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Traditionally, the vast majority of libraries divided their services and activities into two broad categories. Technical Services and Public Services. Technical services would handle those tasks associated with bringing materials into the library and making them ready for the general public or for the service population to use. Public service managed the activities that directly assisted the end-user collections. This pattern is now changing. There are nine basic functions that any library must carry out, and technical services is focused on the first five of them. They nine functions are:

Identification is locating and identifying potentially worthwhile items to add to the collection or collections of a library.

Selection, looks at the books that have been identified and chooses which ones are to actually be added to the collection(s).

Acquisitions is actually getting the materials.

Organization is what is often taken care of by the cataloging department. This is indexing and cataloging the items that have been acquired. This allows library aids to assist the end-users in locating the materials.

The last thing is preparation. This is the labeling and doing whatever else is needed to make the items ready for storage in a way that allows for easy retrieval. The other four are part of public services.

Within the very broad category of technical services the two traditional broad categories are acquisitions and cataloging. Within those divisions many libraries have sub-units.

Acquisitions always handles securing materials. Sometimes it is responsible for identifying materials.

Cataloging handles organization and preparation. That is, the cataloging department indexes and catalogs the items that were acquired in a manner that will aid the end-user in locating materials in the collection or collections. They also label and do whatever else may be necessary to make the item ready for storage in a manner that allows easy retrieval.

Storage is the housing of the prepared items in units that take into consideration the long-term preservation of the items while still allowing staff and end-users to access the material easily.

Interpretation is the assisting of end-users to locate the appropriate materials for the users needs.

Utilization is providing the equipment and space to allow staff and end-users to make effective use of the items in the collection or collections. And finally, dissemination is the establishing of a system that allows for the use of items away from the library.

Technical services is traditionally divided into two broad categories. The two units are cataloging and acquisitions. Within the two categories are often sub-units in larger libraries. These can include such things as serials, bindery/repair, copy cataloging, original cataloging, and gifts and exchange. All libraries do these things to some extent, but larger libraries often have specialized units for each.

The acquisitions department always handles securing materials and in many libraries that department is also responsible for some of the identification of potentially useful materials, if only by directing publishers’ catalogs and flyers to the appropriate decision maker. Sometimes the acquisition unit is the primary Collection development unit for the library. Activities of acquisition also focus on securing items desired for the library’s end-users and handling financial transactions that are associated with the purchase or leasing of the item or items. Nowadays libraries tend to acquire a variety of types of material. These include such things as:

The other two functional activities, organization and preparation, are done by the cataloging department. Cataloging units provide the basic material upon which a library’s service program is built. This department decides on the appropriate form for identifying authorship of works in the collection, describes the item as a physical item or a virtual source, and assigns subject access points. Also, they add a classification and author number to the physical items acquired; this is called a call number and it allows the public service staff to group materials on the same topic together. It would be difficult at best for anyone to know what was in the collection, much less how many items dealt with a particular topic without cataloging. What one sees in the public catalog is the result of the efforts of the cataloging staff.

There has been a steady shift during the past five decades in the philosophy underlying technical services. Emphasis is being placed on the end-user more and more. Cataloging activities are the core element in providing access to collections. This unit uses rules and codes that are complex and difficult for non-catalogers (any many students of library science) to fully comprehend or use when seeking information. The codes and rules are essential in providing consistency when organizing the collection or collections. A set of codes and rules that are almost incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have a background in accounting or bookkeeping are depended on for the acquisitions financial transactions. Before this the approach was that these activities did not require, need, or want much involvement with end-users. A general opinion prevailed as late as the 1960s and early 1970s that the public catalog, the means for determining the collections’ content, was a tool created by librarians for librarians. Over time, and with a growing focus on attempting to understand end-users’ information-seeking behaviour and adjusting processes and procedures to reflect that understanding, there were efforts to make technical services outputs more “user-friendly”.

A number of structures have been tried by libraries with the hope of breaking the “front room/back room” view that prevailed in the past and that one may still encounter in some libraries. As early as 1948, Raymond C. Swank argued in an article called “The Catalog Department in the Library Organization” in the eighteenth issue of Library Quarterly, that catalogers and bibliographers were the key staff to create a collection that end-users would find valuable. For a variety of reasons though he was ahead of existing practice and it was almost a decade before anyone attempted to implement any of his ideas. The University of Nebraska experimented in the late 1950s with a subject approach to the provision of information. What this meant at Nebraska was that librarians had a subject area responsibility for all the functions listed previously except preparation and storage. The idea that a person working directly with the public is best able to understand the needs and behavior of users and therefore create collections and access tools tailored to local conditions is probably correct.

There are problems in applying the concept in the real world if its looked at from a practical point of view. Individual librarians are neither all equally skilled nor are they all interested in every one of the functional areas. In those cases functions of interest receive a greater share of the person’s time and effort, and less attention is given to those areas of least interest. Too great a variance causes substantial movement between subject collections and he quality of access to those collections. At the midwinter meeting of the Academic Technical Services Discussion Group (American Library Assoiation) in 1998, Laura Harper stated in her presentation dealing with the idea of blending public and technical service responsibilities, one cannot force people to do what they cannot or do not want to do.

A common method for achieving some of the benefits of Swank’s and others’ ideas about blending the two traditionally distinct areas is to have technical service librarians work some hours at the reference desk. It varies on whether the time on the reference desk voluntary to a set amount of hours is required.

There can be some significant advantages in terms of making better informed decisions about access tools and for collections development from having technical service librarians work in public services. There are some disadvantages to consider as well before implementing such a plan. Loss of productivity is one disadvantage. An example of this is when technical service personnel find themselves spending an hour on the reference desk thinking it is an hour spent not doing their “real job.” When there is a processing backlog, the sense of what is “real work” becomes even stronger. By having to train the technical service librarians the reference staff also loses some productivity. When reference work drew solely on printed materials this was not a major concern but in today’s world with the ever-increasing dependence on constantly changing electronic sources, it can be a significant issue. The quality of service that part-timers are able to provide is another issue. This is especially true if desk hours are required. Staff perception is a third issue. When only technical service librarians are asked to cross over, while reference staff are not asked to assist in technical services, it sends a message about values. It seems to devalue technical service activities. Once can reduce the sense of devaluation with some administrative effort but seldom can it be eliminated.

Another method, though not used often, for blending the two areas is a modified version of the subject approach. This is sometimes referred to as “matrix teams”. In this system several people share a set of duties but allocate their time according to their interest and skill levels. The benefit of this approach is a better use of skills, knowledge, and interests of each team member. Team members also gain a holistic view of the library’s activities and service programs, which in turn should result in improved decision making, at least in terms of end-user needs. It is clear that a matrix team needs individuals who are not only committed to the concept but also reasonably skilled in all the areas. That type of person is not always available, and developing in-house interest and skills or seeking such breadth during the hiring process takes time. That is why this is not the model one currently sees very often.


Sources: Old class notes and Introduction to Technical Services 6th ed. by G. Edward Evans, Sheila S. Intner, and Jean Weihs

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