Rumble in the Stacks: The Technical and User Services Divide & its Future in Libraries

Lauren Bradley

Lauren Bradley is in her final semester at the Pratt School of Information & Library Science in Manhattan. She works part-time at the Leo Baeck Institute and part-time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She enjoys costume librarianship, database searching, and government documents. Although her experience is exclusively in technical services, she dreams of crossing the divide to reference and instruction. Follow her on Twitter @BibliosaurusRex

Nearly all library school programs require students to take some form of these two classes: reference and cataloging. If you are like me and my peers, you immediately embraced one, declaring it your life passion, while disdaining the other, wondering why anyone would want to dedicate a life-long career to it. Library school seems to reinforce these notions…jokes about the poor social skills of catalogers and sneers about the customer service element of reference librarians comes to mind. A professor early in my own library education declared the divide between user and technical services dead; he said that we should gain skills in each to have a successful career. Although my own personal work experience and vision of future libraries affirm his declaration, I see library school propagating the notion of the technical-user services divide.

In my view, the benefits of having user services experience and technical services experience are obvious. Some of these benefits include (but are not limited to): understanding how users search the catalog, how the catalog appears to the end-user, and how to search the catalog most effectively. (Colorado Libraries has two great articles from 2004 on the subject: “Out of the Back Room and Onto the Desk” and “Sneaking into the Back Room” that explore these topics more in-depth). In my own library, reference isn’t just run by another department, its run by a separate organization from technical services, and although this arrangement is cost-saving, the problems that arise are numerous.

Some of the professional world seems to be bridging the gap between tech and user services—the creation of RDA as a practical application of FRBR, tech and reference librarians alike gaining new technology skill sets to enhance library services, and the number small libraries that have a few staff members who do a little bit of everything.

Library school, at least mine, seems to encourage the divide. Although all students must complete the same four core classes (information professions, reference, knowledge organization, and information technology), students most frequently find themselves following a self-prescribed track of like courses: government documents and database searching nicely complement reference, metadata and advanced cataloging after knowledge organization, and usability and information architecture follow information technology. Students are by no means forced into one area or another, however, no one suggests otherwise (besides my one professor who strongly advised us to dabble a little bit in everything).

But how does this work logistically? Two years fly by quickly when one is already taking classes they enjoy; could we possibly fit in more to get a more rounded education? That being said, is a well-rounded library education really necessary or will having a solid background in one area, with on-the-job training filling in the gaps, be a more-than-sufficient model? Does gaining experience and/or expertise in one area pigeon-hole you for the rest of your career? After all, the librarians who are now bridging the gap were trained in library school when the divide reigned unchallenged.

The greater questions I ask are simple: does this divide have a continuing role in the future of libraries? In your program, are students encouraged to lean towards technical services or users services, or not? If so, which side of the gap have you leaned towards? If not, how do you think your more balanced education will impact your future?

17 replies

  1. These are great questions! I tried to make a conscious effort to get a broad range of classes under my belt while in school. I knew I wanted to be more user-service-focused before I started school, so I can’t really distinguish whether my program creates a divide or not. I created it for myself, and I was usually the person in class who always said, “but but but what about the user??!!” I’m eager to hear what other people have to say.


    • I too am more interested in working with users, but all my work experience is in technical services. I am now trying to figure out to gain some more ref experience so I can meet more professional requirements.


  2. I don’t know whether I just didn’t notice the divide, or whether it’s just not as bad in my program (University of Missouri). Whether it’s selective hearing or actually there, I’ve gotten the message that tech services exist to support user services (why catalog those books if not to help users find them?), and user services need to understand the tech side to better serve users. And that providing excellent user services — combining tech-savvy reference and user-centered tech services — is the best way to build job security in this economy.

    As for my education, I’ve been a bit of a generalist. I’ve had cataloging, an advanced class on reference services, management of electronic resources, and several others that don’t fall neatly on either side. I don’t worry about being pigeon-holed into one side of the divide — I worry about not having enough coursework in one specific area to get a job on either side!


  3. I enjoyed reading this post and the questions you pose. I’ve worked on both “sides” in non-MLS positions (more time in Tech Services, though), and I’m starting library school in August. I’m interested in seeing/hearing what profs and fellow students in my program think about these issues.


  4. It disappoints me that the distinction still exists in the MLS/MLIS programs. And, once you graduate, you will also notice it in your career, the field, and the industry. The best solution that I know of (coincidentally, the one that I’ve chosen) is to work in such a tiny environment that you have to do both technical and user services. And management. And evangelism. It helps (again, from personal experience) to also win an elected position in your local government.


  5. I hate to bring this up again, but based on a conversation we were having amongst HLS editors last night, it might matter where you want to work. For instance, in a large public library setting (like Brooklyn Public Library) tech services and user services are two totally different departments, with different administrative teams, different division chiefs, on different floors, on different sides of the building, etc. and the job skills and daily work of these two branches do not overlap. I interned in IT, in the web applications department, have been hired as an project manager on a digitization project in the archives, and so since August of last year I have not once had an interaction with a patron of the library.

