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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Fall 1999
DOI:10.5062/F45T3HGJ

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Library Staffing Considerations in the Age of Technology: Basic Elements for Managing Change

Daryl C. Youngman
Chair of Science Libraries
Kansas State University
dyou@ksu.edu

Abstract

Technology is now, and technology is the future. Technology has forever changed the way that librarians serve their patrons, and all indications are that this change will continue. Librarians are moving into dramatically different roles as new services are implemented. The human resource is essential to the success of any technology-based service, and libraries are challenged to develop and implement those services while maintaining traditional services, often with no increase in staff. The support of electronic services requires special skill sets and in many cases more, not fewer, staff hours. Each library must develop individual solutions to this dilemma, but many will find useful a model that incorporates three basic elements: utilization of experienced librarians, targeted recruiting of entry-level librarians and creative supervisory practices.

Introduction

Libraries are being swept along with the currents of rapidly changing technology. While continuing to provide many traditional information services, librarians are developing new skill sets and growing into the new roles that are necessary to support technology-based services. Technology has impacted nearly every facet of library work. Selectors must now deal with providing user access to digitized resources without "owning" the resources. Catalogers must make these new resources accessible. Reference librarians still assist patrons in the library, but most now have an additional clientele of remote-access users.

The mission of the librarian -- providing excellent information service to patrons -- has not changed, but technology has added several new dimensions to this task (Grodzins-Lipow 1997). Fulfilling this enhanced mission can be difficult. Most libraries are not positioned for rapid change. Budgets are relatively fixed with little accommodation for special endeavors. In many libraries, staff turnover is low and does not facilitate quickly changing directions. Funding for additional positions is usually difficult to obtain. Adding technology-based services usually increases, rather than decreases, the number of staff hours required to develop and maintain effective patron services.

It is in this context that libraries must develop individual solutions that are appropriate to local circumstances. While many alternatives have been discussed in the literature, several basic elements are common to most libraries and can be applied in many combinations as resources and management options dictate. The appropriate mix of these change management strategies can help libraries to address current patron service needs while laying a foundation for continuing support of technology-based service into the future.

The New Roles

Librarians are moving into dramatically different roles as new services are implemented. The rate of change is breathtaking, especially for libraries that have been accustomed to stability in organization and in funding. Technology is driving change across the entire range of library responsibilities.

Acquisitions librarians still select and purchase books and traditional journals, but they also must deal with many "access without ownership" issues involving leased electronic databases, full-text journal article access services and other services that are acquired only virtually (Grodzins-Lipow 1997). With these new resources comes a potential minefield of licensing issues. Librarians cannot and should not function as attorneys, but the analysis provided by a librarian is essential in ensuring that electronic product license agreements are appropriate for local circumstances and anticipated patron use patterns.

Catalogers are also moving into new roles as they attempt to provide enhanced access to the new resources. They now process not only books, but also CD-ROMs, computer discs, and multi-format items. Library automation systems have grown in sophistication. Catalogers must make informed decisions on matters such as linking to electronic journals and managing holdings "hooks" to various databases. Catalogers today create records that accommodate multiple means of accessing a particular resource. Patrons are coming to expect records that include print holdings, microforms, and direct links to an electronic version of the item. Records must successfully interact with not only the library OPAC, but also with a growing variety of indexes, full-text services and browsers.

Cataloging the Internet itself is a task that has fallen to librarians. Application of the still-evolving Dublin Core metatag system is a skill that did not exist just a few years ago but is now rapidly growing in importance as an additional role for librarians. "It's not a metadata element set that is going to replace MARC. It's going to evolve alongside it" (Chepesiuk 1999). In addition to acquiring and processing resources in a variety of new formats, libraries are increasingly involved in the creation of resources. Digital library (a term still being defined) initiatives generate many local-content information resources that require different bibliographic control schemes.

