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.

Access Services Conference

Thanks to having an employer who actually sees the value in investing in its employees I was able to attend the Access Services Conference for the first time, this year, in Atlanta. If you’re not aware, this is a smaller conference that is dedicated — not surprisingly — to the Access Services zone of academic libraries; an area of the field typically neglected at other conferences and occasionally maligned by other areas of the profession. This is everything from ready reference and circulation to emergency preparedness. A sampling of the sessions conducted include:

  • Re-Evaluating Library Space Usage AFTER a Library Renovation
  • Badges of Service: Engaging, Customer-Oriented Student Employee Training
  • Librarian or Emergency Responder
  • Accessing Virtual Reality: Challenges Met and Lessons Learned
  • Are daily fines effective in reducing the number of days an item is kept out past its due date
  • A Bibliometric Analysis of ILL Data at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

It’s management and practical advice from those of us really in the trenches of our profession.

Day 1

The conference ran from Wednesday, November 15, through Friday, November 17. The first night was an opening reception of drinks and finger foods. About half-way through awards were given to those who won the travel scholarship and one for excellence in Access Services Librarianship. There was a recognition of the committees and members, as well. Mostly, though the event was a social time for the school-reunion aspect that these conferences inevitably have. For my part, my only reunion was with my former supervisor who is now the University Librarian at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He introduced me around a little and suggested I get on one of the committees, myself.

Committee work is very important in professional academic librarianship. Most of them, I believe, don’t take too much extra work, and it shows potential employers — or tenure review boards — that you are engaged in the profession at more than a day-to-day level. I used to be on the RUSA: STARS ILL Committee, but had to resign after I’d a) missed several meetings because I couldn’t get to the conferences, and b) stopped working in ILL.

I made a joke at the time that the new guy always gets put on a committee — at least, that’s how it was at every church I ever went to — but it’s something that I really should consider doing. If for no other reason, it’s hard for your boss to tell you can’t go to a conference when your on one of the planning committees. Furthermore, it gets your name and face out in the profession and people can start to get to know you. The more you do that, the more you show up to these things and have friends and colleagues there with whom you’ve built a relationship and it makes conference much more enjoyable. Also, you could get a job or another exciting opportunity out of it.

Day 2

I started the day off right by oversleeping, only to follow that up by spilling an entire “tall” coffee on the floor of the front row right before the keynote speaker went on. Classy! The speaker, Brian Matthews, Associate Dean for Learning at Virginia Tech, talked about a variety of ideas, but the gist that I got out of it was that he encouraged the room to get out of our comfort zones and take risks in our leadership roles. Also, that sometimes break-dancing in the library is a good thing.

My first session was “Re-evaluating Library Usage AFTER a Library Renovation” (emphasis in original title), presented by Jo-Ann Cooley and Kari Mofford, which described a recent renovation at U-Mass Dartmouth’s library and how they made changes and improvements after the renovation was complete. From where I was sitting I feel that the most beneficial aspect of the session was the process they used to get the feedback to make those subsequent changes. There was a lot of open communication, survey’s, and focus groups of both students and staff that informed what needed to be done after the major changes that had already taken place. This reminds us of Raganathan‘s fifth law of library science, “The library is a growing organism.”

Next came “Badges of Service: Engaging, Customer-Oriented Student Employee Training,” by Bryan Feyerherm and Lori Hilterbrand of Oregon State University. This was one of the better sessions of the conference. OSU designed a standardized student assistant training and retention program that rewarded skills earned and time served with “flair;” colorful buttons that displayed achievements. Their training included a patron experience scavenger hunt that new employees do that ends in a pot of candy, and online quizzes to test knowledge and comprehension. This was one of the best sessions of the conference in my opinion.

…people were randomly walking around with ice cream treats…

After that was the most important part of the day: LUNCH. I haven’t said this yet. Wednesday night at the (complimentary!) wine social I was told that the food at this conference was awesome, and constant. Boy howdy! Was that correct! I’ve never had such good spreads at a library conference before. Plus, people were randomly walking around with ice cream treats both days. There was a constant supply of ice cream, people! Needless to say, no one went hungry.

