Why Did My Job Exist?: Decline of Consortial Monograph Circulation at University of Missouri St. Louis, 2011-2016

In the spring of 2016 I was enrolled in the University of Missouri’s School of Information Science & Learning Technology’s (SISLT) Online Education certificate program. I was only in the program for that one semester before taking a new job in a new state that made it financially impossible to continue with that certificate program since I was no longer getting the 75% employee discount on in-state tuition. One of the classes I was taking was called “Digital Humanities” (DH). This class introduced me to that field of study and had me thinking about switching enrollments into the DH certificate program they were just about to launch. That class required a final project and ultimately resulted in the largest and most professional product I ever created for SISLT, and this is after I’d graduated with their Master’s in Library Science degree in May 2015.

What follows is a version of that final project edited for this format.


Introduction

While working in consortial lending for the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) I was on the front line in the decline of monograph circulation in academic libraries. Not surprisingly, consortial usage of monographs have declined along with traditional monograph circulation. To what extent has monograph circulation declined in the consortial lending practices at UMSL? What might be the cause of this decline? What I propose to do in this project is show how drastically usage has declined over the years, even with the addition of consortium members and cooperative agreements with other consortia, using a selection of infographics and examine what may be the cause of this decline.

Key patterns in monograph usage can be reflected and culled by examining consortial usage statistics. This case study is based on the UMSL experience with the MOBIUS consortium and courier services. This is a snapshot of a larger and more complex system that interacts with other consortia.

Traditionally, lending has been a type of yardstick used by libraries to judge their effectiveness and relevance. Much like the number of volumes a library holds, this yardstick may no longer be effective or particularly meaningful in measuring a particular library’s value. The broader ramifications of such a decline in consortial lending may call into question the very need or purpose of library consortia.

This study is restricted to the perspective of UMSL and its relationship to the MOBIUS, Mid-America Library Alliance (MALA), Amigos, and Colorado Alliance (i.e. Alliance) consortia. However, the author feels that this perspective may be relevant to and representative of national trends in consortial lending broadly. This study is confined to the official statistics provided by the MOBIUS consortium and the data gathered by myself and my student assistants at UMSL. While total circulation numbers and the number of full-time equivalency (FTE) students or public library users at the various connected institutions are relevant to this problem, those factors will not be considered in this study.

Background

Founded in 1998, MOBIUS is a 501 (c)(3) organization that serves seventy-five academic, public, and special libraries. MOBIUS contracts with Stat Courier to be transport requested items. The courier connects the MOBIUS system with non-MOBIUS member libraries and two other courier systems. Primarily, this arrangement allows MOBIUS libraries to easily transport our items to the Mid-America Library Alliance (MALA) libraries which give us access to most Missouri public libraries. Since summer 2014, they also have a working agreement among MOBIUS, our courier, the Amigos consortium, and the Colorado Alliance (i.e. Alliance) consortium.

When I took over the consortia lending duties for UMSL in 2010 there was no reliable way to track usage and courier shipments available to me. This forced me to devise my own system beginning in 2011. During the years 2011-2014 the data was maintained in a series of simple Microsoft Excel files containing fields for date, destination, bag number (i.e. container bar code), item barcode, and a notes field for issues of ambiguity. Frustrated that, given my level of familiarity with Excel, it was still more difficult to keep reliable statistics in this method than I would have liked. I decided to adapt the multiple Excel files into single Microsoft Access file to give me greater ability to track usage. This also allowed me to standardize nomenclature and formatting.

The Access database contains two tables. One is a master list of all libraries served by the system of couriers which the various consortia service. The second table is a recreation of the previously established Excel files. Data from 2011-2014 has been integrated into the Access database as new information is added daily as part of the outgoing shipment processing procedures.

Daily, the number of containers used per location is collected. Monthly, data is compiled on the total number of items sent through the courier service per location. Also monthly, data is collected on usage within the MOBIUS consortium, specifically. This data is compiled by the MOBIUS consortium and collected by the consortial lending supervisor for use in an annual report to library superiors. Those superiors are strictly concerned with the total MOBIUS usage numbers. The rest of the statistics are used to determine how many shipping labels to print for a given library and if a given library uses the system enough to justify their own sorting shelf in my work space. The data also serves as a check on processes in regards to patrons’ return claims, or in-transit-too-long issues between UMSL and its partner libraries. Since contracting with the Stat courier in 2016, they can also use the bag numbers to track specific shipments.

