Orienting Library Workflows

Academic libraries have moved quickly to establish new collections, services, and space configurations for new and emerging needs. We recognize the necessity of embedding library staff and services in the workflow of users. One pressing need academic libraries are eager to address is to configure our own workflows to maximize the fluidity of service provisions. Below are some possibilities for change. The examples are illustrative, and a nuanced framework needs to be developed to anticipate all library functions that situate in very different institutional, socio-economical, and political realms.

To be a part of a user’s workflow, successful academic libraries need to minimize disruptions our services cause. Such disruptions, seeing from the user’s workflow perspective, are dead ends on a user’s path of discovery and access, including unawareness of library expertise and services online or in physical facilities, unprocessed materials that mislead a user to believe something does not exist, errors in bibliographic records or service descriptions that lead to zero match, mis-shelved items that wastes a user’s time, broken links, unavailable seating, closed service points at user desired hours etc. They may also be soft breakdowns, such as ambience, staff attitude, and troubleshooting responsiveness. Where library services break down are the most probable points the user abandon the library. This action is particularly easy in library’s virtual space.

Academic libraries’ organization is still predominantly vertical, i.e., we are divided into public-facing and behind-the-scene departments. Breakdown mediation, however responsive we maybe, is still reactive, and actions are handed from one department to another despite increasing internal collaborations. Although we added new staff to meet new needs, in most cases they reside within the vertical confines.
Might it be possible to align libraries’ workflow to support collection not by ownership but by how soon the access can be for users? Processing not by physical or digital medium nor by publication frequency but by upcoming use forecast? Space and hours not by location of service points nor calendar but by the whereabouts and rhythm of a user’s research, teaching, and learning process? How would we balance investments between work that prevents breakdowns and those that repair them? How do we transition to a model in which our individual library’s users are supported collectively? The more successful open access and open education will be the tighter alignment and coordination between the libraries and users is required.

Ultimately, only when services are predictable and reliable would a user embed the academic libraries in his/her workflow. This is especially true in an environment where resource is not scarce, but attention bandwidth is. Only when academic libraries rethink our structure would we be able to produce the consistency and reliability within our means and at scale. Many colleagues have been working on this alignment, some U.S. examples include:

User behavior: Numerous research reports produced by Ithaka S+R and other organizations or libraries.
Collection: Linden, J., Tudesco, S., & Dollar, D. (2018). Collections as a Service: A Research Library’s Perspective. College & Research Libraries, 79(1), 86. doi:https://doi.org/10.5860/crl.79.1.86

Processing: LeBlanc, J., & Kurth, M. (2018). Assessing staff alignment in technical services. Library Resources & Technical Services, 62(2), 66-73. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2024440304?accountid=10267

Innovation and technology: Tarleton Gillespie; Pablo J. Boczkowski; Kirsten A. Foot, “Rethinking Repair,” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society , 1, MIT Press, 2013, pp.344-
Library costs: Courant, P. N. & Nielsen, M. (2010). On the cost of keeping a book. Retrieved from https://leverpress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/CourantandNielsen.pdf

Planning: https://future-of-libraries.mit.edu (I cite the website instead of the reports, because the website shows the process.)


I invite you to share further readings and ideas from around the world to help us think about this challenge collectively.

Xin Li

Associate University Librarian

Cornell University