Hi, my name is Jo and I'm a newly qualified librarian working in several academic libraries in Cambridge.

I originally created this blog as an electronic learning journal whilst participating in an extended shadowing programme prior to starting the MA in Information Services Management at London Metropolitan University.

The views expressed here are entirely my own.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Fourteen - Observing the Enquiry Desk

This afternoon, I spent the last session of my shadowing programme observing the part time Assistant Customer Services Librarian at the Enquiry Desk. Although she normally works on Saturdays and Thursday mornings, the librarian has been doing some additional hours to cover the rota as, following the restructure, the FLLs are no longer required to work at the desk. One of the first things she therefore commented on was how much busier it was at the desk during the week compared to Saturdays.

Having said that, this particular slot was very quiet! However, this is probably because Wednesday afternoons are traditionally set aside for sporting activities. We therefore took the opportunity to go through some past enquiries that the librarian had kindly noted down in preparation for this session. Many of these were recurrent enquiries, such as not being able to find a particular item, wanting to know how to place a reservation, etc. However, I was surprised by how wide-ranging some of the more subject specific queries were, from Florence Nightingale to viruses.

This served as a reminder that as a librarian you never know exactly what you are going to be asked and need to be able to think on your feet. The librarian also emphasised the importance of asking subsidary questions to clarify exactly what is required as sometimes people do not ask for what they actually want. Sometimes this is because they need information regarding a particularly sensitive issue. She therefore recommended restricting questions to the subject of the enquiry rather than to the particular circumstances surrounding it.

The librarian also described one or two ocassions where the the reader has either expected her to do the research for them or has not known where to start. In these situations she suggested using the equiry as a means of educating and enabling the reader to help themselves. For instance, she asked the person interested in Florence Nightingale what exactly she wanted to find out but the reader could not be specific. Although she was thinking of writing her dissertation about Florence Nightingale she had not identified a particular focus for her research. The librarian therefore showed her how to conduct a quick search using the digital library to get a feel for some of the key texts, authors and themes to give her some research ideas.

In order to reassure the reader that support is always available, the librarian reminded her that, after conducting some initial research herself, she could make an appointment with the Subject Librarian to get further help. The librarian also pointed out the importance of knowing when you have done all you personally can to answer an enquiry and when to refer it onto someone who is better placed to assist.

As with all the sessions I spent observing the desk, I once again picked up a number of practical tips for dealing with enquiries. During this particular slot, however, I became more aware of the need to treat each enquiry with a certain degree of sensitivity and to leave each reader feeling more confident in their ability to find the information they need. I was also reminded of the importance of reassuring our readers that further help is available and of knowing when to refer the enquiry on.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Thirteen - Collection Development

Yesterday morning I spent some time with the Faculty Liaison Librarian (Arts, Law and Social Sciences) to discuss the library's Collection Management Policy and stock edit procedures. The session began with an overview of the library's budget and the various considerations involved in selecting and managing stock. This was really a recap of the main points covered in the previous ordering session.

We did, however, also discuss the financial implications of subscribing to journals, electronic databases and standing orders. As the FLL (ALSS) explained, the need for such subscriptions has to be assessed particularly carefully because they tend to be very expensive. As the decision to proceed has to be made before the final budget has been set, this sometimes means that in the first year, new subscriptions are paid for out of the general book budget. Annual price increases of 6% - 8% and VAT on online resources also mean that the ongoing cost of new subscriptions can often only be met through the cancellation of existing ones. These often difficult decisions are therefore made in consultation with the relevant academic staff although the final decision rests with the library.

Given the existing pressures on the library's budget, I took the opportunity to ask the FLL (ALSS) what further impact she thought the Vice Chancellor's current focus on increasing research would have. Like the SL (S&T) she also thought that this was difficult to predict but suggested that, realistically, the library could only support increased research activity if additional funding were made available. She also explained that any partnerships with business and industry are likely to be hampered by our current user licences which permit only current university staff and students to use our digital resources for private study or research for non-commercial purposes. It will therefore be interesting to see what the actual effect will be.

Unfortunately, money is not the only constraint when it comes to collection development. Space is also limited which means that the library must aim to achieve zero growth, i.e. to withdraw as many items as are added each year. A regular review of the library's stock is, however, also necessary to ensure that the overall quality of the collection is maintained and that it remains relevant, current and in good physical condition. To some degree this is a continuous process as the Subject Librarians withdraw old editions as new ones arrive, remove or replace copies that are in poor condition, etc. However, each year the library also undertakes a major stock review to identify items to be withdrawn. Although a target is given for the minimum number of items that should be removed, the aim is to exceed this target to allow space for future growth.