Literature Review

Performing a literature review for this project has been rather difficult. In the resources available to me I can find very little literature to support the idea that monograph circulation has been declining over recent years, much less the causes for it. O’Neil’s and Gammon’s “Consortial Book Circulation Patterns: The OCLC-OhioLINK Study” (2014) had a promising title, but the study was of monograph usage over a single calendar year and measured frequency of use, duplication levels, obsolescence rates, etc., but did not address monograph circulation over a number of years. Cheung’s and Chung’s “Monograph Circulation Over a 15-Year Period in a Liberal Arts University” (2011) again held a promising title, but this article concentrated on usage from a collection development standpoint instead of access services, interlibrary loan, or cosortial lending. They conclude, among other things, that not all books acquired by a library circulate within the first fifteen years of acquisition and that books as young as five years may be considered for removal to a remote storage site. Table 4 in this article does seem to reinforce the notion of declining circulation however showing the decline of volumes with checkouts ranging generally downward between 1995 (21,338 volumes) and 2009 (12,366 volumes), but volumes with checkouts is not the same as total checkouts over several years. In 2016, Rose-Wiles and Irwin take as a matter of course a decade of declining monograph circulation. This study, again with a collection development bent, attempts to revive the practice of measuring in-house usage of books to determine their value to the collection, as well as their circulation. The same Rose-Wiles wrote in 2013 that Seton Hall University’s circulation rate dropped 23% between 2005 and 2009. This is in line with what my data shows and the anecdotal feeling around academic libraries. Rodriguez-Bravo and Rodriguez-Sedano (2016) looks at what library materials are being used and by whom over the course of two academic years, but does not address total circulation numbers of monographs. The single best source I’ve been able to find in the published literature is Martell’s “The Absent User: Physical Use of Academic Library Collections and Services Continues to Decline 1995-2006” (2008). Here, Martell sites other sources that show circulation at ARL and Ivy League libraries, ranging from an increase of 2% to a decrease of 58% depending on the type of library (Martell, Tables 1-2). His data comes from a variety of earlier sources, however and I have not been able to locate a similar study with more recent numbers. Moving from a database search to a web search, in 2012 the ACRL Tech Connect blog published “The End of Academic Library Circulation?” (Kurt) which posits that “by 2020 university libraries will no longer have circulation desks.” Kurt describes the drop in circulation as a function of the rise of e-books, yes, but more so in the change of library user behavior. Primarily in a graph titled “Circulation/User – PhD Granting Universities” which shows trend lines for average number of books checked out by patrons declining between 1995-2020 to hit zero on, or near, the year 2020. Library Journal published “Print on the Margins: Circulation Trends in Major Research Libraries” in June, 2011 (Anderson). Here, they stress the need to take into account FTE enrollment changes as one looks at total circulation rates. This typically means that the decline in circulation is even worse than a simple line graph can demonstrate. This paper will not consider FTE enrollments in its data.

Clearly, there is a significant hole in the research on these matters. None of the research I collected considered interlibrary or consortial lending practices as major features of their research. Universities were either measured individually, or in larger groups, but no serious consideration of either interlibrary or consortial lending usage trends were found.

Methodology

From January 2011 through December 2014 all data was collected into a series of Microsoft Excel files, each with a separate sheet for every month. Prior to that time, the only tracking that the University of Missouri St. Louis’ Thomas Jefferson Library performed consisted of filling out by hand a paper table on which was written the date, the destination, the bag number, and the number of items contained in the bag. This placed us in a position in which we could show that a number of items were sent to a particular location on a particular day, but we had no way to determine which items were sent. The January 2011 creation of the Excel files created a simple, efficient, and persistent way for us to keep better track of what we were shipping, and create better accountability for all parties involved.

Over the years this system served us well enough, however given my degree of familiarity with Excel, I was frustrated that the only way to cull statistics from this method was little better than hand counting every entry. Try as I might, I would still make errors in judging how much we sent to any given location at the end of a month or a year. Ultimately, I decided that I had to come up with a better and more reliable solution to this problem if I was going to be able to accurately account for MOBIUS and courier usage for Thomas Jefferson Library.

In the summer of 2014 I took it upon myself to learn Microsoft Access and created a database file to solve all of my needs. The database is made up of two tables. The first, entitled “Libraries Master List,” is a compiled list of every MOBIUS member library and every other library that our courier (then 1st Choice, now Stat) serves, plus the libraries served by the Trans-Amigos Express courier which services Amigos Libraries, and the COKAMO courier for the Colorado Alliance consortium. This table consists of fields for the library name, city, state, OCLC symbol, consortium symbol, Stat courier symbol, consortium name, and cluster name. A helpful byproduct of this table is that now there is a clear list of locations for which our traditional interlibrary loan services can utilize to determine if an item needs to be mailed or simply added to the courier pick-up which saves us a great deal in postage. As of May 2017, this table had 846 records to it. Of those 846 records, 258 locations had been utilized since January 2011.

Once this table was completed, I was able to create the second table, called simply “Outgoing,” which would contain the actual tracking data. This table mirrored the original Excel files providing fields for packing date, destination symbol (i.e. consortium symbol), bag number, barcode number, and a notes field to clear up any ambiguities. Of these fields only the notes field does not require data. The Symbol field in this table was tied to the Consortium Symbol field in the Libraries Master List table creating a standardized abbreviation for each location.

Beginning in January 2015, this database became the standard for tracking outgoing courier shipments for the library. It was not until the Spring of 2017 that I decided to back fill the database with the 2011-2014 data. After several weeks of laboriously copying and pasting data, and correcting formatting errors I finally completed the conversion in early April 2017. The database now contains more than six years of shipment data in a stable and sortable database for the culling of quantifications resulting in 99,005 records, to date of this writing. For the purposes of this project we will only consider the calendar years of 2011-2016 as they are the completed datasets equaling 96,213 entries.

In terms of creating the visuals to illustrate my data, I have tried a few different options Microsoft Excel provides chart and graph capabilities, which are functional, but don’t necessarily make for engaging presentation. I use those in the paper below. I made an effort to use Tableau Public, which, while provided better aesthetics than Excel, did not allow for the flexibility I needed in its free version. Ultimately, I’ve settled on Vengage.com for creating my visuals. This product offers the creative and technical features I require in a free platform. Vengage.com’s biggest handicap, however, is that in the free version the graphics are not downloadable, but are available to the public on the web.

