Notes from Opening Session

Columbia University Libraries hosted the symposium Access Services in the 21st Century. The single-day symposium took place in Uris Hall, home of the Columbia Business School and the Watson Business and Economics Library. The objectives of the symposium were as follows:

  • Exchanging information about what each of our institutions are currently doing or planning for the near-term.
  • Exploring challenges confronting access services.
  • Sharing solutions that may be exportable to other institutions.

In addition, it was intended that the symposium might serve as a forum for access practitioners from among the large research libraries to meet one another. The following institutions were represented at the symposium:

  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • New York University
  • Princeton University
  • Rutgers University
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Stanford University
  • Yale University

Following a welcome by Patricia Renfro, Deputy University Librarian, Columbia University Libraries, Curtis Kendrick, Director of Access Services, Columbia University Libraries, made remarks on the current practice of access services. Excerpts from those remarks follow below. The remainder of the day was spent in discussion on the following topics: Circulation Services; Stack Maintenance Services; Electronic Reserves; Impact of Offsite Shelving on Access Services; User Evaluation of Services; and Staff Training.

Overview of Access Services

Sherry O'Brien is a dear friend of mine, and we together confronted the challenges of library school. When Sherry told her father that she was going to become a librarian, his comment was "The books go on the shelf, and payday is Friday." This comment has stuck with me all these years because while simplistic, it does contain a truth that the perception of a library, at its core, is driven by basic operations and services, many of which fall under the rubric of access services.

In looking at the group of institutions arrayed here today there are a couple of themes that are common across most of our institutions. The first is that there are centralized and decentralized components to access services, and second, the functions performed by access staff tend to intersect between operations and services.

With exceptions, the libraries represented here today tend to be highly decentralized, and this decentralization is found in many of the access functions, particularly when it comes to service points. As with reference services, management of our access service points tends to be specific to a single library or a small group of libraries on campus. This arrangement has the advantage of enabling service staff to get close to their clients, but may preclude the organizational flexibility to move staff around on quick notice to mitigate shortages in service staff at a particular service point.

There are also facets of our access operations that, much like a technical services department such as cataloging, are centralized. In these cases certain services are provided, typically by the access department of the largest library on campus, for all or most of the campus libraries. Examples often include privileges, offsite shelving, or entry control.

In putting together this overview I wanted to provide some sense of the common challenges confronting us all, and one way to suggest this is through statistics. These numbers are from ARL so we know that they are imperfect, but they are suggestive. For one thing, collectively, we do a lot of work, with 8.2 million circulation transactions, and an estimated 9.6 million volumes re-shelved. We serve 18,000 faculty, and 168,000 students.

Most of the institutions here today tend to cluster around the group averages, although one thing that I found interesting was the figure for Princeton for volumes circulated per student and faculty. I don't know what this means, but what it suggests to me is that there is an opportunity for those of us who generate these numbers to have future conversations about what we count and how we count and why, and an opportunity to begin to shape the data in a way that might someday be meaningful for cross-institutional comparisons and benchmarking.

The functions within the library that fall under access services tend to vary at the margins across our institutions. In the broadest sense, the functions may include circulation, stacks, ILL, reserves, shipping, offsite operations, collection maintenance, periodicals, microforms, photocopy operations, building or facilities, security, and privileges.

What is common about all these activities is that they contain a significant service component, and they also contain a significant operations component. What is all too common is that we take these activities, and place the success or failure of our enterprise in the hands and judgement of 18-year old freshmen. So the paradox is that the very services that may most shape user perceptions of the library, at times are delivered by staff with the least experience and the least stake in the library. It is hard to conceive of staff at a similar level being called upon to make a selection decision, catalog a book, or answer a reference question. But this is the business of Access Services, and to quote the character Hymen Roth from the film Godfather II, "this is the business we've chosen."

While some of our non-access colleagues may perceive of access services as kind of like Fredo of the Corleone Family, we practitioners take pride in the knowledge that it is challenging, vital, difficult, challenging, and usually works very well. Did I mention that it is challenging? This is more so today than ever, in part because many of the key initiatives underway in our libraries have a bearing on and are affected by access services. There are some common initiatives among the group here today, including electronic reserves; implementation of new library management systems or upgrades thereto; offsite shelving facilities; electronic services; and 24-hour availability of spaces and/or services.

And while we have come to accept change, nay, even embrace change, many of us are still grappling with unfulfilled needs like an ILL management system that integrates with our circulation systems, a space planning module that tracks items added by call number to predict shifting needs, a way to manipulate transaction statistics to predict staffing needs at service desks, or hold/recall functionality that automatically transmits an item available e-mail to patrons when the item barcode is scanned.

What we are hoping to do today is to share strategies and techniques that have been successful, and those that haven't worked as well. Because we do share some common challenges. Challenges such as the recruitment and retention of student assistants, with its corollary issue of job abandonment and how student's ability to focus their attention on work is counter-cyclical to when we most need them.

We face challenges in demonstrating that the staff and resources that have been provided for access services are being deployed optimally. Issues pertaining to quality control and performance standards and measures are pervasive, as we strive to monitor accuracy, consistency and productivity.

The advent of high-density shelving facilities has the promise of helping with overcrowding in our stacks, but is the goal of a steady-state library filled no more than the 80% capacity recommended by Metcalf merely illusory? And then there is the paradox of offsite, whereby we take our least used materials and make them fully accessible bibliographically, provide an excellent environment for them, and deliver a wide-range of services quickly, reliably and to near 100% accuracy. Why can't we do that for all our collections?

In many of our libraries electronic services or patron-initiated services have taken hold, but while patrons may initiate the service is the service only consummated with significant mediation? Several institutions have just or are about to venture into the area of electronic reserves. Questions about the scalability of e-reserves from pilot project to programmatic part of the operation abound.

My wife Mary Beth and I have two wonderful children, James, who is five, and Caroline, who turned three a few months ago. One morning about a year and half ago, when Caroline was still in her high chair and just learning to talk, she slammed down her sippy cup and screamed out what sounded a lot like SERVICE!! It strikes me that Caroline's demand is similar to our depth of knowledge about what our users really expect, need, or want from Access Services. Beyond faster, better, more, do we really know what people want, and what they would be willing to trade-off?

Patron demands for faster better more may coincide with access practitioners' biases in favor of implementing new services. This is seductive because we are used to receiving intangible rewards less by compliments when all goes well than by the absence of complaint. And this focus on new services is often reinforced by the recognition and reward systems in place within our libraries. Are we more likely to be recognized for implementing electronic reserves, or for reducing the re-shelving error rate? Arguably this is a false choice since we should be doing both anyway, but there are limits to our attention.

As access managers we are moving to develop and deploy tools to help us in confronting these challenges. We are looking at new modes for recruitment and retention. We are thinking about staff training in light of a dynamic labor market, ever-changing technologies, and reader expectations that seem at time without limit. We use quality control techniques to monitor operations and demonstrate that the staff we have are productive. And we turn to user evaluation both to gauge user perceptions about the services delivered, but also to measure how important particular services are to our communities.

At one of our planning sessions for this symposium a few weeks ago we were talking about the logistical challenges of having an event with so many people. Someone made the comment that if the chairs in a room needed to be re-arranged it wouldn't be a problem since it was a bunch of access folks coming together, people who are used to doing whatever is necessary to get the job done. It's early in the day yet, but we might be able to get through the symposium without asking you to move furniture. We are, however, going to ask you to work. The success of this symposium relies on each of us sharing thoughts and ideas and practices in our own libraries. We've tried to provide some structure for the day, but we all need to contribute and encourage each other to share.