How One Public Library System Worked with Architects to Make this Happen
Column Editors: Stacey Marien (Acquisitions Librarian, American University Library)
and Alayne Mundt (Resource Description Librarian, American University Library)
When we started this column, one thing we wanted to do was to hear stories about problems and solutions from other technical services departments. So, we sent a message to various technical service listservs, asking if anyone would be interested in being interviewed for the column. Our first conversation was with Pauline Rodriguez-Atkins, Manager of Cataloging and Interlibrary Loan at the Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma. We were interested in her story of how their technical services team was able to work directly with architects to design a customized space for technical services when their department moved off-site. Working directly with the architects enabled them to design a building specific to the needs of a dynamic, fast-paced, and large-scale technical services section. As Rodriguez-Atkins states of working directly with architects: “It was such a great experience. Once in a career experience. For us, very often you know with technical services nobody asks you what you need, they tell you what you get. It was such a great experience to be asked what we needed.” The following column is a summary of the phone interview we had with Rodriguez-Atkins on May 18, 2015.
The Library System
Metropolitan Library System is a public library system serving Oklahoma County, covering around 700 square miles and serving a population of approximately 720,000 in and around the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. The library system is comprised of 19 library locations, 14 of which are full-service library locations and 5 that provide limited service. Outside of Oklahoma City, the communities served have populations of between 600 and 87,000.
How do Technical Services operate?
Technical services (called Materials Services) is comprised of Acquisitions, Cataloging, Processing, and Interlibrary Loan. The whole unit is centralized for the entire system. Acquisitions includes the staff who select the material for purchase. The Acquisitions staff and selectors have always resided apart from the rest of the unit. When the unit moved to the new building, Interlibrary Loan joined them.
How did you operate before coming together in one building?
Initially, all of the technical services operations were located in the downtown library branch. Because of construction being done around the main library in the 1970s, the Cataloging and Processing units were moved into a smaller 1950s-era branch. It was difficult to operate in that building because Receiving and Processing were located on the first floor and Cataloging was on the second floor. There was only one elevator in the building, and it sometimes malfunctioned. Materials would then have to be moved from hand to hand up and down the stairs. This “temporary” relocation of technical services in 1974 lasted until 2010! By that time, the library system had expanded and the space was just too small to be able to handle the influx of materials.
What was the rationale for having a building just for Technical Services?
The library system does not outsource any technical services operations or buy any shelf-ready materials. Technical services was no longer able to function in their space, despite being creative and utilizing every inch. The idea of moving to a new space was first brought up in 2002 and finally approved by the library commission in 2006, with the units moving into their new space in 2010. The library commission was told that if they wanted to build a huge new library, with a collection of over 100,000 volumes, more space needed to be made for Cataloging and Processing. Within three years, the process went from nothing to design, construction, and moving in. The library system delayed the construction of a new branch library until Technical Services was able to move into their new space.
Why was Acquisitions in a separate location and where is it now located?
When Cataloging and Processing were moved out of the downtown building, there wasn’t any room to put selectors or Acquisitions staff in the branch library, so they stayed in the downtown library. When the new downtown library was built, Technical Services was supposed to be reunited with the selectors and Acquisitions in the new building, but the planned technical space was reallocated. There was discussion when the design phase started on the building that currently houses Technical Services that it would include Acquisitions, but at that point there was a desire from the administration to keep Acquisitions in the same building with them, together with financial operations.
Why did you decide to work directly with architects? What were the benefits of being able to work directly with them to plan your space? Were there any drawbacks? Do you think working with consultants would have helped improve your workspace design or workflow processes? Is there anything you would have done differently in retrospect?
Rodriguez-Atkins states that, “for all building projects for the library system, there is a full-time director of construction. He is a construction engineer and is the point man on all of these projects. He and the library administration generally believe more effective results happen by working directly with the people who are going to be on a site than by working with a consultant.” She says the entire process was a great experience. She and her staff had worked in such cramped and inefficient space for years, so they knew what worked and didn’t work, and specifics about what a technical services space needs to function most efficiently. She says, “the advantage of working directly with the architect was that we could say things like there can’t be pillars in the middle of the floor because we have to be able to move materials around easily throughout the building. Another important detail was the need for diffused lighting.” Rodriguez-Atkins wanted to design a production building and to have the staff heavily involved in designing a space that would work for them. For her, “the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks because I feel that bringing in a consultant would have ended up with an extra layer of possibilities for miscommunication.”
How do you handle routing of materials?