After lunch, I attended “Accessing Virtual Reality: Challenges Met and Lessons Learned,” in which someone from North Carolina State University (his name is not noted in the program) presented an overview of VR technologies he’s piloting in his NCSU library. I went to this because a) I know next to nothing about VR and haven’t used it since my early teens (tweens?) in the early 90’s at St. Louis’ VP Fair. You might remember the giant headsets, circular platforms, and polygonal digital environments of those early setups. Or, you might not. And b) Lied Library has a VR setup we’re piloting in anticipation of our new Knowledge Production department which will begin full swing operations by next fall. This presentation was interesting and informative, but not practical based on my professional interests outside of giving me a basic introduction to the technology without the opportunity to use it.

Next was the poster sessions. I usually don’t pay too much attention to poster sessions, but this time I took photos of a number of them and talked to one of the presenters about how she communicates en masse with a bunch of student workers who WON’T READ EMAIL! ARRRRRGH!

But I digress.

All of the poster sessions over both days that I was most interested in were concerning managing, training, and mentoring student assistants. Reasons for this I should get into in a later blog post.

Last session of the day was an outlier for me: “A Bibliometric Analysis of ILL Data at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center,” by Brynne Norton. While I do have a fairly strong ILL background, anyone who knows me knows why I went to this, and it’s spelled N-A-S-A. I’m a life-long space nerd and just being in proximity to a NASA Librarian is enough to make me fanboy.

Another Digression: My friend Nick Fry, who’s now the curator of the Barriger Railway Collection at Mercantile Library in St. Louis is also a former NASA librarian. In short, I know some really cool nerds!

Brynne talked about measuring the impact of Goddard’s ILL service using title, keyword and regular expression searches, as well as tools like Openrefine.orgRegexr.com, and Sublime text editor. While I’m not sure I understood it all (I’ve never been a blood-and-guts librarian) I found her talk way more interesting that I thought I would have by the title and description. Good job Brynne!

Day 3

“Holding onto the values of the past is the quickest path to irrelevance.” — Katie Glaeser

Friday began much better than Thursday did. I got plenty of sleep, woke up on time, and still got breakfast at the conference. I chose another student assistant management session to start my day with. This time Christopher Bishop (of Agnes Scott) and Jalesia Horton (of Augusta University) talked about their parallel experience working in small academic libraries in which they included — and expected — their student workers to do so much more than shelve books and sit at the circ desk. Their students were active in outreach, advocacy, and marketing with an eye toward building student skill sets for transference to other later opportunities. They gave their students real responsibilities, and received buy-in from them. While much of what they talked about wouldn’t work in a large institution, they did say something I liked a lot, “The student employee who understands the big picture becomes the ideal student employee.” We have to include the students in what we are doing and thinking so they can understand their jobs in a larger context and perform to their highest degree.

The second session of the day was “User-centered Access: Planning and Implementing a Fine-free Policy” by Maryke Barber and Karen Ryan of Hollins University told us all how they went FINE FREE in their library; fantasy I have written about before. What a wonderful thing to do.

According to them — and why wouldn’t I trust a librarian? — there’s more an more data that says that fines do nothing to preserve a collection or encourage quicker returns for the average circulating monograph. Hallelujah! What does work is longer lending periods, more frequent communication, billing for replacements, and blocking accounts of the worst offenders. From my experience at UMSL I can say anecdotally that this pan’s out. One thing that they did that I thought was genius was to increase the undergraduate loan period to 120 days with a single renewal, just like faculty and grad students. Brilliant! Oh, how I want to do that at UNLV! The caveat to this is that it’s only standard overdue fines they stopped collecting. They’re still fining for reserves, tech, and replacements, but still, good on them!

Poster sessions, then another totally awesome lunch.

