“A library should be like a pair of open arms.” -Roger Rosenblatt

Circulation and reference are the principal operations of public services in libraries and they involve direct contact with customers and the responsibility for their needs. For most libraries the only reason for existence is to serve a specific group of people. Library customers judge the library on their experience with public services. The library’s image is added to or detracted from with every public transaction. This is sometimes difficult to keep in mind, especially when the pressure builds while the library is busy but this is when library personnel must try the hardest to produce good service. My Introduction to Library Public Services teacher often uses the term “kill them with nice!” The more difficult the patron, the nicer the public service staff member should attempt to be.

There are four fundamental tasks that make up the circulation function. First is charging out materials to patrons. Second is checking in returned materials. Third is returning materials to their proper places in the library. Fourth is the carrying out of necessary housekeeping tasks in such a way as to keep the collection in good order. This final task is preservation.

Accessing and collecting fees are also usually involved in circulation. Strong emotions on both sides of the counter are sometimes created by this activity.

The focal point of reference service is answering questions and assisting people in identifying useful material. Questions can range from as simple as “Where are the restrooms?” or “Where is the catalog?” to research questions that may take hours or even days to properly answer. Instruction in using library resources is another duty for the reference staff. Compiling bibliographies, obtaining interlibrary loans, establishing and maintaining vertical files are also usually handled by reference. Preparing displays, bulletin boards, and exhibits often falls to reference staff as well.

Interlibrary loan is often abbreviated ILL but many libraries prefer to call it document delivery. Whatever you call this it is a cooperative activity. In theory it is capable of expanding the walls of the library to encompass all the world’s library collections. The ILL concept is expanded by UNESCO’s Universal Availability Publications Program (often called UAP). UAP has the goal of having any publication available to any person anywhere in the world. ILL has practical limits that make its scope smaller but still its potential of expanding customers’ access to other libraries’ collections is still great and therefore an important public service.

Reserve activities serve to both limit and expand access to the library’s collections. They limit access in the sense that materials placed on reserve usually do not circulate outside of the library. The loan period when these items do circulate out of the library is much shorter than most library items. By assuring that high demand items are available to many people for at least a brief period reserves expands access. School and academic libraries rarely have enough money to buy all the copies of the materials that the instructors want their students to read, view, or hear. The reserve system is one effective way to assure equitable access to one or two copies of a required item.

In some libraries their special collections may be nothing more than a few unusual items of local interest that are kept in a room or office with restricted public access. Research libraries, on the other hand, sometimes have collections of rare and costly items that are larger than the entire collections of some school districts and public libraries. These collections often contain items usually found in museums such as paintings, furniture, and other artworks. Sometimes these collections contain manuscripts and operational records of organizations. In such cases they have an archival function. Sometimes the library serves as the city’s archive. It’s usually a public library that serves this function but occasionally academic libraries have this responsibility. They house the public records that are no longer active. Higher security levels and environmental controls are required for special collections areas.

Serials are publications that arrive in the library on a regular basis and require special handling. Each serial usually focuses on just one topic, or perhaps on one type of reader. Serials represent the source of most current printed information for readers. They are often in high demand because of their currency. Serials, especially newspapers and magazines create a lot of work and numerous problems for the staff. Staff members also recognize, however, the high value that the public places on these publications and therefore make every effort to ensure quality service.

Media services handle a variety of multimedia formats. This is the area which is growing the fastest as library collections move more toward electronic formats for many things. Demand for video and audio is especially high. Interesting challenges are caused for the staff by media collections. It takes time and effort to learn the equipment well enough to teach the public its proper use and handling. Skill and patience are needed to maintain software and hardware in good working condition. In today’s world there is also the constant need to upgrade computer equipment. The staff must understand the legal issues that are related to the use of software and must make sure that the library use complies with the applicable laws.

The public does not generally use government information sources but the government information does represent a major source of current data on a variety of topics. Almost all of the government departments issue at least a few publications. Both official publications, the material that records governing activities, and unofficial publications such as those designed to help citizens in their daily life are issued by most national governments. Low cost government information can be an inexpensive way to expand the library collection. A library staff must better understand how to provide access to the wealth of information provided by government agencies so that the public can fully exploit the information. Special libraries collect a variety of government information. It can include documents from regulatory agencies, legislations, public laws, and the General Accounting Office Reports in a variety of formats. Until relatively recently this information was only available in paper format. Nowadays many publications can be found on the websites of the government agencies. The automatic distribution of this material has been extremely scaled back. Librarians now have to develop a timely system to scan Internet resources for information and then download, reformat, and distribute as well as preserve the information.

A final important aspect of public services is library security. There are always customers who forget to return materials. There are also thieves who prey on libraries. The public may not always realize how valuable a commodity books and other library materials are. The price paid in a retail store for books and other material are much lower than what it cost for the library to acquire, process, maintain records for, and store. Another thing is that the bulk of information is not replaceable, especially in academic libraries. Books go out of print rapidly, and publishers often print very limited quantities of scholarly books.

Technical services functions are vital to public services functions. The library would find it impossible to provide service for their customers without the work performed by technical services. It is important for public services staff to have an understanding of what happens in “the backroom” and a willingness to communicate with the folks in technical services. Better customer service is the result when there is a spirit of cooperation between technical services and public services.

There are different categories of library personnel and there are specific public service activities assigned to each. Some of the functions overlap. Some of these can vary from library to library but are generally as follows:

Public Service Activities for a Librarian (professional):

Public Service Activities for a LMTA (paraprofessional):

Public services activities for the Library Clerk (Clerks- usually have a non-library degree) as well as Part-time or Student help (these are volunteers usually):

  • General:
    • Public relations
  • Circulation:
  • Collection maintenance
    • reshelving,
    • shelf reading,
    • shit materials on shelves,
    • inventory
  • Reserve book collections:
    • circulation functions
  • Interlibrary loan:
  • Reference:
    • initial patron contact at reference desk or information desk,
    • answer general information and directional questions,
    • answer simple reference questions within limits established by the library,
    • typing and other clerical work
  • Miscellaneous activities:
    • compile statistics (Clerks)
    • upkeep of files and assign subject headings under librarian’s direction, (volunteers)
    • work on displays, bulletin boards, museumexhibits], (volunteers)
    • demonstrate use of audiovisual equipment (volunteers)

Introduction to Library Public Services, Sixth Ed., By G. Edward Evans, Anthony J. Amodeo, and Thomas L. Carter.
Class notes