Technology, budgetary issues, and outsourcing are the three main trends that affect technical services in a library.

As mentioned in the node Library Technical Services, it was cataloging that brought computers and networking into libraries on a large scale. That started more than three decades ago. Integrated library systems are in most libraries today in one form or another. These computer systems and programs that automate various library operations and link them together in an almost seamless manner grew out of libraries’ efforts to provide cost-effective handling of acquisitions and cataloging activities. In the 1960s librarians in the United States engaged in a variety of efforts to create cooperative or centralized technical service centers. Some projects focused on a type of library, such as academic or public. Later efforts focused on multi-type regional or statewide programs. The results of those efforts can be seen today in the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and state and regional “networks” that go well beyond technical service activities. It is often forgotten that these programs had their roots in technical services. Few of those who began their careers in technical services at the time fully understood where these efforts would lead.

ILS handle all of the traditional technical service functions now. The use of technology has both accelerated activities and improved consistency throughout the library. This is most evident in technical services.

There are several ways that ILS can cause productivity gains. The ability to share files at the desktop throughout the facility is one of the most significant gains over pre-ILS days. Before ILS almost every staff member wanted to be adjacent to the card catalog because that would make the workday easier. The fact that end-users needed access to the catalog exacerbated those demands. It was obviously physically impossible to satisfy everyone but the online public access catalog, which is a key element in an ILS, now makes it possible.

The amount of time staff spends walking to and from their desks to shared physical files is reduced by sharing files electronically. Some of the shared files for technical services include on-order, in-processing, serials check-in, shelf list, and of course the public catalog. Both technical and public service staff need access to the information that is in such files. A substantial amount of staff time was spent walking before computers were common. Another problem was that some of these files contained basically the same information, but arranged differently. Staff time is also required to create and maintain such files. This is especially true when there are hundreds, or even thousands of slips of paper. Maintaining paper-based files was a challenge for every technical services unit. Misfiled slips were a constant issue and could cost the library money.

In general, an ILS provides keyword searching of a variety of “fields” in the electronic bibliographic record. The opportunity for staff and end-users to “browse” the collection electronically is offered by many of the automation systems. This means that the bibliographic record for each physical item in the collection can be seen in the order in which the material is stored. This is the equivalent of the traditional shelflist. The advantage of electronic browsing is that all items, even those checked out, appear on the screen.

The currency of the information contained in them is what makes newspapers and journals so attractive. Public services often get the question “Has the latest issue of __________ arrived yet?” Before there were Integrated Library Systems a query like this meant that the staff member asked would have to either walk over to the serials check-in file or call technical services in order to provide the answer. Now, with ILS they can quickly provide the answer at the location where the question is asked. In some cases the end-user can determine the answer directly from the OPAC. Even “on-order” information is available to end-users in some systems. This is particularly useful in academic institutions where faculty requests are important in building collections.

A single electronic record can serve many purposes, thus increasing productivity. With the paper-based systems, technical service staff often needed to re-create the same information in a slightly different arrangement or attempt to use multiple carbon copies of a form and then arrange the files in the order desired. Anyone who has ever worked with multiple copy order forms can recall how faint the images were on the third, fourth, and fifth copies. A considerable amount of staff time has been freed up by not having to re-create records and having the computer rearrange the information. Also, assuming the original entry is correct, there is greater consistency and accuracy in the files.

The ILS has given libraries a strong incentive to review what, how, and who does what. Technical services have taken advantage of the opportunities and made numerous adjustments in their workflows and staffing patterns. ILS will certainly continue to evolve and provide further opportunities for improvements in productivity. The impact of technology goes far beyond the ILS now. The Internet and the World Wide Web have a great impact on library activities. Vendors are providing more and more of their services via the Web.

Metadata is an important element in the area of electronic influences. Metadata is a generic term that is used for cataloging and indexing for electronic documents. Web sites are a mixed bag of information ranging from the worthless, or even dangerous, to the authoritative. Libraries have been engaging in electronic collection development for a number of years now by attempting to sort out the good from the bad and the ugly. The idea is to identify worthwhile and reliable electronic resource sites and provide end-users with access to those sites. A serious issue for libraries is how to go about describing such locations in their OPAC or on their Web page. Metadata is basically information about information. For technical services an ever increasing factor will be electronic issues. In an article titled “Technical Services and Integrated Library Systems” that was published in Library High Tech, Linda Bills provides an accurate assessment of some of the directions that libraries will follow in this area. The first of these is cooperation among vendors. This is often instigated by libraries. Second is standards. This may either be de factor or de jure for the exchange of various types of data. Lastly is re-allocation of responsibilities for various processes both within libraries and vendors.