Reference librarians have recently been experiencing double jeopardy. While continuing to serve patrons from service points in the library, many reference librarians are now also supporting a growing clientele of remote-access patrons, those "more demanding, less patient users who have greater expectations" (Rettig 1993). These patrons often require special support from reference librarians, even if the remote access patrons are using the same (electronic) resources as the walk-in users. Questions submitted via email and linked web pages require attention from reference staff, and the virtual reference transaction can be more complex and time-consuming than traditional in-library service. As technology advances, reference librarians are increasingly involved as teachers of "information literacy" (Osorio 1997). Grodzins-Lipow believes that reference departments may be experiencing the greatest variety of new roles.

The ubiquitous web site has become a standard tool for many libraries, and its use has created several roles for librarians that do not have direct corollaries in the past. Many libraries now use their web site as the exclusive platform for electronic patron service. Librarian input is necessary to develop a well-designed web interface and a page-linking structure that facilitates efficient use. Once created, a continuing commitment of staff time is needed to maintain, modify and update the web site. Links come and go, URLs change, and the mix of resources served through the web site is often in flux. Automation can carry some of the load, and some tasks can be done by technicians, but in many libraries the bulk of web site development and maintenance falls to librarians. The CyberStacks (sm) project exemplifies the recognition of these and other new roles (Iowa State University 1999).

Thus, libraries are faced with the need to effectively apply limited staff resources to meet the growing number of technology-driven challenges. Rethinking existing staffing patterns and assignments, recruiting new staff to change the mix of skill sets and the use of creative supervision can help libraries to develop solutions that solve current problems but are flexible enough to accommodate future changes.

Utilizing Senior Librarians

Experienced librarians can be a significant resource in managing change. Most libraries are not able to recruit a significant number of positions to accommodate new roles, so it is essential to include senior librarians in any plans for the support of new technology. Senior librarians, with their knowledge of organizational history, serve an important role in placing technology in perspective with traditional patron services. As fast as change is occurring, a balance between change and stability must be maintained to ensure the best patron service, avoid burnout and keep staff focused.

Experienced librarians may be viewed as being inflexible, but after having spent extended periods of time in a position, they may respond quite positively to the challenge of a revised mix of responsibilities that includes new roles created by technology. New work assignments involving new technologies can be motivating to experienced librarians and an excellent means of avoiding stagnation and burnout (Boyer 1990). Experienced librarians can also serve an important mentoring function when new librarians join the staff. Mentoring can be a key to success when considering another factor in managing change -- the new librarians who have recently finished library school with training in new technology skills.

Recruiting New Librarians

On those all too rare occasions when recruiting new staff is possible, careful consideration should be given to those applicants who can bring critical new skills directly from library school. Those responsible for recruiting can reasonably have high expectations of today's entry-level librarians. Many recent library school graduates bring to the employment market specific technology skills that did not exist just a few years ago. These specialized skills can allow an entry-level person to quickly become productive in a new, non-traditional role while taking time to develop expertise in more traditional subject-based tasks. In some cases a synergy may develop where the fresh skills and enthusiasm of a new librarian can catalyze the interest of experienced librarians and help them see the value of acquiring and applying newer skills.

The opportunity to add a position or recruit to fill a vacated position also presents a chance to re-think the organization and staffing patterns in a library or department. Too often, libraries have slipped into staffing practices that, while effective in the past, may not be the best arrangement for current and future circumstances. The recruiting of a new librarian can be an excellent time to review the organization chart and revamp position descriptions of existing staff. Careful analysis of current and projected staffing needs can result in a recruiting effort that will produce a truly effective new staff member.

Challenging the Supervisors

Leadership style is another element that can have a positive impact on efforts to manage technology-driven change. Stability and predictability certainly do not seem to be part of the future of libraries. As Glenn Brudvig puts it "change will be too fast, too complex and too disruptive for the traditional leadership methods to be effective. Library leaders will need to focus more on the design of the organization and its policies, orchestrate change, integrate new services and materials with the old" (Brudvig 1992). In such a context, library leaders must attempt to build a staff that is simultaneously capable of meeting present objectives yet flexible enough to function effectively in an uncertain future.

