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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > December 2010

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Vol. 30 No. 10 — December 2010
Librarians Forever!
by Loretta Gharst

We have completely changed the process of getting, organizing, and providing access to library materials.
The rumored death of librarianship caused by the advent of technology has not, and will not, come to pass. In fact, technology has exponentially increased the librarian’s ability to provide library service. The core of library service is organizing, providing access, and guiding others in the use of materials. Material format changes (handwritten scrolls to printed books to ebooks) and methods change, but the core service roles do not. These service roles can be called the organizer, the gatekeeper, and the navigator. Depending on the size of the library, these service roles may be assigned to different departments or job titles. In the Calcasieu Parish Public Library, where I serve as head of Collection & Computing Services, as well as in other libraries, these service roles have traditionally been handled by Technical Services (now Collection Services), Circulation, and Reference (now Information Services).

Organizers—Technical Services (Collection Services)

This is where the essential task of creating a record of the library’s holdings is done. Twenty years ago our librarians used vendor catalogs, magazines, patrons’ handwritten suggestions, and massive multivolume hardbound bibliographic works such as Books in Print, and the Wilson Standard Catalogs (now the Wilson Core Collections) to make selections. They needed to keep paper files that recorded who ordered what and when. When orders were received, the paper order slip had to be pulled and matched. The only way to know if a title was on order was to go to the order files and manually look it up. Most orders were mailed, but some were actually faxed (new technology!). Our card catalog was a massive 100 drawers that was guarded by fierce catalogers who put signs on the catalog warning others to tamper at their own risk. But we also had an exciting new technology called CD-ROM that allowed catalogers to retrieve Library of Congress records and save them to a 5.25" floppy disk so catalog cards could be printed.

Fast-forward a few years and acquisitions staff was using vendor-supplied ordering software on a PC with a dial-up modem to place orders. We could now print out on-order slips instead of typing. We had purchased an integrated library system and catalogers could now create and save MARC records into the OPAC and use the same technology to print labels for trucks full of books in a batch.

Fifteen years later we have completely changed the process of getting, organizing, and providing access to library materials. Selections are done using vendor online selection software such as Baker & Taylor Titlesource III, and ordering is primarily done either through Baker & Taylor Titlesource III or When materials are ordered using Baker & Taylor (B&T), grid title records are loaded into the library catalog and on-order records are created in the acquisitions module of our ILS. This process, which used to be done by manually inputting on-order records, is now completed in 2–3 minutes. We estimate 75% of title records and orders are autogenerated in this manner. MARC records can be retrieved from OCLC CatExpress and from vendor websites. For the majority of acquisitions, materials come preprocessed with jackets, spine labels, and property stamps. When items are received, they are scanned into the system and sent to the catalogers to tweak the title record and load the copy-level records. Original cataloging is kept to a minimum. What used to take weeks now takes a day or two.

So what happened to the staff? Many of the same people working here worked here 20 years ago, but their duties have changed. All use networked PCs with internet access to perform various aspects of their jobs. There is not a typewriter in sight. Selection is a living thing simultaneously proactive and reactive on a daily basis. The online selection, ordering, and collection management software has required some staff to become software administrators, configuring and managing remote hosted resources and services. To order from a vendor often means learning its software and managing the tricky interface between the ILS software and the third-party vendor software. Some of the software programs managed by staff are Baker & Taylor Titlesource III, Overdrive Content Reserve (selection and ordering), and Loanshark, the statewide inter­ library loan service.

Creating and maintaining accurate records to improve access to holdings is quick. Catalogers get MARC records from a variety of resources and tweak them to match our local needs. Software programs, such as OCLC CatExpress are tools used by catalogers as a resource for MARC records. Cataloging has been online for years, and to integrate those records into the ILS is complicated to figure out but simple once implemented. The catalog is organic, with records being added and removed almost daily. Catalog records are sent via FTP monthly into Loanshark. Acquisitions staff members are doing a superior job of selecting to meet patron demand, while catalogers are becoming both database administrators and designers of more and more user-friendly catalogs. In effect, staff continue to provide the core library service of organizing materials for library users.


