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.
Tuesday, 25 March 2008
My main reason for participating in the programme is to gain a deeper insight into the role of the professional librarian before fully commiting to a Masters course in September. At our preliminary meeting we identified the following core activities to be included in the schedule as a means of fulfilling this goal:
Observation of the Enquiry Desk
So far I have observed four different librarians at the desk and have compared their different styles and ways of working. Although most of the enquiries have been fairly routine, I have still been able to collect a number of useful tips for working at the Enquiry Desk. As described in earlier posts, there were even a couple of ocassions where I was able to put some of these into practice to directly assist one or two of our readers. These sessions have therefore increased my confidence in dealing with routine enquiries at the Reception Desk and have equipped me with some valuable examples of best practice for use in my future career.
Assisting a User Education Session
Although I have assisted with several user education sessions in the past, I wanted to learn more about what goes into planning and delivering this type of training. I was therefore able to focus on the various factors that need to be considered such as: the type of students involved and the level of detail required (undergraduate or postgraduate? 1st, 2nd or 3rd year?); their previous experience (are they likely to have used the library before?, what resources might they already be familiar with?); the timing of the session (are they completely new students already overwhelmed with information?, have they already completed assignments and are more aware of the help they might need?).
It was also interesting to observe how the smaller group size and venue elicited a more relaxed atmosphere and a less formal style of delivery. This made it easier for me to get involved and help those students who needed further one-to-one support.
Visit from Graduate Trainees
When I first considered applying to Library School, I was worried not having followed a graduate traineeship might put me at a disadvantage to those who have. Talking to the trainees, however, I was soon reassured that I have had an equivalent, if not a richer experience working as a Library Assistant.
Comparing our roles it was apparent that most of our daily tasks, such as shelving and reception duties, are much the same. Although some of the trainees have been given additional para-professional tasks such as basic cataloguing and classification, my involvement in the Inter-library Loans Team and special projects, such as the stock edit, have given me a similar insight into professional tasks. Also, although the trainees participate in a programme of group training sessions and visits to other libraries, the Library's own Learning Hour programme and summer visits to other libraries have given me similar opportunities to learn more about libraries and librarianship in general.
I was equally reassured to learn that, although they were mostly recent graduates, many of the trainees shared my apprehensions about returning to study and my worries about finding a professinal post in the future. Through talking to other people with similar aspirations and concerns I was therefore able to re-evaluate the value of my experience and to rationalise some of my fears and insecurities about returning to study as a mature student.
Academic Liaison - Attending the Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Faculty Board Meeting and Course Validations
After shadowing the ALL (A&L) in the summer (see my Summer Shadowing Report), I was keen to learn more about what the role involves in practice. It was therefore suggested that I observe a Faculty Board Meeting which would also allow me to see the course validation process in action.
As mentioned in my earlier post, I was particularly interested in the comments made by the student representatives as these helped to explain some of the negative, even aggressive behaviour we frequently encounter in the library. The students aired their frustrations with issues such as IT network outages, changes to student e-mail and teething problems resulting from the restructure of the Student Information Centres. This seemed to suggest that tensions don't necessarily originate from within the library itself but from an accumulation of perceived failiures with our university's systems and procedures generally. These perceptions also seem to stem from the increasingly high expectations which are bred by increasingly expensive tuition fees.
The discussions surrounding these issues also suggested that frustrations can occur when students have not fully understood what is expected of them. This is a common problem especially when it comes to library fines. Often our readers feel aggrieved when we explain that the fines stand because it is their responsibility to check their library accounts regularly and renew their loans online. As one of the academic staff suggested, perhaps this highlights a need for our university as a whole to do more to make our informal expectations of students more explicit.
The other aspect of the meeting which drew my attention was the consideration of proposed new academic pathways as part of the course validation process. As discussed in my earlier post, I was surprised that some academic staff proposing these new courses feel able to judge the extent of their impact on the library's resources without actually consulting the ALLs. I think this highlights a need to raise the profile of the library and the value of the services that we provide which unfortunately seems to be generally true of all libraries.
The second half of my shadowing programme will cover the other areas that were identified as being core to the profressional librarian's role. These include sessions on cataloguing, ordering and collection development as well as more sessions observing the Enquiry Desk. I also plan to accompany the ALL (A&L) to the cross-site Staff Learning and Development Group meeting but as this requires additional time to travel to another site, it may not be possible if any other Library Assistants are absent on that day. If this is the case then the time will be given to additional sessions observing the Enquiry Desk and possibly observing a one-to-one appointment between a Subject Librarian and a student.
Another factor which may disrupt the planned schedule is the current restructure of library staff which initially comes into effect on 1 April. This means that most of the ALLs will become Faculty Liaison Librarians (FLLs) with cross-site responsibility for their respective subject areas. The ALL (A&L) is likely to become the Staff Learning and Development Manager which means that, like the FLLs, she will no longer be staffing the Enquiry Desk. As my final shadowing session was planned to be with the ALL (A&L) this is therefore likely to have to be changed.