    I think it is valuable to consider having a broad range of experience, and perhaps in a different type of library (back to the ole big tent conversation) user/tech services are more integrated. As students though, we should be pursuing our interests, and working hard to bridge whatever divides we may sense in whatever professional setting we end up in. But, right now, it is the administrative/organizational structure of the institution that is propagating this divide, in my experience. We have the opportunity to think outside those lines and perhaps move librarianship from a professional/vocational training program to an interdisciplinary, cross-institutional collaborative workforce. At least, that’s what I aim to do.


  6. We have a pretty good mix of general studies and focused track people in my program. I’m general studies, but I’m struggling with this same issue right now as I try to sort out my fall schedule. I want to work on the user side, but I’m being strongly pushed towards tech by my advisor because it will make me more hireable. I can either continue my general course load or I can stock up on digital content classes to balance out my people- and reference-friendly background. I’m still undecided, so I’m interested to see what direction your debate goes today!


  7. @Angela – “I worry about not having enough coursework in one specific area to get a job on either side!”

    This is something I think about every single day, to be honest. My program is great about encouraging people to try lots of different things and to keep an open mind, and while that definitely appeals to me personally, I wonder how it will affect my job search when I’m listing relevant coursework for a particular (or specialized) position…

    This is a fantastic post, Lauren! I took a Reference 101 course last quarter, and now I’m slogging through Cataloging 101, and it’s amazing the different views of user/technical services interactions I’m getting in both. We’re transitioning out of systems that benefit institutions and into systems that benefit the end-users, and in order for that to happen, the divide between tech and user services has to come down to some extent.

    I’m hoping for the same thing as Micah – a more interdisciplinary, collaborative workforce in LIS. Specialization does have a place, but it shouldn’t be king when we’re all just starting out.


    • (Directed at Angela as well): In my opinion, work experience weighs more than coursework. My education has been very heavy in reference-directed classes, but my work experience is strictly technical services. Potential employers seem to latch on to that.

      I should also mention that in NYC the library job market is very competitive. There are a lot of jobs, but also a lot of very experience and skilled people, so employers can afford to be picky.


  8. Hm, I definitely think the divides exists in MLS programs but like Micah said I think it’s an extension of what’s going on in the library world beyond school. Our technical services is on a completely different floor, completely different administration, and much of it is does by folks without an MLS (and people not even in our library, ie: books arriving already processed).

    We don’t have many technical services classes (cataloging being the exception, and I am one of those students complaining about it), but we do have this issue with more technology driven classes versus public services classes. How much html or php do I need to know? How can understanding databases help me if I work in public services? These are some of the questions are program poses, and I’ve tried to be somewhat of a generalist.


  9. I find myself leaning towards reference and instruction work, but there is a special place in my heart for cataloging and knowledge organization, because it syncs so well with the way I think about information. One of the reasons why I do not really want to pursue something in technical services is that I also love the interaction with the library’s users and the information.

    It’s a tough decision, but I think as libraries continue to evolve, the barriers between the various departments is going to dissolve and breakdown. Look at the various talk about merging the desks for circulation/access services and reference services in order to reduce the confusion for patrons about the different types of librarians. One of my professors has preached the concept of holistic librarianship and the usefulness of having subject specific librarians not only be responsible for reference duties in their discipline, but also the cataloging. The reasoning for this is that it is expected that they would have a better idea of how to organize the information than a generalist would.

    So the models are already out there and being used that start to blur the traditional lines between library services. I think as library reorganizations continue (spurred on my economical issues like the current one), there will be further blending. That’s why I think ALA has had great foresight when it lists the expected core competencies (, they expect starting librarians to have a general knowledge of all the areas of librarianship.

    This is a tough thing to cover in a two year Master’s program though. Which leads to the further questions of how the current librarian training system can be improved.


  10. I’m finishing my first year at Dominican, and I don’t feel that there is a divide between tech/user services. If there is a divide, it has been between school media and everything else. They have such a focused track, there seems hardly any interaction between them and any other focus.

    As for me, I am trying to plan out my next semester. So far I have been advised by several teacher to take many different types of classes to make sure that I have a wide base to get hired anywhere. There is the impression that too tight a focus (outside of SM) narrows hiring options. They emphasize that this program is just the beginning and that the job will expand my skills. Even taking this approach, I’m finding it difficult to fit in all the classes I think would be productive and relevant without cutting out entire types (knowledge mgmt or archiving).

    I think that when I get a job, I’ll be looking for something that offeres strong professional development and see if I can catch other classes later.


  11. I think many of the students in my library school came out hating cataloging because of the brutally awful instructor we had for the basic cataloging class. I was enthralled after our intro to information organization class, and even a terrible teacher couldn’t make me hate it. I hated my intro reference course because of a terrible teacher too (one who had no experience on the reference desk and insinuated on Facebook that her students were as smart as cabbages). I think we would have been drawn in those different directions anyway, but the bad teachers certainly didn’t help.

    I was lucky enough to get some work experience in both reference and tech services during my MLIS, but like many others have said, I feel like I don’t have enough experience in either to get a job. Now that I’m out looking for work I do find myself drawn to small libraries where librarians often have to do everything.

    When I apply for public service jobs, I do make a point in the cover letter that all the work I’ve done in libraries, even in the technical services department, has always been in service of the user.


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