Cross-Training at the Public Library: Lessons Learned during the Pandemic

Cross-Training at the Public Library: Lessons Learned during the Pandemic

After conducting a six-month-long assessment to explore the changing needs of the community our library branch serves, we determined that our number-one priority in moving our services forward should be to expand our operating hours. But how to do this without some kind of budgetary windfall? Instead we had to look very closely at how we did everything—from shelving to complicated readers’ advisory questions—to figure out how we could harness the talent of our staff to deliver even better customer service.

To provide some context as to how we operated before we began cross-training, it was not unusual for a patron to call the information desk to renew a book but instead get transferred to the circulation desk. Conversely, if a patron strolled up to the circulation desk with a question about how to use our library app, they would be redirected to the information desk behind them. It’s obvious this was not great customer service, and we started to think about how cross-training could eliminate the need for these silos.

Then the pandemic happened.

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When we reopened to the public in July 2020, cross-training was no longer something nice to have that we could gradually work toward. It was now an urgent necessity as our world had completely changed, and the way we delivered library service had to change along with it. The first week we reopened for curbside service only, we were busy on our feet all day answering the phone, bringing materials out for our curbside customers, checking in recently returned items, and pulling newly requested items from our shelves. There was a learning curve, and we gathered together at the end of each day to discuss improvements we could make to our workflow and our service. It was a bit like the pandemic pushed us off a diving board before we quite knew how to swim, but there was no way we were going to let ourselves sink.

Cross-Training Employees at Public Libraries

Job descriptions were thrown out of the window, and we set up the phones to ring at every desk so that patrons wouldn’t be sent to voicemail if one desk was busy. This was a surprisingly excellent way to cross-train because, if a patron on the phone asked a question you didn’t know the answer to, you had to ask your colleague for help.

One of my biggest fears as a supervisor when we stopped getting bogged down with the silos of job descriptions was that staff would feel they were doing tasks that they saw as beneath their training and expertise—like having a librarian shelve new books as they were returned. But actually the opposite happened—our dedicated staff were so happy to learn new things that were not previously part of their job because it made a better experience for our patrons.

Cross-training our staff so that everyone knows how to renew a book, fulfill a hold, or participate in curbside pick-up has made us a closer team and helped us weather the pandemic. It has gone so well that we will be combining our information and circulation desks this summer into one “Welcome Hub,” so patrons will have a one-stop shop when they come into the building rather than getting bounced around from desk to desk. The ultimate goal in combining these service desks will be to redeploy our staff and tweak the schedule so that we can increase our operating hours without a major increase to our budget. 

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