And then there were none.
December 8, 2011 6:10 AM   Subscribe

Knowing full well I will be pilloried for this: We have a library at work (13,000 mostly-technical books and about 100 active periodical subscriptions, 200 users), but the 1 full-time librarian will retire in 2012 and a new hire is not going to happen ... What's next? (please read the questions inside)

  • Have you seen any good case studies on how to run an unstaffed library with well-intentioned but not necessarily organized users?
  • What problems can be solved by technology? architecture? organization? good policy? social engineering?
  • What problems will never be solved, or unforeseen until it's too late?
  • What do we need a portion of someone's time to do still?

    Google offers me a lot of information about unmanned military drones and automated check-out systems, but I am interested in a more holistic view from your experience or bookmarks.

    Trust me, if the hiring decision is reversed, y'all are the first group I will think of but we are probably not in your area.
  • posted by whatzit to Education (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
    My workplace had a librarian when I started here in 2008, but he retired 2 years ago. (your workplace is ~ 2x the size of mine) It's been an awkward transition, especially because I never really learned how to use the library in the first place. It's left me with almost no understanding of how to find and check out books. Old employees can continue on with the momentum of "the system" but without a librarian in place, new employees will have a harder time.

    Technology should be good; ours is kind of lousy, and it hurts. Our internal reports system is finally getting transferred over from a nearly-unsearchable Lotus Notes, but it's one of the admin assistants who's in charge of all that, and it might be mostly the current system changing rather than the archives. I think there's someone else in charge of shelving. I don't know who makes decisions about what to keep when someone with a massive collection retires and leaves a pile of interesting (junk?) in their cube. It was a huge battle to keep sufficient library funding; they stopped paying a librarian salary during "the crash" and at the same time cut our subscription service (journals) down to a more basic level. Of course, the lack of a package deal would have worked a lot better if we'd had a central person who could buy a pack of 10 articles and districute to 10 different employees, rather than each employee having to request articles separately.

    From talking with people who've been around this office longer, everyone used to use the library a whole lot more than they do now, but it's becoming less and less useful as time goes on. I don't know what will happen when someone compiles statistics of library use, sees that we're not checking out books, and proposes to jettison the whole room, but I'd be shocked if it didn't get suggested within 10 years, more likely 5.
    posted by aimedwander at 6:43 AM on December 8, 2011

    One place I worked just had a sign in/sign out sheet for all the materials. There was a professional librarian who came in once a week (worked at multiple libraries) just to catalog new materials, fulfill special requests, etc.

    Could you replace periodical subscriptions with online access?
    posted by miyabo at 6:44 AM on December 8, 2011

    Why aren't you asking your current librarian these questions? If you have a librarian for another few weeks, it seems like he/she should be spending almost all of their time helping your organization with a plan to keep the library running without a successor. Pretty much all of your questions are going to have answers specific to your organization, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution to running a specialized library.

    Similar to the axiom "If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to drink at a bar," I think you already know: If you can't afford a librarian, you can't afford an actively-used library. Just shut it down, sell or donate the books and cancel your journals. It's a waste of money if you don't have someone to manage the resources.
    posted by booknerd at 6:52 AM on December 8, 2011 [12 favorites]

    "If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to drink at a bar," ... Just shut it down

    That's a bit more black and white than necessary, I think. We're effectively ordering take-out. There is a library budget, a small one, which covers things like online journal subscriptions, purchase of reading materials by individual employees, and somehow we have access to local university libraries. Basically these things have to still happen, used to be handled by the librarian, and so now they're still filed under "library".

    Also, of all the people who could have made our system smooth and automated, the retiring librarian was not the guy for the job. He did his job well, as an old-school librarian running a traditional library - he was not one of the flexible young librarians who are active on the internet, can expound at length about recent changes in research methods as a result of global communicaitons, the role of social media in the big picture of information, etc. He was more of a microfiche kind of guy. We didn't have someone who could have made our driverless library awesome.

    To address the OP's question: You need to strengthen the technological backbone, and if your current librarian isn't the best resource for that, you should consider a temporary contract hire who can set up a strong system.
    posted by aimedwander at 7:33 AM on December 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

    I've had the good fortune to work with universities which have running a library as part of their fundamental mission. I also work in IT, so whenever we interface with their systems I wonder why they suck so bad. Sometimes I look around for OSS applications we might replace them with, but it's Not My Job to manage that stuff so it's just a flight of fancy.

