Learning Our Limits: The Science Libraries at Duke University
Retreat to Respond to Our Changing Environment
Head, Chemistry Library
Head, Vesic Engineering Library
Coordinator, Science Libraries
"We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us is
everything." Blaise Pascal
In times of rapid change, we must periodically reinvent ourselves. In general,
technological advances and the changing needs and skills of our users are affecting
our libraries. The Heads of the Science Libraries (Biological and Environmental
Sciences; Chemistry, Engineering and Math-Physics) at Duke University spent a day
examining our operations, defining our goals and exploring options to help us
achieve these goals in a dynamic work environment. A mixture of cost/impact
analysis and decision matrix models were used by each librarian to analyze his/her
activities on the basis of their direct impact on his/her users. Recognizing that
additional staff is rarely an option, the cost/impact model enabled us to
prioritize our functions and to better deploy our limited resources to those areas
that best serve our users. Our paper will explain this process and the results of
Many events occurring at Duke University compelled the Science Librarians to
undertake a significant evaluation of our operations. The most prominent of these
- Duke Library Strategic Plan: The Science Libraries were
acknowledged to be insufficiently staffed to provide high quality service to their
primary and secondary users.
- Curriculum 2000: A requirement that all undergraduates take, at
least, one science course increases the number of potential users accessing our
libraries, both in person and via the web. We may need to address the different
needs of these less science focused users on our libraries.
- Changing user needs: how they use our libraries, both within
the buildings and virtually; the increased need for time on the part of the
librarians to provide bibliographic instruction to make users self-sufficient in
using our resources.
In the spring of 1999, the Science Librarians held an all day retreat to
examine our operations -- where we are now -- our current activities, tasks,
functions and where we need to be in the future to respond to user demands.
The Science Libraries are part of the Perkins Library System of Duke University.
These are geographically distinct units supporting separate academic departments.
Historically, they have operated rather autonomously. However, as the science and
engineering programs at Duke have become increasingly more interdisciplinary, we
are now working toward greater consistency between our operations and policies.
The Engineering Library is physically the largest library, 14,000 square feet with
126,912 titles. Biological and Environmental Sciences Library is 6,332 square feet
with 191,290 titles. Chemistry is 6,477 square feet with 62,483 titles and
Math-Physics is 4,171 square feet with a 115,545 titles. Each library copes with
limited space and each library stores some of its collections in a centralized
storage facility near campus.
All the libraries have a head librarian and a senior staff assistant. The
Engineering Library and the Biological and Environmental Sciences Library each have
an additional staff assistant and all 4 units share a "floater" position. The
floater, hired in 1998, works at each of the Science Libraries for some part of the
day. He is also expected to fill in for absent staff at our circulation desks as
needed. The Science Libraries serve a combined Duke user community of 3,396
including faculty, graduates and undergraduates. We are open seven days a week, on
weekdays from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Engineering Library is open 4 days a week until 2
a.m.); and on the weekends, usually 12 noon to 5 p.m. Our evening and weekend
operations are staffed solely by student assistants. Each library hires, trains and
supervises its own student assistants.
In addition to general circulation functions, our staff is responsible for many
technical services activities. Additional tasks have been integrated into our
operations without any additional staff. The notions of "working smarter, not
harder" and "you can't do everything, so stop doing something" have not translated
into less work for our staff. Realistically this means that some tasks simply do
not get done in a timely manner. Everyone is working as hard as they can, but we
never seem to catch up. Our biology librarian commented that the military has a
phrase describing our situation, it is "Task Saturation." Task saturation certainly
captures the feeling of our work environment.
In preparation for the retreat, each librarian used a cost/impact model to evaluate
his/her activities. Each activity was assessed on the basis of its direct impact
on our users and how much it "costs" to deliver that service. For example,
staffing the circulation desk has high cost but it has a high direct impact on
users; processing gift books has a high cost in that it requires the librarian's
time and attention but has low direct impact on our users. (Appendix A
As everything costs something and as resources are limited, you must identify those
activities that yield the highest results for your efforts. You truly can't do
everything. Employing this model focuses your thinking and gives you an excellent
starting point for group discussions. At the very least, brainstorming sessions
begin around issues that warrant the most attention.
