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 Brian Herzog

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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Repairing Books with The Book Doctor

   December 1st, 2011 Brian Herzog

My coworker Sharon sent me this video just before Thanksgiving, and I thought it was pretty neat - Simon Demosthene at Harvard's Gutman Library talks about repairing books:

I'm not sure if this has made the rounds yet or not, so I apologize if it's old news. I tried to check that with the Is It Old?, which said it was still okay to share, so here you go. Incidentally, I learned of Is It Old? via Lifehacker's recent single-purpose website roundup (I like single-serving websites).



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NELA2010: Trends in Tech Services

   October 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I'm at the NELA 2010 annual conference Monday and Tuesday this week, albeit without wifi or open power outlets in the rooms. As a result, my postings will be few and far between, but this session was a good one:

NELA2010 - Trends Tech Services speakersTrends, Trends, Trends: Innovations in Technical Services, Collections and More

What is going on that is leading us to change the way we work “behind the scenes” in our libraries? The Academic Librarians Section (ALS) and the Association of College and Research Libraries/New England chapter (ACRL/NEC) sponsor Consultants Margaret Lourie and Stephen Spohn to examine issues and trends in technical services, cataloging, and the acquisition and maintenance of physical and virtual collections, e-resources and e-books. Explore the larger issues at work that bring new opportunities to provide more resources to users, make it easier for them to find information they need and do all this more effectively and efficiently.

The Past Environment

  • Libraries are warehouses of information (books/serials)
  • Monopoly on search - they have to come to us and do it our way
  • Information in discrete packaging - silos do not overlap
  • Low user expectation - they get what they needed, maybe, and go away
  • Big building, print collection owned, repository of physical artifacts, you have to come to us
  • Catalog is inventory of what you own (later also what we have access to, or lease)
  • All cataloging and reference work done in-house (sense that it was our duty to catalog the internet)
  • Plenty of staff to do the work
  • Sense of "we know what the patrons need" - relates to what was selected, how it was cataloged, where it was shelved

Work flow was like assembly line

  • must follow the rules in all aspects (TS, reference, circ, etc)
  • patron needs take backseat to process (fear of "doing it wrong" prevents "just doing it right" [according to patron's point of view])

We don't need to throw everything out, but we do need to question the rules to see what is holding us back.

Today's world

  • Information and tools are created on the fly by millions of people and is available instantly (gone is the idea of librarians cataloging the internet)
  • Mix of owned and leased, digital and physical, common and unique, print-on-demand (feeds into instant-info idea - don't need things on the shelf, just print when people want it), ebooks - libraries are going to own less and less of their materials (this is being driven by vendors and shifting business models) - focus must shift to community space
  • Others do search better than us, our job is to help filter, not find (search results are not good enough) - we try to compete, but we're losing
  • High user expectation - patrons want simple, complex choices24x7, personalized, all electronic, and easy
  • Disaggregation of discrete information packages - full-text articles available, aggregated databases and journal sources becoming less important (can buy individual articles, not just entire journal or entire database)
  • Buying books is easier for patrons, because they don't need to keep track of due dates and have library staff make them feel like bad people over $0.25 late fees (use Netflix model - patrons pay a few dollars a month and can keep things as long as they want)
  • Catalog should be directory of what you have access to (not inventory of owned materials)

Environmental factors

  • People are mobile and want to be social
  • Different devices have different capabilities and requirements
  • New role for libraries: foster learning and knowledge, collaboration with community and community service
  • We must constantly respond to changes and trends in technology
  • Bad economy means
    • we need to justify all spending (inherent value is no longer a given - we always try to shield patrons from budget cuts, so how do they know we're in trouble if they never see the blood?)
    • less money for resources
    • we have fewer staff with more work, so we need to maximize staff resources
      • we need to be more efficient
      • eliminate unnecessary tasks (ask yourself, "do anyone care about what I'm doing" for ever task you do)
      • accept "good enough" cataloging (only what patrons need to find information, not exhaustively complete records (for example, patrons/parents want books in a series, and MARC does not do series well - then we should bend the rules so we can provide this service)
    • move work out of the library
    • automate (self-check)
    • accept that we may have to DO LESS

How does all this affect TS

  • Avalanche of new content to deal with - not just owned print anymore, streaming, unique
  • Focus needs to be on user needs
  • multiple metadata schemes
  • Collaborating and contribution

What to call patrons?

  • users, patrons, clients, customers, members?
  • ask them, see what they say - it's all about the relationship

How would we organize libraries from scratch starting today?

  • we collect things - collection development, preservation, resource sharing
  • allow patrons to discover them - metadata (it's not just about us anymore) and discovery, reference and advisory, patron experience, borrowing
  • publish things - user-contributed content, local publications, digital repositories
  • transform - instruct patrons on how to move forward, recombining information

Look at what "summon" search can do (from Serial Solutions)- MARVEL does it. Its "preharvested" search results from designated sources - catalog, databases - better than federated search because it's fast and single search box ("Unified" search).



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