So far the shadowing programme has certainly met and, in some respects exceeded, my expectations. I had anticipated that my involvement in the various activities would be purely as an observer but was delighted to be given the opportunity to get actively involved where appropriate. This hands-on experience combined with the enthusiasm and encouragement of those people I have shadowed has certainly boosted my confidence and helped to confirm that librarianship is the career for me.
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
The online enquiries are checked by whoever is on duty at the desk at 09:00 and 17:00 each day. Many of the e-mails received relate to fine/account queries, problems with the library facilities or other reader services issues. The Reader Services Librarian therefore tries to check the inbox at quiet intervals throughout the day to pick up any issues before they are referred to her.
One of today's messages was from an oversees student who was trying to access an item that had been included on her reading list. The Library Catalogue and Digital Library were checked to find that it is only available in hard copy. An e-mail was sent to the reader to explain that the enquiry would therefore be referred to the appropriate Subject Librarian as it may be possible to have the relevant sections digitised and made available electronically. Although the Subject Team request copies of reading lists from the course tutors to allow them to check them and ensure that the appropriate resources are readily available, not all of them do so. Unfortunately, this frequently results in students coming to the Enquiry Desk for help to find items, either because we don't have them in stock or because the details on the reading lists are inaccurate.
During the slot with the Subject Librarian (ALSS) a reader came to the Desk as she was having some problems submitting an inter-library loan request using the OPAC. As a member of the inter-library loans team this presented an ideal opportunity to gain more hands-on experience at the Desk. The reader had received an error message to say that she was over her inter-library loan limit. There is currently no limit to the number of requests a student can submit and I was able to explain that in the past this message has been prompted because the need by date has been entered in the wrong format, i.e. DD/MM/YY instead of DD/MM/YYYY. As the student couldn't remember which format she used I took her through the whole process of submitting a request step by step to ensure that she hadn't input any other details incorrectly. It gave me a real sense of satisfaction to be able to resolve the reader's query and to hopefully leave her more confident in her ability to use the library.
User education and best practice
Like all the librarians I have observed to date, the Subject Librarian (ALSS) uses every available opportunity to educate our readers so that they can use the library independently. For instance, if a student says that they can't find a book she asks them for the shelf location to ascertain whether or not they have checked the Library Catalogue. If they haven't she will take them to the OPAC and tell them how to search the catalogue but will ask them to do the searching themselves. She then takes them over to the shelves, points out the shelf-end labels and helps them to find the item they are looking for. If the reader has already searched the catalogue for a book and has searched the shelf themselves, the Subject Librarian (ALSS) will check the full catalogue record to see how many pages it has. This gives an indication as to how big the book is likely to be. If it is a very slim volume, she therefore knows to check that it isn't hidden between two larger books or hasn't been pushed to the back of the shelf.
At all my sessions at the Enquiry Desk it has been extremely useful to pick up best practice tips such as these. During the remaining observation sessions I hope to pick up others that will help in my future career and to gain more hands-on experience.
Friday, 7 March 2008
We also spent some time discussing how she prefers to work at the Desk and deals with waiting customers. Like the ALL (A&L), the ALL (ALSS) tries to acknowledge anyone who is waiting and will use her judgement whether to ask the reader she is engaged with if she can deal with waiting customers she suspects can be dealt with quickly. If an enquiry is particularly complex, she tends to ignore the telephone but if she has just finished dealing with someone, she will answer the phone before moving onto the next person. The ALL (ALSS) also makes a concerted effort to educate readers so that they don't become dependent on library staff and gain the confidence to use the library independently. For instance, our students often don't realise that they can request items from our other sites. The ALL (ALSS) therefore tries to make sure that readers are aware of this and shows them exactly how to place a reservation.
Difficulties and recurrent issues
It was also interesting to compare common and particularly difficult issues that arise at both the Reception and Enquiry Desks. As our university has a high percentage of international students, issues frequently arise due to language barriers. Although it is sometimes embarrassing to ask someone to repeat themselves several times, it is important not to assume that you have understood or to guess what the reader is asking for. The ALL (ALSS) also explained that libraries on the continent are often organised quite differently and tend to put less emphasis on self-service and user education. This can lead to different expectations of library staff and perceptions of unhelpfulness, particularly for those working at the Enquiry Desk.
Other common problems relate to fine disputes and readers' behaviour, particularly with talking and eating in inappropriate areas of the library. In some respects it was a relief to know that even experienced and senior members of staff find these situations awkward and difficult to deal with. It was also reassuring, although also slightly depressing, to know that the often discourteous and disrespectful attitudes of some of our readers are not reserved exclusively for the Library Assistants!
What was perhaps more depressing than this was an act of vandalism that was brought to our attention by one of our Ophthalmology students. A whole chapter had been deliberately cut out of a brand new book. Like many of the Ophthalmology titles, this was a particularly expensive book which now leaves the Subject Librarian with the dilemma of whether to make all copies counter issue only, which will cause inconvenience to innocent students.
