Thursday, July 24, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Technical Services, by Erin Leach

"New Friends"

I’m a cataloger. It’s okay, though. I’m not that kind of cataloger.

I know that you know what I mean by that. But just to prove the point, I did an experiment and asked my Twitter pals to tell me the stereotypes about people who work in Technical Services.  I was told that people who work in technical services are social inept/socially awkward, change averse, unfriendly, rigid, detail-oriented to a fault, bad communicators, uncompromising, rule-bound, and territorial.

If you work in public services, I’m sure you know the technical services librarian: that person who sighs heavily when you bring her some donations to catalog or who won’t budge on acquiring books shelf-ready.
This stereotype isn’t helped by relegating technical services departments to basements or off-site buildings. When we do this, we tell technical services staff a story about themselves: you don’t like people and people don’t like you. You aren’t good with people. You should stay out of sight and away from the people who visit service points in the library.


I think that there’s a more insidious message inherent in this, too:  you don’t have anything to offer the people who visit service points. You matter, but not as much as the people we put front-and-center. Is it any wonder, then, that the technical services librarian is territorial? She was told that she could “listen to the radio at a reasonable volume from nine to eleven.” (Yes, I am saying that tech services is the Milton of the library world.)

This isn’t an anti-public services screed.  Some of my best friends are public services librarians.

In the interest of fairness, I wanted to see if there is a public services librarian stereotype, too.  So I did another experiment and asked my Twitter pals to tell me the stereotypes about people who work in public services. I was told that people who work in public services are flighty, aggressively friendly, loud, know-it-alls who hate math and pay no attention to detail. If you work in technical services, you know the public services librarian: that person who doesn’t know how the catalog works and doesn’t care to or who just drops a bunch of rush orders on you and assumes you’ll drop everything to get them done.

These stereotypes? They don’t move us any closer to creating better libraries for our users. Do you want to work with the person who thinks you’re flighty? Or the person who thinks you’re socially inept?

To steal a line from my beloved The Hold Steady, I believe in a Unified Library Scene.  I believe that public and technical services librarians should work together to build a better library, each complimenting the work of the other. I believe that technical services and public services skills should be treated with equal importance in LIS programs. I believe we should encourage (maybe even require?) LIS students to take practicums in both public and technical services. And I believe we should recruit new LIS grads to technical services, bringing new life and new ideas when they do.

In the interest of moving toward this Unified Library Science, I have made it a habit of getting involved in activities that are seen as traditionally public services. I worked with my university’s freshman writing program, doing one-off instruction sessions and one-on-one meetings with students. I taught classes to students and faculty about using Twitter. I facilitated focus groups and usability studies with library users.
All of these experiences made me a better cataloger. I learned how users search for information and what they do with that information after they’ve found it. I also gained insight into the challenges that my colleagues in public services face as they try to gain support and generate enthusiasm in the higher education landscape. But as much as I have learned from my public services colleagues, I have a lot to teach them as well. I understand the quirky things the catalog does and can teach you how to build search queries that yield better results. I can make material more accessible by working with you to create better bibliographic records. And, in the case of serials, I can help untangle the knots of holdings and title changes for you.

I can’t create the Unified Library Scene on my own. I need public services colleagues who value my work and who will get involved in activities that are seen as traditional technical services activities.

Again, to steal a line from The Hold Steady: We can all be something bigger.

Erin Leach just started as Head of Serials Cataloging at University of Georgia and is still trying to figure everything out. She is Chair-Elect of the Continuing Resources Section of ALCTS. She tweets about music, running, beer, and libraries at @erinaleach.  Despite her seemingly cynical exterior, Erin embraces Jessica's theory on brutal optimism and loves librarianship for better and worse.


  1. I just had an insightful comment that Blogger ate. The gist of it was that this is a great post! I think we need to be unified in all areas of librarianship. Seems like anytime there is a difference or division (MLIS vs. non-MLIS, circ vs. reference, full-time vs. part-time, academic vs. public) rivalries and stereotypes crop up. We need to see each other as people and not just representing one side or another.

    1. That's a great point, Cari. It's not just a TS vs. PS thing. There are stereotypes and rivalries everywhere! What can we do to help each other see the person behind the stereotypes? (This is not a rhetorical question. I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this!)

  2. My traineeship involved terms spent in all three major divisions of the ILS and it was invaluable. I can't tell you how many weirdnesses brought to the desk I was able to unpick or painstakingly track down, using what I'd learned in cataloguing. On the flip side, experience of what readers are looking for and how the lending service operates let me argue for some cataloguing decisions that I'd never have thought of otherwise. Same for electronic resources.

    In my experience, there is a little bit of truth to some of this, but a lot boils down to working practices. In cataloguing you mostly work through your pile of jobs under your own steam, taking care over each one because doing it suboptimally now will cause major headaches later; there are definitely various pressures but you aren't standing there with the end-user at your desk. In public services, you're driven by reader flow: constant switching between background tasks and the newest reader, lots of multitasking, juggling rotas to make sure everything gets done while everyone gets a break. But it's also a more short-term field, where often the best solution is relatively quick and dirty, because overcoming the reader's problem when they need it trumps some long-term ideal solution, while priorities shift constantly. If CS and PS mostly see the each other's results and responses rather than the actual work being done, this can easily look like "cataloguers are perfectionist tortoises" vs. "desk staff are absent-minded kangaroo rats". Or, indeed, "what do electronic resources even do?" because all that's noticed is when something stops working...

    1. I agree with your take on the differences between workflows. I think the best way for this difference to be communicated is for one "side" to see how the "other side" works. For instance, I know my experience doing traditionally public services tasks has given me insight into how agile people have to be when working with users.

    2. I do think it's a shame there isn't more short-term secondment and shadowing within libraries, once traineeships are done and dusted.

      It's a tricky one, and I absolutely see some drawbacks, not least that people are often not keen to do so, and (not unrelated) that senior management may see it as a way to patch shortages and stretch staff rather than maintaining and balancing skillsets. It was suggested where I worked a couple of years back, and that looked 85% like pushing junior staff into an impromptu cover arrangement. Unsurprisingly, with that and some other reservations, it never happened.

      But especially considering the amount of change happening in recent years, it seems like it would be to everyone's benefit to keep their hands in everywhere. Something I've also seen done is a sort of showcasing, where every so often someone presents on what they actually do day-to-day, although that was mostly an IT affair.

  3. As a former cataloger who is now a reference librarian, I agree with the above sentiments. My "perfect dream job" would be 50/50 of both worlds. Keeping a hand in the cataloging because I can see how the public uses our resources (and can create a record to help them find what they want) but also being able to do the "Librarian Stuff" that includes working with the public and being kept aware of what they want and how they're using the library.

  4. It's cool that you can take your cataloging experience to the reference desk with you. I suspect it makes you better and finding what users are looking for.

  5. I have been a technical services librarian for 15 years after 22 years in reference. I don't think that anyone should ever start in technical services without having worked directly with users first. I still relish my time filling in at reference or in children's.