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.

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.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Eleven - Observing a Student Appointment

Yesterday afternoon I observed an appointment between the Subject Librarian (A&L) and a second year undergraduate student who was apparently looking for a general introduction to using the library.

To clarify exactly what the student wanted from the session, the SL (A&L) started by asking her how she currently uses the library. Her library account had previously been checked and a clear circulation record seemed to suggest that she had not used the library at all. However, this initial discussion revealed that she has in fact used our digital resources, but the books she has used have either been bought or borrowed from the university where her mother studies. As the student is about to start researching her dissertation, what she actually wanted from the session was to learn more about the resources on offer. This clearly demonstrates the importance of establishing the reader's previous experience and learning objectives without making assumptions.

Having established the aim of the session, the SL (A&L) went on to give an overview of the library catalogue, My Library Account, e-books, the digital library and inter-library loans. Throughout the appointment the librarian's tone was informal and friendly which seemed to put the student at her ease and encouraged her to talk openly and ask questions. Although on the surface the appointment seemed to progress quite casually and spontaneously it soon became apparent that the librarian was actually skillfully extracting the necessary details to tailor the session to the student's particular needs.

For instance, at each step she asked the student which resources she uses and why to establish her preferred learning style. This also enabled the librarian to discover what the student already knew. In the case of the digital library, this allowed her to focus on using the advanced search facility rather than spending lots of time on the quick search option which was already familiar. As the librarian went through the various databases on offer and demonstrated how they work, she encouraged the student to think of her own search terms to keep the session meaningful and memorable. She also paused at appropriate intervals to check that the student had understood and wasn't being overloaded with too much information. This also provided an opportunity for the student to ask more questions and to go over things again.

Throughout the appointment the librarian also gave her some specific tips and advice to take away and to consolidate what she had learnt. For example, she advised starting her research by searching different databases to ascertain which are the key texts, authors and themes. This would also help her to become familiar with the way each database looks and works. As the student seemed to prefer using online resources, the librarian also stressed the importance of using quality sources rather than relying too heavily on the internet.

Towards the end of the appointment she checked whether there was anything else that the student needed that hadn't already been covered. She wanted some help with referencing and so the librarian directed her to the Guide to Harvard Referencing which is available on our website and briefly explained how Refworks can be used to compile a bibliography. As the appointment time was almost up and the librarian had not personally used Refworks to any great extent, she advised the student to look at the online guide and to make an appointment with the FLL if she needed further help. This helped to remind and reassure the student that although the session was over, the library staff can be called upon again if needed.

As with the user education session I observed, it was useful to focus on the interaction between the librarian and the student and to analyse the underlying teaching and learning processes at work. I suspect that many students feel a little nervous about asking for help and admitting that there are things that they don't know. I was therefore particularly impressed with the skill with which the librarian used her friendly and informal style to make the student feel secure enough to open up and get what she wanted from the session. I am sure that the strategies that I observed during this appointment will certainly prove useful in my future career.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Ten - Ordering

This morning I spent some time with the Subject Librarian (Science & Technology) talking about the various factors involved when ordering stock items for the library. I asked for this session to be included in my shadowing programme as I had often wondered how the librarians decide which titles to purchase, how many copies to buy and which format to buy them in (e.g. physical book or e-book).

The SL (S&T) started the session by explaining how the budget for each subject area is determined. The overall budget for library stock is divided between the Faculty Liaison Librarians (previously Academic Liaison Librarians) based partly on student numbers and partly on subject knowledge and previous experience. The FLL then deducts an amount for set expenditure such as journal subscriptions, electronic resources and standing orders. The remainder is then split between the various subject areas, again based on both student numbers and previous experience.

To ensure that the whole budget is spent by the end of the financial year, monthly spending targets are set by the Acquisitions Team. Although these provide a useful guide, it is not always practical to order books evenly throughout the year. For instance, the Subject Librarians have to ensure enough money is left towards the end of the academic year when bulk requests are placed for key texts in readiness for the start of the following year.

Sources of orders
The library's Collection Management Policy states that the library's main aim is "to provide a wide range of resources, but with current needs and access to core materials and texts taking priority". The majority of orders are therefore placed for copies of key and essential texts as listed in the individual Module Definition Forms/Module Guides. Gaining access to these reading lists is not, however, always straightforward. In the past these have been requested from the appropriate academic staff but other pressures on their time mean that this is not always their top priority. The SL (S&T) has therefore found that it is often more effective to request reading lists from the relevant administrative staff in each department instead.

Once the reading lists are received they have to be checked as sometimes they include out of print titles or older editions. Sometimes they also include weekly reading lists which do not specify which texts are key, essential or for background reading. This not only makes it difficult for the librarians to know how many copies to order, but it also makes it difficult for the students to determine which are the most important materials to read. In these situations, the librarians have to liaise with the departments to try and source alternatives. This obviously calls for some diplomacy and underlines the importance of building effective working relationships with the appropriate academic and administrative staff.

