or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk



Tech Services is the Oil in the Library Machine

   February 13th, 2013

oil canOver the last couple years, there's been a trend in my library to move some of the work traditionally done by Technical Services out to the service desks.

It hasn't been deliberate, and it hasn't been too major, but desk staff now routinely:

  • change status of items in the catalog, moving them into and out of "Display," "New Books," or the regular stacks
  • add identification labels, such as "Teen" or "Documentary," to items that are already circulating
  • use a barcode duplicator to add barcodes to the front cover of items
  • change call numbers in the catalog (or more often, correct them if the spine label doesn't match the catalog)
  • replace faded spine labels (courtesy of having a spine label printer at the Circulation Desk, and soon-to-be one at the Reference Desk too)

For the most part, it has improved customer service by decreasing the amount of time it takes to do these tasks. It keeps items in circulation longer (instead of being routed to Tech Services where they might be unavailable for a week or so while the update is made), and also keeps our catalog and shelves more accurate by fixing problems or improving findability on the spot.

engine oil dipstickHowever, we have noticed mistakes being made, too - which isn't unexpected. When the work was done only by Tech Services, it is by staff trained to do this type of work, usually in the back office where they work at their own pace. Desk staff, on the other hand, only get minimal training, and can only do this work in between helping patrons. So, with many more staff working on it, details are bound to be missed or forgotten as different people develop their own workflow over time. But no matter how small these mistakes were, they are still glaring when they cause a problem.

I bring all this up, not just because I find it an interesting trend in and of itself, but because of something our cataloger pointed out about the whole process.

Recently, our Director relayed a story to the entire staff about a distraught patron coming in looking for a book, and the first staff person she spoke to was able to identify the book, look it up in the catalog, take the patron to the shelf, and put the book in the patron's hand. The Director praised this success and efficiency, referring to the library as a "well-oiled machine."

Our cataloger used this success story to highlight why it is so important for the desk staff to do these traditionally-Tech Services tasks correctly. Her point was that these little processing details - making sure spine labels are printed correctly and consistently, making sure the barcode is in the right place, etc - is the oil that allows our "well-oiled machine" to run smoothly. Their importance cannot be taken for granted.

Too many mistakes, and suddenly we can't find books on the shelf because they're not where they're supposed to be or their catalog record is inaccurate.

It's helpful to share the workload, but quality control cannot be overlooked in the process. Libraries are funny in that the smallest details upstream - which many people don't even think twice about - seem to have the biggest impact downstream if something goes wrong.

So, yay for catalogers and their persnickety attention to detail - without them, libraries certainly would grind to a halt.




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9 Responses to “Tech Services is the Oil in the Library Machine”

  1. Jane Says:

    That’s weird…in MY library, we’re moving traditionally Circ things into Tech Services, like checking in new books and filling holds.

  2. Tech Services is the Oil in the Library Machine « Blog de biblioteconomie şi ştiinţa informării Says:

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  3. Joyce Says:

    Thank you Brian for highlighting the role of the technical services department in the library!

  4. Leigh Says:

    Thank you so much! I feel more and more like people overlook what we do because it’s not glamorous–we only get noticed when things *don’t* work, and so it’s rarely positive feedback. Or maybe it is easy to forget that catalogers are there to help users as much as reference, just in a different way. Either way, thank you for the shout-out! It’s nice to hear! (from a cataloger who loves her job)

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jane: that is interesting. I think we talked about that at one point in my library, but decided against it for a few reasons:
    -We’d have to buy receipt printers for Tech Services

    -New books pause at service desks so staff can see what’s new to better recommend things to patrons (for instance, all new non-fiction books go to the reference desk first on their way to the circulation desk to be checked in)

    -As soon as they got checked in in Tech Services, the notification for any item on hold would go out to the patron. Some of our patrons are Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to picking up holds, and we didn’t want the patron getting to the circulation desk before the item did.

    But these were just things we came up without actually trying it. How is it working for you?

    @Joyce & @Leigh: You are very welcome!

  6. Amy's SI 643 Reflective Blog Says:

    […] have to do with their evolving job descriptions. Brian Herzog specifically discusses how some more technical jobs are moving from technology desks to service […]

  7. Links of Interest : February 19, 2013 « A Modern Hypatia Says:

    […] Herzog does a great bit on why tech services matters. (having done my share of cataloging and processing, and working in the same office as the people […]

  8. Nicky Fairless Says:

    I am a MLIS student and I have shared your post with my LIS730 cataloging classmates at Dominican University in River Forest, IL.

    Thanks for blogging, as it gives insight to the profession for us budding librarians!

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Nicky: you are welcome – thank you for the comment, and I’m happy to hear you find my website useful.