Results

Starting from the widest possible view, we’ll begin by looking at the total number of items shipped from UMSL to our lending partners via our courier system, called C-Total. Right away we see a dramatic drop off in usage (Figure 1). In 2011, we shipped 22,018 items, versus in 2016 wherein we shipped 11,219 items. This is a reduction of 50.95%, or 10,799 individual items. In this time period the greatest reduction of usage happened between 2012 and 2013 which saw a reduction of 16.54%, or 3,277 items. The smallest reduction happened between 2015 and 2016 which saw a reduction of 8.51%, or 1,043 items.

C-Total

Figure 1

Those numbers include all Mobius requests, along with all courier service to MALA, Amigos, and Alliance destinations. But what if we narrowed our focus to just the Mobius member libraries (M-Total)? Not surprisingly, this data (Figure 2) approximates the C-Total data. The difference between 2011 and 2016 is 9,730, or a loss of 52.47%. The largest difference between them is again between 2012 and 2013 showing a drop off of 15.17%, or 2,809 items. The period with the lowest loss of usage this time between 2011 and 2012 with only a 9.57% loss, or 1,959 items.

Because this dataset comes directly from the Mobius Consortium Office, and they keep records differently than I do at UMSL, we can also look at the total numbers for borrowing vs. lending. The first thing that jumps out at anyone that sees this data is that UMSL has always been a net-lender. We always lend more items than our patrons request. Applying the same measures, we see that the difference in total number of items lent from UMSL to our Mobius partners between 2011 and 2016 is 4,850 items, or 56.84%. The greatest period of loss in lending request was between 2015 and 2016, with a loss of 14.84%, or 1,113 items. The least amount of loss was between 2011 and 2012 with a loss of 6.10%, or 686 items. In the borrowing statistics, the difference between 2011 and 2016 is 4,880, or 47.14%. The greatest loss was between 2012 and 2013 in which we lost 20.64% in borrowing requests, or 1,643 requests. The period of least loss was between 2013 and 2014 in which we lost only 9.31%, or 588 requests.

M-Total

Figure 2

We can break this data out into a monthly representation where we see the trends from year to year (Figure 3). This chart (M-Monthly) represents the monthly usage of strictly Mobius libraries over the six years. We can see that our highest usage came in January 2012 with 2,309 fulfilled requests, whereas our lowest usage was December 2016 with only 585 fulfilled requests. Over the course of the six years, the mean number of fulfilled requests is 1,272, with a median number of 1,169. In 2011, the highest usage was in March, with 2,173 fulfilled requests. Lowest was in December, with 951 requests. In 2012, the month with highest usage was January, with 2,309 fulfilled requests. The lowest was December with 784. In 2013, the month with highest usage was April, with 1,702 fulfilled requests. The lowest was December with 805. In 2014, the month with highest usage was January, with 1,469 fulfilled requests. The lowest was July with 793. In 2015, the month with highest usage was September, with 1,301 fulfilled requests. The lowest was December with 671. Finally, in 2016, the month with highest usage was February, with 1,174 fulfilled requests. The lowest was December with 585. Through the measured time period (Figure 4) the month with the largest average usage is January, with 1,673 fulfilled requests, while December is typically the least used month with only 767 fulfilled requests.

M-Monthly

Figure 3

 

M-Avg

Figure 4

Going back to the larger set of total courier usage we can get a picture of who has used the system the most over time (Figure 5). Of the total 96,213 items in our sample size it is unsurprising that our home Mobius consortium makes up the bulk of the usage with 92,176 total items, or 95.80% of the usage. Rounding out the totals, MALA used the system 3.45%. Amigos used the system 0.39%, and Alliance used it 0.36% of the total usage. One explanation for the scarcity of Amigos and Alliance usages is that neither system was partnered with Mobius or our couriers for the full six years. Amigos was first integrated in July 2014, while Alliance was integrated in August 2014.

ConsortiumUse

Figure 5

We can break this up further accounting for the various clusters (Figure 6) that make up the Mobius consortium. A cluster is a smaller service area within Mobius that is allowed to set cluster-specific rules within the Mobius organizational framework. These clusters tend to represent universities with similar organization structures or patron bases. For instance, UMSL is a member of the Merlin Cluster, which is made up of the libraries across the four University of Missouri campuses. The Archway cluster is a group of primarily community colleges that serve the St. Louis area, etc.

ClusterUse

Figure 6

You can see here that the Merlin cluster makes up more than half of the usage across the time frame, with 12.41% of usage made up of clusters that make up less than 2% of the total courier traffic moving through UMSL. If I were to break the Merlin cluster down within this chart you would see that the University of Missouri – Columbia (i.e. Mizzou or MU) provides approximately 50% of that 54.39%.

These numbers are all well and good, but what do they tell us about the drop off in courier usage over the years? To test this question I created an Excel table that displayed the relative percentage of cluster usage in percentages of the year’s total across all six years (Table 1). I then took a mean of each of those percentages for each cluster and performed a standard deviation of the percentages. The result was that there is almost no measureable deviation in the percentage of the total usage from year to year. This tells me that no one cluster or location is responsible for the loss of usage, but that the drop off is steady across the board.

