Public Service Identity Crisis

Arriving about fifteen minutes after the start of the Instruction Session’s discussion on teaching methods, I found they were already turning folks away. The room was busting at the seams with librarians at roundtables deep into discussions about issues related to teaching and learning and the role of librarians in that process. Hmm. I suppose we need to further debate our instruction role, and whether it’s got a future. But I digress – and I expect we’ll have a report on that session from an attendee – so more on that session later.

Since I was already at this hotel I found another session to join. So I headed off to the Heads of Public Services for Large Research Libraries discussion group. The fact that I’m neither a Head of Public Service or working in a research library didn’t make this session any less interesting. In fact it’s always a surprise to sit in on a discussion where you are an outsider, and hear that the “big issues” in another segment of academic librarianship have much in common with your own. One of the recurring themes was marginalization. Do our users need us, and do our current service structures make sense for them? I also sensed an identity crisis of sorts. Parts of the discussion kept coming back to a critical question for all of us. What does public services mean to the library organization and academic institution, and what does it mean for our users?

Jumping into the discussion I asked if there was an identity crisis in public services. I mentioned some ideas I picked up at the OCLC seminar on “Extreme Makeover for the Library” that was largely about re-branding the library. Perhaps, I suggested, public services needed to remake its brand. After all, does the phrase public services mean anything to a user or an academic administrator. Isn’t public services a thing – a conglomeration of different departments – rather than the educational product it is designed to deliver. It may be helpful to read this brief essay by Clayton Christensen (disruptive technologies) about designing services that target the job that users want to accomplish (successfully completing an assignment) rather than the users themselves (e.g., undergrads). Maybe it shouldn’t be public services. What about “learning support” or “education and research management”. At least one person commented that there was no identity crisis, but I think more than a few thought the idea might be worth further exploration. Could be public services may be in need of a makeover.

One thought on “Public Service Identity Crisis”

  1. Scott Bennett has argued we should stop thinking in terms of service altogether and plan our libraries not around service delivery, but around learning. “Our purpose,” he says, “is not to circulate books, but to ensure that the circulation of knowledge produces learning. Reconceiving our purposes involves a fundamental shift for librarians trained in a service culture – one that is comparable to the shift that faculty are making from a teaching to a learning culture” Bennett, Scott. “Righting the Balance.Library as Place: Rethinking Roles, Rethinking Space. Washington, DC: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2005. 10-24.

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