I am so incredibly proud to work with Tina Adams, LJ’s Paraprofessional of the Year for 2009.  Tina is a valued member of my department who truly cares about our work and our staff.  What tickled me pink about Tina’s nomination was the willingness of our colleagues to write letters of support and recommendation.  She is a credit to the profession and I hope that I have the good fortune to work with her for many years to come.  Congratulations, Tina!  You deserve this!!!!

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Back from the Dead

March 23, 2008

Not really dead, but maybe a little comatose. When we last left this blog it was just before the holidays and their accompanying craziness. So here we are, well into a new year with lots going on and lots on the horizon. I am definitely one of those people who likes the beginning of the year. I definitely look at it as a blank slate, a chance to begin again or start over– a good time for change.

Three months in and there has been a good deal of change in the department. We have had a bit of staff turnover and are in the midst of filling some positions. People view staff turnover in different ways. Some people look at it as a bad thing or a negative indicator. I am not one of those people. I like staff turnover–not all at once, but I look at it as an opportunity to breathe new life into the department. Not to say that those who have departed will not be missed, but it is the chance to see things from a new perspective. To shake things up a little. To make changes and to move forward.

Since I have been here, I have only had the opportunity to hire one new staff member so I am enjoying the chance to hire a few more new staff members. In access services it is really more about personality type than it is experience.  I really like people with fun personalities who  can roll with change and who like working with the public.  That type of personality can come from a wide array of work experience and environments.

My current place of work is the first library I have worked in that has had 24 hour service. We are open 24 hours Sunday-Thursday. I was quite surprised when I started in January at the actual number of people who are in the library at 2, 3, and 4:00 in the morning.

To cover these service hours my staff work across three shifts: day, afternoon/early evening, and overnight. We have an excellent overnight crew and the past few weeks have really highlighted how capable they are.

Surely there is a different atmosphere in the library during the wee hours of the night and morning. And though during this time we are only open to students, faculty and staff, there are unusual incidents that take place. I have yet to hear about a true safety or difficult situation, most of them have sort of been extremely funny.

Now that classes have begun and the students have returned there has been a steadily increasing number of them in the library at night. While idealistically we would like to think that most of them are coming in to study and do work and are coming to us after classes or dinner or whatever, the reality is that a small number of students do come into the library straight from the bar or party.

We are one of the only places on campus open 24 hours, so students come in to get away from their dorm room or because they want to be someplace with other people, or they just don’t feel like going home yet, and yes, most of them do want to study and do school work. But it can be funny when a well meaning, harmless, intoxicated student comes into the library and tries to pull a prank or does something ridiculous.

And when we see that happening, we have to intervene or ask someone else to. The majority of the time it is a harmless prank or just drunk stupidity. And to be quite honest, some of the drunk stupidity is downright funny.

But the staff has to take it seriously and act professionally and in the best interest of the library, other patrons and of the individual at hand. Knowing that I have very capable people dealing with this while I am at home sleeping, allows me to actually sleep.

Something else to think about when working in customer service.

There has been some discussion lately in the press, in blogs, and on Uncontrolled Vocabulary about homeless people in libraries.  Even though I work in an academic library, we are open to the public most of the day and evening (after 10pm you must have a valid ID card to enter) and we do have our share of homeless people.  We have a core group of 2-3 regulars who come in every day after the shelter makes them leave.  They mostly keep to themselves, are quiet and are either using the computer to send/read email and surf or they find a quiet corner and sleep most of the day. We don’t hassle them and they don’t hassle us.  Not the greatest relationship in the world, but it is one that works.

The sad fact is that my library is not set up to deal with any services other than providing the internet and a couch.  Our primary patron base are the members of the campus community and all of the social services that we can point our patrons too are only open to students, faculty, and staff.

To get around this we have began to keep a constantly evolving list of agencies, services, and places that we can point people to if they need assistance and we work with campus police (who are also city and county police) who have more contacts than we do.  It is heartbreaking to think that is the extent of the assistance we can and are capable to give.

What makes me very proud is knowing that my staff always treat everyone who comes to the service desk with kindness and respect.  I have watched my staff go out of their way to help solve a problem or answer a question and I know that they care about the patron and about giving excellent service.  I have witnessed interactions with our small homeless population and am delighted and again proud to note that they receive the same level of service and attention that everyone else gets.

