The Future of Tech Services in Academic Libraries

I had a carefully planned out schedule for my first day at ALA, and as it turned out, most of it got thrown out the window, largely because I misunderstood some of the session descriptions. Thankfully, I didn’t have too many newbie errors like this during the week, and the sessions I attended were interesting. One of those was a panel discussion for Technical Services Managers in Academic Libraries.

I am not a tech services manager, and in fact, don’t even work in an organization where traditional tech services are done. But, in a broader sense, this is my place in libraries. I worked in tech services before I came to the CDL, and I believe I will work in tech services again, although I think it’ll look a lot different than it does now. I thought it would be interesting to hear what some tech services managers have to say about the work they are doing now, and the work they think they’ll be doing in the future.

I was a little late to this session, so I missed the introductions and any opening remarks (this is what happens when the convention center is a full kilometer long). When I came in, the panelists were in the middle of a discussion about de-selection, print archiving programs, and moving print materials to off-site storage, which was unexpectedly very relevant to the work I’m doing right now. I love it when that happens. Essentially, people were in full agreement that cooperative archiving of print collections, done by networks of libraries in specific geographic regions, is a very, very good and important thing for us to be doing. So, you know, the collection analysis tools we’re building are quite timely, I think. I suspect more of this cooperative archiving work will be done in the future.

The biggest concern seems to be around how validation is done. There is some not-unfounded fears about de-selection if issue- and page-level validation aren’t being done extensively, but I do think that’s where WEST’s risk-based title categorization can come into play: Titles that are at greater risk, because they aren’t being digitized in a trusted and preservation-aware way, are being validated much more extensively.

Some people raised questions about the role of libraries and the struggle between preservation and providing access: I think this is a very interesting problem, because the two can appear to be diametrically opposed, but that’s where, I believe, digitization has the strongest benefits. We can preserve print materials, preserve a second, digital copy, and provide near-universal access digitally. Our two roles can be equally well-supported, though I wish we weren’t being held back by copyright fears and publishers.

The most interesting part of this session, to me, was around cataloging in the world of full-text digital access. Someone asked the question, “If you have full text, what do you need metadata for?” The question was asked, I believe, in a tongue-in-cheek way, because we do clearly still need metadata, but we need different metadata. We need technical and administrative metadata for digital objects, in order to ensure their effective presentation and discovery. We need more structured metadata for the web, but we also need more structured data.

Some notes I took during the session:

  • “When we do expose metadata we should do it in a way that allows other stuff to stick to it.” – We need to make our data more extensible, linkable.
  • “We’re not sure what problems we’re trying to solve.” It’s important that we ask the right questions, but I also think it’s important that we experiment, even if some of our experiments turn out to be answers to the wrong questions. Librarians are too often held back by attempting to get it completely right before implementing something new. The perfect is the enemy of the good, as they say.
  • Are we ready to move away from certain controlled vocabularies? What is the relationship between controlled vocabularies and data sets like VIAF that can be used for linked data?
  • Structured metadata might not be as important in the digital world as structured data, structured full-text, and the use of meaningful mark-up.
  • More digital materials = exponentially more resources = it’s impossible to do hands on cataloging for everything. We need to start thinking about how to automate the creation of metadata.
  • Can we make LC subject headings more machine actionable? If not, is there something else we can turn to to provide the same benefits?

Finally, there was some discussion around RDA, and an announcement by someone from the Library of Congress. He basically just reiterated what was in the most recent RDA-related announcement I saw floating around the web: Implementation has been delayed until at least January 2013 (because we definitely need more delays right now), and there are a few key points that need to be addressed before implementation.

I don’t think RDA is perfect, but I think we’re making a mistake putting off changes for too long. Frankly, I don’t think RDA goes far enough, but it’s something, at least. As I said before, I think experimentation should be encouraged. I also don’t know a ton about RDA, so my thoughts on it should really be taken with a grain of salt.

The best thing I heard in this session is that Deanna Marcum’s announcement about the transition from MARC as a carrier was meant to be a direct statement that the Library of Congress is getting ready to move away from MARC. A plan for a transition is expected to be laid out in 18-24 months. The Library of Congress will be bringing small groups in for conversation before holding a larger symposium and working to develop a timeline. I had to restrain myself from cheering.

We need to move away from MARC, in a major way, but we also need to drastically re-think our cataloging workflows. The single most frequent thought that occurred to me in many different sessions throughout the conference is that we need to stop creating our own, local catalogs. Instead of duplicating work and data hundreds of times over around the world, we should all be contributing our work to a centralized tool, a centralized repository of data (or several, that can be networked together to create functional displays). This plays into how we start re-thinking library systems, and how we start re-thinking bibliographic records and bibliographic metadata. This is the key, foundational concept to me that highlights what we are doing wrong right now, and how we should fundamentally shift the way we think about the work we are doing.

The most frustrating thing I heard in this session was actually more of an attitude I sensed in several comments throughout the conversations: I kept hearing statements that were essentially, “This is a problem, so we don’t do it.” I think this is the mindset that is holding us back. Instead we should be thinking, “This is a problem, so how can we make it not a problem?” Re-classifying material is expensive and time consuming? How can we make it not so expensive and time-consuming? Bringing faculty into de-selection decision-making is difficult? How can we manage this situation and ease some of the frustration? Staff don’t want to learn new cataloging workflows? How can we train them and get them excited about changes?

I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, and I know there are many, many tech services managers in academic libraries around the world who are active, engaged problem solvers who want to make libraries better. And lord knows, I sometimes get frustrated and want to throw up my hands and walk away from problems, declaring them unsolvable. But we have to solve these problems. We can’t just continue to say, “That is daunting, so we’re just going to keep doing things the way we have done them.” Collectively, we have very messy data and very messy collections and a lot of that is because we keep saying it’s too expensive or difficult to fix it. That shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. Luckily, I know there are librarians throughout libraryland working on fixing these problems. But every time I heard a comment that seemed to shut down the search for a solution, I cringed.

Overall, though, this was a good session, and there are definitely people working in tech services in academic libraries everywhere who are thinking about a lot of these very difficult questions. I continue to think tech services is where some of the really interesting library stuff is going on, and I’m excited for the changes that are coming our way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *