Tuesday, July 12, 2016

There's gonna come a time when the true scene leaders forget where they differ and get big picture

I think you wouldn't have much trouble convincing people that technical services departments are losing positions and having resources reallocated leading to the dreaded "do more with less" directive from administrators. I think you also wouldn't have much trouble convincing people that people working in technical services would do well to partner with their colleagues in technical services as well as their colleagues in other areas of the library  to identify and solve big-picture problems in order to help users more successfully find the resources they need to be successful. In fact, one of the foundational idea of the Unified Library Scene is building relationships between functional areas of the library in order to improve the experience of library users.

In the article "Creating solutions instead of solving problems: emerging roles for technical services departments," Sally Gibson argues technical services staffs should move from being problem-solvers who view their work as transactional to being solution-creators who identify and address the underlying issues that emerge in the course of doing one's work. Gibson describes solution-creators this way:
Solution-creators recognize patterns, anticipate needs, and translate those solutions in a way that can be understood by faculty, students and staff. They focus on skill sets and ability rather than rigid roles and organizational procedures. They ask "why" and "how." Issues are addressed as a whole rather than examined at the individual level (149).
Gibson believes that technical services staff see their work as production-oriented and that this kind of work attracts people because it is detail-oriented and relies on the adherence to local and universal standards. Gibson also points out that work in a production-oriented environment is problematic. "Traditional library services are transactional in nature, which translates into real possibilities of its traditional services becoming automated or experiencing decreased importance" (146). Gibson suggests that a combination of technical ability and soft-skills will help technical services staff make the pivot from problem-solver to solution-creator.

Gibson also addresses the kind of environment needed to foster the development of solution-creators. Gibson addresses the fact that departmental leadership needs to establish a growth mindset which Gibson describes this way: "A growth mindset believes that intelligence can be developed" (151). She also writes that ideas much come from all levels of the department and that technical services staff must have permission to experiment with different ideas and different processes.

I should start by saying that there is a lot about Gibson's various arguments that I agree with. Technical services librarians need to think more holistically about the work that they do and how it aligns with the overall mission and vision of the library. And there definitely needs to be more flexibility in how we apply local and universal practices--especially when what we're doing makes it harder for our users to acquire the information they need to be successful. I agree that identifying and centering the 'how' and the 'why' is important--maybe the most important thing technical services staff can do.

But there are parts of Gibson's arguments that don't work as well for me. I am not on board with the idea that technical services is the safe haven in the library for people who love detail-oriented work and that our technical services departments are full of people who see their jobs as solving a single problem in front of them without regard for identifying emerging patterns and without the desire to solve them. While some us do need to change from problem-solvers to solution-creators, there are already solution-creators among us. The problem is that many of them don't have the resources or the administrative support to solve the problems they've identified. Technical services librarians love identifying and fixing problems and very few of the people I've met in technical services librarianship aren't looking for bigger patterns, aren't looking for emerging themes. While fixed-growth mindset and problem-solving persist among technical services librarianship, they are as much a story we tell ourselves as they are the reality of a situation. If you don't have the resources or support to create solutions, you can't solve the big-picture problems. And if you can't solve the big-picture problems, you're not going to receive administrative support. It's a really vicious cycle and one that persists in technical services librarianship.

It is also not clear to me how a solution-creator oriented technical services department would be run. Even if we work to identify and resolve emerging problems, there are still daily tasks to be done. We need to order materials and make sure they are findable, even as we evaluate and retool our current processes to meet the needs of users. But Gibson believes that we should move beyond rigid roles to focus more on skills, writing "Someone can be defined by their combination of technical and soft skills rather than their job title and description" (149). And while I agree that a combination of technical and soft skills are necessary for a person to succeed in technical services librarianship, there is also some need for people to take ownership of specific processes.

So let's agree to think more critically about the work that we do in technical services librarianship. Let's let go of the things that no longer provide value to make room to take on new tasks that help our users. Let's work more closely with each other and with our colleagues in other areas of libraries to identify and solve problems. And let's stop perpetuating the idea that there is a dearth of people working in technical services librarianship who are either not capable of or not interested in looking at the bigger picture is a big problem. Instead, let's talk about how a lack of resources keeps solution-creators from making the kinds of changes in workflow and practices that will benefit the user.

Stay positive,

Work cited:
Gibson, Sally. "Creating solutions instead of solving problems: emerging roles for technical services departments." Technical Services Quarterly. 33:2 (2016). 145-153.

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