I like to believe that this small gesture and acknowledgement makes a little bit of a difference.

I apologize for the hiatus. I was on vacation and then I was digging out from under the piles in my office. I was not kidnapped by the legions of cheerleaders that have descended en masse on the campus this last week (apparently we host cheer camp, who knew?!?!?).

During my absence a white paper was released by the Association of Research Libraries all about ILL services. I tend to like anything and everything that gives ILL some well deserved attention.  I had and have the pleasure of supervising truly wonderful ILL staff.  If you want to find a group of people truly committed to providing outstanding customer service look no further than the ILL department.

The paper highlights current trends in ILL citing that ILL activity is up in the United States and that the majority of this increase is for returnable items (books, media, etc.) versus non-returnables (photocopies of journal articles, book chapters, etc.).  The paper points out that the ARL statistics do not distinguish between returnable and non-returnable items, something I regard as an important distinction that should be included.

The article states several reasons for the increase in ILL activity:

  • an increase in discovery tools, such as indices, searching the Web, and Google Books heightening people’s awareness of publications thus requesting the items
  • research and academic libraries making the ILL process simpler, improving delivery options, and decreasing turn around time
  • flat or decreasing collections budgets

I think these are all very valid reasons.  The paper does mention user-initiated borrowing in its discussion of simplifying the request process, which definitely has an impact on the number of requests patrons make.  However, I think the increase is due to mostly to a combination of the second and third points.  With collections budgets decreasing or remaining flat and the cost of serials increasing each year, libraries find themselves deciding to either purchase books or serials.  The serials tend to always win.

In order to continue to provide patrons with the necessary print resources many libraries are looking at collaborative collection development where the libraries purchase one or two copies for the entire system or consortia and allow universal borrowing.  More and more union catalogs are being created to facilitate this type of discovery and borrowing.  As libraries collectively purchase more journal subscriptions they find the uniqueness of each institution’s journal collection decreasing, which in turn leads to a decrease in non-returnable ILL requests.   The uniqueness of a library’s monograph collection also has an impact on returnable ILL requests.  If the institution has the only large collection of a certain discipline in the system or region, it will probably be a net Lender and vice versa.

I could wax on and on about ILL for hours, but the bottomline of this paper is that ILL activity is increasing and the trend will probably continue.   Now why do I find this significant and important?  I have worked for several libraries where the administration really wanted and expected ILL to generate revenue or at the very least cost-recovery.  I never agreed with this idea.  Partly because the libraries I worked at were typically net lenders and did very little borrowing so there was never an even equation.  Most of the lending was with libraries and institutions that we had reciprocal agreements with so we rarely charged for the service.  I always felt that expecting a profit sort of flew in the face of the spirit of the service.  It really isn’t about making money.  It’s about providing the patron with the resource and providing that resource as quickly as possible.

So why is this specific trend important?  Well, it comes down to processing and delivery time and allocating resources.  As several of my staff mentioned to me after reading this, this is vindication for all of the work and effort.  Processing a returnable request is more involved than a non-returnable because essentially it is a two sided process.  There is the sending and the receiving of the item as opposed to just the sending. The more of these requests that come in, the longer the time to process them.  I think it is a great testament to the staff that even with this increase our turnaround time is 24 hours or less.  That is quite a feat!

Needless to say if this trend continues decisions about staffing, delivery and workflows will need to be modified and changed.  This is definitely a library trend to watch.   It is nice to see ILL get the recognition it deserves.  It is the one unit and service that, in every library I have worked in, was constantly complimented and recognized by faculty and students as the wonderful service it is.

It really comes down to simple mathematics and bang for buck. When I started my current gig I joined ALA after not having been a member since I was a library school student 6 years ago. Since my career up until now was in medical and health sciences libraries I was an active member in MLA and my regional chapter. I didn’t really see a purpose or need to continue my ALA membership and honestly, when I renewed my membership in February, it was done so rather reluctantly. I am still far from convinced that the $90 (it may have been more) I paid to renew is worth what I can get from the organization.