Circulation was another labor intense job 20 years ago that involved lots of paper and staff time. Staff managed the collection using a hard-copy shelf list; read shelves to keep them in order; checked in and out using drawers of book cards; typed overdue notices; called patrons on the phone to pick up materials on hold; maintained patron registration records on index cards; and, if they had time, they might do a story hour for children. Once every 5 years (maybe) an inventory was attempted using the shelf list.

In the early ’90s when an automated ILS was implemented complete with dumb terminals, circulation staff no longer had to deal with managing book cards for information on what was checked out or hand typing overdue notices. Amazingly, all branches of the library could now share electronic patron registration records even if the branches had different hours. Patrons were then given the option to renew their materials online and place their own holds for library materials through the OPAC. (Approximately 50% of holds and 33% of renewals are self-service.) Patrons with a PC with dial-up modem could access the OPAC from home. A few years later an automated phone notification system was put in place that called patrons to tell them their items on hold were ready to pick up or that they had some overdue books. Then, in the late ’90s, email notices were sent that included pre-overdue notices (very popular with patrons), notification of expiring user privileges, hold notices, and overdue notices.

So what happened to the staff? Materials circulation has increased. Staff manage more monetary transactions than ever before and share spreadsheets across the network to maintain records. They manage shelves of holds and interlibrary loan materials. The library is now in the third generation of automated telephone notification systems using SVA, (Sirsi Voice Activated). Paper notices are no longer sent. Instead email notices are sent, either through the ILS or through the Library Elf service. Circulation staff members register library users using expanded patron profiles that have different privileges, including temporary internet-only access and regional consortia use. The hard-copy patron registration file was discontinued last year and the registration process simplified. Staff can do efficient collection inventories using wireless laptops. They report statistics monthly using online input forms. Staff members use Envisionware time and print management software to oversee public PCs and printing. They manage new book displays and assist with daily picking lists of materials going to fill holds at other locations. The collection is in motion! When withdrawing older materials from the library collection, they check the Better World Books website to determine if the item will go into the online auction. Children’s and Young Adult services have greatly expanded programming as more staff time has become available. And Circulation is still responsible for shelving the collection, shelf reading, and sending in materials for repair. Technological change has given circulation staff better tools to provide the core library service of managing access to library materials.  

Navigators—Reference (Information Services)

Twenty years ago our library had massive reference collections that attempted to contain information about every subject and topic known to humankind. Reference staff helped patrons to find materials in the collection, answer questions, and offer advice based on the local branch library’s holdings. There was a really cool new technology—a PC with a CD-ROM drive that contained a CD-ROM database indexing journal citations. Our genealogical and historical library was a collection of books, vertical files, and handwritten marriage birth and death records on index cards (some microfilm and microfiche).

In the early ’90s the card catalogs were replaced by text-only OPACs, a vast improvement for finding out what all the libraries in the system had on their shelves. Then, in the mid-’90s the library’s new web server could offer a text-only internet homepage through the OPAC. Staff surfed the internet to find websites that would be good sources of information for patrons. Then, in 1997 many of the dumb terminals were replaced by PCs with graphical internet access through the auspices of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant. To assist patrons with using the public PCs, reference staff learned more about Microsoft Office software and online databases and services. They dealt with problems that arose with managing this popular resource and were responsible for enforcing electronic resource usage policies. At the genealogy library we had a collection of CD-ROMs that could be used with two PCs, affectionately known as “Mother” and “Father,” for genealogy research. Staff created a Microsoft Access database for the obituary file and began the tedious process of converting the older paper records to electronic form. They took their research and began to self-publish.

