Lessons Learned from Incorporating Technical Services Activities into Access Services in Tough Times

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The goal of Trends Interactive is to generate freewheeling discussion of a variety of subjects of interest to law librarians. This article on one library’s experience in how to keep operating with substantially reduced staffing levels has been written by Brian C. Barnes, Interim Law Library Director and Associate Professor, Loyola University of New Orleans College of Law.


The origins of this article were born of necessity, and as the adage goes “necessity is the mother of invention.” In July of 2013 the law library at Loyola University New Orleans consisted of four nonprofessional technical services staff members who were supervised by two librarians. Largely as the result of shrinking enrollments, the University sought to reduce law school operating expenses by offering a voluntary severance package to some law school employees. Three of the four technical service staff accepted the University’s offer in August of 2013. It was well understood that the University would not allow the hiring of replacements. However, there were even more staff reductions in the offing.  In January of 2014, a circulation employee (one of four) was lost, and, most recently, in January of 2015 the remaining technical services staffer left.

In sixteen months, the law library lost five valued employees. Although the law library was permitted to fill the circulation slot, this still left the law library with significant reduction in the number of support staff. So the library formed a study group in order to figure how to keep operating with substantially reduced staffing levels. This group was to answer two primary questions. First, does the library really need to provide particular service or activity? Second, if the answer to question one is yes, then who can do it?

The study group examined virtually all law library activities. For example, all book purchasing and processing activities were examined in detail, starting with threshold book purchasing questions. Do we need to purchase this book?  Do we need to purchase it now or can it wait?  What is the default book format: hardback, paperback or e-book? Once it was determined that a book was to be added to the collection, the processing of the item was examined with a goal of streamlining the whole processing operation. Do we need to open shipments daily or try to apply some time savings using economies of scale? Do we need to keep putting call number stickers on the outside of all books? Do we need to stamp three sides of each book (like it’s always been done at this library)? This self-examination is the process of not only reinventing technical services but also devising a system which makes use of available staff.

Who Can Do It?

The question is really one of “Who can do it?” There is no support staff in Technical Services. So does the library make the default format the purchasing of books in hardback, paying extra on the front-end but not having to pay attendant binding costs? This saves pulling books for bindery, putting them in the bindery system so the correct names are printed on the books, and loading and unloading the boxes. Does the library see e-books as a viable alternative to print titles and eliminate the remainder of the “handling” processes? Does the library purchase MARC records from an outside vendor and simply import them into the ILS or is original cataloging or additional inputting of alternate titles and keywords still a highly valued practice? Other questions might be “How does the book get on the shelf?”, “Is it permissible for student workers to accomplish this?”, or “Should staff be shelving books to continue a long tradition of stack maintenance?”

In the Loyola New Orleans experience, there is no magic solution. Many of our processing decisions are based on the remaining staff’s skills and abilities. For example, since we have an excellent cataloger, our preference is to download records from WorldCat to be brought up to our specifications. We find ourselves binding many fewer things than in the past, but we have not completely ended binding like many other law libraries in the country. We do not use demand driven e-books but have used certain products such as the Oxford UP online libraries and have expanded our Hein holdings to supplement the new print titles.  We utilize more student workers but realize it creates a new staff obligation to train and check on them.

All of the preceding still leaves work to be done, and there is no longer any technical services support staff support. These tasks largely have been delegated to our two technical services librarians, our circulation staff, and student workers, increasing everyone’s workload. We have found that circulation activities have diminished in the past several years, and there is more time available to our circulation staff who now do looseleafing, opening the mail, processing tasks such as stamping, call number sticker application, inter-library loans, and much more. There are no more slow nights in circulation.

Some Consequences of Reduced Staffing

Despite the issues described above, there may also be unforeseen benefits that arise out of a reinvented technical services workflow. With a fewer staff, the organizational structure is compressed, resulting in many processing activities which were previously performed by several staff members now being undertaken by one employee. For example, the Interim Director, formerly the deputy director, now contacts vendors about a plethora of things from a new order being placed to advertisements for new products. Before, a faculty member would request a book for purchase; the deputy would approve, purchase it from a jobber and hand the paperwork to a staff person to input into the ILS. Now, the request is made, the order is placed, the director inputs the order record (the order record now has more detailed notes), and when the director goes to a meeting that afternoon and is asked about the purchase by the professor, he can provide more feedback than was possible before.

It is clear that the law library cannot continue to offer the same level of services that it provided in the past. As the law library continues to make difficult choices on which services to maintain and which to discontinue, the ultimate goal is to continue to provide those services that provide the greatest direct benefit to the law school.  Also there is less time to do other activities which professional librarians are used to performing.  Once again we need to ask ourselves whether these secondary activities are necessary to successfully accomplish the law library’s mission. Do we need to have meetings, do we need to publish, do we need a reference desk and if so, when are we really needed to be there?

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