The Technical Services-Public Services Connection

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Tips for Managing Change

By Sallie Smith

Cooperative relationships between technical services and public services offer new opportunities to combine staff talents and enhance library services. Crossing the organizational divide between the two departments is a departure from traditional library structure that requires skillful management for success. Here are techniques for avoiding roadblocks to change and successfully implement collaborative projects.

Develop Collaborative Techniques
Libraries face many challenges in today’s uncertain environment. A lagging economy continues to tighten budgets and increase costs. Workforces are shrinking as a result of layoffs, resignations, and retirements. Emerging technologies are challenging the established ways of delivering information to a new generation of library users. In response, libraries are restructuring their workplaces to provide innovative services better tailored to today’s information environment. Such transformations require organizational flexibility and a reexamination of library structure and management.

Since the introduction of automation, library staff has traditionally been divided between technical services and public services. The separation of those who organize information (technical services) from those who retrieve information (public services) allows the burden of learning technical proficiencies to be distributed among employees. As technology continues to infuse our workplaces, job functions in both areas are evolving to meet the unique needs of today’s information users. Interdepartmental relationships are increasing, and the lines of distinction between technical services and public services are blurring.

Crossing department lines between technical services and public services, however, can be problematic due, in part, to personality traits commonly associated with these functional areas. Public services work attracts individuals who are comfortable dealing with patrons, able to enforce policies under pressure, and have scheduling flexibility. Technical services work appeals to those who enjoy procedure-oriented work focused on data evaluation and editing and materials identification and processing. Such individual preferences must be recognized and respected when planning collaborative projects.

The presence of a multi-generational workforce may further complicate interdepartmental collaboration. People of different age groups have varying work ethics, communication habits, adaptability, and technology skills. Soliciting ideas and opinions from employees of all ages and encouraging questions so the different generational groups can learn from one another can minimize workplace problems.

Managing the Change
Initiating new projects between the two departments requires change. And any change to an organization’s structure, its processes, or its social system introduces workplace stressors that can trigger negative responses from employees. Anger, anxiety, resentment, distrust, and frustration are possible reactions to change if the employee believes that his or her workload has increased, thinks the status of his or her position is uncertain, suspects that he or she not been treated fairly, or experiences decreased efficiency due to workflow changes. It’s important to understand and respectfully address these emotions in order to move the change process forward.

Organizational change is more easily implemented in a workplace that encourages formal and informal staff interactions. Regular social gatherings, such as weekly “snack ‘n' chats,” special occasion parties, and summer games, all promote familiarity and group cohesion. Common gathering areas, such as a staff kitchen, lunchroom, or open work spaces, provide opportunities for spontaneous conversations and interactions.

Regardless of whether the change is a trial innovation or a required departure from the status quo, employees will want to know exactly what will change and how their jobs will be affected. This is the time to sell your idea, supporting it with a solid set of facts and reasons. Then, allow emotions to play out. Give staff time to grieve what they perceive as a loss. Employees most resistant to change are often those most familiar with the job and most concerned about getting things right. Accepting their input about potential pitfalls encourages employee participation in the process and can help to make a good change even better.

As you implement the change process, encourage the flow of information by being visible and responsive to employee concerns. Verbal as well as written communication is essential. Employees seek information that provides assurance and affords them some control over their personal situations. Collaborative projects between technical services and public services may require staff to perform duties for more than one supervisor. It’s helpful to establish direct reporting lines for new responsibilities to minimize bureaucracy and to positively reinforce the employee’s role in the new structure.

Incorporating Education
Education should also be emphasized when implementing collaborative projects. Identify resources and opportunities for learning new skills, and establish reasonable timelines for training. Provide employees with access to the technology they need to perform effectively. Share department information through regular meetings and up-do-date procedures. Above all, stress teamwork and promote a risk tolerant environment by treating mistakes as learning opportunities. If you resolve issues as they arise, you minimize employee frustration and reassure staff of your support.

You are likely to encounter difficulties as you negotiate the crossing between the two departments. Staff will experience frustration as they learn new skills and procedures. Lines of reporting and communication will break down as employees inadvertently revert to old habits. Employees will feel overwhelmed as they add new tasks to their existing workloads. You may need to reevaluate your goals and adjust the implementation process. Renew efforts to structure an environment that promotes staff familiarity and teamwork. If your plan isn’t working—revise it! If it is, celebrate the milestones of its progress and reward staff accomplishments.

Library organizational structures require flexibility in order to respond to today’s changing information environment. Crossing the divide between technical services and public services provides new opportunities for tapping into staff talents and developing a workplace culture that facilitates change. As employees integrate their skills with the functional roles of others, the resulting relationships form a solid foundation for developing service initiatives that resonate with today’s library users.

Sallie Smith ( is cataloging/systems librarian at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law Barco Law Library.

For Further Reading:
Finkle, Linda, “How to manage a multigenerational team,” ManagerCrossing, (accessed August 22, 2011).

Ford, Jeffrey D., and Laurie W. Ford, “Decoding resistance to change,” Harvard Business Review, 87, no.4 (2009): 99-103.

Hristov, M. Nathalie, “Trends, issues and practical solutions for cross training catalogers to provide reference services: a survey-based study,” Technical Services Quarterly, 23 (2005): 35-51.

Kiefer, Tina, “Feeling bad: antecedents and consequences of negative emotions in ongoing change,” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26 (2005): 875-897.

Phillips, Laurie, “Creative ideas in staffing: shared responsibilities, hybrid positions, and taking full advantage of the connections between public and technical services,” in More innovative redesign and reorganization of library technical services, ed. by Bradford Lee Eden, (Westport, Ct.: Libraries Unlimited, 2009), 53-63.