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.

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