The last regular session of the conference that I attended was “Navigating the Storm: Leadership in Times of Crisis,” by Katie Glaeser (Sweet Briar College). Another fabulous session that provided my favorite quote of the whole conference, “Holding onto the values of the past is the quickest path to irrelevance.” OMG, I was so happy to hear her say that! The presentation was really about empathetic leadership during stressful transitions to manage not only the events, but the psyches of the people affected by that change. There was a lot in this forty-five minute presentation, but I’ll sum it up with Katie’s own bullet points.

Summary:

  • Focus on Mission
  • Clarity precedes competence
  • Lead with Care
  • Information & Communication

And…

Emergency Toolkit:

  • Remain Calm
  • Focus on the Mission
  • Prioritize the Welfare of Others

Like I said, that was the last regular session I attended. There was one more, but instead I spent that time networking with my former boss, Paul Sharpe.

The last event of this wonderful conference was a panel discussion with Paul (UTRGV), David McCaslin (Cal Tech and editor of the Journal of Access Services), Krista Higham (Millersville Univ.), Brad Warren (Yale), and Trevor Dawes (Univ. of Delaware). Each of whom have been associated with the conference for all or most of its nine-year history. It was great to hear these very successful people talk about what access services has meant to them throughout their careers. Cheers, all around!

Takeaways

I’ve been going to conferences since 2011. I’ve been to big conferences and small ones, national ones and regional ones, but this is the first time I’ve really been to a conference focused on a particular service area — most importantly, mine. I was a pilot fish at this conference. I was to go there and report back to my AD whether or not it is worthwhile to send others in the future. Indubitably, it is! I had always heard wonderful things about this conference (mostly from Paul), but had never had the opportunity to come, myself. The way that I’m feeling right now. For anyone who works or aspires to work in access services, this is probably a far more enriching experience that even going to the big 20,000 librarian-strong ALA Annual every June. ALA has it’s own charms and it’s own value, but for area-specific content and the best camaraderie you can’t beat what happens in Atlanta every November.

fraggle rock doozers

Student Workers: The Doozers of Academic Libraries

flowergarlandforthedoozersHow many of us got started in libraries when we were in college and needed rent (and beer) money? For me, I was a junior in at Webster University into which I’d just transferred from my community college. I’d started out being a seasonal book jockey at the campus bookstore, but needed more income and was lucky enough to get hired at Emerson Library. It was there that I finally found my professional home.

As a student I was able to develop friendly working relationships with my superiors and got to perform consequential work for both the library and our patrons. It was a good job that had a clear and purpose, and it didn’t involve helping someone richer than me make more money.

Recently, Library Lost & Found posted about the value of interns from library school at her public library. This, in turn, inspired me to think about how much I value student workers, and simply enjoy working with them.

There are so many things that have to get done everyday at an academic library. Book drops must be emptied. Books checked in. Books shelved. Books pulled from the stacks. — Yes! Academic libraries still circulate books! Lots and lots of books! — The ILL students are pulling books and journals and preparing them for delivery. This could be anything from simply leaving a cart of books for the ILL Technician to process, to actually doing the processing and sending themselves. They are handling the mail. They are front line customer service. They are relabeling old material and processing new material in tech services and acquisitions. They are helping in archives by filing, scanning, and assisting in the preserving of materials both new and old. Some students work security helping to keep us safe. Some students are the authority figures in the overnight hours while the rest of us are sleeping.

It is fair to say that without student workers we could not function as libraries.

The benefits do not only go one way. At all levels, student assistants learn valuable skills that are transferable to future employment. Sometimes these student assistant experiences translate into a student pursuing librarianship as a career, like me and so many others.

Then there are the students themselves. There is something about library work that draws intelligent, ambitious, and capable people to apply. Ninety-percent of all student assistants I’ve known have been people who I would hire for any position. I like these people. I like that they are good workers who learn quickly and are eager to do a good and accurate job. And I like getting to know them.

