Gap Between Technical and Public Services Librarians

Technical & Public service librarians are divided by imaginary line which indicates their professional polarization in the field of library science. The two groups are often seen as being mutually exclusive, in part due to prominent characteristics regarding personality differences.

The concept of the Technical Services librarian conjures up cliched images of the public librarian from 1950s and 1960s television: bookish, quiet, somewhat quirky and not very social or outgoing, as depicted in the Ghostbusters movie, and recently making an appearance in the latest installment of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga: presuming the library infallible and not being particularly helpful when confronted with a reference question by a hapless Ewan McGregor.

This is the standard imagery that came to the minds of many of my friends and relatives when I announced an intention to enter this profession. It is also the librarian mantle that this article endeavors to cast off, attempting to help redefine the profession and establish a new image for people to associate with the librarian at their local university or high school, at their public library or at their place of business. One major stumbling block to such a redefinition is that this very stereotyping goes on within the profession as well as outside of it. Many librarians will support the notion that there is a strong personality difference between a reference librarian and a cataloger. While the reference librarian is a gregarious individual who loves talking to and helping people locate information, the cataloger loves books, and is most comfortable when behind a closed door, in a room full of inanimate information, well away from patrons and the user population.

As early as 1983, when a special issue of The Reference Librarian was devoted to interactions between public and technical services, a movement was afoot to blur the division in this imaginary dichotomy. One article in this issue addresses the “people people” versus “book people” split, stating that there is imagined to be

“two ‘kinds’ of librarianship . . . [one] concerned with esoteric ‘technical’ matters and populated by reclusive adepts, has concerns which are mysterious and methods which are suspect…The second is concerned with ‘The Public’ and populated by bluff men and women (democrats all), deals with real issues, real people, the library user in tooth and claw.” (Gorman, 1983, p56)

When Michael Gorman wrote this article, he was in the process of effecting a massive library organizational overhaul at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he held the position of Director of General Services. The article goes on to advocate a flat structure where all librarians partake in a range of activities on both sides of the division, a structure that is more likely to be in place at a smaller college or a special library. The presence of a Director of General Services position at Illinois indicates that they had some success with this sort of experimental structure, but the University has since returned to a more traditional administrative setup. In part, this may be due to the difficulty in developing thoroughly generalist librarians at such a large institution, where a certain degree of specialization is necessary to make things run smoothly.

However, it should come as no surprise that this vocal advocate of library reorganization was also the first editor of the 1979 revision of the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules.

Historical Perspectives

This controversial publication created an uproar in the community and had a pronounced effect on the relationship between technical services and public services departments. Drastic changes that were made to the structure and nature of cataloging rules have a powerful effect on the work done by public services librarians. Decisions about bibliographic standards were made with considerable input from subject specialists.

As early as 1980, Phillip Bryant authored an article in The Journal of Documentation, which stated that “very little attention has been given during the past decade to subject retrieval from library catalogues compared to the attention which has been afforded descriptive cataloguing. There are signs that the tide is turning and that concern with the problems of providing subject access will grow in the immediate future.”

These somewhat drastic changes in bibliographic standards, especially in regard to choice of access points, was further augmented by the widespread adoption of Online Public Access Catalogs and other mechanisms of library automation. OPACs(Online Public Access Catalogs) served to change the way people used catalogs, as the more automated instantiations are more adapted to facilitate topical searching but not as rich of a browsing tool.

Additionally, information production increased considerably over the last few decades. As information produced became more and more voluminous as well as specialized, the general effect was that scholastic inquiry became considerably deeper, allowing for far fewer true generalists. This made it extremely difficult for even the most stalwart of academics to stay abreast of important developments in their field, as well as a variety of related and auxiliary disciplines.

This trend also has a powerful effect on the nature of cataloging, requiring catalogers to take even greater care in providing access to materials. The purpose of effective cataloging is to provide a service. This purpose includes such notions of resource discovery via serendipity, the establishment of “hidden” or non-obvious connections between different classes and types of resources and the provision for a sort of “interdisciplinary bridge” to enable discovery in disciplines and areas so removed from a the originating subject as to deter searching, but extremely relevant to the given context. Achieving all of this requires the development of rich, robust subject cataloging and authority control.

Who do we catalog for, anyway?

A more public services approach to cataloging decreases instances of searches resulting in recall without precision, precision at the expense of recall, and discovery without access, due to a lack of context sensitivity in the results given. As a library user as well as employee, I know that there is only one thing that frustrates me more than irrelevant results in a search or positive, useful resources falsely dropped from a set of search results due to low recall. This mother of all annoyances can be summed up in three words: discovery without access!

Now, in regard to traditional print resources this doesn’t serve as much of a problem. With the exception of the occasional lost book that has not yet been indicated as missing in the catalog, OPACs don’t generally contain records for materials they don’t own.

In the environment of electronic resources, especially journal articles, this becomes a more significant issue. Many library patrons, especially in academic environments, seem to have begun taking for granted the availability of full-text access to articles. In and of itself, this is not a significant issue, but when combined with the variety of vendors who provide access to indexing and abstracting services, a somewhat serious problem soon develops. Often times, a subscription database such as MedLine or Web of Science will advertise a link to the full text of an article that has been found, only for the user to discover that his or her institution does not carry a subscription to the electronic content through the publisher indicated by the indexing service. This is even more infuriating when the institution in question does have access to the resource in full text format, but through some alternative aggregator or vendor not indicated by the abstracting and indexing (A&I) database.

There are a number of developments in rectifying this problem, yet the library community proper does not have as much control over this as it should. The 2002 ALA midwinter conference included numerous exhibitors that were touting innovations in the D2D (Discovery to Delivery) area of integrated library systems, recognizing and enhancing the role of the library catalog to establish and steer the user to linkages between a variety of different services, such as from the catalog to or from an index entry or abstract to the library’s print catalog, or a listing of online journal holdings, or even to an interlibrary loan request entry form. These initiatives are being developed by ILS vendors, in an attempt to make the OPAC the top level of a library’s web presence, as opposed to being a single link among many on a home page. Some librarians would also appreciate developments of this kind.

A New Kind of Librarian

Job titles in the field are more frequently containing words and phrases such as “data services,” “catalog enrichment” and “metadata.” All of these concepts imply an addition of various sorts of enhancements to an existing resource base, in the form of tools or utilities or added services. In many respects, such enhancements depend on the public services approach to cataloging described above.

Some of my peers who have just graduated from UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Sciences have taken positions such as those listed above, and I was interested to learn that, in many cases, these positions were located within the public services side of their respective library’s organizations. A discussion regarding the development of metadata standards and records for a variety of electronic resources available to the institutions in question led to an adamant denial, on the part of some of the involved persons, that the work engaged in by metadata librarians is intricately related to the work historically performed by catalogers.

Part of the objection raised over the course of this conversation was that cataloging did not have the public services orientation that was required for effective discovery of electronic resources, and that metadata should be developed and applied by individuals who are involved daily with the task of assisting the user population. When I made the argument that this should be the case with all cataloging, at least in terms of attention to user categories and behaviors, all those present agreed, but questioned the practicability of the proposal, as the attitude described above is not one commonly attributed to catalogers.

A major step forward in the elimination of the perceived gap between technical services and public services is for technical services librarians to use this unique point in history as a jumping off point. We are at a juncture where the expertise of catalogers will be a useful and (hopefully) welcomed commodity in areas that include a broad range of participants, from computer scientists and computer engineers to linguists and philosophers. Such a movement would represent an opportunity to re-establish the commitment of cataloging as a practice to the needs and desires of those who use our catalog. We must make the world know that cataloging is a public service.

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