“less sane” core library services

This past week I attended the OLA’s annual Super Conference in Toronto. The sessions that I chose were kind of split between disappointing, and terrific. I never think that I’ll love everything I attend, so it was to be expected. Especially coming from a special library, I’m not exactly the target audience for the OLA conference, as it’s largely public and academic librarians, but I digress…

One session that I truly loved (and that still has me thinking) was delivered by Karen Calhoun (OCLC) and Rick Anderson (University of Utah Libraries). The subtitle of this session was “Let them eat… everything: embracing a patron-driven future.”

Session abstract:

Next Generation Workflows for Next Generation Libraries

The awesomeness of this session was due to Rick’s radical and forward-thinking ideas of how libraries should adapt to the times and trends by modifying library workflows, to “trim the fat” of long-standing and unquestioned core library services. The way he put it, there are many services that libraries provide that while not “insane”, are definitely “less sane”. For example, he spoke about Interlibrary Loan. When you think about it, ILL is… ridiculous and wasteful. Someone wants a book that isn’t available at your library, so it’s ordered from a library across the country for that person to use (an extreme instance I know, but stay with me…).

A second example of “less sane” core services is the academic reference desk. Rick argued that as a service model, the reference desk relies on the hope that only a fraction of students will use it. It is impossible and impractical for thousands of students to queue at the reference desk for research assistance. While it’s the intention of Reference Departments to provide reference and instruction to as many students as they can, feasibly it is an impossible goal. Further, an instruction session can usually contain 20-40 people, maximum? In-class library instruction is on the way out. He proposes that libraries should eliminate this core service and develop services based on ease of use. That is, improved information architecture on library websites and more online guides to ease discoverability and the flow of desired information. Information literacy and instruction on Youtube, anyone?

Librarians and libraries have gotten very good at doing these core services, which could (and as Rick would argue, should) be eliminated. He asserted that more sane services would include document delivery & purchasing articles as a solution to overspending on unused serial titles, using and perfecting Wikipedia, patron-driven acquisition (i.e. acquiring what’s demonstrably wanted rather than traditional collection development), and ease of use as an alternative philosophy to bibliographic instruction. I think for the most part, these are accurate, legitimate, and sensible recommendations.

Overall I’m impressed and refreshed by this kind of radical and unpopular thinking. It’s time for librarians to shake it up, think innovatively and outside the box about library procedures and service delivery. Beyond thinking differently, let’s start making changes to meet our users’ needs and put an end to the “less sane” services that, although we’ve gotten very good at doing, simply aren’t realistic or sustainable.


4 thoughts on ““less sane” core library services

  1. Hey Zaxx! Thanks so much for the post — for those of us would couldn’t make it to OLA, it’s nice to live vicariously 🙂
    I love these recommendations — from an academic library perspective especially, these suggestions for changes are fabulous ones.
    On the topic of patron-driven acquisitions and abolishing the reference desk: These are two things we do in my library — we’ve piloted PDAs, and there is no reference desk in Management Library at UOttawa. Just the librarians, in their offices — much like the model students are used to with regard to professors. It makes sense, and indeed, if we used that time-saved to focus on improving systems, we’d be doing much more good.
    Thanks for sharing! ❤

  2. Really like the suggestions, as well as the whole tone and mode of thinking of that session. Library school repeatedly turned me off by not presenting thinking outside the box on how to cater to the methods and means users best respond to. If libraries can’t do that, they’ll continue to see relevancy and budgets shrink. So it’s nice to see this session was pioneering that.

  3. Thanks folks!

    Meg: Surprised (in a good way) to hear you’ve done away with your reference desk; it makes me happy to hear that your library is paying attention to user-trends and sensible methods of service delivery! You go, UOttawa!

    Anon: Unpopular thinking and dissent from “traditional” library services are so important in Library School. Glad to hear you’re ideologically going against the grain! Let’s make change and stay relevant!

  4. As I read it – you are advocating getting further away from your patrons – sit in an office and hope that they’ll come to you. Don’t engage with people – only technology.

    Library services will only be used if they are known about. How do they get known? Usually, by work of mouth. But that means engaging with your patrons; talking regularly with your faculty; showcasing what you can do; collaborate with faculty on assignments; and getting out where you can connect with your patrons- student and faculty – in person. Ask if you can help them instead of waiting for them to come to you.

    I agree with some things – ILL is insane. However, it’s an inspired insanity. If you can say to your patron “We want you to have what you need for your research – and we will get it for you” – that is inspired customer service. ILL statistics are down everywhere as more materials are available online. I think it will die an inevitable death. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a currently valuable service. It just means it won’t be a full time job for someone.

    Do I agree with in-class instruction – you bet. For some students – it is their first introduction to formal research.
    Because most elementary schools have basically eliminated the librarian position(due to budget cuts) and in high school it is completely optional for any teacher whether to book a class instruction in the library – there are a lot of students who only know research by “Google”. At our university, the librarians do in-class instruction – this allows ALL students to have a baseline knowledge of research. Can you say “peer reviewed”?

    I work at both a high school and a university library. I have had the benefit of working with a teacher librarian who is inspired at outreach. We book in over 700 classes in under 8 months in addition to having over 1300 students who come in for their spares and 1200 students who come in to work on specific classwork and projects. This is a school that has about 1200 students total. Outreach and connection is what works. We partner with faculty on assignments; mark bibliographies; send out new book lists to faculty; consult with them on weeding our collection or with purchasing new books; as well as teaching citations, library orientations, using the databases, evaluating websites and using various computer programs. In return – they support us.

    It helps the students as well. This is an inner city school with a high percentage of 1st generation immigrants and a large population of ESL students. It is amazing how many of those students I eventually see at my university.

    Let me ask you a question. If you had a choice – if your smart phone was acting up bigtime- would you rather talk to a person – or watch a video?

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