 

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 AVG STDEV
Alliance 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.35% 0.98% 1.53% 0.96% 0.01
Amigos 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.38% 0.89% 1.91% 1.06% 0.01
Archway 2.81% 2.71% 2.91% 2.78% 2.32% 2.59% 2.69% 0.00
Arthur 1.81% 1.87% 1.39% 1.52% 1.55% 1.65% 1.63% 0.00
Bridges 4.58% 4.13% 4.77% 4.87% 4.00% 4.23% 4.43% 0.00
Explore 0.00% 0.10% 0.45% 0.35% 0.43% 0.43% 0.35% 0.00
Galahad 1.74% 1.46% 1.49% 1.45% 1.46% 1.32% 1.49% 0.00
Iowa 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 0.11% 0.11% 0.00
Kansas City 1.76% 1.77% 1.66% 1.95% 1.59% 1.91% 1.77% 0.00
Lance 2.81% 2.36% 2.11% 1.95% 2.10% 2.32% 2.27% 0.00
MALA 3.24% 3.50% 3.40% 4.30% 3.52% 2.71% 3.44% 0.01
Merlin 55.05% 56.44% 54.70% 52.33% 51.06% 47.15% 52.79% 0.03
Mobius Managed 0.00% 0.03% 0.05% 0.01% 0.07% 0.02% 0.04% 0.00
Non-Voting 0.14% 0.35% 0.29% 0.43% 0.68% 0.76% 0.44% 0.00
Quest 1.83% 1.79% 1.71% 1.32% 1.50% 1.56% 1.62% 0.00
SGCL 3.71% 3.44% 4.20% 4.78% 5.08% 6.17% 4.56% 0.01
SLU 4.78% 4.49% 5.01% 4.38% 4.14% 4.72% 4.59% 0.00
SCCL 1.31% 1.57% 1.72% 1.95% 1.82% 2.00% 1.73% 0.00
Swan 3.94% 3.69% 4.12% 3.94% 3.76% 3.60% 3.84% 0.00
TCCL 0.00% 0.00% 0.00% 1.08% 2.82% 3.73% 1.27% 0.02
Towers 1.56% 1.53% 1.33% 1.36% 1.24% 1.29% 1.38% 0.00
WashU 8.92% 8.78% 8.69% 8.49% 8.98% 8.30% 8.69% 0.00

Table 1

Analysis & Conclusion

The data suggests that there is an irreversible decline in monograph usage through consortial lending. One of the few aspects of my findings that is reassuring is that the curve in the decline is shallowing (Figure 1). Usage is declining less over time. In part, this is due to the ever-increasing cooperative agreements and membership which the Mobius consortium has negotiated since 2014. Comparing the relative usage numbers between 2011 and 2016 the greatest area of stability providing growth is the inclusion of more public libraries, specifically Springfield-Greene County [Missouri] Library (SGCL), Tulsa [Oklahoma] City-County Library (TCCL), and St. Charles City-County [Missouri] Library (SCCL). However, this cannot provide sufficient usage to stem the ebbing tide in overall usage.

Looking at the M-Monthly graph I also find something reassuring in the flattening of the yearly curves. It tells me that while usage will continue to decline that there is a basement to the decline somewhere above zero. I don’t have the statistical skills to predict this basement, but I am hopeful that we are nearing it.

If I may speculate, and given the lack of published material on the matter I must, I see the decline in usage to have a three-fold cause. One is that circulation desks are seeing dwindling usage numbers across academia. Two is that the rise of e-book licenses purchased by universities and consortia are increasing exponentially, making the traffic of physical monographs less and less necessary. And thirdly, that the ever-growing number of libraries available in the Mobius consortium are spreading out the availability of titles. More items in more libraries would naturally create a circumstance in which any particular library’s individual holdings are less important than before.

Let it not be said that consortial lending, or even monograph lending more broadly, is dead. There is an unarguable reduction of monograph circulation, certainly. However, I find it hard to believe that Kurt’s prediction that by 2020 no academic library will not need a circulation desk. This sounds to me like the 1990’s prediction that in the future offices will not use paper. It is now 2017 and I still print pages daily, and I bet you do, too. Predictions like this I believe are short-sighted and inevitably erroneous. All doomsday predictions have one thing in common – they’ve all been wrong. The end of the world has been predicted many times and we’re all still here. The light bulb did not make fire obsolete, but simply made it a niche tool for specific purposes. This is the future I see for monographs. There will always be a need or desire for printed material through which one can flip and peruse. However, they will become specialized items for specific user groups or keepsake nostalgic items. The future of a position like mine is in much doubt, though. In the very near future no library will need a person dedicated to nothing more than consortial lending. In fact, at this moment, I am the only person I know of in the Mobius system whose job is solely to manage consortial lending for any institution. Ideally this job duty should be folded in with ILL-lending procedures. When I have moved on to the next stage of my career there will not be another person hired to fulfill my duties, but those duties will be spread out over the rest of my department, and that is the right thing to do. Consortial lending is very important to the life of the library at UMSL and Mobius. However, in the perspective of total monograph circulation trends it is declining at a similar rate. The practice must be maintained for as long as there are cooperative agreements between libraries and patrons who want distant books. But it is foolish optimism to expect that current rates will rise or flatten any time soon.

 

References

Anderson, R. (2011). Print on the margins: circulation trends in major research libraries. Library Journal. Retrieved from http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2011/06/academic-libraries/print-on-the-margins-circulation-trends-in-major-research-libraries/

Cheung, S. and Chung, T. (2011) Monograph circulation over a 15-year period in a liberal arts university. Library Management 32(6/7), 419-434/

Kurt, W. (2012) The end of academic library circulation? ACRL Tech Connect. Retrieved from http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/post/the-end-of-academic-library-circulation

Martell, C. (2008). The absent user: physical use of academic library collections and services continues to decline 1995-2006. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34 (5), 400-407.

