Adapting Organizational Structures in Technical Services to New Technologies: A Case Study of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries

Joan Giesecke and Katherine Walter

Changes in the organizational structures and professional roles of technical services librarians at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UN-L) may be of interest to other libraries. Administrators, faced with shrinking budgets and increasing demands for user services, must decrease the cost of processing materials and increase the flexibility of their organizations. They simply can no longer afford or justify traditional technical services departments that are unable to process large backlogs, let alone new materials, in a timely manner. To outsource the cataloging and processing of materials, to purchase electronic bibliographic records, and to limit local editing are attractive alternatives to the stereotypically large, but unproductive, technical services department.

At the same time, it is not uncommon for libraries to reallocate staff from technical services to public services to support new programs for patrons, such as electronic reference services and Internet training for students and faculty. This staff reallocation process has been facilitated by the rising costs of monographs and serials: As libraries shift from ownership to other methods of access, there are fewer new materials to be cataloged and processed. Overall, technical services departments are under fire to increase efficiency, speed production, and reduce costs—as well as to help out in public services. In this changing environment, technical services librarians must carve out new organizational structures and roles if they are to retain a high professional standing in their organizations.

The university libraries of UN-L have a staff of about 150 full-time equivalents supporting the university’s tripartite mission of teaching, research, and service. Over the past five years, the traditional hierarchical structure has evolved into a much more flexible model. Although the library system retains departments, decision making across the organization is usually made on a programmatic basis. Changes have been gradual but systematic, incorporating both technical and public services departments. Of primary interest here, technical services librarians have influenced organizational structures and program designs by identifying unique areas of professional expertise and marketing them to the administration. As a result of their efforts, the framework of the organization has become more fluid, with less emphasis on old reporting lines and more emphasis on new interactions between public and technical services. Such flexibility in structures and roles has made it much easier to reach creative solutions for coping with new technologies and the changing environment.

New Technologies, Old Structures

A continuous improvement program for technical services was begun after the implementation of an integrated library system (Innovative Interfaces) in early 1990. In seven months, technical services advanced from a primitive circulation system and database to a fully automated environment with acquisitions, cataloging, circulation, database maintenance, serials, and authority control modules all in place. Work flow was necessarily invented and modified on an ad hoc basis as each module was implemented. By summer, all modules were up and a general review of work flow was needed. This process began with a small team interviewing staff to draw flowcharts, then integrating the charts into major processes or functions that might be streamlined across work units. The act of simply asking staff how they did their work led them to examine the systems and processes on their own and to begin to see the redundancies that had accrued. The next step was a series of time studies of automated tasks to identify other inefficiencies. However, despite all these changes in processes and study of work flow, technical services generally operated under the old organizational structure. Automation had come about without much change in the traditional reporting lines or missions of each unit.

A New Course for Public Services

With implementation of the integrated library system, patron demands on public services increased dramatically. By 1994, circulation had risen 5 percent, reference questions 36 percent, and interlibrary loan borrowing 20 percent. To address this situation, public services librarians evaluated the impact of the integrated system on nine key services. In general, the study showed that patrons were pleased with the expanded access provided by an integrated library system and wanted to see additional customized services added to the libraries, particularly in the area of document delivery. To address the need for more flexible services patterns, the librarians concluded that different organizational structures and roles would be necessary to bring about participatory management of the changing service programs. The new structures took the form of four coordinating units: an Electronic Resources Program Group, an Access Program Group (interlibrary loan and document delivery), a Library Instruction Program Group, and a Collection Development Committee. The libraries began to implement many changes based on the recommendations and decisions of these four teams, which initially would include only public services librarians.

A New Awareness in Technical Services

Although work was increasing in public services, it was beginning to decrease in technical services. The number of monographs purchased declined as the purchasing power of the library was reduced by inflation. With fewer new books to process, technical services began to work on a number of database cleanup projects and other long-standing projects. Because those projects were not as crucial to the libraries as meeting the demands of the patrons, the dean of libraries announced the need to move six to nine positions from technical services to public services.

As noted above, technical services librarians had continued to follow traditional approaches to their roles in the library during the early automation years. By spring 1993, however, they realized that they were left out of many decision-making opportunities in the libraries. With the growing emphasis on direct-patron services, public services librarians were learning how to influence the future direction of the libraries while technical services librarians perceived that their own skills were being overlooked.

Accordingly, technical services librarians called a meeting with the associate dean for collections and services and their department chairs to discuss this situation, beginning with the need for stronger distinctions between professional and support staff work. They noted that support staff could handle most of the production work. Some of the prospective professional roles identified included: to provide language and subject expertise for translation and cataloging, and to serve as resource people for other staff; to concentrate on cataloging original materials; to write documentation; to provide specialized training services; to be on librarywide committees; to initiate projects with other libraries; to participate in policy decisions; and to be more engaged in problem solving for the library at large.