I am at a point in my career right now where I am happy and where I want to be. What I am looking for from a professional organization goes beyond networking and focuses primarily on professional development. I want the opportunity to attend (virtually or physically) workshops and presentations that directly relate to what I do every day in my workplace. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of that coming from ALA. There really is not a lot of programming devoted to circulation, reserves, ILL, staff management and customer service and this influenced my decision not to attend the annual conference.

Actually I broke down the expenses and compared it to the conference program. Here is what I was looking at:

  • 3 nights in a hotel ($199/night): $597 plus tax
  • conference registration (I wanted to see most of the program before registering so I waited): $200-$260.
  • travel (gas & tolls): $100
  • food/drinks/misc.: $100-$150

Grand Total: $1047 (this is using the low end of anything that had a range) plus tax

While it is true that my institution would reimbure me for some of the expenses I just don’t think that for me it is an efficient use of funds since after looking at the conference program, the sessions that I can say I would definitely attend are:

Saturday:

  • Leadership or Management:Which is it?
  • Diplomacy 101: Dealing with Difficult Customers

Sunday:

  • Transforming Your Staff
  • Moving Mountains: Exciting Trends in Library Delivery Services

Since these two are at the same time, I would have to decide one over the other.

Monday:

  • Access Services: It’s Not Just Circulation Any More!

This is one session that I am sad that I will miss as from what I have read it sounds very promising.

Now, before we all start arguing, I am not casting judgement on any of the other programming or assuming that it would not be interesting and informative. My point is that for me, these are the sessions that I find relevant to my daily work. I know I would find other sessions to round out my days and many of them would be interesting, however, for me, the expense is not worth it.   And yes, if I had started my job and joined ALA before the deadline for presentations I would have submitted something related to access services.  Unfortunately, I started around the same time as the conference deadline.

Instead of spending my money on the ALA annual conference, I have decided that the Brick & Click Libraries symposium is much better suited to my interests. This is a one day, academic library conference (they had me at one day!) happening at the Owens Library at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, MO this November. Since it is a smaller and one day event, the programming is broken down into concurrent sessions throughout the entire day. After reviewing the program I was able to find a presentation to attend during each session:

  • Are we having fun yet? Putting fun into the workplace!
  • The Impact of Usage Statistics
  • Wikis are Better: Transitioning from Static Research Guides to Wikis
  • Measure for Measure: Developing an Assessment Plan for Access Services
  • Digg This: Tagging and Social Collaboration on the Web
  • Enhancing Library Services through Support Staff Training: A Unique Approach

Cost of Attendance:

  • registration: $125
  • 2 nights in a hotel ($42/night): $84 plus tax
  • roundtrip airfare: $160 plus tax
  • care rental: $80
  • gas: $50
  • food/drink/misc.: $100

Grand Total: $599 plus tax

There are probably many sessions at the ALA conference that cover the 2.0 topics that I plan on attending at Brick & Click, but it is the sessions that are primarily about access services and staff training and development that make this conference valuable to me. And I can get what would take 3 days to see at ALA in one day at Brick & Click for less money.

My point in this post really has less to do with the cost of being an ALA member and attending the annual conference, and more to do with the fact that as a librarian who works in access services, I feel extremely underrepresented in my professional organization. Yes, before you even post it in the comments, I do plan on getting more involved in ALA, but I am not encouraged by what I see. I am a member of LAMA and of their Systems and Services (SASS) committee which encompasses access services, but I see little to no discussion happening. The other factor that I believe comes into play here is that most people who work in circulation, reserves, ILL and document delivery are paraprofessional staff who don’t belong to ALA or attend the annual conference. For some it may be the cost of membership, for others it may be that they don’t feel welcomed. Whatever the reason, I don’t think the number of ALA’s paraprofessional members are a true representation of the number of paraprofessionals in libraries.  We need some sort of group that is inviting to all professional and paraprofessional circ staff.  Something to rally all staff behind and to churn out more programming of our own. I want to be an involved and interested member of my professional organization, I just want more encouragement and interest from the organization’s end.

It’s that time of year again, library school students will be graduating next month and many have been job hunting and interviewing and preparing for the beginnings of their professional careers. With that there has been a lot of posting in library blogland about library schools and programs. Everything from the purpose, the effectiveness, the banality, the usefullness. You name it, people are blogging and commenting about it.