The FLL explained that in the past this procedure has been based on Stanley Slote's method of identifying items for de-selection. Slote used the amount of time items remain on the shelf without being issued, and therefore presumably unused, to identify which should be considered for withdrawal. However, in 2006 the library was refurbished which necessitated a more extensive and pragmatic review. Based on the resulting shelf space available, it was decided that all items which had not been issued since 1 April 2002 would be included. Since then this cut-off date has moved forward each year which means that in 2008 any items that haven't been issued since 1 April 2004 will be included in the list of items to be considered.

This initial list is produced using the library's management system, Aleph. Any items which have appeared on previous lists are also highlighted. From this, further lists are produced in Excel which are tailored to specific academic interests and circulated to the appropriate academic staff. They are then asked to review the lists and indicate items for possible withdrawal or retention. In some cases the list will be reviewed by the library staff first and forwarded with their proposals. This consultation exercise usually takes place during exam time when the academic staff are not busy teaching or marking.

The reviewed lists are then returned to the subject staff who produce a final list of items to be withdrawn. Although some items may have appeared on previous lists or been identified by academic staff for withdrawal, the decision may be made to keep them. This may be because they are particularly large and only likely to be used in the library, or are key works that add breadth and depth to the collection. These final lists are then passed to the Customer Services Team to be split into search lists of items, ordered by the Dewey number, to be removed by the Library Assistants and then withdrawn from the system. This year I have been given a lead role in producing these lists after assisting another Library Assistant in this process last year.

Although at our site the stock review is undertaken during the quiet summer months, at our other main site it is conducted throughout the year focusing on particular areas of the collection. In the past, this did not pose a problem as there was an ALL for each subject area at each site to oversee the process locally. However, the recent library restructure means that this is now the responsibility of just one Faculty Liaison Librarian based at either site. It will therefore be interesting to see what effect this new cross-campus structure will have on this and future stock reviews.

Once the stock edit is complete, a statistical report is produced using Aleph to analyse the overall impact on stock levels. This includes a breakdown of the number of items reviewed and the number of items actually withdrawn within each collection subdivided by the main Dewey classes. This report is then presented to the Collections Working Group.

The FLL (ALSS) ended the session by explaining the role of the Collections Working Group. It is chaired by the University Librarian and is attended by the Assistant Director of Library Services (Central Services) ( formerly the Electronic Services & Systems Team)), a FLL or SL representing each of the faculties, the Bibliographic Services Manager (formerly Acquisitions), along with representatives from the Customer Services Management Team and our two smaller Health libraries. The Collections Working Group is responsible for reviewing the Collection Management Policy at regular intervals as well as monitoring the performance of our main suppliers. It also considers special deals and packages that are on offer from other suppliers and through JISC to ensure that our resources continue to represent good value for money. The group is also responsible for promoting our resources to our users by choosing the Database of the Month, for example, and advertising it via the library website.

This session was requested, in conjunction with the slots on cataloguing and ordering, as I wanted to see the life cycle of a book from acquisition through to deselection. Although there was some overlap between the three sessions, together they gave me a clearer understanding and deeper appreciation of the varied and often difficult decision-making processes which underlie our Collection Management Policy.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Twelve - Participation in Library Focus Group Meeting

Yesterday afternoon I was originally due to observe one of the Subject Librarians (Science & Technology) at the Enquiry Desk. However, as I have already had several sessions at the desk, I was invited to attend the second of two focus group meetings instead. Each year, students at both of our main sites are invited to give their views on our services and facilities in order to help us make improvements and plan our future provision. This year, to encourage participation, each student was paid ten pounds to attend. Notes and suggestions arising from these meetings are fed back to the Campus Library Management Team and the University Library Quality Working Group.

Before the session I met with the Faculty Liaison Librarian (Arts, Law and Social Sciences) and one of the Assistant Reader Services Librarians, to run through the discussion topics. These included:

  • the new fines scheme
  • our opening hours
  • the library collections (both physical and digital)
  • library training sessions
  • our comments and suggestions scheme
  • communication with students
  • self-service policy
The topics were split up between us and I was responsible for asking the group about our opening hours and comments and suggestions scheme. As we knew that library fines would be a contentious issue, we decided to deal with this last, unless it was raised by one of the participants, in order to avoid setting a potentially negative tone to the meeting. We were specifically briefed not to influence the outcome of the discussion and to act as moderators not participants.

At the beginning of the session we welcomed the students and introduced ourselves. The students were then asked to introduce themselves by stating their name, subject and year of study. Although there was a good spread of subjects and years within the group, all of the students appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties with no mature students present. The purpose of the meeting and our intentions for using the information gathered were explained. The group were also reminded that this was their opportunity to inform future changes and improvements to our services. In order to elicit honest feedback, they were reassured that all responses would be made anonymous in any final report.

