What If Library Staff Find New Solutions

July 30, 2002

Mary Ann Travis

Any large organization can be improved. Especially an organization as complex as a university library. But how do you promote an environment where good ideas for improvement flourish? That's the dilemma Lance Query, dean of libraries and academic information resources, faced when he picked up an idea from a computer company ad that asked "What if ...?" Last year Query started the Dean's "What If ... ?" Fund, a reward system that offers from $30 to $300 for good ideas from library staff members.

"The fund is used to encourage staff to look at the library beyond the focus of their own specific job descriptions," says Query.

Department heads and assistant deans are not eligible for the rewards. But this past year 14 staff members submitted 25 good ideas directly to Query, who has a committee of staff members to advise him on decisions to implement the proposals.

"Stand-up express" may sound like the fast line at a coffee shop. But at the library now, the term refers to the computers located near the front door. These computers are easily accessible for quickly checking a call number or looking up a book title.

For library patrons who need to spend more time researching, comfortable, sit-down computer stations are also available. The library staff member who suggested the library's public computers' new arrangement had noticed that some library patrons spent lengthy time at the computers while others, who only needed to look up simple bits of information, had to wait their turn.

"My guidelines are, if your suggestion helps solve a problem, please describe that problem and how your suggestions might help improve or solve it," says Query.

Space is a big problem at the library. Books and journals are on the floor, in the basement and in other storage facilities. Signs taped to bookshelves indicate which material is in storage. Previously, patrons who wanted a particular item had to write down the call number and the title and take the information to the circulation desk.

The problem was, says Query, people would often incorrectly copy the call number. The library staff member who observed the problem said, what if we had call-out flags? So now on the shelves in the spots where certain materials should be but have been moved to storage are rigid, red, vinyl flags. These flags have all the vital information printed on them.

"All the patron has to do is pull the flag out of the shelf, hand it to the staff in circulation, and we get the item for them," Query explains. "Isn't that neat?" he adds. "I gave the guy $150 for that idea. It was well worth it."

Thanks to another suggestion, the library will add an acknowledgement page to its Web site to recognize benefactors. Also, a library staff member came up with the idea, why don't we have library shirts? The library pays half the cost of the optional shirt, the employee the other half. Everybody who wears them "looks sharp," says Query.

The Dean's "What If ... ?" Fund had a budget of $2,000 last year. The ideas all help staff members fulfill the library's mission, which is "to provide the information our users need, when they need it and where they need it." Query says it's "the best use of money I can imagine."

Mary Ann Travis may be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000