Waiting queues

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A queue, as defined by Goldberg, is “the suspension of an act until the means of continuance arrives” (Mansfield 343). More proximate to the world of reference transactions, a waiting line, or queue is defined as “occurring when a patron or employee must wait because the desk, operating at capacity, is temporarily unavailable” Regazzi 293). In the study of waiting lines, researchers rely heavily on queuing theory to develop practical solutions for libraries of varying size and function.


Queuing Theory



Queuing theory relies on mathematical modeling analysis involving three basic functions: 1) the arrival interval of users, 2) the service time for the users, and 3) the number of stations or staff able to answer questions (Caffarella 151). Initially, investigations using queuing theory are rather simple, but with the passage of time, the complexity of the mathematical formulas increases greatly. Because of these intricacies, queuing theory has become a substantial area of study within the field of operations management.


Historical Conception


The primary inquiry when dealing with waiting lines is uncovering a fair balance between the amount of time you make the library users wait and the cost of employing staff, or buying equipment, to speed up the process and alleviate queues. Another factor that must be considered is idle time faced by library staff, as often library users arrive at uneven intervals. Perhaps one of the first solutions to Budgeting cost was to employ paraprofessionals to aid librarians in decreasing wait time. In a study performed in 1975, two-thirds of school libraries were shown to staff the Reference Desk with paraprofessionals (Boyer 199). Some early studies using a cost-benefit analysis of different staffing options for reducing the amount of time users were forced to wait in line were performed to study this phenomena. Several staffing options were experimented with at a medium sized university; the findings demonstrated that the most effective staffing setup was a student in front of the professional to answer directional questions, and a professional seated behind the student for in-depth reference questions (Regazzi 297).

As libraries became more automated, though, the study of waiting lines needed to be expanded in order to address to new types of queues that libraries faced. Not only would users be faced with possible queues at the Reference Desk, but also waiting for a turn at computer workstations, and perhaps even having to wait to recieve information at off-site computers. With the introduction of automated workstations and CD-ROM Sources came the study of how to expedite user interface with workstations. Many techniques that were experimented with at this time involved manipulation of the environment to decrease time needed for a user transaction. Innovations included the networking of printers to computers, the use of standing workstations, and the training of users in Search Strategies (Caffella 153-154).

As library structures become more complex, though, so also the study of queuing became more intricate; and as the nature of research done within the library changed, new thinking about the nature of libraries was used to address the problems of waiting lines. One of the biggest paradigm shifts was that of thinking about visitors to the library as customer, with the focus of the library to be customer satisfaction (Sridhar 101). With the embrace of this conceptualization of the library “customer”, focus began to not only focus on decreasing the amount of time waiting in line, but also the time the customer felt they waited in line (Sridhar 109). The primary benefit of this paradigm shift is focusing the library efforts to increase customer satisfaction in a more holistic way, rather than seeking only to concentrate on the customers' information needs, allowing for a more pleasant library going experience.




Boyer, L. M., & Theimer, W. C. (1975). The use and training of nonprofessional personnel at reference desks in selected college and university libraries. College and Research Libraries, 36(3), 193-200.


Caffarella, E. P. (1996). Techniques for increasing the efficiency of automation systems in school library media centres. School Library Media Quarterly, 24(3), 151-154.


Halperin, M. (1977). Waiting lines. RQ, 16(4), 297-299.


Mansfield, J. W. (1981). Human factors of queuing: A library circulation model. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 6(6), 342-345.


Regazzi, J. J., & Hersberger, R. M. (1978). Queues and reference service: Some implications for staffing. College and Research Libraries, 39(4), 293-298.


Sridhar, M. S. (2001). Waiting lines and customer satisfaction. SRELS Journal of Information Management, 38(2), 99-112.


Taylor, R. G. (1987). Determining the number of online terminals needed to meet various library service policies. Information Technology and Libraries, 6(3), 197-204.



Chase McMunn