At the retreat we shared our forms. It was interesting for us, as a group, to see
what the various activities were for each unit and how each librarian rated these
functions. Activities included: circulation desk and reference coverage; weeding
of the collections; gifts processing; collection development activities; new books
processing; reserves processing; shelf-list maintenance; creating new book lists;
photocopying services for users; journal check-in activities; photocopying for
interlibrary loan requests; and the implications of having a librarian located in a
branch library. No activity was considered either too mundane or too sacred to be
included in our assessments.
As a group we identified those activities that were most important to our units,
then prioritized these items and lastly, discussed how best to support our highest
First Priority: Circulation Desk/Reference Desk Operations
In our libraries, the circulation desk and reference desk is the same desk and it
is THE service point for our users. It is critical that this desk be staffed every
hour that the library is open.
- As much as possible, staff with full-time employees. Librarians will staff this
desk only when other staff is not available.
- Hire students to staff desk, every hour of our operations, not simply after 5
p.m. and on the weekends.
- As the Science Libraries are part of the Perkins system, we should seek
assistance from the Perkins circulation staff when we experience staffing
- Install self-service checkout systems in the Biological and Environmental
Sciences (BES) and Vesic Engineering (VEL) Libraries as these have the most
circulation desk traffic.
- Each Science Library hires a graduate student to assist the Library Staff
Assistant in supervising student staff during evenings and weekends. This
"supervisor" would be responsible for checking in with the students, would act as
the contact person in case of emergencies and be available to fill in as needed.
Currently, the Library Staff Assistants assume this function.
- Utilize Perkins Circulation student supervisor to act as emergency contact for
Science Library students during the evening and weekend shifts.
- Train students to work in all of the Science Libraries and, therefore, create a
larger pool from which to draw in cases of staffing emergencies; the issues
involved with separate student budget lines for each library would need to be
- Provide thorough and appropriate training for all staff members on the
circulation desk, particularly in handling reference questions, when to handle a
question and when to refer to librarian.
- Delay opening the Science Libraries to the public for one hour; we could use
that "free hour" for staff activities, hold all-staff meetings and training
activities and technical services functions. Using the 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. hour would
give our staff an additional five hours of time and would cause the least degree of
service disruption to our patrons.
Second Priority: Create an environment where our users are
Technology has changed and will continue to change how users interact with our
libraries. All of the job descriptions for Science Librarians contain components of
bibliographic instruction, collection development, outreach activities and web
development in support of users. Our options should provide the librarians with the
opportunities to significantly improve our delivery of these necessary,
- Science Librarians have regularly scheduled time -- either a day a week or every
two weeks to be spent away from their library. This "release" time would be used
for web development; liaison activities with faculty, graduate students,
undergraduate students, and research labs; to plan and provide regularly scheduled
bibliographic instruction classes; to create a newsletter and other marketing
tools for the Science Libraries. These services are difficult to plan and deliver
when staffing shortages require the librarians to perform basic circulation
functions. To alleviate staffing pressure, each librarian would stagger his/her
release time so that the floater would spend his entire day in the designated
library as needed.
- Science Librarians supply the content for our web pages to Perkins web staff to
code and to maintain links to electronic journals identified as important to the
- Install vending machines to sell copy cards in the VEL and BES Libraries.
Copier use is very high in the Science Libraries. Copy cards are not sold after 5
p.m. nor on the weekends -- an example of poor public service on our part.
- Document delivery services are extremely important to our users. As a library
system, we need to clarify these services for them. Users are confused by our
multiple document delivery services. We recommend a single service point for all
document delivery services (ILL, BARD, Uncover, East-West Express, etc). On the
issue of photocopying for ILL, the Science Library staff can not continue to
subsidize this operation. We are often incapable of supplying ILL's needs in a
timely enough manner for them to operate efficiently and effectively. We
recommend that a "runner" from ILL be hired to perform photocopying for ILL
- Stack maintenance activities are critical to user self-sufficiency. Users
expect to find material as indicated by the online catalog. Reshelving,
shelf reading, weeding and shifting of materials needs to be regularly performed.
Options include: hire students solely for stack maintenance; employ students
during the summer for major stack maintenance projects; use our floater for these
activities; assign a shelf range to each staff member for routine stack maintenance.
- Technical services activities which ensure an online catalog as accurate as
possible are also critical to user self-sufficiency. The online catalog must
reflect accurate library holdings and locations. Accurate serials holdings and
accurate storage facility holdings requires some type of shelf-list maintenance at
the Science Branches. The science and engineering disciplines are heavily
dependent upon serials and journals. Journal check-in is an important, detail
oriented and extremely labor intensive activity. Staff needs regularly scheduled
time, away from the circulation desk, to perform these processes efficiently and
Third Priority: Collection Development
Our collections are important to our users. Time must be available to attend to
our collection development activities. These include editing and revising approval
plans; generating timely orders; monitoring acquisition budgets; assessing and
gathering feedback from faculty/students on electronic resources; developing and
recording collection policies for the Science Libraries; weeding and storage
activities; and web development detailing our collections.
- Utilize "release" time to focus on collection development activities
- Direct all gift contributions to Perkins Collection Development Office
- Work with existing library committees to encourage the creating of increased
web-accessible collection development tools
- ILL photocopying is no longer done by the Science Libraries' staff. The main
library sends a runner out to our units as needed. This has had an incredibly
positive impact on us. Our staff has been freed up to take care of more important
- Professional staff does not shelve. Only rarely do support staff shelve. This
activity is left to the student assistants (much like in the main library).
- Borrowing privileges for all Duke users are now consistent, regardless of their
- We are currently drafting a job description for a Technical Services Floater.
- Students have been hired to staff the circulation desk during the day, as much
as possible, not simply after 5 p.m. and on the weekends. This coverage varies
from library to library, but many more hours are covered by students than before.
This has resulted in a decrease of interruptions for our full-time staff.
- Science Libraries' support staff have completed a draft of a single student
assistant handbook for use in all of our units. This is a first step in creating
training tools for use by all of the science library student assistants.
- Some units have directed all gift contributions to the Perkins Collection
Many of these changes have been accomplished without additional resources.
Additional funding was required for the ILL runner and for increasing the numbers
of our student staff. Other initiatives are waiting for approval and funding from
Discussion and Conclusion
Branch libraries can run the risk of being marginalized in terms of status and
resources as compared to their parent or main library. We found that by working as
a group we were able to think bigger and see beyond the walls of our own individual
libraries. By using the Impact Analysis method to rate essential library activities
for each branch library and then by sharing our separate results, we discovered
that through discussion and compromise we could all agree to stop doing
non-essential activities. Further, we could bring consistency to those activities
which are vital to our users and us, and as a group, speaking in one voice, we
could obtain much needed support from the main library.
It was a liberating experience to finally let go of activities that were deemed to
have such low impact they were no longer worth doing. Again, it was worthwhile to
consider the branches as a larger system. We don't each have to do everything
(unless you are in a one-person library!). Some tasks are inappropriate for
professional staff (shelving or copying for interlibrary loan) while others ought
to be undertaken only in extreme circumstances (circulation tasks). By
inappropriate we do not mean "beneath us as professionals," but rather that it is
not cost effective to the organization to use librarians (expensive resources) to
perform tasks that can be performed by other less expensive staff. Some of these
realizations came with the comparisons of ourselves to the main library and the
idea that users will adapt to us as much as we adapt to them.
We also considered our next retreat: what sort of changes can we predict will have
the greatest impact on how we do our work? For some of us, the increase of
electronic availability of journal titles means we will not continue to keep
duplicate print copies in the library. We are basing this on our assumption that
vendors will find a way to re-package and then provide (for cost most likely)
access to backfiles. Licensing agreements will eventually become less stringent.
And finally savings in staff time and shelfspace (which are both pushed to the
limit in all of our libraries) would be phenomenal.
We also discussed what it meant to "help our users become more self-sufficient."
Mostly this requires considerable upfront preparation in creating the tools (web or
print) they need to help themselves. We realized that many of our user needs were
similar enough that we could share some of these duties by teaming up for
bibliographic instruction sessions, adding to our shared web space and encouraging
them to think of us, the Science Libraries, as a unit.
Finally, each unit was able to identify activities that they could actually stop
doing. True, as soon as we discontinued one task, there was another to be
performed, but we replaced a less worthy task for one that was more important.
Small as these steps may seem, our retreat represents a start toward a true
assessment of our situation and a means to exert some control over our working
environment. By accepting our limits -- limited staff, limited time, limited
resources, we were able to focus on the ways we could maximize what we do have -- a
terrific team that is willing to change to get better.
VEL Cost/Impact Chart
|Photocopying for Faculty
|New Books List
|Current Library Hours
|New Books Processing
|Librarian in Branch
|Photocopying for ILL
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