A new work flow economy in resource sharing

In November I surveyed the participants in SHARES, a resource sharing consortium for about 90 RLG Programs partner institutions, to find out how they are coping with the pressures of being expected to provide more and better services with the same amount of staff, or in some cases with staff reductions.

My survey was the epitomy of quick-and-dirty, with four simple questions:
Name three tasks your ILL staff performs now that you didn’t perform two years ago;
Name three tasks your ILL staff performed two years ago that you have stopped doing;
Name three tasks that you hope to stop doing but haven’t figured out how to do without;
Add any comments about pressures to increase efficiency so you can deliver more service with the same amount of staff.

I received 19 responses, a pretty small sampling by any measure, but enough to be quite interesting. Seven responses came from art museums, six from academic libraries, three from law, two from medical, and one from a national library.

These responses listed 58 new tasks, 38 tasks stopped, 32 tasks that respondents would like to stop, and 24 comments.

The most often mentioned “new” tasks:
Purchase instead of ILL (7)
Fill requests by sending pdf’s (6)
E-delivery to own patrons (4)
Doc delivery to own faculty (4)
Reminders to patrons (3)

The most often mentioned “stopped” tasks:
Keeping paper files (3)
Looking for free lenders (2)
Monitoring/enforcing patron limits (2)
Using ISO ILL (2)
Using ILL Manager (2)

Most often mentioned “want to stop but can’t” tasks:
Keeping paper files (4)
Using Ariel (3)
Packaging/shipping (2)
Searching for requests that fall through cracks (2)

Can you guess what appeared on all three lists – new task, stopped task, and want-to-stop task?

If you guessed using Ariel, the document supply software created by RLG in 1993 and sold to Infotrieve in 2002, you’re correct.

There were a number requests for specific enhancements to certain resource sharing systems and products. These will be passed along to the appropriate product managers.Licensed e-resources were a common theme. Some reported the difficulty in getting patrons to realize a library owns a title electronically. A number reported having to print out electronic resources and scanning them if they want to lend them. Others insisted that requests for copies is going down because patrons are indeed finding and using e-resources.

Technology was mentioned much more as a possible solution that was organization. Only two respondents listed a change in organization as having an effect on performance: one reported combining circulation, reserves and ILL and assigning ILL processing tasks across the department throughout the day and night; one reported decentralizing processing so branch units could scan, send, and update themselves.

Other recurring issues and themes:
Decided trend toward removing barriers for patrons
Decided trend toward offering more services for own patrons, and for free
Museums alone reported being understaffed, often with a one-person ILL unit with additional duties besides interlending

UK library faced the most red tape:
Copyright law requiring signatures on paper; administrators requiring pre-payment from patrons; such long processing time for invoices that staff waste much of their time explaining and apologizing to creditors and partners.

Good sense, great service:
One library Googles article titles their own patrons are ordering to see if they’re available online for free.
One library automatically turns a failed patron-initiated stack search into an ILL request
One library reports daily to collection development staff what can’t be borrowed via ILL
One institution allows patrons to return ILL’s to any one of 19 libraries.

Most melancholy response:
One library has had to give up sending Christmas cards.

Most ironic response:
One library wished for an alternative to invoicing libraries who were deflected but persisted in sending a request via mail, phone, or fax.

Most amusing response:
One person reported as her favorite “”would like to stop but can’t do without yet choice: “Working outside the home.”

Ah, even in the new work flow economy, the human element reveals itself and remains quite recognizable from older economies: our generous impulses, our contradictions, our fondest wishes.