At the time of this writing, I am beginning to get back some of the 714 surveys I mailed to members of the Technical Services SIS. (Since you are reading this after the deadline has passed, you should be feeling either guilty for not sending your survey back or incredibly pleased for contributing your time and knowledge). One of the striking characteristics of the results is the wide variety of titles chosen by us (or for us) to describe our individual jobs. Some titles are straightforward: Cataloger, Acquisitions Librarian. Some titles are traditional: Head of Technical Services, Associate Director. Other titles reflect name trends that seek a fuller explanation of the work involved: Bibliographic Control Librarian; Collection Manager.
I am curious about the connection between what we call ourselves and what we do. And, as most of us in the TS-SIS recognize ourselves as technical services librarians of one kind or another whether we call our departments Technical Services or Bibliographic Resources or the Back Room, I am especially curious about the functions of technical services departments as a whole. The question arises: Have our essential functions changed now that we have automated, connected to the Internet, integrated into the networks of our larger organizations; abandoned our Kardineers, "whit-out," and, Nicholson Baker forgive us, our card catalogs; and lived through some monumental changes in the way our workplaces and tools behave?
A typical library school textbook1 tells us that technical services departments are responsible for five activities:
1) Identifying potentially worthwhile items;
2) Selecting the identified items to be added to the collection;
3) Acquiring the selected items;
4) Organizing the acquired items; and
5) Preparing the items for use and storage.
Some of us may not do some of these things, e.g., selection may be done by a bibliographer outside the department, and some of us do more than is implied here, e.g., paying the bills. But I think nearly all of us recognize the activities being delineated, and we appreciate that they generally fall somehow into our part of the library. These are the behind-the-scenes jobs that support the more visible work of the library. These are the activities that are not obvious even to many sophisticated users of the library's public spaces and resources. These are the complicated tasks that use up enough space and personnel that visitors into our departments are likely to say, "I had no idea all this was going on back here."
But are we still doing those five old-fashioned-sounding things? I think we are. I believe they described what we did in technical services 40 years ago and what we do today, not because our work hasn't changed, but because we have adapted our traditional duties to work with new forms of information. When electronic versions of text showed up on diskettes or CDs, we did not say, "These aren't books, we can't deal with them." We found the good ones, bought them for our libraries, cataloged them, and made them available to our users. Despite our reputation for overly scrupulous rule-following, technical services librarians have demonstrated as much flexibility dealing with digitized information as our colleagues in reference have in integrating digital and print resources into a full offering of available information. The somewhat silly exercise many of us went through in our first semester of library school when we were told to catalog ourselves did, at least, emphasize a great fact about the organization of knowledge: you can catalog anything.
But what about Internet resources? Are we actually selecting, acquiring, and organizing them in the same way we did other formats? And preparing? Preparing what? There are some bits of information out there in the other somewhere which for now can be accessed by people with the right kind of equipment and connections, but in what sense is that information part of our collection? Again, I don't think we are dealing with new duties for ourselves, but with new information delivery systems. There is a source out there on the Internet. We discover its name and address, we point to it, we describe it, we make it available for use by our patrons. Of course, it's more complicated than that. The name and address might change, it may cease to exist, the content may change into something we don't want for our library. But those are not possibilities unique to Internet materials. There will always be the ugly items that require creative approaches. Those are the things that require well-trained professionals in technical services.
Have our duties expanded beyond the traditional core as stated in Evans' five functions? If we bother to create catalogs and link records in those catalogs to sources outside the library, are we obliged to do more? Should we make a more permanent version of those inherently ephemeral entities? Do we have a duty to in some way indicate every possible source available to our patrons as they sit at a computer connected to the Internet? It's easy to get carried away when the entire universe of information possibilities is before us. Concentrating on our core functions will help us to keep the proper perspective. The whole of the Internet is not the service for which most of our patrons come to us for help in gaining access. They are still primarily interested in print materials, locally housed, logically organized, and readily available. The key for us is to know our limits. Where in the stack of 300 million Web pages are the few that will be most useful for the particular clientele of my particular library? Does the electronic information I'm providing complement, enhance, or backup the other kinds of information in the library? Who in the library decides which sources are for us and which aren't? Is a link on our library page enough, or should it show up in the catalog? Fortunately for me, I cannot know any other library's limits, and so I am not compelled to provide answers to these questions for any other library.
So, the question of who we are is not posed in order to reveal any great change in our functions, but to ask further questions about how our functions fit in the current information scheme. You cannot be surprised that a person working at Notre Dame would use a football analogy. So, here is mine. We are the offensive linemen of the library. We lay the groundwork and we set up the play so that those with the more visible roles can gain the yardage. We do a lot of the nitty-gritty stuff necessary to make the whole unit move forward. We are the grunts. That, of course, means that we don't get much of the glory. Everyone knows who the quarterback is. How many left tackles can you name? But, don't plan on getting far without us. As long as there is a need for the services we have traditionally provided, there will be technical services librarians -- no matter what name we are called.