Over the past three decades budgetary considerations have played a significant role in determining all aspects of library services including technical services. All of the usual economic and financial suspects appear on the following list of influences:

Starting in the mid-1970s and lasting until the early 1990s, the economic conditions varied in different regions of the country. Overall, however, it was a time of little real economic growth. Phrases like “less is more,” “downsizing,” “small is beautiful,” and “reengineering” became commonplace. They reflected the idea that people and organizations could be more effective, often with fewer staff. The approaches that these expressions represented brought major changes to libraries in services, staff, and collections.

“Revolts” by taxpayers against tax increases in the United States were part of the problem with the overall economic conditions. The notion that taxpayers could have a major say in determining tax levels, both new and existing, started in California and quickly spread across the country. These efforts had an impact on government revenues, especially at the community and county levels. Libraries were not very successful in securing voter support for bond issues that might provide funds for new or remodeled buildings or increases in the level of base support. The lack of support led to the closure of the library in a few extreme cases. In other countries libraries do not have to raise money through bond issues. Instead they are funded directly by their governments. In the United States, taxpayers are reluctant to have taxation increased. Politicians are anxious not to alienate voters. The result of this is that in many jurisdictions libraries are not generously supported.

Government officials understood that voters wanted certain services maintained. Services that were high priority include police, fire, sanitation and road maintenance. Other services, including schools, libraries, museums, and parks, had to struggle for a share of that small amount of funding that remained after the top priority services were almost fully funded. The best a library could hope for was often the same level of funding as the previous year. With inflation, at times even the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was in the double-digit range, and “last year’s funding” did not go as far in each succeeding year.

During those years, and to some extent continuing to present, the cost of materials for the library’s collections increased at rates that were even higher than the CPI. Journal prices in particular escalated rapidly. Journal prices vary in large measure by the size of the potential market for the title. Title that are popular and have millions of potential subscribers have relatively low prices. Low-interest titles that only have a few thousand subscribers have high prices. Book and media prices were also increasing faster than the CPI throughout much of this period.

Libraries also faced the need to install a variety of technologies and then maintain them at an appropriate level while addressing all the challenges already mentioned. This was necessary for a library if it was to remain a viable player in the new ‘Information Society.” Technology changes rapidly. It is often impossible not to move forward with those changes because older technology will no longer have the support that may be needed. Upgrading always seems to cost more than expected, which puts an additional strain on the budget.

All of these factors, and others, have made an environment where libraries face difficult financial and service choices. At first some libraries thought that reducing service hours might generate a demand from library patrons to funding authorities for increased funding to restore service levels. This was rarely the outcome though. Circumstances did not improve. Almost every library tried the approach of changing or reducing its collection-building activities. One change was reducing one-time purchases in order to maintain current journal subscriptions. The one time purchases were of books and media formats. Year after year, however, double-digit increases for serials forced a lot of libraries to engage in serial cancellation projects. They also tried to increase book purchases as those collections began showing serious signs of aging.

Another often seen outcome of the minimal growth or the overall growth in the library budget was changes in staffing patterns. Sometimes this took the form of hiring freezes, that is, not being allowed to fill a staff vacancy, for long periods of time. Other times it involved losing a position when a staff member resigned. This is called staff attrition. Sometimes it was outright staff reductions through voluntary and involuntary terminations. This is what is called reductions in force, riffing, or redundancy depending on location. Having fewer one-time purchases to make and fewer serial title to process, not to mention the overall drop in the number of materials to catalog meant technical services had staffing and workload issues to face and greater pressure to reduce its staff. It also meant that there was pressure to look at alternative methods for handling the workload. One such method is outsourcing.


When the library has some service or activity performed by third parties, as in by people or organizations that are not part of the library system they are outsourcing. A newcomer to the field might believe that outsourcing is a new phenomenon in libraries if they are looking at the professional literature of the last decade. That impression is only partially correct. Technical services units have been outsourcing activities for a great many years. They have used jobbers for ordering books instead of purchasing them directly from the publisher. They have used serial vendors to place the bulk of subscriptions instead of going directly to publishers. They have also used outside companies to bind and repair materials for the collection. Using outside agencies for collection building is somewhat knew, or even for overall library operations. In the case of overall operations, U.S. government agencies have used such services for their library programs for many years, just as have some corporations

At the same time that topics such as reengineering and downsizing were popular the current emphasis on outsourcing started in the for-profit sector. Businesses, like libraries, had employed the idea for many years without media attention. The difference in coverage was that the idea was often linked with staff reductions. Contingent workforce was another term that came into play at the time. In an article called “The Definition of ‘Contingent Work.” that appeared in the December 1989 issues of Monthly Labor Review, Ann Polivka and Thomas Nardone defined this concept as

”a wide range of employment practices, including part-time work, temporary work, employee leasing, self-employment, contracting out, and home-based work. As a result, the operational definition of a contingent job has become an arrangement that differs from full-time, permanent, wage, and salary employment.”

