Understaffed : It’s not as bad as you think

I have written a number of posts on the disadvantages of being in an understaffed unit and/or library. Many of us work in understaffed and unfortunately underfunded libraries. So, many of us also know the difficulties faced with being a solo anything. In this post, I wanted to focus on the advantages of being a solo everything.

  • Job security: I thought I would start with something light and funny. Yes, being understaffed means there’s a lot of work that piles up. I’m not sure if this boils down to job security. However, when faced with numerous tasks and what seems to be an endless workload, one sees the work differently. In my case, as there is always work to be done, it is good to get away from the job and do what I need to and get re-energize for the next day. Of course, there are always priorities while other projects sit. I don’t always get to everything on my to do lists. I like to know that during my down time there are projects that are waiting and thankfully can wait to be finished.
  • Variety: In large cataloging/metadata units, you take care of an aspect of the process. Perhaps you’re the music cataloger, the serials cataloger, or digital humanities metadata specialist. In smaller libraries or libraries that are just understaffed, you might be the MARC cataloger and resident nonMarc metadata specialist. This means that your day is filled with different tasks. Perhaps you start with a streaming video, move on to TEI with a twist of linked data, followed by a dash of data for a data management plan. You might even end your day with regular expressions. This is definitely calls for a high level of flexibility to move from one system to the next. I have found that this type of variety inspires me to learn more about what I don’t know. This variety also helps me to better realize how metadata is really crucial for much of the research we do today. Whether it is publishing a data set, creating a digital collection or entering a bibliographic record into the ILS, metadata helps people contextualize what they are looking for and of course helps people access, discover and find what they’re looking for.
  • Independence: It is often the case that in understaffed units you are left to your own devices. This is simply because everyone in your small unit has the same problem as you, a lot of work. Everyone is pretty much very busy. As a result, you are left with the great advantage of thinking out of the box, on your feet, and taking on perhaps more leadership in roles than in larger libraries. This is not to say that in larger units staff on the ground don’t take on leadership roles. Of course not! However, in a small library, you are most likely the resident expert. If you’re like me, that’s a scary thing because I certainly don’t feel like an expert. But this means that you make decisions that affect library wide decisions. It also means that in addition to doing actually work on the ground, you also are more than likely developing best practices for your shop! What an experience.
  • Always learning: I spoke to a colleague who worked in a very small library before his current job. He did a little bit of everything and almost became the interim director. I’ve also had the opportunity to work in many areas of the library. This is great and invaluable experience. Because of that, I can help out at the iDesk or with reference questions where I work now. I think this type of experience is also helpful to understand what your colleagues do in a larger institution, which in turn creates more of a community of understanding.

Of course, there are limits to being a solo everything. Some libraries are so understaffed that some of the work just doesn’t get down or more critically the library closes. Thankfully I work at a medium sized library. Though I now work in a unit, I still get to help out in various other areas and continue to promote that community of understanding. And I still get to learn.

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Technical vs. Public Services

We’ve all heard about the division between technical and public services. I was reminded of this in a recent request to fill out a survey on the perception that public services have of technical services. This got me thinking about the age old technical versus public services debate. I left of with this question: Is there a real division between technical and public services?

Where I work, there is certainly a difference in the jobs that people do between the information desk and in end processing for instance. All of our jobs have something unique to them. And of course, everyone’s job most likely is different in one or many ways. What’s interesting is that where I work there hasn’t been a technical services department for years. In fact, the name “technical” was left in the dust more than a decade ago. This is common to many cataloging and metadata units nowadays. We have new names. But, often we still refer to our newly named units as technical or public. Is this because the division between technical and public is a reality of the division of work or is it something else? I’ve wondered that the perception of a technical versus public service was one grown out of services and jobs performed over a long time that created stereotypes. Those stereotypes are well known. Catalogers work in back offices and don’t interact with the public. Acquisition folk just order resources and serve library staff. The people who work at the circulation desk are all extroverts. Essentially, the public side of the library house works with the public, the technical works in the back offices. These are gross generalities and that’s why there so much fun. Generally they are a misrepresentation of the situation at hand. Whether or not you are called or referred to as technical, cataloging and metadata units provide services to users or perhaps you like to call them customers. These users are library staff and your library’s patrons. Services involve both direct and indirect interaction with users. If you consider users your public, then technical services is also a public service. Thinking from the other angle, public services provide services both directly and indirectly to users. Indirectly serving customers can involve tasks such as patron loads, account reconciliation, reserve requests, fulfilling requests of all sorts, etc. For the technical side, public services could consist of workshops for users, consultations, interacting with binding and logging of theses/dissertations, or cataloging for instance. What is common to both public and technical is that they provide services.

Coming back to my initial question. Is there a real difference between technical and public services? Yes, there is a different in the amount of direct and indirect interaction with patrons. However, we can also choose a different perspective, namely what both of these share. They share a common goal of providing services to the public. In this sense, instead of viewing the playing field as technical versus public, we can say that the library offers a large array of services to its users. This removal of the term versus also sheds a different light on the library in that two silos have been removed. Even if there are services that differ, finding common ground in the perception of just providing services will hopefully bring library staff together and users happy customers.


Filed under cataloging