So far, my observations of the Enquiry Desk have shown me the positive aspects of the librarian's role and the rewards of helping readers to resolve their queries and to make the most out of using the library. This session made me think about the less favourable aspects of the role and some of the difficult issues that I am likely to face if I am to pursue a professional career in library work. I do, however, think it is important to reflect on this and to honestly consider whether I am prepared to endure the downsides of the profession. I am happy to say that, on balance, the rewards still appear to outweigh the negatives and I haven't been deterred from pursuing my goal of becoming a professional librarian.
Thursday, 6 March 2008
Extended Shadowing Programe: Session Five - Observation of the Arts, Law and Social Sciences Faculty Board meeting
The Faculty Board is chaired by the Dean and is attended by the Associate Deans, Heads of Department, Programme Leaders, student representatives, representatives from the Students' Union, representatives from the Partner Colleges and Joint Venture Companies associated with the Faculty and other key members of Faculty staff. Representatives from central support units including Communications & IT Services, Registry, Student Affairs, Academic and Quality Systems Office, the Students Union and the Library are also invited to attend as observers along with the Faculty Administration Manager. Although the observers can contribute to the meeting they can't table papers for discussion.
The primary purpose of the Faculty Board is:
"On behalf of Senate to formulate strategic plans for curriculum development within the Faculty, including consideration of proposals for the development and location of new and existing pathways within the Faculty's remit. Faculty Boards are also responsible for overseeing the implementation of the University's policies and procedures for assuring academic standards throughout the Faculty."
The Board also tries to resolve any problems arising from the Faculty's courses that can not be resolved by individual programme committees, e.g. a lack of studio space and equipment for the arts students. If the Faculty Board can not reach agreement on a particular issue, then it is passed to the Senate (which is chaired by the Vice Chancellor) for a final decision. A recent example concerned staff who are employed by our Partner Colleges to teach our university courses but can't access the same digital resources as the students. This is because the user licences only permit access to current university registered staff and students. As it is a problem that can not be resolved internally, it was referred to the Senate who consulted JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) for advice. Many UK universities are experiencing the same problem and so JISC are currently in negotiations with individual publishers to try and resolve the issue. It is, however, quite rare for any issues to be escalated beyond the Faculty Board.
There was a very full agenda for the meeting including items such as the University Calendar 2008/9, Faculty Student Profile Statistics, National/Regional Initiatives and the Quality Enhancement Audit of the quality of Student Handbooks. For me, some of the most interesting discussions arose out of the issues raised by the Students' Union and the student representatives.
One of their main concerns relates to a recent reorganisation of the Student Information Centres which has led to changes in the process for submitting assignments. This has resulted in some initial disruption in students getting back their work after marking. For instance, one of the student representatives reported having received an incorrect fail mark because a marked essay had been lost and was having problems in getting the mark corrected. One of the academic staff present explained that there was a formal procedure for dealing with this and was surprised that the student was experiencing such difficulties. As with any large institution, there are always going to be some problems in effectively communicating the official policies and procedures to a large student body. It is certainly a problem we encounter daily in the library. I don't think this is necessarily because we are not doing enough to inform our students. Although we communicate the necessary information via our website, induction tours, welcome leaflets and notices in the library, we regularly come across readers who, even in the second or third year, still do not understand how the library operates. I have long suspected that the underlying problem is that often many students have never been in an environment were they have been expected to be proactive in finding out what is expected of them and in fulfilling their responsibilities.
Indeed, this very point was raised in a discussion surrounding the six week break at Christmas. One of the student representatives reported that some first years feel the break is too long and that it disrupts their study routine and momentum. Some were also unsure of the purpose of the break. As members of the teaching staff suggested, the vacation should ideally be used to reflect on what has already been learnt and to prepare for the second semester. There was also a reminder that details of modules and reading lists can be found in the course handbooks or can be obtained from the individual module leaders. Although I was astonished this was not already obvious to the students and that they were having to be spoon fed in this way, I was also not entirely surprised. I think that being proactive is a skill that needs to be learnt and, as one of the tutor's at the meeting suggested, perhaps more needs to be done to make our informal expectations more explicit at the being of each academic year.
I found it very enlightening attending this meeting as I was able to better appreciate the direct impact that decisions made elsewhere within our university can have on our students and the service that we provide in the library. I had previously been surprised and quite demoralised at times when some of our readers have reacted hostilely, even aggressively, when I've tried to resolve routine issues regarding their library accounts or unforeseen problems with our services, e.g. temporary computer network failures. However, hearing some of the students voice their frustrations, I could clearly see how a culmination of issues across our university could easily lead to this build up of tension and a perception that all of our university's services are inadequate. I think this is exacerbated by the fact that students are now paying increasingly high course fees which may also account for the expectation that they should be spoon fed information rather than actively staying informed. In a way, it was reassuring to know that these are not issues isolated to the library, however, at the same time I think it poses serious questions about how our university deals with the increased expectations and changes in attitude that come with paying course fees.