Early Career Librarian Series: Getting Your Library Departments to Think Collaboratively

March 14, 2019 Rachel Becker

You’ve probably heard the phrase “teamwork makes the dream work,” the title of a popular book on leadership by John C. Maxwell. This and other similar leadership buzzwords have become so common that we often do not think twice about them.

But how often do we step back from our specific departments, units, or divisions to look at the big picture?

Cross-departmental collaborations are common in many small to midsize academic libraries where staff size and proximity of workspaces encourage this type of work environment. Even though each librarian has their own specific set of skills, the library as a whole shares the same general mission of supporting student success.

Actualizing a true seamless collaboration between multiple departments can be challenging, especially in large academic libraries. With a little planning and a few workflow tweaks, positions can be streamlined and best of all, patrons will encounter an improved library experience.

Here are some tips to get your departments thinking collaboratively.

Get to Know Each Other

This may sound simple, but it can easily be overlooked. In many large institutions, the departments may not be physically located nearby or they may each hold separate meetings, which can easily create a siloed environment and isolate staff. Building in opportunities for cross-departmental collaboration is key to building healthy relationships. Some quick wins include:

  • Building inclusive committees whenever possible. Include staff from different viewpoints and departments in teams and committees to provide opportunities for interaction and input from several stakeholders.

  • Planning a few fun events for staff during work hours. These can include book sharing, pot lucks, or informal brown bag lunches where attendees are split into random groups.

  • Providing an opportunity for conference sharing. Invite staff from various functions/departments to share insights from a conference, workshop, webinar or other learning opportunity they’ve recently participated in.

Tap Into the “Boots on the Ground”

Technical Services staff have knowledge and access to information that, when combined with information from Public Services, has the potential to improve library services for patrons. Public Services staff have daily interactions with patrons and often have the best knowledge of how patrons are using library resources.

Examples of Public Services staff knowledge include:

  • What resources patrons are frequently encountering difficulties with and what those difficulties are.

  • Online resources currently being used during instruction sessions and specific subject areas where additional resources might be helpful

  • Circulation numbers for print titles which can be compared to eBook circulation

  • General knowledge of what patrons are asking about, what additional resources might be good additions, or what might be underutilized and why

Technical Services staff are generally knowledgeable in:

  • Obtaining and understanding usage statistics of electronic resources

  • Current and past issues with electronic resources which might affect patrons’ access to the library’s online content

  • New and emerging products from vendors which could potentially impact how patrons use the library’s online resources

This is by no means an exhaustive list but many of these strengths are common in my experience. An example of a collaboration point is comparing eBook and print circulation data overlap. This can often open larger conversations surrounding access to digital resources such as how students are being exposed to the content (via instruction sessions, searching the catalog, in an LMS, etc.). Identifying problem areas and potential solutions are important outcomes of these conversations.

Reimagining Positions

While it may not always be feasible to allow staff to experience technical and public services as part of their daily work, providing a variety of time spent in each location can be helpful for several reasons.

Seeing how patrons interact with the library’s online catalog and databases are valuable opportunities for Technical Services staff to identify issues and areas of improvement which might be overlooked otherwise. Likewise, having Public Services staff who have at least a basic understanding of how the campus’s electronic resources empowers them to assist patrons in using the library’s resources effectively.

There are many other areas of potential cross training between the two departments which can benefit the organization as a whole. Benefits can be seen in everyday patron interactions as well as streamlined workflows in troubleshooting electronic resources access problems and processing new items. Plus, cross training staff has the added benefit of ensuring the library will remain strong if someone retires or moves to a new position elsewhere.

Having at least a basic understanding of what other departments and staff do in your library is beneficial to the overall health of the institution. Finding innovative collaborative opportunities across departments and having an open mind are great ways to “make the dream work.”

Do you have experience with creating opportunities for collaboration in your library? Let us know in comments below.

About the Author

Rachel Becker

Copyright & Emerging Technologies Librarian, Madison Area Technical College // Rachel Becker is the Copyright and Emerging Technologies Librarian at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin. Her library experience started in public libraries and has expanded to include government, law, and archives. Rachel’s specific area of interests include copyright and fair use as it applies to libraries and scholarly publications as well as how technology is shaping the student experience. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her horse and binge watching TV shows.

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