Supervisors can begin by assessing both patron needs and the existing skills of their staff. When a comparison is developed, it will become possible to identify skill sets that are necessary but not currently represented on the staff. At this point, supervisors may consider several options: rethinking the utilization of existing staff, the recruiting of new staff and the realignment of services offered. The first two of these elements can be implemented as suggested above. The realignment of services represents a special challenge to supervisors.

Libraries offer a tremendous variety of services, and it is usually very difficult to eliminate a particular service altogether. Because of this, supervisors attempting to realign services face a real challenge as they assign staff and develop programming for the balanced delivery of both traditional and new services (Library of Congress 1999).

Responses to this challenge have been anticipated. Tiered service structures, and the reallocation of staff responsibilities as projected by Rettig are now becoming commonplace in libraries (Rettig 1993). Within such organizational structures supervisors can emphasize those services which are most needed by patrons and represent the closest fit with the library's mission sand capabilities. Other services may still be offered but on a modulated level. Tasks not formerly seen as clerical may be assigned to properly trained clerical staff or even automated. The roles of interns and student assistants may be enhanced (Benefiel 1997). Arrangements of this nature permit limited staff to be utilized in a manner that best supports user service.

When the best mix of services, the level of support and the organizational structure are determined, plans can be implemented. After creative modification of individual assignments experienced librarians may move into new responsibilities, but time and funding must be allocated for appropriate formal or informal training (Boyer 1990). Traditional staffing patterns may have to shift to accommodate new librarians recruited for the skills they bring. Collectively, these elements will place the library in an enhanced position for responding to future changes.

Whatever model is developed for managing change, libraries must focus must on flexibility in both staffing and structure, and on the nurturing of an organizational culture that promotes continuous learning to stay abreast of new developments and provide increasingly excellent patron service (Brudvig 1992).

Conclusion

Technology is moving librarians into new roles -- some welcome, some uncomfortable, but nearly all of benefit to library patrons. In most cases these new roles are an addition to, not a replacement for traditional duties. New services will continue to develop, but many traditional library services will continue in some form for the foreseeable future. Libraries are challenged to meet the increasing demand for service with limited staff and budget, but change can be managed by making use of several elements common to most libraries. Each library can develop an individualized change management program that takes into consideration the basic elements of experienced staff, new hires and creative supervisory practices.

Flexibility is the key to success, and professional (information access and management) and personal (skills, attitudes, beliefs) competencies will be critical in maintaining the flexibility needed for continuing success into the future (Spiegleman, 1997). By acknowledging technology, combining appropriate change management elements and posturing for continuing change, libraries will be well positioned to meet the technology-driven patron service challenges of the future.

Resources

Benefiel, Candace R., et.al., 1997. Baseline Subject Competencies for the Academic Reference Desk. Reference Services Review (Spring 1997): 83-93.

Boyer, Ernest. 1990. Scholarship Revisited: Priorities of the Professoriate. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Princeton, ssN.J.

Brudvig, Glenn L. 1992. Managing the Sea Change in Science and Technology Libraries. Science & Technology Libraries 12 (Summer 1992): 35-50.

Chepesuiak, Ron. 1999. Organizing the Internet: The "Core" of the Challenge (Dublin Core Metadata Set). American Libraries 30, (January 1999): 60-64.

Grodzins-Lipow, Ann. 1997. Who Will Give Reference Service in the Digital Environment? Reference & User Services Quarterly 37 (Winter 1997): 125-129

Iowa State University. 1999. Virtual Advisory Boards. [Online] Available: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~CYBERSTACKS/advisory.htm [September 18, 1999].

Library of Congress. 1999. Reference Service in a Digital Age. [Online] Available: http://www.lcweb.loc.gov./rr/digiref/. [September 25, 1999]

Osorio, Nestor. 1997. In Distance Learning, Is There a Role? Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 1997. Available: {http://www.istl.org/97-spring/article3.html} [September 24,1999].

Rettig, James R. 1993. Academic Reference Service Astride a Fault Line. Wilson Library Bulletin 67 (May 1993): 53-54.

Spiegleman, Barbara M. (ed.). 1997. Competencies for Special Librarians of the 21st Century. Special Libraries Association, Washington, D.C.

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