Technical Services Librarians with Public Services Responsibilities: How Do We Make It Work?

On October 22 and 23, 2013, Erin E. Boyd, Ruth Elder, and Laura Turner hosted the e-forum, “Technical Services Librarians with Public Services Responsibilities: How Do We Make It Work?” Participants represented a wide range of regions and many types of institutions including academic, public, school, law, and state libraries. The job titles of the respondents were also varied and included technical services librarian, electronic services librarian, systems and catalog services librarian, assistant director for support services, cataloging/reference librarian, and cataloging library technician.

The public services tasks performed were also wide-ranging, but the most prevalent was reference desk duties, which included face-to-face interviews and virtual “conversations.” The frequency of the desk time was often dependent on the size of the library and/or library staffing. Respondents also reported active participation in collection development and liaison work, as well as bibliographic instruction and other classroom instruction, such as information literacy, genealogy, and legal research. A few unique responses include participation in roving reference, creation of faculty displays, grant-writing for a reference service, and computer lab/cart oversight.

Most training in public service activities was acquired on-the-job, either formally or informally. Many reference and instruction skills carried over from library school classes and internships, and the skills were augmented in the workplace by attending webinars and workshops, which were librarian-sponsored or vendor sponsored. Other ways they kept on top of public service work included conversations with public service colleagues, attendance at public services/departmental meetings and work on blended library committees. A few respondents mentioned shadowing of public service colleagues as a method which helped their training. Updated documentation was another important resource for managing the transition between public service and technical service activities.

Most respondents said their library kept them informed concerning new public service initiatives through email or staff meetings. They also mentioned serving on library committees which discussed changes in policies, new programs, electronic resources, and so forth.

Benefits of Cross-training

The participants overwhelmingly agreed that the benefits of cross-training between technical services and public services outweighed the disadvantages. In particular, the respondents saw the benefit of learning how and what patrons were searching for and related that to the way they cataloged. It led to better organization of materials and evaluation of the way to provide access. They also could see trends, subject-areas for collection development, and find discrepancies that could be fixed instantly. The main benefit public services’ staff provided their technical services counterparts was help with processing and other related activities. Help with the time intensive process of adding and withdrawing materials from the collection was very much appreciated.

The key benefit of technical services expertise to public services was the ability to transition quickly into public service roles for backup. Our expertise with the catalog and understanding of electronic resources played a role in facilitating that transition. It also allowed for the opportunity to explain details behind specific classification number or subject heading choices that public services staff found confusing.

A variety of responses were given for dealing with extremely detailed or difficult reference questions but the majority included getting the patron’s contact information and following through at a later time. They helped the patron as much as possible with either narrowing or broadening their topic and then encouraged them to make an appointment with a reference librarian who helped them get more in-depth/specific questions answered. Respondents emphasized communicating to the reference librarian exactly what the patron was looking for and the searching methods already used in order to avoid duplication.

How respondents dealt with computer-related queries depended on the issue. Often they could troubleshoot the problem and solve it or refer to “cheat sheets” kept at the reference desk. For more difficult questions, they called a reference librarian, electronic resources librarian, or referred the patron to information technology (IT). Most participants received basic training on technical issues, but knew when they needed to call for help. As far as database issues, if the problem could not be resolved in a timely manner then another database or searching technique was recommended.

Concerning how public service responsibilities impact tenure or merit processes, the consensus was that tenure and promotion are granted based on overall librarianship. Therefore, public services responsibilities are included with all other activities and goals for the year. Reference time served and instruction sessions taught are recorded along with technical services goals achieved in yearly evaluations.

Erin, Ruth and Laura thank all who participated in this e-forum. It was useful to us to read how others are handling issues we are continually trying to solve and we hope others found the discussion beneficial as well.