I read all of these discussions with interest for several reasons. First, I have sat on lots and lots of search committees within several academic libraries, so it is always interesting seeing what students and potential applicants think. Second, I like to see how my own library school experience compares to those who have graduated a few years after me.

I don’t really have strong feelings about my library school experience. I didn’t love it, but I also didn’t hate and find it futile. I will come clean upfront and state that since I did a dual MLS-MSIS program, I only took the five required MLS courses and then 2 or 3 library classes that I thought looked interesting and would help me. The bulk of my program was systems and IT related. However, I think what also makes me not hate it is that I worked full time in the university library while getting my degrees. That experience helped fill in a lot of gaps and made everything seem relevant while in class. I have learned, through resumes and comments on blogs, that this is not a universal or popular experience. Many new graduates have no library experience and have found the process of trying to get some very difficult.

I find that disheartening and frustrating. Disheartening because it sends a lot of people into the workforce who may not be prepared for the work or even know if this is what they want to do with their lives, and frustrating for the same reasons, except from the side of a search committee where this makes things more difficult when trying to fill positions.

As an ADS department head, I have always maintained that I will take enthusiasm, eagerness, willingness to learn, a sense of humor and a feeling that a person will work well with the members of the team over years and years of experience. And, at least for this department, not having library experience is not a huge dealbreaker. Have you worked in Borders or Barnes and Noble for a couple of years? Great! Starbucks? Even better! Any place where you deal with the public? Cool, I’ll take you! It’s kind of nice to work in a department where the main hiring requirement is not an MLS.

Even though I don’t have any condemnations for my library program or library programs in general, I will make this one criticism: when it comes to customer service and management they fail miserably. Everything I ever learned about customer service and managing staff came from every job I have ever had in my life. None of it from a classroom and I never even heard the words “customer service” in my MLS program.

It wouldn’t kill MLS programs to have a one semester course in customer service. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. Every successful fast-food chain in America does it. Major department stores do it. Starbucks has created a corporate culture out of it. Library schools should take a few pages from those playbooks and develop a course or two. It could be a lot of fun. Think of it – mock transactions at the campus library circulation desk. Role playing bad patron interactions. It would certainly be a learning experience.

I think that library schools tend to forget that when it comes down to it, we are a customer service profession. On every level. Just because you are not at the circulation or reference desk, or teaching classes doesn’t mean you are not serving customers. If you catalogue items, your work is being used by patrons and library staff. Those are your customers. Bottomline: a customer service course would be a welcome and highly useful class in the MLS curriculum.

The other addition or revamped course I would like to see is a library/staff management class. I think I took one, actually I think I took two. The fact that I can’t remember speaks volumes as to how effective they were. I understand the need to know how to write misson, vision and values statements, five year plans, collection management plans, budgets, etc., but you can learn a lot of that on the job. What would really be helpful is some concrete experience and training in how to deal with people.

If I created a management class the topics included would be:

  • behavioral based interviewing
  • conflict resolution
  • giving and receiving feedback
  • interpersonal communication
  • negotiation
  • running effective meetings
  • team motivation
  • decision making and problemsolving
  • workplace violence prevention
  • position management
  • workplace harassment
  • an overview of workers’ compensation
  • an overview of federal benefits and programs like FMLA

Yes, I think that being an effective supervisor/manager requires personality traits that either you have or you don’t. However, even the best people can always get something out of some good training and information and the above topics are issues that anyone who manages staff deal with on a daily basis.

So while there is a lot that can be said about the value of experience, I think the theory or training is also important. It just comes down to what you are being taught. Perhaps if more library courses seemed practical and of value to students there wouldn’t be such a backlash come graduation and job searching.

Food for thought.

Finding time to write has been very hard lately. There is a lot going on at MPOW and I am making the transition from the adjustment/orientation period to the “time to make some changes and get moving on projects” period. Needless to say there is a lot happening and I have been working many 16 hour days. So naturally sitting here in the airport in Colorado, Springs waiting to board a flight to Dallas, is when I have the time to post.

