Saturday 11 February 2012

ALCTS Eforum - What Does Advocacy Mean for Technical Services?

Earlier this week I was lurking on the ALCTS eforum on the advocacy of technical services. I say lurking since I didn't really get up the courage to make many contributions but I did find reading the incoming emails very interesting. This was my first experience with an eforum (being technologically slow) but I don't think it will be my last. They seem to be an excellent way to talk to others that you would otherwise have no interaction with, even if the time difference did make things a little complicated! I just wanted to touch on some thoughts that I found particularly interesting.

The first question asked to the forum focused on a definition of advocacy. Many good definitions were proposed but the one that stuck out for me was submitted by Cynthia Whitacre of OCLC. She highlighted how important it was to advocate not just to the outside world but also to others within our institutions. She says: we need our colleagues within the library to understand the crucial role that we play in making sure the library is a smoothly functioning organism.

This was a call that was echoed by a lot of other posts such as Kristin Martin’s observation that before one can begin advocating for the department, one needs to be working and demonstrating expertise to colleagues throughout the library. This was something that struck a chord with me. I’m currently trying to get a blog started in order to promote the work of the Cataloguing Department, and the rest of the division, to the outside world. I’ve had a lot of encouragement from librarians outside my library but I have to say that I’ve been disappointed with the reaction of some of my colleagues. No one has been actively hostile towards it but the most common response has been: who would want to read that? Well actually, quite a lot of people! I also worry about how many people will want to contribute to the blog. It’s meant to be a division wide project but at this point I can see it being run by only a dedicated few. If people in my own department can’t see the point of this sort of advocacy, then will anyone outside the department? If anyone has any advice on how to inspire others to get involved in projects like this then please let me know!

Heather Jardine, from City of London libraries, called for everyone who works in technical services to promote their work at any opportunity. She encouraged us to never be apologetic about our roles. I know too many cataloguers who do this, including myself on occasion. I actually really enjoy my job but sometimes I feel that cataloguers are seen as the poor relation in the library world. This is a misconception that advocacy can help to change.

Another excellent point was made by David Moody, Cataloguing Librarian at the University of Detroit Mercy. David pointed out that just because cataloguing is not a user facing service, this doesn't mean that it doesn't serve users. He makes the point that we might be serving the public indirectly, but that's still the motivation for what we do. This point was echoed by many others on the forum. Cataloguing is at its heart a user service. If the books are not catalogued then they cannot be found by users. End of story. Lauren Noel made the point that cataloguing is the first step in the reference process. If the book is not properly catalogued and indexed then how is the reference librarian supposed to know that it's there? Others pointed out that so-called ‘technical services’ help to provide the infrastructure of the library and make it possible for people to find the resources that they need. I think that this is a point that sometimes gets lost. Cataloguers tend to be perceived as stuck in a back room somewhere far away from human interaction. Whilst this might be true to some extent, I don’t think this makes what we do any less valuable. Without us the library would be a lovely building filled with resources that no one would have a hope of actually finding!

Duncan Stewart said that my experience is that most administrators are very much aware of the COSTS of tech services, but not always the benefits. This also rang true with a lot of other people on the forum and is a major reason why advocacy of cataloguing has become even more of a pressing issue. Unless cataloguers can prove their worth I'm afraid that we will be amongst the first in the firing line. The time for assuming that everyone understands the importance of what we do is long over and we need to compete with other departments to show our value.

Following on from this, several contributors talked about how to demonstrate the value of cataloguing. I'm currently researching impact (although not of cataloguing) for my MSc dissertation so this was interesting to me. I know through my own research that impact is an EXTREMELY hard concept to measure. Suggestions made by the group included a lot of statistical references that I'm afraid went way over my head, but it was an interesting concept which merits further discussion.

Several suggestions were made of ways in which cataloguing departments could promote their department. These included newsletter contributions, orientation tours for new library staff/faculty members which include a look at what the cataloguing department actually does, visits for outside librarians and various social media efforts.

One of my favourite discussions of the forum was about the 'elevator speeches' that cataloguers gave when describing their jobs in short. There were many wonderful suggestions which showcased the importance of our work but the best was from Tricia Jauquet who described working in cataloguing as basically what people think magic elves do. This has to be one of the better job descriptions that I've ever heard! But maybe it is time for the elves to come out of the backroom and show everybody else the magic?

The parting shot of the eforum was: LIVE LONG AND ADVOCATE! The forum gave me lots of ideas which I hope to be able to feed back to the advocacy group that I work with. I think that this discussion highlighted many reasons why advocacy is now a vital part of any librarians role rather than an added extra. Whilst some of the stories of woe in technical services departments didn’t make for very cheery reading, it was reassuring to know that we all seem to be facing the same problems. Hopefully now we can work together to solve them!

photo credit: JonathanCohen via photopin cc


  1. I wonder, who are the people that perceive cataloguers to be people working in isolation in 'back rooms'? Do we know for sure they exist? Our cataloguing department is a closed department but I have never considered myself to be ‘working in a back room’ a phrase I only encountered recently when I began using Twitter and reading blogs. I dislike the phrase intensely. We are, surely, as ‘back room’ as we choose to be.

    We have the potential to be advocates for our profession with everything that we do during our working day (and often beyond). Every time we speak with, or email, a library user or colleague we represent ourselves, our role as cataloguers, our department and our institution. In our department we do this countless times a day, every day. Times are tough, but I look at my colleagues and see enthusiasm, a love of cataloguing, and a passionate desire to enable our users to find and use our resources. I see a willingness to go beyond the core tasks prescribed in our job descriptions, of trying to see the bigger picture, seeing where we fit in with the rest of our institution and of being aware of how our work affects colleagues and the service they offer our users. Conversations with colleagues and users are key – and the positive effects of these conversations ripple out far beyond the four walls of the Cataloguing Department.

    We are cataloguers and without us we would have a building full of lost things – but we offer much more than our (excellent!) cataloguing skills. We need to show, as much as tell.

  2. Thanks for the comment Wendy. Unfortunately, I think there are people out there who see cataloguers as stuck in a backroom somewhere - several people on my library course wouldn't dream of doing our job thanks to their skewed perception of it.

    But I do agree that there are many ways to change this perception and we should be doing all we can. I think that the discussion on the eforum was as much reassuring as it was depressing. Yes, times are tough but what came out of the eforum was a really positive attitude. I think that you make an excellent point - we do need to show people what we do and how important it is. Hopefully we can promote this postitive attitude to more people outside our departments.