Outsourcing is synonymous with “contracting out.” In an article in Library Administration & Management, Karen Jette and Clay-Edward Dixon discussed contingent work in libraries. They noted that that libraries have also employed that concept for many years. Their article has a sound section on the pros and cons of such work, including outsourcing.

James Marcum reviewed both management and library literature on the subject in a great article that addresses some of the management issues related to outsourcing. James Marcum reviewed both management and library literature on the subject; the article is a good starting place for those considering outsourcing. One point he made that is especially noteworthy is “To the extent that outsourcing is a stand-in for downsizing, it is an act of a desperate management seeking short-term survival and not a strategy of implementing a transformation for the future.” Although Marcum’s focus is on the general concept rather than its application to technical services, the issues he raises apply to any aspect of library outsourcing.

Outsourcing may be correct in the short run as a cost-reduction tactic, but it may have unexpected long-term consequences. No matter what one does, certain coordination costs will always be present. The result of reducing those coordination and monitoring costs are long-term quality control issues. Expertise that will be needed later may also be lost. The cost of re-securing that expertise can be high. There may also be unexpected salary implications, if the activity outsourced involves staffing changes.

There is substantial potential despite the drawbacks for using outsourcing as another tool for helping to control costs or supplement and expand services. In the past this is how libraries have effectively employed the concept without labeling it “outsourcing.” Two examples from acquisitions and one from cataloging illustrate the point that outsourcing has a long tradition in libraries. Using either or both a book and a serials jobber is not essential for libraries. The libraries can place all their orders for books and journals directly with the publishers. This may be a reasonable option for very small libraries. As the volume of orders increases, however, the work involved in maintaining address files, credit terms, discount information, and so forth from hundreds or even thousands of publishers becomes prohibitive. Acquisitions librarians saw the value years ago of placing a single order with a jobber or wholesaler for the items needed from various publishers. Staff time is saved in order preparation when one order is placed for 100 books from thirty-five different publishers instead of thirty-five orders with the individual publishers. The idea was to make the most effective use of existing staff and keep costs from increasing, not to reduce staff or cut costs.

An example of outsourcing that is not often mentioned as such is the use of approval plans in academic libraries. In these plans the vendor identifies items that match a list of subject areas that the library wants to collect and ships various materials that fall into the category for the library to review. This means the library outsources the basic function of identification.

Cataloging departments have at least as long if not longer of a history of using outsourcing. Before widespread implementation of the ILS happened most libraries made extensive use of catalog cards produced by commercial companies and the Library of Congress. (LoC started selling their cards around 1901). There was even greater use of the National Union Catalog (NUC) and Canadiana in creating cards for public catalogs. This wasn’t thought of as outsourcing though, at most it may have been regarded as resource sharing even though libraries were depending on “third parties” to provide the product and did pay for the services and cards.

There were efforts to create shared processing centers by the 1960s. These efforts resulted in bibliographic utilities such as OCLC (Online Computer Library Center). This form of outsourcing is an accepted and very valuable service.

Suggestions of using outsourcing for a library activity especially cataloging, has a common first response about the lack of quality control on the part of third parties. Local catalogers are known to “correct mistakes” made by the Library of Congress. Many catalogers have grave doubts about the bibliographic records from other libraries, thinking that they cannot possibly be as accurate as ones produced in-house. Libraries doubts about third-party source, both other libraries and for-profit, are even greater. The goal of the perfect catalog record and perfect public catalog is akin to seeking the Holy Grail. It is a worthy idea but, at least in the case of cataloging, is highly unrealistic and costly in many ways for the library. There are certainly quality concerns. They exist, however, no matter where the work is done or by whom. The reality is that perfection is highly unlikely to exist anywhere at reasonable cost to the library and end-users. Therefore the quality of third-party work should not be a limiting factor in deciding to move ahead with an outsourcing project. It should be just one of many issues that must be addressed.

Sources: Old class notes and Introduction to Technical Services 6th ed. by G. Edward Evans, Sheila S. Intner, and Jean Weihs

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