Even though I have not been writing, I have been keeping up with my blog subscriptions. I read an interesting post on Blog About Libraries titled, “I didn’t get an MLS to do that.” I thought the post was very well written and touched upon several important reasons why we (as librarians) can not have that attitude. The points stated are: professions do not stand still, we don’t have a choice, and the jobs we signed up for may not exist anymore. All very good and valid points.

What I started thinking about after reading that post is the attitude of “I won’t do XYZ.” A similar attitude that I have witnessed is, “that is not in my job description.” Nothing gets my ire up like hearing that sentence.

I have told all the staff I have managed throughout my career that, “That is not in my job description” is the one sentence that I never want to hear come out of their mouths, especially when speaking to me. I would never ask a member of my staff to do something that I wouldn’t do myself and more often than not I will get down and do the deed with them. I don’t like to hear that line because if they knew all of the crappy little tasks or other things I have done that were not explicitly written in my job description they would cringe. If I had a dollar for every gross thing I did that was not in my job description, I would be retired and sailing on a yacht somewhere. A short list of some of the more “fun” things I have had the pleasure of doing:

  • clean toilets
  • pick up garbage
  • empty trash cans
  • dispose of dead birds, rats, mice, etc.
  • kill rats and mice
  • deal with weird smells
  • spend 8 hours tracking down a piece of wood paneling
  • vaccuum
  • dust
  • assemble furniture
  • clean windows

All of this while either working towards or after having received my MLS. To tell you the truth for the most part I enjoyed doing the work (okay except dealing with the dead things and the garbage). I just accept that in my line of work this is par for the course and I try to instill that in my staff. I also try to put a positive spin on it. I have learned quite a bit from dealing with minor and major crises that had nothing to do with my written job description. I have learned to think quick on my feet, trust my instincts and decisions, better management skills, have gained confidence in my abilities and have become more flexible. You learn to roll with whatever comes your way and when you can do that, you are a much better person to work with. I know, I am positive to the point of annoyance, but I believe that it helps to put things in perspective.

I work hard at helping my staff put the curve balls in perspective. I constantly commend a job well done and always focus on the positive lessons learned from an experience. It works. Access services is all about rolling with whatever comes your way, and being flexible and positive make the experience a lot less painful than it could be otherwise.

Is there a point where what we are willing to do crosses the line? I do think there is and generally I draw the line on a case by case basis. I try to consider all of the angles and outcomes to a situation before I decide it is something that my staff or I should not handle. Generally if it is something that involves security or a situation that could be dangerous, I look for assistance from the trained professionals who deal with those situations. We always consult with whomever or whichever department will be affected by what we are doing and look for guidance and assistance in dealing with issues. I like collaboration and teamwork and find that it gets a job completed correctly and faster than going it alone.

The bottomline is that yes, sometimes the unexpected can kill morale or make people feel like they are being taken advantage of, but by working to put a positive spin on the situation and focusing on the lessons learned, the curve balls are not as bad as they initially seem.

Wowzers!

January 31, 2007

So I guess I touched upon a good topic last week? Seriously, I want to thank everyone who has emailed me and left comments here for their support and comraderie. I especially want to thank my colleagues in the blogosphere who have pointed people in this direction. It means a lot.

Many people have asked me what prompted last week’s post. Two things influenced me: first I wrote it for my staff. They are a great group of hardworking people who, in the short time I have been at MPOW, have made me feel welcomed and respected. They provide excellent service and deserve a big pat on the back. (Aside to Jeff- Thanks for the blog name!)

Secondly, when I interviewed for my position I was asked where I thought access services fit in the library. I was delighted by the large number of heads nodding in agreement when I responded, “it is the most important department in the library.” As I met with administration and saw that my sentiments were echoed, I left my interview thinking, “I have to work here,” and quickly called a friend and fellow access services librarian to tell her all about my wonderful interview experience. At two weeks into the new job, I had another conversation with my friend detailing how happy I was with my position and we swapped ideas and talked about library stuff (y’all know how that goes). All was right in the library world.

I can not accurately describe the dismay I felt last week when the same friend and colleague called to tell me that she was leaving access services. She had not been enjoying the work environment for the past several months and the situation came to a head last week. She described feelings of isolation, unimportance, and a general sense that her work and her department were not of value to the organization.