At the meeting, they also discussed the possibility that all cataloging might be done from a few major centers but concluded that national standards are not sufficient to eliminate the need for local practices. Thus, for titles that may be treated as either monographs or serials, cataloging practices will vary according to different emphases of local collections; some access points or headings will similarly reflect local user needs. Also, bibliographic records may not be available on a timely basis from a central source (e.g., GPO cataloging records, which are usually made available on tape within six months after pieces have arrived). Although support staff know local practices and can verify if a heading, for example, is valid, they are not trained to interpret cataloging rules or to identify better headings. Professional catalogers pointed out that they understand complicated applications of rules, as well as new trends in cataloging. They create and influence the development of databases; provide access to electronic materials; and understand how information is packaged. All such skills, they argued, were too important to be overlooked in the new downsized, technological environment.


Later in 1993, technical services librarians were eager to join the public services program groups in librarywide decision making. Those groups, however, were not prepared to open their memberships. The associate dean suggested, as an alternative, that technical services librarians look more broadly at creating new roles for themselves in the library at large. In 1994, they developed a general proposal based on an overview of trends and developments in their field (e.g., the continuing importance of local rather than national practices; the rising importance of electronic formats). This proposal outlined not only new skills but also long-term career opportunities. It was initially formulated from individual assessments of significant or desired elements and tasks in a restructured environment. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of variety in those job designs and career plans. Although catalogers generally figured on spending most of their time on cataloging, they also wanted to participate in such areas as collection development, computing operations, distance learning, or public relations. In all, twenty-eight specific interests were identified. The common denominator was “involvement in decision making.” Given the range of interests, the final proposal included several job and career models.

The first of several actions to bring the proposal into effect was a study to identify where technical services librarians had been devoting their time and attention, and how those patterns might be reallocated to new activities. Another study was to learn how decisions are actually made in the organization. With this background information, a collective “Technical Services Librarians Position Paper” was sent to the dean of libraries.

The main new role envisioned is one of greater involvement with information technologies through the creation of catalogs and databases for the campus network. Another is consulting work for academic libraries or affiliates in the region. (For example, UN-L technical services librarians have presented workshops on cataloging for NEBASE, Nebraska’s OCLC affiliate network.) Additional consulting services involve authority work and certain areas of individual expertise (e.g., music cataloging, preservation planning, and grant writing). The position paper included the suggestion that technical services librarians with language or subject expertise assist public services librarians with collection development, reference, and liaison responsibilities.

Even as the position paper was being developed, the associate dean took some initial steps. One was to support the enlargement of membership of the Administrative Group (formerly the dean, two associate deans, and department chairs) by creating a rotating (three-month) position for a nonadministrative librarian—with the first appointee being a technical services librarian. A similar step was to persuade each public services program group to create a member-at-large slot, as well as to have the general memberships selected jointly by the department chairs of public services and technical services.

The position paper was clearly the impetus of this extension of public services’ structures and roles to technical services librarians. Catalogers became responsible, for example, for the creation of bibliographic records for Internet resources in the library gopher. This task (once handled by the automated systems office) involved them in collection development matters of access to electronic information: which resources to add, how to choose the best path for accessing a database, how to describe such resources for patrons.

In recent years, technical services librarians have continued to take on new roles. These include managing the outsourcing contract for the cataloging of special materials; cataloging electronic journals, Web sites, and other Internet resources; and facilitating the shift from gopher access to Web access of information. Thus, technical services librarians now participate in the development of policies and procedures to incorporate new technologies into collections and services.

A More Flexible Organization

Change is a constant of this era. At this writing, librarians at UN-L face the challenge of working in an environment where the university is merging libraries, computing, and telecommunications into a single information services organization. This restructuring has altered some of the management models in the libraries: Administrative committee structures have flattened, and the once-separate public services and technical services departmental committees have been merged into joint groups to handle issues affecting the library as a whole. In technical services, an enlarged Operations Group (department chairs, firstline supervisors, as well as some rank-and-file librarians) now meets to discuss librarywide work flow issues and procedures. Other organizational changes are inevitable as technical services librarians continue to remind us that they need to be represented in decision-making bodies and that they have valuable skills for the organization.

In conclusion, technical services librarians must redefine their roles in an era in which their traditional work is in decline. Outsourcing, purchasing of cataloging tapes, receiving online catalog records—all such cost-effective changes bring into question the position of the technical services professional. Career development becomes a real concern as technical services librarians foresee the traditional intellectual aspects of their work dwindling. Although technology does not replace the intellectual work that technical services librarians do, they must—as we discovered at UN-L—take the initiative in reestablishing their own futures. These librarians, once relatively isolated, have broadened their professional roles to reference, collection development, automated services, and bibliographic instruction. Those newly won roles are crucial: They create improved access to collections and enrich the librarians’ careers.

Further Readings

  • Eskoz, Patricia A. “Catalog Librarians and Public Services—A Changing Role.” Library Resources and Technical Services 35 (Jan. 1991): 76–86.
  • Gorman, Michael. “The Corruption of Cataloging.” Library Journal 120 (Sept., 1995): 32–34.
  • Kelley, Bill. “Outsourcing Marches On.” Journal of Business Strategy 16 (July/Aug. 1995): 38–42.
  • Ogburn, Joyce L. “An Introduction to Outsourcing.” Library Acquisitions: Practice & Theory 18 (winter 1994): 363–66. Note: This is one of four articles on outsourcing in this issue of LAPT.
  • Waite, Ellen J. “Reinvent Catalogers!” Library Journal 120 (Nov., 1995): 36–37.