The evolving definition of Access Services

At some point or another in our library careers, we serve on the front lines. Anyone who has worked directly with the public usually has several colorful stories to tell, such as Gina Sheridan over at iworkatapubliclibrary.com. However, access services has become more than just one-to-one transactions with the public. While it still remains one of the primary functions of brick and mortar libraries, the headlong foray into the digital age creates additional challenges when it comes to access to services and materials.  As someone who has worked in this area for some time now, I want to attempt to define access services, share my own perspective, and discover what employers are looking for in prospective hires.

The ALA defines access services as “those functions in a library which enable the use of the collections, including the general circulation functions, reserves (both “holds” in a public library and course reserves in an academic library), shelving and reshelving of materials, and stack maintenance.” This definition noticeably doesn’t include inter-library loan, signage, collection security or adaptive services, all of which concern access to resources. The overall impression is that access services is a discipline with an evolving definition, and depending on the work site, could have varying meanings and duties attached to it.

In my experience, public service positions aren’t always referred to as “access services.” More often than not, access is an assumed function of the circulation department. In the academic library I worked at, I tackled the escalating task of e-reserves. At the time, the circulation staff divided and conquered the many steps to acquiring and purchasing permission to post articles for access in our ILS. In the short time since I had been there, the number of articles rose from a couple hundred to upwards of one thousand articles per semester, all handled by three or four library staff members, all of whom were still responsible for customer service and stacks maintenance. In our case, it became rapidly clear that while e-reserve access was part of the overarching duties of the department, we were woefully understaffed and in many cases, not adequately trained to handle the volume and increasing complexity of the e-reserves system. In the years since my departure, staff was hired to specifically handle electronic course reserves.

As my experience illustrates, access services is evolving beyond traditional customer service interactions and the shelving of books. So, what are employers looking for in access service managers? I found this job description from the Texas Woman’s University to be especially illuminating. The very extensive list of primary duties includes not just those items already discussed, but also overseeing the access services web experience, being a liaison to campus departments in order to determine need, as well as coordinate with other libraries on a regional and national level in order to acquire materials. This is all in addition to training and overseeing the activities of staff in circulation and inter-library loan departments.

In sum, today’s access services managers must be diverse in their knowledge and creative in their application of customer service, and able to execute directives regarding collection maintenance and development. While different settings may change the definition of access services, it’s clear that they are the guardian of the most basic function of libraries: customer interaction and access to collections.

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Image via Detroit Public Library on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0.

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