    Speaking of flights of fancy, one thing I've pondered is a distributed working library. Basically, you distribute the books among cube workers, or more likely formalize their existing catalogs. The problem though is that poking around people's shelves is a bit invasive. Usually what happens is you ask someone a question and they give you a book. You reply "oh, I didn't know you had that book! Awesome!" Maybe you think that's fine, but chances are you usually ask the person who doesn't have that book.

    What problems can be solved by technology?

    Technology can make the search and borrowing process better, and give management something to manage. A webapp (which I assume exists, like a proverbial can opener) for book inventory. A webapp DB might remove some of that invasion and improve circulation of knowledge.

    Obviously this webapp would allow searching, coordinate borrowing, and give reports on which books haven't been lent out in a while. I know GCStar does most things I'm going to describe, but its s a desktop app and therefore socially worthless. It just seems like one of those Book Nerd social networking sites should have these features, because as we all know, everything you've ever thought of has already been done on the internet.

    I'm not quite sure what this word means.

    Distributed among shelving your workers probably already have. One hidden advantage here is shelving becomes easier to search. I can only imagine what happens after you eliminate the budget for shelving staff. "Good enough" becomes "impossible to find" as books drift around.

    good policy?
    Make it policy that books bought with company money get into the system. For the Greater Good!

    social engineering?
    "Gifting" some of your books to the new hire might be a good excuse for the team to introduce themselves one-on-one, even if some of them were poached from the person who left. And functions as training on the new system.

    What do we need a portion of someone's time to do still?
    Two things I can think of are inventory management related. Annual pruning (ie selling off books nobody wants / needs anymore), and having an admin assistant do inventory checks (randomly sampling books to make sure nobody's been stealing) monthly.
    posted by pwnguin at 8:11 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

    Response by poster: These are thoughtful answers, thank you, I am still reading if you have more.

    Why aren't you asking your current librarian these questions?
    This conversation is being had, but MeFi has a lot of people interested in these topics that are not our current librarian (only one person!), and come from totally different systems and a couple other generations. aimedwander has the right understanding.

    If you can't afford a librarian...
    Judging by the number of favorites, a bunch of people agree with you. This isn't a permanent situation (everyone hopes) but it is the current reality. I'd love to have great solutions proposed here, or solutions so bad that we see no alternative but to get another librarian! Wishes, horses, etc.

    For example, specific library set-ups that can motivate good use of the library. Good placement of bins to collect things that need to be returned to the stacks, how to funnel check-outs to the check-out log or machine so they don't forget because the exit is wide open. Think about the work that is done on grocery stores (milk and bread in the back!) but for libraries. This would be a fascinating topic in any case.
    posted by whatzit at 9:43 AM on December 8, 2011

    What do we need a portion of someone's time to do still?

    Are your books updated (with loose-leaf page substitutions or new editions)? You will need someone to put updates into books or take the old eds off the shelf and replace with the new ones. If you have a catalog or database of what books are in the library then that information may need to be updated.

    In my library we have a computer system that keeps track of when updates are scheduled to arrive and generates reports for missing updates. A person then goes through the process of getting the missing updates. Usually this then leads to trouble-shooting like "vendor never received our payment" or "we forgot to renew this item." Some update management and periodical subscription management can be outsourced to a vendor like Ebsco (though word to the wise, years ago we moved this subscription management operation back in-house because the outsourced management was not at all working well for us).

    Periodical subscriptions need to be renewed. Unless money is never an issue, the cost of these subscriptions needs to be reviewed for each renewal. In my library we also use our knowledge of the products in our area, coupled with our firm's usage of our products, to determine whether our current subscriptions are still valuable, whether we can get as good/better information for a better price. If you have $25,000 of subscriptions that aren't actually being used you are just throwing good money down the drain.

    Basically, who is going to receive the mail related to your books and periodicals? Who is going to pay the bills? Who is going to determine whether the bills SHOULD be paid? Vendors make billing mistakes, send double bills, mis-allocate payments, etc., so someone is going to have to be somewhat on top of those things or you could potentially waste a ton of money.