Although the Collection Development Policy gives clear guidance on the number of key, essential and background reading texts that should be purchased, additional copies can be ordered where demand is especially high. A report is regularly generated by our library management system, Aleph, to highlight such items, i.e. where reservations have been placed but not fulfilled. Orders are also generated by a lost item report which lists items that have been overdue or missing for a specific length of time. These are not, however, necessarily replaced like for like. For instance, where an item is out of print the preference is to replace it with a more recent title which covers similar material. Out of print items are however purchased where important information is not included in alternative titles. Similarly, new editions are ordered to replace the old unless they contain valuable material which is omitted from the latest edition.

Requests and suggestions for new items are welcomed from students and staff. These can be written in the suggestions book held at the Enquiry Desk or submitted using the online recommendations form available via the library website. Academic staff will usually send their requests direct to the appropriate Subject Librarian. These items are normally purchased unless the cost is prohibitive. Student's suggestions are considered on an individual basis within the context of the Collection Development Policy. As the Vice Chancellor has recently placed an emphasis on increasing research activity within our university I was curious to know whether this would attract more requests from academic staff and consequently more funding for the library. The SL (S&T) felt that it was, however, too soon to predict what the impact will be.

Subject Librarians are also given the discretion to order items to fill gaps in the collection that are not highlighted by any of the above means. As each Subject Librarian is responsible for more than one subject area they can not realistically be expected to have an expert knowledge of all the subjects for which they are responsible. I therefore asked the Subject Librarian (S&T) whether she was required to have a degree in a science or technology subject and how she has developed her knowledge of the other areas. She explained that although her background is in a different subject area she has built up her knowledge of the collection and the different subject areas through dealing with student enquiries and communications with academic staff. This has given her a feel for which subject areas are covered well by the collection and where the demand for additional information lies.

Additional considerations
Because the library has a limited budget for purchasing stock items it will always, inevitably, be outstripped by demand. Considering which items to buy and how many copies to purchase is therefore only part of the story. The Subject Librarians also have to deliberate which format to select and how to manage the stock once it arrives to maximise availability. For instance, where resources are available electronically, e.g. e-books, these are likely to be favoured over print versions as they provide wider access, including off-site, to a greater number of readers. However, in some cases digital versions may not be suitable either because they are too expensive, can not be supported by the Digital Library or in the case of some subjects like art, the quality of the 'print' is insufficient.

Where the demand for specific paper items is particularly high instead of buying additional copies the Subject Librarians can employ a range of different loan statuses to increase circulation. For instance, they may decide to have a number of 7-day or 24-hour copies supplemented by a reference copy. Similarly, if items are prone to theft or vandalism or are particularly expensive or difficult to replace (e.g. out of print copies) they can also be safeguarded by making them available via the counter only and again using short loan statuses to increase circulation.

Ordering Items
We did not spend much time actually placing orders as I have previously witnessed parts of the process through shadowing the Acquisitions Team and through the earlier Cataloguing and Classification session. After going through the process of placing one or two orders I did, however, begin to appreciate just how time-consuming and administratively intensive the various checks and procedures are. Despite this, because of the manifold considerations outlined above, ordering is not something that can be easily delegated to non-professional staff. I am, however, hoping that my previous experience of ordering goods and services, processing invoices and monitoring budgets will prove to be useful preparation.

Although I have always suspected that ordering stock is not a straightforward business I had not previously appreciated the true complexity of the underlying decision-making processes involved. It soon became apparent during this session that our Subject Librarians, along with most other librarians in most sectors, face an increasingly difficult balancing act of weighing a limited budget against the demands of readers.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Nine - Observing the Enquiry Desk

As mentioned in an earlier post, today I was originally due to attend the cross-site Staff Learning and Development Group (SL&DG) meeting at our other main site. However, due to the recent staffing restructure, the meeting was cancelled to allow those affected time to settle into their new roles. Instead, I spent two hours observing the Assistant Customer Services Librarian (formerly Assistant Reader Services Librarian under the old structure) at the Enquiry Desk. The remainder of the time I was due to be at the SL&DG meeting will be spent observing a one-to-one appointment between a student and the Subject Librarian (A&L) on 15 April (see the amended Shadowing Programme Calendar under the Learning and Development section of this blog).

The first part of the session was spent going through the online enquiries which are detailed in the updated Shadowing Programme Enquiry Log (see the Learning and Development section of this blog). The Assistant Customer Services Librarian also showed me how to process an application from one of our students to use other academic libraries under the Sconul Access scheme. Although I have dealt with applications from students from other institutions wanting to use our library under the scheme, I had not previously been involved in the process from the perspective of one of own students.

Firstly, the librarian looked at the student's library account to check that they are in good standing with us, i.e. they do not have a history of losing items or unpaid fines. The band which applied to the student was then determined: Band A - staff and research students, Band B - part time, distance learning and placement students or Band C full-time taught postgraduates. Our official stamp was applied to the back of a Sconul Access card to verify that the student belongs to our university. The front of the card was completed with the expiary date of the student's registration and the appropriate band. It was then authorised with the librarian's signature and the application form was filed away. After the session the card will be sent to the student who can use it, in conjunction with their student card, to apply to use the library of any UK HE institution participating in the Sconul Access scheme. The student will also be reminded to check the list of participating libraries on the website and to make contact in advance of their visit to check opening times and conditions of use.

