (and what types of questions they received) in Newman Library at Virginia Tech. Results showed that these students primarily received directional and item-location questions. Follow-up workshops helped shelvers improve their ability to accurately refer questions when needed, and to increase their accompaniment rate when answering customers' queries.


For most of their existence, libraries have offered reference and information desks to answer their customers' questions. For probably just as long, customers have had questions that did not reach these designated service points--either the customers never asked their questions, or they asked someone who was not a designated reference provider. As libraries consolidated service points, more spaces in the library became barren of designated spots for asking questions. Newman Library at Virginia Tech, like many research-sized libraries, has floors with no apparent place to ask for help. In the absence of service points, have customers found somebody else to ask?

In an effort to account for all questions asked in the library, the Newman Library shelving unit began asking its student workers in October 2003 to count each question they received. This count has shown that student shelvers, who received no customer service training, answered more than fifteen hundred questions in both the 2004-05 and 2005-06 academic years.

The authors of this study believed they needed to respond to this large number of questions. Before a response could be fashioned, though, the investigators needed to discover the details about the questions being asked. The investigators explored the types of questions asked of shelvers, and when and where those questions are asked. They also attempted to measure the effectiveness of shelvers in answering questions. Results of initial studies prompted the investigators to hold customer service workshops for students. Another round of data gathering followed to examine if the workshops had any effect.


The University Libraries of Virginia Tech serve a population of approximately 22,000 undergraduate students, 6,000 graduate students, 3,000 faculty, 3,500 staff members, and are open to local and state residents. The library system includes one main building (Newman Library), three smaller branch libraries, and a remote high density storage building with a total collection exceeding two million volumes.

Newman Library consists of five public stacks floors spread over 200,000 square feet. Only two of the five floors, floors 1 and 4, offer service points. The first floor includes a reference/help desk in the building lobby and a desk for circulation/reserve functions. An additional reference/help desk is located on the fourth floor, close to an entrance from an adjacent building. Both reference desks are staffed during all operating hours of the building--7:30 a.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, and noon to midnight Sunday. Reference staff on the first floor can only accompany library customers to other parts of the building if two staff members are on the desk; the fourth floor reference staff person must remain at the desk. A photocopy service desk is also located on the fourth floor, although its primary function is to assist with customer copy needs. As indicated in table 1, floors 2, 3, and 5 offer no service points, but house significant parts of the Newman collection.

The Shelving Unit of Newman Library consists of three full-time employees and thirty-five to fifty-five part-time student employees, depending on the academic semester. …

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