Cross-Training in Arizona: One Library’s Solution to Economic Woes

The University of Arizona Libraries (UAL) has gone through an incredible amount of change in recent years. Much of this change has been driven by the loss of positions and resources due to declining state funding to higher education, but it has also stemmed from the university’s search for better ways to do business.

Change is perceived as part of the job: something to be proud of and that is written about in annual reviews. I’ve observed that many of our team leaders encourage employees to take on training roles and provide the time and opportunities for that to happen, which makes the idea of cross-training part of our institution’s culture.

The technical services department at UAL has probably seen more change than any other department. In fact, the name technical services doesn’t formally exist there any longer, except in my job title. Instead, technical services staff are on a library functional team called Delivery, Description, and Acquisitions (DDAT). DDAT is composed of resource sharing including interlibrary loan (ILL) and document delivery, acquisitions, cataloging, metadata application, print withdrawals, authority control, in-house digital conversion project work, and operating the campus express document center (a copy shop like Kinko’s). That’s a lot of seemingly different types of work.

With disparate services combined with a small staff, it seems that it would not be feasible to cross-train employees. However, our team has discovered mutually beneficial connections and intersections of duties.

The Newbie

One of our staff, Mindy, is new to the team. The main focus of her job is cataloging print materials, but she is also responsible for monitoring an internal email account where front-line library staff submit trouble tickets for catalog and electronic resource access issues. She also handes difficult interlibrary loan requests. The same person wouldn’t handle these three seemingly different tasks in a traditional technical services shop. However, Mindy finds this cross-training “very beneficial.”

She says:

Many processes interact, so when I’m working on one task, the knowledge I have of other tasks helps inform my handling of the first task. For example, if ILL searchers find a problem with e-journal access, they will often notify our “ask technical services” email account, which I help monitor. If I need more information, I have the ability to open the ILL software and find the original request. This saves the customer time, and can save the library money in some cases.

Overall, Mindy reports that:

My understanding of several processes benefits my work team in that I can cover for more than one coworker as needed. Being cross-trained is also beneficial for me in my development. The more work I know and the more processes I understand, the more valuable I am to current and prospective employers.

Cross-training in technical services work has proven to be a positive situation for all parties. For me, as Mindy’s supervisor, I have the peace of mind knowing if there is an unexpected absence, the work can be done by another person easily. For Mindy, she has professional development and personal job satisfaction.

The Veteran

Dana has worked for UAL for many years. She moved from the accounting department where she helped with payroll to spending several years in resource sharing. A couple of years ago, when DDAT was formed as a team, the unmet need of assigning metadata to digitized objects in our institutional repositories became more prominent. UAL had a lot of upcoming digital conversion work but few staff trained to assign metadata. Even though Dana’s main job was and continues to be interlibrary loan work, she has been trained on Dublin Core and CONTENTdm. Dana has worked on several projects to describe digitized content, most recently a collection of papers and drawings from a prominent local architect. Dana excels at her metadata work, so much so that she was recently tapped to train a new DDAT employee.

Dana says:

Handling both ILL and technical services work has added welcomed variety to my job and has positively impacted my performance with metadata creation. Because ILL work regularly entails searching various online resources and library catalogs, I am much acquainted with how greatly the quality of cataloging can impact whether or not a resource can be located by a user.

Working in both areas involves regularly prioritizing work and keeping up to date on project deadlines to ensure that ILL request are processed in a timely manner and metadata creation for collections is created within the established time frame.

Interesting All-Team Meetings

As you may imagine, our team meetings are quite lively and varied. The agendas veer from discussing revenue-generating ventures in our express copy center to shared ILL relationships and new digital conversion project work coming our way.

It’s important to note that our meetings are not scattered conversations. We see the intersections and can look at our data with an educated eye to see the influences at play. Most recently, our discussion of trends in interlibrary loan statistics points to a decrease, which has led us to look at functional work where we or we anticipate an uptick. Print withdrawals and batch file loading of electronic resource vendor records are two examples of increased work. Additionally, our library will be shopping around for a next generation library management system and see lots of data remediation work ahead of us. When the discussion turned to the possibility of re-assigning work from resource sharing to data remediation, no one seemed to bat an eye. We understand how to strategically prioritize our work and that learning a new task is always a possibility waiting around the next bend.

Challenges

Of course not everything about such flexibility and cross-training is rosy. Training takes time. You’ve got to prepare training materials, update documentation (an added side benefit), and find the time within a busy day to teach your colleague a new skill. Or if you go the route of outsourcing your training, you’ve got to find the time and the money.

An additional challenge is that small technical services departments who do a lot of cross-training may have high expectations placed on them, either by non-technical services library staff, by themselves or their supervisors which can create stress. Just because so many of us are able to do so many different tasks doesn’t mean we can effectively juggle all those balls without one occasionally dropping one. A forgiving environment and recognition that we wear a lot of hats is important as is developing effective communication skills when working with other library staff and customers.

Conclusions

It’s important that functional core work of an academic library is completed in a timely and competent manner. However, the University of Arizona Libraries has discovered that cross-training technical services staff in different areas of work that traditionally would not be paired together has reaped unexpected benefits. We are more efficient, our customers get better service because the staff is more knowledgeable, we have good back-up expertise in the event of absences, and our staff reports greater job satisfaction and an increased sense of value to the institution. As long as your institution is careful to provide good support for trainer and training opportunities and recognizes the need for adequate staffing levels, it truly is a win-win situation.

—submitted by Teresa Hazen, Technical Services Librarian at the University of Arizona Libraries