Moving out in front

2016-02-2 moving out in front

We’re at a tipping point

I frequently get to talk to librarians from very different types and sizes of libraries. When I ask about their concerns, there is one refrain I hear consistently: “We’re being asked to do more with less.” When we dig into that sentiment a bit deeper, I usually find that:

  • MORE = More outreach, more hands-on service, more training, more embedded assets, more learning guides, more interaction, more proactive recommendations.
  • LESS = Less money, less staffing, less space, less time.

Doing new things with fewer resources requires a paradigm shift. Why? Well, doing the same things with fewer resources can sometimes be managed through quantitative measures; trimming services, sharing costs, cutting back along the margins. But if you’re being asked to change both your input (funding) and output (services), that’s essentially a recipe for an entirely new way of thinking about how your organization needs to work.

Moving from the back to the front

Library automation has enabled many back-office tasks to be done much more quickly and efficiently.

For example, in FY2015, OCLC libraries found 93% of the records they wanted to catalog already available in WorldCat. And when they can copy a record rather than create one from scratch, they save an average of 10 minutes per record. Last year, OCLC member libraries copy cataloged 17,678,707 titles, thereby saving around 3 million hours of time, collectively. That’s great! It means more time for catalogers to spend on unique, local materials. Our members have been relying on that kind of efficiency for decades.

What we’re trying to do now is streamline library workflows across the board, for all management processes. This isn’t just a technology issue, though new platforms like WorldShare certainly help. It’s a focused effort to move more librarians “out front” to where they can interact with their users.

A focused effort to move librarians 'out front' to where they can interact with their users. Click To Tweet

This isn’t meant to slight the important work of those behind the scenes. But an “inside out library,” as Lorcan Dempsey puts it, requires that we change our focus from one where our resources attract users to our libraries, to one where we go out and meet them where they are. And that requires looking at what we do in new ways.

An ethnographic approach to change

In my years in product management, I’ve found only a few universal truths. One of them is, “People are bad at describing how they do their own work.” This isn’t anybody’s fault. By the time we do something long enough to be good at it, we often forget all the small sub-tasks that go into it. Also, when we report on how we work, we tend to describe our idealized workflows. We neglect the actual steps and re-steps and work-arounds that are often the case.

Contextual inquiry can provide some answers. It’s a method of workflow analysis that depends highly on observing users at work. It also involves asking questions of users during and after the observations, and then providing interpretations that users help refine and correct. In the end, you’ll hopefully have a much better idea of how someone completes a job in real life and identify ways to improve and streamline the process.

That’s a method we use at OCLC in order to understand how our services are used by our members. And we use it to improve our products and services to members. And it’s a method that more and more libraries are using to gain insight into how their users get work done.

We recently conducted a series of contextual inquiry sessions at member sites focusing on eResource management workflows. One thing we learned is that while many librarians want to use data to help make decisions about day-to-day activities, they have difficulty collecting data and/or finding it when needed. Knowing that, we can now look for new ways to help collect and communicate this information.

We need this level of understanding in order to move more of the library’s value from the back office to the front. In this way, we can free up library resources to do new things that will provide even greater value to our collective users.

I’d love to hear your stories about how your library has made changes that impact your workflows and those of your users. You can send them to I’ll share them back here, along with others I encounter. I think we’ll be able to learn a lot from each other.