Although some of our discussion points did not provoke an immediate response, most of the participants seemed willing to contribute once the discussion was underway. Subsidiary questions were therefore asked to try and encourage comment and to further explore any additional issues raised. Being an inexperienced facilitator, I initially found it quite difficult to come up with secondary questions which would not shape the course of the discussion. However, I soon took my lead from my colleagues and stuck to open questions such as, "How would you go about making a suggestion or comment about the library?" and "If you have previously made a comment or suggestion, how was it dealt with?".

Despite some of the participants being more vocal than others, no one in particular seemed to dominate or influence the opinion of the group. However, to ensure that everyone had an opportunity to speak, further comment was invited before moving onto the next discussion topic and at the end of the session each student in turn was asked to make any final comments.

Although the discussion was structured around the topics listed above, several distinct themes emerged:

Library staff and user education
Many of the enquiries that are dealt with at the Reception Desk are from people who either can not find the items they need, want to dispute their library fines or report equipment that is out of order. It is therefore very easy to be drawn into a distorted vacuum where all we apparently do is deal with problems from dissatisfied customers. It was therefore most heartening to hear the group's praise for the friendliness and helpfulness of the library staff and the enthusiasm with which they came up with suggestions for improvement. As the majority of participants said they felt comfortable approaching staff for help or to raise issues, the fact that some were not previously aware of the comments and suggestions scheme and that they can make appointments with subject staff didn't seem to present a problem. Those who had made appointments with subject staff or had attended our user education sessions were very happy with the help they received. It was, however, suggested that summary sheets could be produced for those unable to attend the sessions and that refresher training be provided for third years about to start their dissertations.

Opening hours
The participants commented positively on the new term-time 24/4 opening hours (continuous opening from 08:30 Monday to 16:45 on Friday) although some expressed frustration that, later in the evenings, library staff are not available and reservations can not be collected. As some students who have to travel into Cambridge come in early, it was suggested that the library open half an hour earlier on Mondays.

As anticipated, the main criticism was that there are not enough books to go round and that the loan periods are too short. The group were particularly unhappy with the 24 hour collection and the associated fines although, interestingly, the group were generally agreed that the fines structure was necessary to encourage circulation of stock. One person commented that they had given up using the reservation service because they once had to wait over a week for a book. Others appeared to resent having to buy their own copies of key texts. Indeed, there seemed to be a general expectation that the library should provide every student with the books they need with no appreciation of the constraints of funding and space. Given their apparent reluctance to spend lots of money on resources, I was surprised to learn that some students had purchased articles online rather than using the cheaper inter-library loans option, either because they found it quick and convenient or because they were unaware that the service exists.

In the Inter-library Loans Team we have recently received a number of requests for physical copies of available e-books from students who do not like using the digital version. I therefore found it interesting that so many of the students spoke positively about them and expressed a demand for more. I do, however, wonder whether this is because most of the participants will have grown up with the internet and digital media. This so-called Generation Y's demand for quick and easy access to information was also evident in suggestions that the digital databases are difficult to navigate and should therefore be made to work in the same way as Google Scholar. This implies a need to re-emphasise the importance of quality information sources over ease of access.

One interesting outcome of this discussion was a suggestion that the library produce a regular electronic newsletter highlighting new books, journals and digital resources that have recently been acquired by the library. This would be organised under subject headings and e-mailed to all students.

IT provision
The main issue raised was the insufficient number of PCs available in the library. There were some conflicting arguments about whether these PCs should be used to access social networking sites such as Facebook. Some students felt this should either be banned completely, only allowed during quieter periods or on a small number of standing height machines. Others, however, suggested that as these sites are used increasingly to support online study groups and to keep in touch with friends and family their use is legitimate.

The group were also critical of the number of times that the computer network has been unavailable recently and that they can no longer forward messages sent to their student e-mail to their personal accounts. Unfortunately, although these issues are the responsibility of Communications & IT Services, because the computers are located in the library they are perceived to be library issues.

Library environment
The majority of the students were very pleased with the recent refurbishment of the library and particularly appreciated the allocation of group and silent study zones. One or two, however, felt that the plain walls were too clinical and suggested that student art work be displayed to provide interest and inspiration. There was also a suggestion that the refreshment area be enlarged and, comparisons with the new entrance area at our other main site, suggest a demand for more social space within the library.

Before the meeting, I had expected to attend purely as an observer but welcomed the opportunity to gain some experience as a facilitator. This session served as an important reminder of the need to listen to our library users and to continuously adapt and evolve our services to meet their needs.

I also really appreciated the opportunity to engage with the students away from the Reception Desk and to hear their positive comments and suggestions. It was a real morale booster to be reminded that not all of our students are disgruntled or dissatisfied and that the work we do is valued. For this reason, I would recommend that all staff, including Library Assistants, are given the opportunity to attend future focus groups either as observers or moderators.