Rodriguez-Atkins tells us about how they manage to route materials between buildings:
“Before Material Services moved into the new building, Maintenance was located at a site away from where Cataloging and Processing were located. They would drive the delivery trucks over, load all the new materials, take them back to the maintenance site, sort them according to which library they were going to, and then run the delivery. There is now an RFID sorter at the new building. There are also two smaller versions of the sorter at two of the library sites within this county. The new building houses big, giant rolling bins, the kind that are in book drops that have the floor that drops down as you add stuff to it. When the processing staff are processing materials, the last step in the process is to activate the RFID tags and set the material on a conveyor belt. The material goes up onto the sorter, and the sorter software not only reads where the material is owned but also if there’s a customer waiting to pick it up. That information is linked, and it sorts it either into where the customer is waiting to pick it up or where it’s going to be housed. The delivery drivers roll these big bins out onto their delivery truck, take them, drop them off at the library, and as the library gets material returned they put them in big black bins. The drivers bring them back, roll them back into the area where the sorter is, and just put them on the conveyor one after the other. The RFID sorter assigns them to their appropriate location.”
How do you ensure materials don’t get lost?
Rodriguez-Atkins says that has not been an issue. “The materials are supposed to get coded at every step of the process. The unit has what is called a tracer system so that if you can’t find something and somebody says they’ve returned it, a tracer code is triggered which then sends out a message to all the libraries to check their shelves to see if it’s been shelved at the wrong location. The libraries are supposed to check their hold shelves and remove everything that hasn’t been picked up within seven working days.” There are very rare issues with missing materials, but it’s not a huge issue because there are so many checks and balances with things being run through RFID readers at every step in the process, that it is easy to trace the movement of an item.
How do you handle materials repair? Are damaged items moved back to the Technical Services building?
Rodriguez-Atkins says the library system overall prefers to replace than repair, and is lucky enough to have funds to do so. What repair is done is generally done at the library level. She tells us that “library staff do their own repairs unless the barcode needs to be replaced. In that case, the item is sent back to Cataloging. Those titles go on a shelf and Technical Processing has a commitment to work on those within one work week after they go up on the shelves.” Those titles are prioritized since they are items that are available in the catalog.
Tell us about staff morale in regard to moving off-site.
One of the issues was the fact that the unit was not in a building with a library. This made it difficult for staff to borrow their own material. The administration made special accommodations and allows a little circulation desk in the building, which is open for one hour a day for staff. The staff in the old locations were so happy to be able to have spaces where they had enough room to work and enough space to be spread out and not feel like they were sitting on top of each other. It really helped to overcome the fact that the unit was moving away. Rodriguez-Atkins says there is some sense of isolation, regardless. There is frustration with the idea that the staff working in the libraries don’t always understand what goes on in technical services and all the work that is done, although that existed even before the move. She says that sometimes she has felt left out of supervisory communications, because it is easy to forget that not all supervisors are at the downtown library or at a branch. Morale was the lowest during design and planning phase of the building process. The approval for the new building took so long, and then it took three years to build the building and the staff weren’t sitting in the meetings on a daily basis in the way that the managers were. There was the sense that it was never going to happen, which was a negative experience for many of staff. However, once it actually happened, everybody was very happy. The staff all understand that they are working as a team. They pull together, and if one person is having a bad day, everyone else will step in and do what they need to do. It’s been a really good experience morale-wise.
How do you communicate with your colleagues in other buildings?
Email and telephone communication is encouraged. Staff in all the branch libraries are encouraged to call or email either the department or the manager. Rodriguez-Atkins says her staff does not do a lot of Skyping for meetings. Technical processing does Skype with Material Selection when they need to actually show them material. They have electronic meeting abilities, but feel that face-to-face interaction with people within the organization is more important. They have also started to do more e-meetings with the library association and with people outside their particular site, and there is a staff development day once a year where everybody from all the locations comes together for a full day of workshops and activities in one location.
But you must have to have meetings with your supervisor and the other supervisors?
The Material Services unit is composed of Material Selection, Acquisitions, Cataloging, Technical Processing, and Interlibrary Loan. There are three managers who all report to a division director. There are regular manager meetings about every other month when the managers discuss issues that are coming up for the library system as a whole and planning and preparing for various actions that are coming, such as when a branch will be closed for a period of time to have carpet replaced. They also discuss where there are issues with each of the different departments and how other departments can help address them. Rodriguez- Atkins also says that the library staff and managers at different branches are encouraged to job shadow in our offices and visit our offices. If there’s a bigger issue going on in one of the libraries, she will visit that library to see what needs to be done. She is trying to make her unit more visible with the branch libraries and do more outreach when time allows. If either the Technical Processing Manager or Rodriguez-Atkins needs to interact with their director, she’s always willing to come by their building and visit with them or to let them go visit her.
Rodriguez-Atkins says that working with the architect to design an off-site place just for Material Services was a great experience overall. It was a once in a career experience. “For us, very often you know with technical services nobody asks you what you need, they tell you what you get. It was such a great experience to be asked what we needed.”