Now our iBistro catalog with enhanced content provides great access to library holdings and includes information about what’s new in the library collection, what is most popular, reviews, and links to titles in our OverDrive digital collection. Shelves dedicated to hard-copy reference collections are greatly reduced and space has opened up for more patrons to sit and read or use the public wireless service with their laptops. Now reference questions and other communications with the public can be answered in person, over the phone, through email, or via the state library’s online reference service. From our library’s website patrons can access online reference resources from Gale, a part of Cengage Learning; EBSCO; ProQuest; online collections such as OverDrive, Tumble­ books, Freegal; online services such as Business Decision, Jobview, Mango Languages; blogs; Evanced event calendars and reading programs; Dearreader online book clubs; and email newsletters.

So what happened to the staff? The internet gives access to a lot of information, but making sense of the volume of information requires considerable skill. Navigating this endless information sea, assisting the public with finding the way, and teaching skills for evaluating content are important roles for reference librarians. They are the human interface between technology and end users. They teach patrons how to use the online resources and the basics of using a computer. They have a depth and knowledge of the library collections that was unthinkable 20 years ago. They assist patrons with information about the wireless service, the public computers, and other library services. They can manage meeting rooms, create blogs, and locate resources for the library website. They are both the internet and library collection experts. They know the best source to find the answers to patron questions, whether they’re in the hard-copy library collection or over the internet. Staff continue to provide the core library service of guiding patrons in using the resources and services of the library.

But there are new library jobs that also fulfill core functions of library work. For example, the webmaster that started out long ago as an added duty is now a full-time position responsible for organizing and managing access to both website content and other online resources and services. She uses a remote hosted service for content management of the library’s website. The site is organized to give access to the library collections and services and to market the library. The webmaster manages access for other library staff to use the remote hosted Evanced event program and Evanced reading program. Library users communicate with staff through the webpage and other online products managed by the webmaster.

Technology’s Role in the Evolution of Librarianship

Technology has also affected other library jobs. Libraries require staff for management, building maintenance, and networks, and these staff all use various software programs and the internet to assist them. In our system they use email for internal and external communication; the VoIP phone system; office software to create documents and spreadsheets; special human resources software for personnel recordkeeping; remotely hosted accounting and payroll that ties into our online timesheet; Helpdesk software for problem reporting; Dreamweaver to manage our intranet site; Survey Monkey to create input forms and surveys; desktop publishing software for marketing. A rough count indicates 23 software programs are used by these staff members to do their jobs.

The end of libraries and librarians has been seen as just a matter of time. We have been told that libraries and librarians must change or become extinct by irrelevance. Strangely, some anxious librarians buy into this death scenario despite steadily increasing library usage statistics. They worry that subscription digital collections will no longer require librarians; that self-service circulation takes away jobs and destroys customer service; that the internet has replaced the need for reference service. But librarians know what their community wants and choose the collections (including digital) accordingly; they know that not every library user wants the same service; and not all library users have the same technology skills.

For librarians serve people of all ages and types—some who require more traditional formats and services, some who prefer new formats and services, and some who take what they want from old and new. The challenge is to keep the service end result in sight and don’t let technology drive the service. Don’t adopt technology because it is the latest fad, adopt it because it improves the ability to provide or improve services. What works, stays; what doesn’t, goes away.

In the meantime, library administrators need to recognize the impact of technology on library work and the need to dedicate staff time for training to use technology for library work. Library job descriptions need to take technology skills into account. When staffing libraries, administrators should look for people who have the combination of technology and people skills that will continue to support the core library services of organizing, providing access and guidance in using the library. Libraries will forever need librarians to fill the core service roles of organizers, gatekeepers, and navigators. In fact, in her recent e-article titled “The Future of Print,” Kassia Krozser expresses her confidence in the field’s future when she writes, “your children should all be library science majors!”

Loretta Gharst is the head of Collection & Computing Services at the Calcasieu Parish Public Library. She is a 21-year library technology veteran; supervises a staff of 15; is the library’s strategic planning coordinator; and oversees technology planning and implementation, collection development, and staff development. Her email address is
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