Using Our Own Services

Teaching a writing seminar this semester means I’m working two jobs, and during some weeks it feels like three. Why do I do it? Purely so I can have something to blog about.

Librarians would probably be better librarians if they occasionally used the library as a non-librarian. It’s very easy to become library-centric and to think the library is the most important institution on campus. It’s undeniably an important campus institution, but it’s not necessarily the most important one to faculty and students most of the time. The collections and services are important, but the library as a building is of secondary importance to many scholars.

Last week I had a problem with one of the library services related to my seminar, a service which is normally very reliable but which I thought had performed unsatisfactorily in this instance. After an email exchange, the problem was fixed, but I knew the person fixing the problem would rather not have done so right now, because this particular service is very busy around this point in the semester, and any extra demands interrupt the already hectic flow of work. As a fellow librarian, I sympathize; even as a fellow human being, I sympathize; but as an instructor relying upon this service to teach, I needed the problem fixed and I wasn’t going to stop until it was.

Our library has an article delivery service for faculty that many librarians think is extravagant. The service attempts to deliver electronically within 48 hours any article requested by any professor, whether it’s an ILL article or one in a journal sitting on a shelf in the library, which might mean only a short trip to the library for the professor to retrieve. Needless to say, this service is very popular and heavily used. Is it expensive? I assume so, but I’ve never seen any figures. Is it extravagant? Not to the users of the service, it isn’t. They don’t want to make even a short trip to the library if they don’t have to. Being in the library itself has no value for them. The collection has value, and if they can get to the collection without coming to the building, that’s fine by them. Librarians work in libraries. They’re in the building all day. It’s their business to be there. A lot of professors work in the library, but the library is a support to their work, not their primary work. Their business isn’t hanging out in libraries; their business is teaching and research, and the library is there to support that. If the library makes their job easier, then it’s doing a better job than if it doesn’t make their job easier. Librarians who don’t rely on the library for their scholarship or teaching and who don’t work in the library might not appreciate the usefulness of the service. The scholar’s main business is using the resources to produce scholarship, not schlepping over to the library to do some photocopying.

Our library also, as you might imagine, has a lot of electronic resources. Our pockets aren’t bottomless, and we could always use more money, but our collections budget is substantial and we subscribe to or purchase hundreds of databases and e-collections (or perhaps thousands by now, I lose count). Often these resources duplicate items we already have in print or microform, and some librarians make the argument that we shouldn’t pay to have electronic access to this material. After all, it’s just sitting here in the library, or perhaps in offsite storage. Interested scholars can just walk over to the library. Why cater to their laziness, especially if they are students? But most scholars don’t spend all day in the library, and many scholars don’t even work on campus all the time. Some have even been known to work when the library isn’t even open. Research isn’t necessarily something scholars just stop doing when they leave campus at 5pm or leave town for a few days or go on holiday. Just for my own research or teaching I know how delightful it is to be able to retrieve that article on New Year’s Day when I’m 500 miles away from the library building. I can understand not being able to afford certain electronic resources, but I don’t think it’s much of an argument to say we shouldn’t buy something just because we already have it in a different and less useful format. Only librarians who do little research or teaching would find this a compelling argument. Again, it’s the collection that’s important and supportive to research, not walking over to the library.

Most librarians probably already agree with me that the library’s job is to support research and teaching and save the time of scholars and teachers, and when they don’t agree with me I always suspect they’re thinking as librarians who don’t use libraries very much, rather than thinking as library users. Our job isn’t to make things easier for ourselves, but for the library users, and it’s easier to see that if we also, at least occasionally, are put in the place of the non-librarian library user.

3 thoughts on “Using Our Own Services

  1. Wayne – great to know that these arguments aren’t unique to public libraries! :-) The adage about eating your own dog food is one that applies to a lot of services, including libraries.)

  2. The Princeton Library service is wonderful. My dealings with them have shown them to be very hard-working. However, it definitely helps if you see the staff there as a resource and equals – not as minions who are there to do your bidding. You sound like you need to calm down a bit. Sounds like some details may be missing from your fantastic tale of woe. Then again, who wants to write (or read) a calm and rational blog. :)

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