Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1999

Learning Our Limits: The Science Libraries at Duke University Retreat to Respond to Our Changing Environment

Anne Langley
Head, Chemistry Library
Duke University

Linda Martinez
Head, Vesic Engineering Library
Coordinator, Science Libraries
Duke University

"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 our retreat.


Many events occurring at Duke University compelled the Science Librarians to undertake a significant evaluation of our operations. The most prominent of these events are:

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.

The Process

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.

The Retreat

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 priority activities.

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.


Second Priority: Create an environment where our users are self-sufficient

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, professional services.


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.



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 Perkins.

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.

Appendix A

VEL Cost/Impact Chart

Cost Impact
Reserves H H
Journal Processing H H
Photocopying for Faculty H H
New Books List H L
Current Library Hours H H
Shelf-List Processing H mixed
New Books Processing H H
Gifts Processing H L
Weeding H H
Circulation Desk/Reference H H
Librarian in Branch H mixed
Billing processes H mixed
Photocopying for ILL H low
Stacks Maintenance/Reshelving H H
Web Development H unknown?


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