24 March 2015

Prioritzing Assignments

Sometimes librarians, especially if doing the job well, will have more work than time to do it. Here, we mean on-demand work, the research and reference services that are seen as “our jobs”, never mind the long-term projects and daily tasks that actually take most of our time. Those tasks can, and should, be set aside when a patron asks for help.

The problem, of course, is that providing good service creates demand for the service. It’s a nice problem.

Still, when request pile up, we need a way to get started, or the avalanche can become overwhelming. This could be as simple as starting with the question on top of the stack, and when finished with that, starting with the question now on top of the stack. That should, eventually, get to everyone. But it may also miss a tight deadline or leave easy questions unanswered for far too long.

There is a better way.

First, take a moment to consider what makes one request more important to you than another. How do you choose which of two questions to answer first?

I find three factors go into my decisions: the assignment deadline, the requestor’s perceived status, and the anticipated requirements or difficulty of the question. The last of these includes determining what, ultimately, the client needs: is it a fact, a quote, an article or case retrieval, editing assistance, help using a research tool... how complex is the project, and how long will it take to complete?

The deadline is obvious. If a brief is due before close of business, it cannot be left to work on tomorrow. Each project has a different deadline, and those can provide an organizing method. This shouldn't be the only consideration, though. Just because an answer is due sooner doesn't make that the first question you should answer.

Status is a galling factor, since we're supposed to live in an egalitarian society. The fact is, though, librarians are support staff; our clients are the talent, and we're here to make them look good. And some of those clients are more important among their peers than others. We may not agree with it, but we must recognize it and at least consider it when making decisions.

Of course, the time it will take to complete should probably be the main concern. Giving ourselves time to complete a task before it is due can be a real challenge.

Each of these factors is on a sliding scale, from “ignore” to “URGENT”, and the weight given each factor varies, as well. For instance, if a new associate and a senior partner make otherwise identical requests, pleasing the partner is probably a priority. If the partner’s request is difficult while the associate’s will only take a moment, on the other hand, perhaps it is better to deliver the easy win before settling into the more demanding work.

None of this split-second internal calculation is possible, though, without communication. Begin with the reference interview, even if that means responding to an email (it's always preferable to simply respond to an email question with the answer, if possible -- it's just not always possible). This interaction lets the client know you’re on top of the question, provides you detail on what is needed, and lets you set delivery expectations. Managing expectations from the start, by knowing what else is in the queue and where this request falls on that list, helps avoid angry calls later and makes sure all responses are delivered in an appropriate, timely fashion.

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