The remainder of the session was spent discussing the Assitant Customer Services Librarian's application for Fellowship, the highest level of professional qualification awarded by CILIP. Chartered members of CILIP who have successfully completed two cycles of revalidation are eligible to apply. The application consists of a personal statement, a current CV, a portfolio of evidence and two written statements of support. The librarian showed me the work he had done on his portfolio to date which included details of his particular contribution to local history and local studies in previous professional roles and in his own time. He also showed me the wikki he has developed on the local history of his home town in Scotland.

This discussion reinforced my belief that, even though I am at the very beginning of my library career, it is never too early to start thinking about Chartership and gathering evidence for a portfolio. Talking to each of the librarians I have shadowed about their previous careers and professional interests has also given me a valuable insight into some of the various opportunities that librarianship can offer and has prompted me to consider more seriously which sector of the profession I would like to enter and what shape I would like my career to take.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Eight - Cataloguing and Classification

Yesterday morning I was given a brief introduction to cataloguing and classification by the Subject Librarian (Arts & Letters). When I was comparing Masters courses, I was surprised to find that many of them no longer cover this area in any significant depth as these tasks are now largely automated and many library schools believe that specific classification schemes can be picked up on the job.

It is, however, apparent from looking at advertisements for jobs in the information sector that cataloguing and classification skills are still in demand. I was therefore careful to pick a course with at least one dedicated core module to give me a sufficient grounding in the subject. Although I have previously done some reading in this area, I struggled to make sense of the theory without observing it being used in practice. I was therefore keen for this session to be included in my shadowing programme to make sense of my reading to date and to help me in my future studies.

The Subject Librarian (A & L) started the session by showing me the full catalogue record for an existing item in our Library Management System, Aleph, and briefly explaining the use of fields, subfields and MARC tags. Although Library of Congress subject terms are used, in the past our own subject terms were also added which lead to some duplication for older records. Although cataloguing and classification was previously undertaken by individual Subject Librarians, in a move to improve consistency, it is now the responsibility of the Assistant Librarian (Cataloguing & Metadata) based in the centralised Acquisitions Team. There are, however, occasions when catalogue records are still created and amended by the local Subject Librarians, for instance when ordering new items, adding donated items and recataloguing existing items.

Ordering new items
This process was demonstrated using the example of a book about Chinese film. Firstly, the librarian searches the database of our main supplier, Dawson Books, to check that it is in print and available to order. The database can be searched using the author's name, book title or ISBN. Once found the Dewey number given by Dawsons is noted down. The library catalogue is searched to see what other items are held on this subject. The Dewey number from the Dawsons database is amended to ensure that when the book arrives it will be labelled correctly and shelved with similar items in our existing collection. To add a new catalogue record a template is opened in Aleph and the ISBN, author's name, main title and imprint of the book are entered. This is then saved and pushed through to the Acquisitions module of the system. A message requesting the amended Dewey number is added to ensure that the spine label is correct when the book arrives. The remaining details such as the budget code, vendor's name and quantities required are added to complete the order which is then submitted. The item will now appear on the library catalogue with a note to indicate that is on order.

Adding donated items
If the library does not already hold a copy of a donated item, a catalogue record is downloaded from the Library of Congress or the OCLC (Online Computer Library Centre) database via Aleph's Cataloguing module. The record is checked and amended to delete any superfluous fields. The Dewey number is also checked and amended as described above. The record is then saved and a system generated bib number is allocated to the title. A barcode is stuck to the item and it is added to the catalogue record as a new entry. The cutter letters, collection and loan status are also added at this stage. An acquisition grid is stamped to the back of the title page and the bib no., shelf mark and item barcode are written in. The item is then set to 'in processing' and is passed on to be correctly labelled before being set to 'in process' and put into circulation.

If an item needs to be recatalogued, the librarian will firstly check how often it has been borrowed. If usage has been low and there are multiple copies in the collection then it is likely that it will be withdrawn. However, if it is the only copy and usage is low, the librarian may decide to keep it in the interests of maintaining the depth and breadth of the collection. This is where the librarian's subject knowledge and experience come into play. If the decision is made to keep the item, a catalogue record is downloaded from the Library of Congress or OCLC database, as described above. This is merged with the existing catalogue record which is then edited to add and remove fields as necessary and to amend the Dewey number. If only a record relating to an earlier or later edition can be found, a general note of the original publication date will be added. Once the catalogue record has been saved, the item is added and the cutter letters are entered. Any changes to the collection and loan status are also made at this stage. Once all the changes have been made the acquisition stamp is updated and the item is relabelled before going back into circulation. If an item needs to be added to the catalogue in a hurry, the fast add function can be used to create a very simple catalogue entry. This can then be merged with a full catalogue record for the same title at a later stage.

The nature of the subject is such that I was only able to gain a very basic introduction to cataloguing and classification from this session and so it was not practical for me to have a go at cataloguing any items myself. I am, however, confident that having witnessed the theory being applied in a real-life situation has helped to consolidate my reading and will allow me to better understand the subject when I study it more closely as part of my Masters course.