Two things happened this past week that got me thinking about technical services workflows--a scintillating topic to be sure.
The first thing that I noticed this past week is the program for the ALA Midwinter meeting of the ALCTS Technical Services Workflow Efficiency Interest Group. Three of the four presentations address how members of technical services units in academic libraries evaluated workflows and redesigned them in order to improve efficiency within their units.
The second thing was more a thing that happened to me than a thing that I noticed. When I was cataloging something this past week, I happened upon a record in Ye Olde Bibliographic Utility that seemed to have been created by a vendor. Stop me if you've heard this one before: it had many obvious errors, incomplete description, and sub-par subject analysis. I spent a lot of time working on this record in order to make it worth importing into my local bibliographic database. Though many people have griped about the issue of incomplete vendor records in public venues and listservs, I didn't necessarily mind doing the work because improving upon the work of others is at least one the purposes of a universal bibliographic utility. It did, however, get me thinking.
As the resources (both financial and personnel) of technical services units have dwindled, those who staff them have had to make choices about how to accomplish the nearly impossible task of doing more with less. And one obvious way that libraries can do more with less is to outsource the creation of metadata either to a metadata creation vendor or by using records provided by vendors. But, maybe now is a good time to ask ourselves that question that Rachel often poses to us: What is it we're trying to do here?
It isn't so much that I think that vendor-created metadata is universally bad. I don't. But I do think that the leaders of libraries who have chosen to move large portions of their collections off-site in an attempt to transform their spaces have to consider the fact that without the ability to browse, catalog records become the only means of discover for a large portion of a collection. And yes, while some disciplines have moved from monographs being the main way information is disseminated to serials being the information vehicle of choice, there are still those who find books a meaningful component of their research.
I can imagine it feels daunting to have the kinds of conversations that lead to the kind of workflow changes that the three libraries featured in the ALCTS Technical Services Workflow Efficiency IG program. People can be territorial about the processes that they manage and it's hard to give up the workflows that have become worn into our institutional memories over time. But it's the hard conversations and difficult introspection that comes with workflow evaluation that leads to real, lasting, and meaningful changes within organizations.
Technical services units and those who lead them are not doing their patrons any favors by choosing to pick off the low hanging fruit of metadata creation when it comes to reducing cost and increasing efficiency. The myth of the catalog as a useless and outdated relic of years past is perpetuated when the newly created metadata added to it is not useful or meaningful within the context of a user community. Sure, library leaders, you've save money buy accepting metadata of a lower quality that those who are trained in cataloging would have created. But you've also made more work for your public services staff and your users.
I propose that 2018 be the year that we in technical services librarianship stop choosing the lowest handing fruit. Instead, I propose that we embrace hard conversations, workflow evaluation, and identifying what we can let go of to take on the tasks that matter.