MOBIUS. (2011-2012). MOBIUS lending and borrowing statistics [FY 2011-2012 Monthly & Year-to-Date Statistics Final]. Retrieved from https://mobiusconsortium.org/mobius-lending-borrowing

MOBIUS. (2012-2013). MOBIUS lending and borrowing statistics [FY 2012-2013 Monthly & Year-to-Date Statistics Final]. Retrieved from https://mobiusconsortium.org/mobius-lending-borrowing

MOBIUS. (2013-2014). MOBIUS lending and borrowing statistics [FY 2013-2014 Monthly & Year-to-Date Statistics Final]. Retrieved from https://mobiusconsortium.org/mobius-lending-borrowing

MOBIUS. (2014-2015). MOBIUS lending and borrowing statistics [FY 2014-2015 Monthly & Year-to-Date Statistics Final]. Retrieved from https://mobiusconsortium.org/mobius-lending-borrowing

MOBIUS. (2015-2016). MOBIUS lending and borrowing statistics [FY 2015-2016 Monthly & Year-to-Date Statistics Final]. Retrieved from https://mobiusconsortium.org/mobius-lending-borrowing

MOBIUS. (2016-2017). MOBIUS lending and borrowing statistics [FY 2016-2017 Monthly & Year-to-Date Statistics – Ongoing]. Retrieved from https://mobiusconsortium.org/mobius-lending-borrowing

MOBIUS. (2017). Mission & vision. Retrieved from https://mobiusconsortium.org/about-mobius

O’Neill, E. T. and Gammon, J. A. (2014) Consortial book circulation patterns: the OCLC-ohioLINK study. College & Research Libraries 75(6), 791-807.

Rodriguez-Bravo, B. and Rodriguez-Sedano, F. (2016) Trends in library collection circulation in spanish universities. Library Resources & Technical Services 60(4), 248-258.

Rose-Wiles, L. M. (2013) Are print books dead? an investigation of book circulation at a mid-sized academic library. Technical Services Quarterly 30(2), 129-152.

Rose-Wiles, L. M. and Irwin, J. P. (2016) An old horse revived?: in-house use of print books at seton hall university. Journal of Academic Librarianship 42(3), 207-214.

Life Is Funny, Sometimes

Last year, while attending the Missouri Library Association’s (MLA) annual conference in Springfield, MO, on the last day I had an idea.

There should be a session for job seekers to come together and share their experiences. It could be support group for people to share the struggles and encouragements of the job searching process.

I tweeted this idea out using the conference hashtag and got the largest positive response to anything I’d posted over the course of the conference. Clearly, I was on to something.

Missouri is peculiar in that they have two state-wide library conferences. MLA’s is in October, and the other one, the MOBIUS Annual Conference, happens in June. When the call for sessions for the MOBIUS conference came out in the winter I jumped on the chance and submitted my Job Seeker’s Support Group idea to them, only to be denied the chance. Later, in the spring, I submitted the idea again when MLA called for sessions.

Then, I forgot about it.

Then, I moved to Las Vegas.

Then, yesterday, I received notice that my session proposal for MLA has been accepted.

Yay!

130e8o

and Hah!

giphy

The good news is that I can present a session at a professional conference, and that since I’ve recently taken a better job after years of searching I will have some authority on the matter.

The bad news is that since I’m new to this job and it’s 1,600 miles away from the St. Louis conference location I don’t know that I’ll be able to do it.

I’ve opened talks with my superiors to see if this is possible, and I suspect that it might be. I don’t think there is a downside to me attending a non-Nevada statewide conference as a UNLV representative. It’s good for me to get the experience and CV line, and it’s good for them as a function of outreach. My biggest fear is that I’ll have to choose between doing MLA in October and the Access Services Conference in November. I really want to do both but don’t know if that will be possible.

So, fingers crossed for getting to add to the fabulous experience that is MLA.

Related Post:

Schmoozing Skills

Big Changes: Or, Why I’ve not Been Posting or at ALA.

Well, it finally happened! After 2.5 years of laborious and demoralizing job hunting I’ve finally been graced with a NEW JOB! About two months ago UNLV offered me the position of Circulation Manager for their Lied Library. I agreed to it right away and my wife and I started preparations for the move from St. Louis, MO to Las Vegas, NV. To say that this was an exciting and frightening time for us would be an understatement.

True, we’d been talking about this possibility since way before I graduated with my MLIS degree, but now that it was actually upon us we had to adjust to the new reality that the abstract theory had become tangible fact. In a week we’d secured an apartment and arranged for our transportation. A week later we were on the road. It was that fast. I left a Jeffrey-shaped hole in the wall at UMSL as I left.

Leaving my house in St. Louis
Leaving our house in St. Louis

We drove between St. Louis and Vegas in twenty-eight hours, only stopping for food, gas, and stretching along the way. Sleeping when we could while the other drove. We moved into the apartment on May 26, and spent a week getting to know the area, buying furniture and housewares that didn’t fit in the truck, and doing our best to enjoy our last week living together for a while.

