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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Changing Business Practices in Libraries

When you tell people that you are training to be a Teacher Librarian the first thing that they mention is the books. Books and then coffee. 

Peoples "idea" of what a library was and what it has become is very different. To many the sole purpose of a library is to conserve and organise collections. The key focus was to meet the needs of people who held a Library Card, or a borrower. 

University of NSW, archival stacks

In the era of MBA's and Venture capitalists, we now talk about the "client". It is not unusual for a "client" of a library not to borrow any resources, but to use them onsite or online. Libraries have started discarding the draconian overdue late slip in favour of focusing on those people who do use the library resources.

This change in focus comes as Library funding is dramatically changing from a system that was "given" or relied upon, to one which takes into consideration Key Performance Indicators which are supported by checks and measures normally reserved for more traditional businesses.

Defining the Client

Clearly defining the client seems to be an important factor in the perceived success of a modern 21st Century library. My memories of doing undergrad History at the University of Melbourne brings back sensory memories of the old books that I needed to reference to complete my essay's on the French Revolution. Visiting the University of NSW Library was a cultural shock.  Their client wasn't the confused undergrad needing lessons on research, but the post-grad doing research. I heard about the fact that the USW was part of the Group of Eight universities Australia wide, who have a very different focus to a TAFE environment. The UNSW Library had a different client focus to what I thought. Their foyer, rather than serene and calming was a hustle and bustle akin to the Genius Bar in an Apple store. Most of their traditional information literacy services have been abandoned and replaced with servicing the post-grad and teaching staff. Their focus is laser sharp on supporting the greater goals of the organisation, rather that the humble library.

For ABC Sound and Reference Library in Ultimo, Sydney their focus was the Producers and Reporters for the ABC. Again, another example of a library focused the goals of the greater business. Activities that would normally be just nice for a library to engage in are removed from the environment if it doesn't make an impact on the bottom line.

For the library romantics out there, it sounds like blasphemy.

One of the two schools that I visited on my Sydney Study Visit was Santa Sabina College. Again, removing the romanic ideal that a school library is all about books and warmth, their focus was on the bottom line; student achievement results. Whilst, the library provided space for books and warmth, their driver and reason for being was to support teaching and learning at the college, they defined their client as the teachers not the students. Through the teachers, they improve the learning environment.

Defining clearly the core client clarifies the role of the library and librarians within the organisation and provides a driver for decisions to be made and processes to be improved. In this day and age, Libraries can’t be all things to all people, we only have limited time and resources.

Defining the Vision and Mission of a Library

After defining your client or stakeholders, a mission and vision should support what you intend to do directly. A small library focusing on Genealogical resources would have a different vision and mission than one of the "Group of Eight".

Due to recent budget cuts, the TAFE sector is in turmoil. TAFE NSW Library is one such organisation going through vast changes due to a changing funding model pushed by the Group of Eight Universities that derive the majority of their funding through research means. 

Rather than the Library leading the change with innovative services, organisational changes are being driven externally by legislation and when talking with the librarians you can hear the nervous distrust in their voices as they talk about an institution which is slowly being eroded. 

Having previously read about UNSW throwing their books out, it was with great interest that I listened to the presentation by Janet Fletcher about the role of the main Library on campus. Similar to the State Library of NSW, the change of focus has resulted in a business-focused department that places the key research needs of the University first rather than information literacy needs of the undergraduate student.  They have analysed their clientele and decided that their time is best spent assisting the University to access funding for research rather than teaching researching skills to students who should probably already know how to research if they have gained a position at one of the Group of Eight Universities.

The mission and objectives of TAFE NSW is so different. Their clients having English as a second language and students studying a technical or hands-on study, their business model can't be driven by the same factors. It is hard to create a Key Performance Indicator for the overseas students in your client group and whether their english has improved. 

Out of all of the Library models that I studied on my Sydney Visit, the TAFE NSW Library felt more like what I experienced in the 80's and 90's rather than what would be regarded as a 21st Century Library. Does this library model make their library any more or less relevant?  Should we be funding all tertiary libraries under the same rules if their clients are dramatically different?

It will be interesting to see what happens to TAFE NSW, as their funding model changes to a voucher based system, rather than an enrolment system.

Changing Business Processes

One of the more profound concepts that I was exposed to when I did my Library Study Visit was the widespread use of outsourcing(another article). But surely the librarians need to know the collection? Cost/Benefit analysis says "no".  At my school Library most of the resources are processed and shelved in-house, everyone including the Teacher Librarians shelve, do book returns and tidy the library. At University of NSW, their processing and returning of resources to shelves is outsourced. The books arrive barcoded, stamped and ready to be shelved by the "casual shelvers" that come in a few times a day to do this task. Therefore freeing up the staff to focus on the core business of the Library. This of course has a knock on effect on employment within a library. When searching for my Library Placement, I spoke to a lot of Librarians who communicated that the changing business practices in this area make it hard to accommodate the new library or information services students coming through. Businesses will outsource tasks and then no-longer employ qualified librarians, but Library Technicians or Assistants.

A stark contrast to a School Library where the expectation that all staff involve themselves in these tasks so that they "get to know" the collection. But is that hour of shelving and sorting each day better spent on activities that directly service the key stakeholders and meet organisational goals? It was an interesting topic to unpack with the other Teacher Librarians!

Is it right to engaging the use of professionals for tasks that were not related to their key measurable objectives? The University of NSW use copy cataloguing, students for shelving and automatic purchasing and processing of resources to free up full time staff to concentrate on their core business. Unfortunately smaller libraries such as the Society for Australian Genealogists are not in a position to engage in a lot of outsourcing due to funding constraints. 

What do you think about changing business practices in Libraries? Good, bad? Or taking things a bit too far?

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