Opening the unmarked door: Communicating about technical services

The unmarked door

The unmarked door

Welcome to our blog!

You are reading about library technical services.  Perhaps it’s your first time; perhaps you’re a fellow practitioner; perhaps you’re somewhere in between.  If you are new to this aspect of library work we are delighted by your initial interest and hope to provide posts that hold your attention.  We also hope that readers with some background in the field will find value in our experiences and perspectives.

Writing about technical services for a broad audience immediately brings up two conditions: we are out of public view (literally in the “back room” behind an unmarked door) and we habitually use vocabulary that can be difficult to interpret for those not in the know.  Let’s check on those topics here.  In subsequent posts we will get down to business.


In technical services we are in the business of creating infrastructure.  We provide the intellectual and physical control of library resources that enable users–including other library staff–to carry out their work.  Infrastructure is just that: “infra,” or below.  It’s meant to be used rather than to call attention to itself.  The best indication of an infrastructure job well done is invisibility.  For example, just about everybody drives across bridges without bestowing a thought on the engineers and construction workers who designed, built, and maintain (we hope) the structures that get riders from one side of something to the other side.  It’s the same with us in library technical services.  If the metadata we create readily gets users to resources that they are seeking (via a great deal of systems work: another realm of invisibility), then we have succeeded.  Normally metadata creators rise to the level of conscious thought only in cases of error or inadequacy.  (Users, understandably enough, typically consider our fundamental aim of “user service” to mean “service to me at this moment” and thus they tend to judge adequacy and correctness in terms of their own goals.  Our working perspective has to encompass all current and future users, and the limits on our capacity to serve them.  However, these are topics for other posts!)  There’s nothing unusual or lamentable about our general lack of visibility.  Our products such as catalog records and finding aids are eminently visible, and as long as they serve to connect users with the department’s amazing collections we are content.

So, a number of those who peruse our posts will encounter activities or ideas that they have not previously thought of very much, if at all.  Good!  We hope to convey information about the work we do, and along with it some hint of the intellectual vigor and liveliness that keep us engaged in our obscure but consequential functions on this side of processing.

The language barrier

We talk funny.

String. Property. Field. Tag. Element. WEMI. FISO. XSLT. Entification. Expression. 506. odd. Subdivision. Ancestor. Authorities.  These are all words (or “words” in some cases) that we use in our daily discourse.  They have specific contextual meanings, and behind those meanings are concepts and models that we use to construct our intellectual workspace.  For example, to us a field isn’t an expanse of property that one might find in a subdivision, possibly demarcated by a string.  It’s a constituent part of a MARC record, which is …  Well, we’d best move on before explanations overwhelm us.  All professional specialties have their own jargon and precise terminology.  You would likely be uneasy if you heard your doctor referring to your inner workings as a collection of thingamabobs and doohickeys rather than bronchi and glomeruli and so forth.  The technical services terms listed above and others like them provide a means for us to communicate effectively among ourselves.  Fluency in their use signals full in-group status, much like a prison tattoo.  However, in this blog we are generally going to avoid emphasizing our mastery of what for most people is esoteric vocabulary.  Instead, we are going to write in plain language, except when our primary target audience is our fellow practitioners.  Even then we will make some effort to explain the jargony terms that we use.

That said, we do expect to be writing with a technical services-oriented audience in mind.  Much of what we have to say is about innovation.  We are constantly thinking about ways to improve services and take advantage of developments in technology.  Members of our unit have lots of ideas on topics such as creating “absolute identifiers” for holdings or improving holdings management in finding aids, to name just two.  We are involved with leading-edge projects such as SNAC and LD4P (more specialized terminology!).  You’ll read about them here.  Discussion of such matters is necessarily laden with jargon and acronyms.  If you’re unfamiliar with the wording or underlying concepts and want more background, just let us know.  We want to give everyone a chance to learn about us and to gain some insight into activities that affect all users.  Our goal is to communicate with everyone and to make all members of our audience feel welcome in our world.