You read that right. My beloved wife is still back in St. Louis where she works and shares our house with her daughter. That is the absolute worst part of this move, not being with her. We’re doing our best with it, though. We’re talking everyday via phone or video, and we’ve always IM’ed and texted each other throughout the day. She’s actively looking for a job in LV and has made an arrangement with her boss to work remotely for short periods of time. This means that she’ll be able to visit for two weeks at a time and only take vacation time for half that time, so long as she spends the rest of the days doing her job from here. While the ideal situation is that she do her job remotely full-time, her superiors are not ready to make that commitment, yet. Maybe if she proves herself capable and trustworthy that day will come in the future. In the meantime she’s still looking for work and watching the calendar. If nothing changes in the next year, she’ll turn sixty-five next May and retire from her job after she can claim Medicare. So, absolute worst-case scenario is that we’re apart for a year. It helps knowing that there’s an upper limit to the situation.

The Job

Jeffrey at Lied Library
Me, excited to start my new Job

Previously, I was managing consortial lending for UMSL’s Thomas Jefferson Library. That meant that I’d spend 2-4 hours a day running reports, noting statistics, harassing delinquent students and libraries about overdue materials, and maybe processing the day’s incoming courier shipment. The rest of the 4-6 hours of my day were spent waiting for my student workers to get the rest of my work done. I mastered this position two years into it, and spent the next five years twiddling my thumbs.

The only good things about this were that I was able to get my library degree for 25% of the sticker price, do most of my classwork at work, make some pretty good work-friends, and stay in the field of my chosen profession. Not too bad.

The bad parts of this job were the caustic and cancerous work environment I was forced to stay in in which I was absolutely denied any opportunity to expand my professional experience, getting only occasional paltry pay raises (0.5%-1.5%) less than once every two years, being asked to do supervisory work for entry level pay, and being paid far less than the average for equivalent positions even in my own city.

Now, I’m in a position in which I’m directly supervising four full-time employees (soon adding two part-time positions) and am the authority figure at the circulation desk of a library three times larger and thirty times more busy (so, I’m told), for a university that has bucked the national trends and is actually growing to the point where they can build a brand new medical school in an environment where they’ve never had one before.. Oh, also, I’m treated with respect, paid a living wage in which I’ll receive regular cost-of-living increases, and am being encouraged to pursue professional development and activities even though I’m not in a professional librarian position (I was told that was “inappropriate” at UMSL).

To say that this has been a big change is an understatement.

So far, the biggest adjustment I’m having to make is that I have to get used to being “the decider” on issues. My first instinct is to run something by my boss, but now, I am the boss and my job is to keep problems off my supervisor’s desk. I’m not a naturally aggressive or ambitious person. Now that I’m in this position I’m finding that I have to grow into my power — limited as it may be.

While I’m ecstatic to get this job, I’m sad that the timing of it made it impossible for me to attend this year’s ALA Conference, especially since Chicago is one of my favorite places in the world. We’d ponied up for the cost, since UMSL was too poor to send anyone, and were set to have a working (for me) vacation. Luckily, we were able to get most of the money back.

I love going to conferences and playing Spot the Librarian as I go around town. I love meeting colleagues and seeing what they are doing at other places. I love exploring other cities, and bumping into old friends. I love having conference buddies to hang out with after hours. Happily, though, I’m probably going to the Access Services Conference in Atlanta (another former home city) in November, and I should be able to go to ALAAC18 in New Orleans (not one of my favorite cities) next year.

I know the shine will probably wear off the new job and living in Las Vegas sooner than later, but for the moment I’m enjoying my time as much as I can being so distant from my wife. I’m happy working in this beautiful library on a vibrant campus with really nice people. It feels good to be in a place that wants you there.

book and red wine on a marble table

Moving Forward and Eating Elephants

On October 25th I have a Skype interview with UC Berkeley. Yay! But, that’s not what this post is really about.

Everyone in my workplace knows that I am looking for another job. I am well aware that my openness on this matter is a luxury not afforded to many. It just so happens that it is understood that there is no place for me to go at my current library, primarily for budgetary reasons.

Because I have this openness I can go to my supervisor freely and ask for time off for interviews, or sometimes, take an interview while in the office. It’s a convenient setup for me. It also means that I and my department are in a constant state of limbo. I have to act like I’m not going anywhere to maintain my level of service, while also keeping one eye on the door. This open setup is also inconvenient in this way.

I have a certain set of duties that I alone am responsible for, plus those shared with my colleagues. I also have institutional knowledge built up that contains the soft skills I need to be successful. The loss of my position after I leave — and I am guaranteed not to be replaced — is the cause of some fretting in my office. How will the evening schedules work out after they go from five to four closers? Who will get my weekend shifts? How will they ensure that my duties are carried out? What even are my duties?

In theory, I could get a call on Monday and two weeks later be out the door. Or, it could take another two years. This unknown causes much of the consternation, both at work and at home. No one knows how much urgency is required on the matter of succession; on when, how, and to whom the responsibilities will fall.

Let’s Back Up

Cast your mind back, if you will, to summer of 2010, a simpler and less Trumpy time. I was languishing in a position that had never developed into the job I had been promised. I had little responsibility and less to do. Three things were about to happen, though. We were getting a new Head of Access Services, the night manager and supervisor of consortial lending was retiring, and I was going on a two-week vacation to the Grand Canyon.

