‘I Need Some Help Over Here!’

February 3, 2012, 6:01 pm

I’ve been talking with students about their preferred work/study spaces around campus. The Math Emporium, aka The Empo is one that gets mentioned often. In short: located in strip mall across from campus, bus service, dining and gym in the same complex, 500+ Macs, lots of software, open 24/7, and it has an app. Here is a good descriptive chapter via Educause.


The thing that struck me during the conversation is the assistance service model. Students who encounter a challenging math problem or who have software issues can place a red cup on top of their computer to indicate that they need help. A graduate student or instructor will then approach and provide assistance.


I instantly thought of Fogo de Chão, a great Brazilian restaurant in Buckhead, with tableside service. It works like this: You have a token beside your plate. Flip it to green and your table is swarmed with various cuts of meat for the taking. Flip it to red and they leave you alone. (Thanks Jimmy P for expanding my dining horizons!)


This “service in your space, when you want it” is an interesting model. I’m not saying that we all need to rush out and implement it in our libraries— perhaps a few of you already have—but let’s think about it. I know that Steven Bell was brainstorming an “easy button” approach that pulls up a chat/help menu for patrons using library computers. How might that evolve?


Other Models (From Dining)
Roving reference has been around for a while, but that’s more of an interruptive service model. It’s the waiter/waitress/server approaching and occasionally asking: “Do you need more bread? Do you need help citing your sources? Can I help you find a book?”

And of course the tried and trusted information desk aka the counter service model: “Can I get a Plain Slim #1! Can I get two peer-reviewed articles on the ethics of cloning!” Or if there is teaching encounter then it’s more like the concierge model: “Let me tell you about some great restaurants in the area. Let me tell you about some great databases for your topic.”


The calling/paging/signaling model is an intriguing variation. Would it disrupt your current operations—yes, but isn’t it worth discussing at a conceptual level? Shouldn’t our conversations always be about improving the user/student/instructor/researcher experience? Their success is our success, yes?


So how would it work? High-tech vs. low-tech options. How might it change patron behavior? Librarian/staff behavior? Would it increase the amount of questions? Would students use it? Does helping them in their space improve the emotional, functional, or pedagogical experience? Is it scalable? Does it provide a path for deeper engagement?


When I imagine this in a library setting (I instinctively picture GT’s West Commons) the theme of privacy does come up. But I’m not sure that’s a real issue. You can build around that by having multiple inquiry methods for sensitive topics or personalities. The problem I could foresee, in a sociological sense, is that when you’re calling someone (an authority figure) over to your space, it could perhaps make the others around you feel odd or intruded upon. But… perhaps that’s the old way of thinking. That’s trying to apply the model in a vacuum. I might be making it a bigger issue than it really is. My students are already accustomed to this model (field trip to The Empo) and so if a similar system appeared in the library, it probably wouldn’t be too shocking to them. In fact it might actually be more intuitive and comfortable to them than approaching a desk. It gives them control, instead of us.


Need help? Ask us. We deliver!


Just thinking out loud…



This entry was posted in Spaces&Places. Bookmark the permalink.