Today we welcome a guest post by Autumn Wetli. Autumn is a graduate student pursuing her MLIS at Wayne State University with a focus on academic librarianship. She currently works in Learning & Teaching at The University of Michigan’s Library. She has many research interests, but a few include instruction, digital pedagogy, metadata/language, and within all of these topics a focus on critical consciousness and inclusive, feminist practices.
This post is based on thoughts I’ve acquired working in an academic library for the past 4 ½ years. There are plenty of misconceptions about the work that technical services does in a library. When I talk about technical services in this post, I am specifically focusing on the acquisitions process. Cataloging (at least for now!) is a subject that Masters programs still address in preparing future librarians and whose importance (metadata) is emphasized. Before delving into the heart of this post though, I want to start with a little background about myself and my introduction to librarianship.
My interest in libraries started at a young age. The library offered the opportunity to delve into books which took me to people, places, and experiences far beyond the reaches of the small, rural Midwest area I grew up in. As a child, I had no idea what the work of a librarian actually entailed. I just assumed the librarian was the person who sat at the front desk and checked my books out to me, who, in hindsight, probably wasn’t technically a librarian. My first experience working in a library came when I was in college and got a job in the technical services department of a small liberal arts college library. It was an eye-opening experience. Going into this job I had no idea what the words “technical service” meant and how it was related to a library. The tasks in this position were fairly simple. I’d process new periodicals, new books, and withdrawals. It was the first time the thought of pursuing a career in librarianship entered my head though, and I realized there was an educational path for doing so.
In 2013, after transferring to and graduating from a larger research university, continuing work as a student worker in the library, and moving to and from New York, I began working full-time in the monograph acquisitions unit at my alma mater’s library. I spent three years here, followed by a seven-month stint assisting with print ordering, both units falling under the larger umbrella of technical services. I learned a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting books on the shelf. The knowledge I gained also helped me out in a later, more patron-focused job. If a patron was looking for a book that wasn’t on the shelf yet, I could look at its bibliographic record in our Integrated Library System (ILS) and determine where in the workflow it was and where it could currently be found and expedited for patron use. At times, I would be working with an older book and find a mistake that had been made years before in acquisitions, which may have otherwise gone unnoticed. These skills definitely came in handy in my coursework (already understanding MARC was a life-saver in my cataloging class!).
In addition to the skills I took from my work in technical services, I also left with some general impressions of the field. I don’t know if it is universal amongst libraries or not, but being in technical services often felt like being the left-out stepchild of the library. There was a general feeling that people didn’t know or care what we did, the latter most likely the result of the former.
MLIS programs don’t seem to discuss the acquisitions process much, so young grads are forced to learn these tasks on-the-job. It is a difficult subject to teach, and granted, much of this work may now be outsourced to vendors* or performed by staff versus librarians. However, I feel that an understanding of the acquisitions process- ordering and receiving- makes for a more holistic librarian. Technical services isn’t a dead or dying field, but it is definitely evolving and changing with trends and technology. Just because collections are moving from physical content to electronic doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for technical service processes. While I worked primarily with print materials, I do know a bit about what goes on in the electronic order/acquisitions unit** and there is a lot of work that goes into making e-books and journals available to users. Someone has to negotiate with vendors, deal with licensing, and the ongoing problem of bad or broken links. It also seems imaginable that format obsolescence will be a future concern for electronic materials.
I do not necessarily plan on becoming a technical services librarian after graduating, but I am thankful for the experience I had in these departments and the more well-rounded librarian it will make me. I want to urge current aspiring librarians, of all varieties, to seek out some experience and expertise in the acquisition process. Reach out to librarians and staff in these departments to learn about their workflows. Having a more complete understanding of how collections make it onto the library shelves creates librarians who can more productively collaborate with their colleagues and better serve their patrons.
*Relying on vendor provided bib records/shelf ready materials is not always the best and perfect choice! I’ve seen too many instances where vendor provided materials were labeled incorrectly and bibliographic records contained mistakes or lacked the richness which creates better, easier discovery.
**The plan is to eventually combine the work of these two units. Print and electronic ordering have already been joined together to provide opportunity for cross-training and sharing workloads, which I believe is key to the future of technical services and those who work in the field.
For further reading…
Eden, B.L. (Ed.). (2016). Rethinking technical services: New frameworks, new skill sets, new tools, new roles. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Weber, M.B. (Ed.). (2015). Rethinking library technical services: Redefining our profession for the future. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Featured image “Room 100, Including Card Catalogs” by NYPL is licensed under Creative Commons