    There may be a library staffing agency in your area; you may want to determine whether it would be worth some money to keep some library functions going by using a weekly temp person.
    posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 9:43 AM on December 8, 2011

    I'd love to have great solutions proposed here, or solutions so bad that we see no alternative but to get another librarian!

    Well, switching all your print subscriptions to online access as someone suggests -- and that's assuming that they currently are all print and no online, which I doubt -- falls into the latter category. I am a solo librarian and I spend plenty of time trying to get our paid-for access to online content to work properly -- frankly, I (young, flexible, active on the internet, able to leap tall databases in a single query!) am embarrassingly unable to stay on top of it all the time because the systems involved are so byzantine.

    The software solutions pwnguin is imagining are probably things your library already has. They probably are not web apps, and they still require a person. OSS might save you money, but it too will require a warm body to operate it.

    The unstaffed/minimally staffed libraries I've heard about are mainly public library branches or parts of university library systems. How do those work? The operative words are "branch" and "system" -- they're parts of a bigger organization that has the infrastructure and people to make them go. Oh, and the money -- your problem of well-intentioned but disorganized users can be mitigated with things like self-check equipment, but that too has a cost, more than just the one-time price of the machine. Here is a link to a vendor of self-check stuff, not an endorsement but the first one Google could find me. Somebody will have to figure out what machine you need and be the first to set it up and learn to use it, for starters. Local or regional library consortia/cooperative organizations should probably be your first step if you want to go in this direction. I'd tell you who yours are, but if you are really in Paris, that's a little more complicated -- maybe contact the biggest library near you and find out about any cooperative arrangements they have going.

    In conclusion: banjo_and_the_pork, booknerd, and aimedwander have it. What generally happens in this sort of situation is that you get away with a part-timer, temp, contractor, student, paraprofessional, or some combination of the above for a while. But if you really need to keep your information resources usable and accessible in the long term, WITHOUT throwing away a bunch of money, I don't think you can get by without a professional.
    posted by clavicle at 11:23 AM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

    One of the things that happens when library funding gets cut is hours are reduced, then lights are kept off, then the heat- because no one is in there, etc etc. One of the core concerns is the physical integrity of the materials. Most people have no idea how quickly mildew and 'the elements' can set into a collection- and it can destroy enormous value. A minimum priority should be a list of sensitive collection items, and the conditions they and all items need to stay intact.
    posted by iiniisfree at 12:07 PM on December 8, 2011

    Wouldnt it be easier to see if you can get the collection placed at the local public library? This way they will do all the handling?
    posted by majortom1981 at 12:37 PM on December 8, 2011

    What do people use your library for now? You have these 13,000 volumes... do people actually use them? I think it's hard to give thoughtful answers about how to run your library without a clearer understanding of the library. You've told us what's *in* the library, but not what the library is *for*.
    posted by mskyle at 12:45 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

    I am a person who certified librarians love to hate- a library paraprofessional (a school term in the business world I think I would be called a clerk)- I have run two school libraries that have lost funding for a certified librarian. After doing this for 8 years and contemplating a move to another school library that has been shuttered I have a lot opinons- chief of which is that libraries need a staff person- not necessarily a certified librarian but someone who keeps track of the inventory. In most cases this should be someone who is experienced and flexible and can adapt to the needs of the library (I know this is a dig but too many certified librarians aren't flexible and that is what is causing the downfall of the profession.)Without that person a library is a reading room that is a free for all. People have the best of intentions when it comes to "borrowing" things like books but when you let them have access to items like books without anyone to hold them accountable things disappear never to return. A good inventory system is important as is holding people accountable. My second suggestion is to have an online catalog- I use Library World- which isn't perfect but is cheap and does a good job of an check in/out system and is cloud based so people can access it from where ever. It also has a periodical manager. I have set up Library World with a google form to make patron files, a self check-out with a barcode scanner and a numeric key pad. I would also echo what mskyle said- what type of books do you have and do you need all 13,000 of them? Most libraries need to be weeded- and most library staff never have enough time to do that effectively. My third suggestion is to have the library throughly weeded- and set some standards for the library- will you have a one in one out rule? Will you weed books based on Date of Publication?

    I think you could staff the library with a library student or a library clerk. There are lots of us out there! And I am always happy to answer questions about how to run a library on the cheap.
    posted by momochan at 10:20 AM on December 24, 2011

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