I was a non-traditional college student. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree at twenty-eight years-old. I was twenty-nine when I got my first full-time library position at UMSL, not too far apart in age than the average student worker. When I got to the point that I was directly supervising them I was still in my early thirties and it seemed I had the air of the default-cool-one, as I was the supervisor closest to their age. Time went on and that feeling faded, but to this day I get to enjoy friendly professional relationships with college students. Not to sound too much like an old codger, but it does help keep me young by being around and getting to know them. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be able to — by osmosis — stay connected to the culture of younger generations. They never seem so foreign to me as 80’s and 90’s TV led me to believe they would.

One of my favorite things is seeing how teenagers become functional young-adults over the course of their college career. The women typically start off as shy and timid. The boys tend to walk in full of confidence. Over the course of four years you see the girls gain the confidence they lacked and come out of their shells, whereas the boys get rounded out and humbled. By the time they graduate they have been formed into capable and likable people with bright futures. I’m privileged that I get to be a small part of that development and a witness to it.

In short, the kids are alright.

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.

2016 missouri library association conference logo

Missouri Library Association Conference, Day 3

First thing this morning was a shower. I’m sure all my fellow attendees will appreciate that. Shower done I packed and checked out of my room. By the time that was done I didn’t have time for breakfast before my first event; visiting the Access Services Community of Interest meeting. (They had muffins!) This consisted of me and two other librarians discussing the difficulties in our underfunded libraries. Interestingly, I was confused for UMSL‘s Head of Access Services, which we do not have. We also discussed potential presentation topics for next year. Oh, also I became next year’s official recorder, which means in two years I’d be the vice-chair, chair in  three years, and previous chair in four years. Yes, previous chair is a real position for “institutional continuity.” The chances of me actually fulfilling these duties through 2020 are pretty slim, but I get more resume fodder for them, just the same.

After that, I arrived late to a presentation on how MST is revamping course reserves that was full of good ideas. Shelly’d devised away to determine which items needed to be on reserve based on usage statistics. Way to go, MST! I think this means that I’m an uber library nerd in that I can go to a presentation on ILS list techniques and think it’s interesting.

Currently, I’m waiting for “Sharing Managerial Wisdom” being hosted by a couple of SISLT faculty.

It was really good! It was about knowledge management and passing on institutional knowledge. Lots of anecdotes on how people, including me, have had to fend for themselves in new positions. They talked about the importance of succession plans and making available policies and procedures for colleagues. They also talked about how important it is to NOT keep your job details a secret. I have learned first-hand how that is detrimental to a department. My attitude is that no one is indespensible, and any sense of power you get from holding on to details is false. In the end, you only hurt your coworkers.

Next session, in the same room, is on positive customer service.

They had tech issues and seemed a little disorganized due to the fact that they were trying to pack a two-hour training session into forty-five minutes. Their content was good, though. It was all about the “getting to ‘Yes'” model of customer service. The idea is that by viewing your patron as a partner whom you are to help succeed resets the dichotomy between the service provider and served. It’s as much about attitude and word choice as it is about the actual work. This is actually a model I’ve tried to employ over the last several years. It is the service model I describe when I’m in a job interview. It is who I try to be every day I am at work. We would all be better off if we employed that in our daily lives.

I have to say that I had an excellent conference. Ever since ALA 2015 in San Francisco I’ve felt that I’ve really figured out professional conferences. I’ve been able to cut out the sessions that are wastes of time, generally. I’m comfortable talking to strangers and networking with new colleagues. I’m getting involved with committees and attending business meetings. And, the more local conference have several people from all types of libraries that I’ve gotten to know over the years and are some degree of friends of mine.

This conference was excellent in that I got to make new connections, build on existing relationships, get new information and reinforce old information. Furthermore, all but one of my sessions were actually worthwhile. Typically, if one gets three good sessions over a three day conference you have done well. I had way more than that. Next year’s conference is home in St. Louis. I expect I’ll still be around then. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again and learning more cool geeky library stuff.

Related Tales of a Librarian

Missouri Library Association Conference, Day 2

Missouri Library Association Conference, Day 1

Schmoozing Skills