We were already experiencing the budgetary shortfalls that made hiring a new person impossible. So, someone inside the department was going to have to take over the consortial lending duties. The most logical person for that position was me. The Dean, however, wasn’t sure about me. After two years of my service he didn’t know me at all, really. Before making things official he requested a meeting with me to get a sense of just who I was and my suitability for the position. I didn’t think of it as such at the time, and the format was much more casual than I would grow accustomed to, but it was similar to job interview for a position I already had. We talked about service models and temperament. I don’t remember much about the conversation, now, six years later, but it was sufficient that he was comfortable giving me reigns of this position and putting me in a position of very limited power.

What was left was to train me on the actual position. For several days over the next few weeks I spent time with the kindly Iranian man who I’d be replacing upon his retirement. By “several,” of course, I mean three. I think. You may be thinking, “Three day’s training for a new job? That’s crazy!” Or, you’re thinking, “Wow! you got three whole days!?” Either way, you’re wrong. What was astonishing to me is that this man — who’d held this position for the last nine years — basically did nothing. His job, according to my “training” consisted of occasionally phoning people about overdue or damaged items, and occasionally arranging replacements with the acquisitions department.

I asked him, “What is your process? What is the first thing you do when you get here?”

“Well,” he says in his gentle Farsi accent, “I say hello to Barbara. I make coffee. I turn on the computer.

“Now, this book here is damaged. I called the young lady who checked it out and talked to her grandmother, a very nice lady. These books over here? Chris in acquisitions knows about these. Do not worry about them…”

This was my training. He had no process. He never acted proactively. He seemed to think that it was sufficient to sit back and wait to be needed and, I guess he was right because for nine years no one had made him do anything different.

As the days went by I only got the barest of nuggets of what I was responsible for, until eventually we reached his retirement party where we all said “bon voyage,” to this kindly, but, lazy man.

Then, it was time for my vacation!

Meanwhile, while I was gone, our new Head of Access Services started and began to get settled in. Upon meeting me, nearly the first thing he impishly said to me was “While you were gone it became clear that this just isn’t the right fit for me, so I’ll be resigning as of Friday.”

After the shock and laugh of the joke subsided I was left to look at my new desk in my new part of the library and say to myself, “What’s my job again?”

Two weeks after my predecessor retired, and following an eventful vacation in which I was not thinking about work at all. I was faced with the writer’s terror of the blank page. What was my purpose? What were my responsibilities? How was I to spend my time? I really had no idea.

What did I do? I did what I do anytime I’m faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem. I ate the elephant.

Eating the Elephant

How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

I had to break my job down into its most basic parts from which to build. What was my primary function? To see the proper circulation of items through our consortium system. What is that made up of? Circulation of books across the circ desk and the processing of incoming and outgoing courier shipment.

What were the circulation policies? How are shipments processed? Luckily, I had a certain amount of institutional knowledge available to help with the first question. The second question was answered by working with the two highly capable student assistants I had inherited. I had to go to my employees to learn how to do their job, and therefore mine.

I had another method for learning my new job, too. I wrote down everything.

The year before, when I was still an ILL assistant we began using the ILLiad software package to process our requests. After receiving our training, and then the software, my colleagues and I were unsure how to actually use it, so I took on the challenge of writing procedure manuals that included information from the online tutorials, but also incorporated local practice. In this way we were all able to learn the new way to do our old jobs.

With that experience behind me I applied the same technique to my new job. To make a long story slightly less long I spent six months, through trial and error, building tasks for a job that never had any before. I made mistakes along the way and irritated some of my lending partners, but eventually, I created a system that now runs nearly on autopilot and takes up a surprisingly small number of hours of my workday, so long as I have student assistants. Now, the job proactively looks for long-overdue books and reconciliations happen one-by-one. Rarely, do we have large reconciliations with another institution because I stay on top of the issues.

Over the years I have refined every one of those procedure manuals. They exist in ILL for borrowing, lending, and doc del. They exist in consortial lending for the supervisor, and the students. I have them printed in what I call the Big Book and Little Book of Merlin-MOBIUS policies and procedures. The Big Book has everything ILL and consortial lending needs, where the little book is everything that the consortial lending student assistants need.

Everyone knows these books exist. I use the Big Book regularly, just as my student assistants use the Little Book. They do not exist to supplant formal training, but to supplement it and exist as a reference for when one takes on a task they are unfamiliar with.

I created these manuals for two reasons:

  1. So that I would know what the heck my job was.
  2. So that no one else would ever be in the position that I was in when I took over the consortial lending job.

Let’s Move Forward

I never thought about it in these terms, but the truth is I was working in the realm of knowledge management. Knowledge management (KM) is something that always seemed like a buzz word to me, which my personality reflexively rejected, and my library education did not focus on — at least, not in those terms — but, the core of librarianship is just that. We are cultural knowledge managers, regardless of the realm of libraries in which we work. We organize culture in a way that is accessible to users. We manage the collected knowledge and art of our predecessors.

This is true and looks great on the “So, You Want to Be a Librarian” brochure, but for the purposes of this post I want to focus on internal knowledge management. Without getting into another long anecdote about my work history I have had another experience with succession planning that was less than ideal. I was working with another soon-to-be-retired colleague to document her work. After several days of sitting with her and me asking repeatedly if there was anything else I needed to know for her successor, I was told that what I had was all I needed. Trusting her, I let it lay. Then a few months after she’d left we realized that there were significant holes she left in my training. These holes are still being repaired more than a year after her retirement.

Her attitude was that her job was hers, and hers alone. She never wanted anyone else to know what she was doing, because that would make her vulnerable. She believed that if she kept some knowledge secret, then she couldn’t be fired. I suppose that worked, but when it came for her to retire, she still didn’t relinquish that knowledge and the department has suffered for it.

