Friday, July 17, 2009

How to gain efficiencies in technical services?

I'm on a task force whose mission is to, more or less, figure out a way that the Orbis Cascade Alliance consortium can save money in technical services operations across its institutions, which range from small private colleges to big universities. This conversation was started with a report from R2 Consulting, The Extended Library Enterprise: Collaborative Technical Services & Shared Staffing.

How can we achieve this? Let me take a stab at this question from the perspective of acquisitions, cataloging, and processing of physical materials. (Saving money on handling digital stuff like e books and e journals is another topic worthy of consideration, of course.) I'll add the disclaimer that these are my personal thoughts and not those of my employer, this task force, or anyone else.

My general belief is that libraries should outsource as much work as possible in this area. One approach is to outsource cataloging and processing work to book vendors. The vendors are already handling books and they have the economies of scale in their favor, so let them handle stuff like spine labels and matching to the correct OCLC record. One of the ideas that we've discussed in the task force is sharing expertise in the implementation of these services.

Even if a library outsources as much work as it can to its primary book vendor, it is still left with plenty of tech services work to do locally. For example, sending in orders, managing duplicates and superseded editions, interfacing with the institution's financial system, dealing with materials coming from non-mainstream book vendors, gift processing, repairs, weeding projects, etc. As we've found with WorldCat Cataloging Partners, the book vendor outsourcing helps speed up your main artery of materials coming in, but there are plenty of other categories of stuff to deal with.

The very specialized work such as cataloging foreign language materials, preservation work, etc. that can't be handled locally can be outsourced or shared with other institutions fairly easily. The Alliance could develop a better method of doing this, but this doesn't strike me as a high-impact area. There are already ways to outsource these things through providers like OCLC and MARCIVE.

The nuclear option in the context of this conversation is to consolidate institutional tech services departments into an a single (or perhaps a few regional) tech services department(s) for the consortium. The obvious advantage would be greater economies of scale for both common tech services tasks and more specialized ones. And if indeed we're moving into a future with less and less printed materials, it makes sense to consolidate the expertise in handling them.

The main problem with this idea, as discussed in the R2 report in a few places, is that it creates an extra stop for the materials between the book vendor and the library, adding to shipping and logistical costs. It also removes employees from a home institution and probably makes their jobs more specialized and mundane. A disconnection between the tech services workers and the collections and institutions they support would likely develop.

I wonder, realistically, how many economies of scale would kick in in this scenario: there still would be idiosyncrasies in interfacing financial transactions to individual institutions, for example.

Ironically, the prospect of fewer and fewer print materials adds to the risk involved in building such a center: as soon as it is created, there might need to be a continual downsizing of it as its services are needed less and less.

These approaches all outsource and/or centralize the work of technical services: ordering, receiving, cataloging, processing, etc. But I wonder if this is where most of the savings are to be had? It might be that we'd gain more efficiencies by centralizing the management of technical services operations and leaving the technical services work distributed geographically.

It seems like every library has its own idiosyncratic practices for things like checking for duplicate orders, applying spine labels, choosing book vendors, copy cataloging procedures, updating standing orders, etc. (See this R2 report from Rollins College for some examples) It can be hard and time consuming for acquisitions and cataloging librarians to keep on top of the best ways of doing these things. If the methodologies and procedures for doing technical services were handled centrally, perhaps there could be big efficiencies gained, both in terms of time saved doing technical services tasks and time saved by librarians figuring out how to do them and documenting them.

The Alliance could create a "virtual" centralized technical service department that establishes best practices across a variety of technical services tasks. Participation in the virtual department could be entirely voluntary, but in principle would go along with the idea of the Alliance having a shared collection. I'm sure this idea would encounter a lot of skepticism and resistance, but when seen in the context of the many other big changes our libraries have absorbed in the last couple decades, it might work, especially if it went along with some other systematic change like a migration to a new library management system.

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