Rumble in the Stacks: The Technical and User Services Divide & its Future in Libraries
07/04/2011 § 16 Comments
Lauren Bradley is in her final semester at the Pratt School of Information & Library Science in Manhattan. She works part-time at the Leo Baeck Institute and part-time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She enjoys costume librarianship, database searching, and government documents. Although her experience is exclusively in technical services, she dreams of crossing the divide to reference and instruction. Follow her on Twitter @BibliosaurusRex
Nearly all library school programs require students to take some form of these two classes: reference and cataloging. If you are like me and my peers, you immediately embraced one, declaring it your life passion, while disdaining the other, wondering why anyone would want to dedicate a life-long career to it. Library school seems to reinforce these notions…jokes about the poor social skills of catalogers and sneers about the customer service element of reference librarians comes to mind. A professor early in my own library education declared the divide between user and technical services dead; he said that we should gain skills in each to have a successful career. Although my own personal work experience and vision of future libraries affirm his declaration, I see library school propagating the notion of the technical-user services divide.
In my view, the benefits of having user services experience and technical services experience are obvious. Some of these benefits include (but are not limited to): understanding how users search the catalog, how the catalog appears to the end-user, and how to search the catalog most effectively. (Colorado Libraries has two great articles from 2004 on the subject: “Out of the Back Room and Onto the Desk” and “Sneaking into the Back Room” that explore these topics more in-depth). In my own library, reference isn’t just run by another department, its run by a separate organization from technical services, and although this arrangement is cost-saving, the problems that arise are numerous.
Some of the professional world seems to be bridging the gap between tech and user services—the creation of RDA as a practical application of FRBR, tech and reference librarians alike gaining new technology skill sets to enhance library services, and the number small libraries that have a few staff members who do a little bit of everything.
Library school, at least mine, seems to encourage the divide. Although all students must complete the same four core classes (information professions, reference, knowledge organization, and information technology), students most frequently find themselves following a self-prescribed track of like courses: government documents and database searching nicely complement reference, metadata and advanced cataloging after knowledge organization, and usability and information architecture follow information technology. Students are by no means forced into one area or another, however, no one suggests otherwise (besides my one professor who strongly advised us to dabble a little bit in everything).
But how does this work logistically? Two years fly by quickly when one is already taking classes they enjoy; could we possibly fit in more to get a more rounded education? That being said, is a well-rounded library education really necessary or will having a solid background in one area, with on-the-job training filling in the gaps, be a more-than-sufficient model? Does gaining experience and/or expertise in one area pigeon-hole you for the rest of your career? After all, the librarians who are now bridging the gap were trained in library school when the divide reigned unchallenged.
The greater questions I ask are simple: does this divide have a continuing role in the future of libraries? In your program, are students encouraged to lean towards technical services or users services, or not? If so, which side of the gap have you leaned towards? If not, how do you think your more balanced education will impact your future?