I came to believe a long time ago that no one is irreplaceable. If a dictatorial tyrant can be deposed after thirty year’s in power, a penny-ante library assistant doesn’t have a prayer. That being so, there is no good philosophical reason to keep knowledge secret. I say open the gates and give away all your secrets to your colleagues. Because we librarians are not usually part of a for-profit enterprise, and the nature of the job is to freely share information, anyway, it is strange that any of my colleagues would ever feel posessive of the particulars of their job. In the end you will only hurt your organization.

It is probably not reasonable to expect — or even ask — employees to document every tiny aspect of their job. A) Most people don’t have that kind of time. B) Most people aren’t that detail oriented, even in libraries. But they can freely share their work details with colleagues when asked, and some aspects of their positions can and should be written down. This is especially necessary when tasks are infrequently performed. We don’t need to know what the rate of library fines was in 1986, but we do need to know how to bill deliquent patrons. The more knowledge is concentrated in a few people the more the library will suffer when those individuals are no longer employed.

“I’m not going anywhere.” You may be saying. “I’m only thirty-eight. I’m going to be in my job for the next twenty years, at least.”

That’s all fine and good until you get hit by a bus; something that nearly happened to me last year. Or, that’s all fine and good until you hit the lottery. My ticket is in my sweater pocket. Where’s yours?

You don’t need a Big Book of procedures like I have. You don’t even need a Little Book. But you need something. There are lots of KM products that can be purchased, but you don’t need to spend any money for them, either. We have a home-made Knowledge Base that is built on HTML code probably from 1996. KM is vital to the continued success of you and your colleagues, and more importantly, your successors.

book and red wine on a marble table

Working for a Living

Well this has been the strangest and most stressful start to a semester I’ve experienced in the last year.

Earlier, this month, I had interviewed and hired a new student assistant. I was perhaps a week or two late in doing this, so by the time the paperwork was ready she wouldn’t be able to start until the second week of classes (this week). I made a M, W, F schedule for her with an option of Sundays in the future. Tuesday and Thursday were to be covered by two other students.

First, my Tuesday student got a second job tending bar at Red Lobster (they have a bar?) which made her library schedule harder to commit to. This is less a problem for me as the work I require can basically be done at any time, but she also worked the service desk which is more concrete. She is still intending to be my Tuesday student, but already this week she couldn’t make her shift with me due to training at RL.

Then, on the same day last week, our ILL Lender called and said that her husband had just had a heart-attack (!). So, she was going to be out for a few days. Only to be followed by another phone call from my Thursday student saying, literally, “I don’t think I’m going to make it in for my shift, today. I just saw my father pass away.

Well, no, I don’t think you will make it.

This is the first week of the semester, mind you.

Friday, I take the day off for a few doctor’s appointments and to go camping with my wife. Monday, I come back to work with the expectation of beginning to train my new student worker on her tasks, only to be met with an email from her sent the Friday before saying that “for personal reasons” she couldn’t accept the job. What?

So, the new girl has bailed, and my two established assistants are both going through major transitions. Oh, and another colleague is having her own personal challenge that will require a lot of support from the department. And it’s only the second week of the new semester.

How am I reacting to all of this? For my colleague and assistant who have suffered personal tragedies, I am expressing sympathy and accommodating their needs, up to and including taking over their duties, as needed.

For the rest, I’m getting to test a hypothesis that I’ve been considering for at least a year: I don’t really need any student assistants. In the past, I’ve maintained that it takes about sixty hours a week to accomplish all of the Merlin-MOBIUS duties at UMSL, but more recently, I’ve come to feel that that number has fallen to not more than fifty.

What has happened is that with the reduction in monograph circulation at university libraries, there has simply been less need for my service. Not enough to threaten my job, or the type of service. The usage numbers are still very strong. But there is much less need for me to be flush with student workers.

So far, this week, especially, I’ve been doing it nearly all myself. With only the most limited help from other student assistants I am doing all the hands-on processing of the books, and still having time to perform the clerical duties that I would normally have done at my desk. The clerical duties are not necessarily getting done in as timely a fashion as before, but I’m still getting them done. I fully expect to be completely caught up with everything at the end of the day this Friday.

Is it stressful? Yes.

Am I exhausted at the end of the day? Yes.

But I feel like for the first time in years I’m doing my own damn job, and that feels pretty good. For years, the hardest part of my job has been the boredom that comes from too much down time.

My colleagues are looking at me like I’m crazy, though. They are also fretting about what will happen when I’m not there, both for sick or vacation days and when I inevitably get my new job. They are the ones who are insisting that I have not one, but two, fully trained student workers to perform the work. That way all contingencies are accommodated for. They have a point. However, this is the exact reason I have produced procedure manuals for not only my tasks as a supervisor, but also for the student tasks. It’s all written down so that there is not a complete loss of institutional knowledge. They don’t seem to find that comforting, though.

So, we’re advertising for more student assistants, not only for my open position, but for a few others, as well. I’m not likely to maintain this level of activity at my job, but I may tire of working this hard all the time, too. Part of me wishes that I didn’t have to hire anyone, and on one level I suppose I don’t. But then, having at least one to fill in when I’m not there really does make sense, and it would be worth it to alleviate the fretting of my colleagues.

I’m looking for a pithy conclusion to this post…

…Nope, can’t find one.