This is a person who worked in access services throughout library school and really has a wonderful personality and customer service ethic that make her an ideal head of access services. Now she no longer wants to work in the department. That made me sad. And angry. And slightly depressed. And very grateful that I don’t work someplace like that.

So that was the impetus and judging from the responses I have received, a lot of people are grateful that we are finally talking about these types of issues. I also want to publically give a shout out to all of my colleagues who work in all other library departments. We in access services do recognize that without the work you do (selecting, purchasing, cataloging materials, reference, etc) that we would have nothing to reshelve, check out, or use to fill requests and no one to answer the patron reference questions we refer. The library would be pretty boring if none of us showed up for work!

While other librarians are busy teaching BI, answering reference questions over IM, or building the interactive content that will sit on the front end of the library’s website, we in access services are checking books in and out, reshelving the current periodicals, scanning articles for e-reserves, and searching OCLC to locate that article you requested this morning.

Sounds exciting, right? Makes you want to run straight out of library school and find the first job in access services. What’s that you say? Oh…You’ve never even heard the department mentioned in library school.

It wasn’t mentioned in my library school experience, either- and I have heard similar tales from other graduates. We didn’t even take a trip to the campus library to look at the ILS in action, or even learn what an ILS was. We get absolutely no love in the library literature. Sure Journal of Access Services exists, but have you ever looked at how many titles are devoted to all flavors of reference, education, collection management and digital collection development?!

Making us feel even more like red-headed stepchildren is the fact that our national association doesn’t even have a committee or special interest group devoted to access services. Yes, there is a discussion group that can meet (if there is any interest) at the annual meeting, but there is nothing formal. I have lived in three different states and none of the chapters have had a circulation/reserves committee. I will give some credit however to the fact that ILL/document delivery does seem to get more love in being recognized as “resource sharing” and committees, task forces, and special interest groups devoted to the concept do exist.

 

Taking all of this into consideration, some in access services can’t help but wonder sometimes if what they do matters. Is it important? Do other librarians think it is important? Are we not “real” librarians, just like those working in any other part of the library?

I call this our professional self-esteem issue. It has been known to poke its head out during conferences when we are surrounded by people with really snazzy job titles, who sound like they do really exciting things with technology.

An interesting phenomenon I have noticed at several libraries is that the staff in access services often feels this way about how their work is perceived. Worse, the perception is sometimes taken seriously by others, leading to those in access services being treated differently, thus reinforcing the problem

All right, so we don’t get to play with sexy technology all day, nor do we spend the bulk of our time in a classroom with students, and as a department we often have the highest concentration of non-professionals. So what? Here’s a sampling of what would happen if we all went away for just a little while:

  • Books would not be checked in or out
  • Books would not be reshelved
  • Current periodicals would not be shelved
  • Fines would not be collected
  • Articles or books from other libraries would not be acquired
  • Other libraries would not get materials from our collection
  • The stacks would be a mess
  • Reserve materials would never get processed
  • Alarms would not be reset
  • Signs would not be updated, removed, or replaced
  • New patrons would not be registered
  • Microforms would not be reshelved
  • That leak in the bathroom would not get called in
  • That book you put on hold would not be retrieved from the stacks

Okay so maybe this is somewhat snarky, but it makes a point. What we do matters and is important. We are as essential to the functions of the library as any other service. The library couldn’t function without us. We’re the “go-to guys.” New service? No problem, we can make it happen. We say “yes,” a lot because we care about serving our patrons and assisting them in any way can.

I am extremely fortunate to work in a library that is dedicated to creating and sustaining a culture where every individual (and every service) has value. My job is to make sure that message makes its way down to the staff in the trenches. I don’t get to spend the bulk of my time using virtual reference tools, or create library Flickr sites (valuable tools in their own rights), but I do spend much of my day running around putting out fires, answering questions, listening to complaints, making improvements, creating and implementing new services, and making sure that my staff feel proud of themselves and the work they do. That pride translates into the right kind of customer service, too. When patrons compliment the library for the fast, friendly service they got? That was (more than likely) us.

So this access services self-esteem problem has got to end. Soon. Now would be good.