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“Shaping for Excellence” – a view from an academic librarian

Published: 23rd February, 2021

Picture of library shelf stacker with text: "'critical workers' – but redundant"

“Shaping for Excellence” proposes merging the Library’s User Services team with colleagues from the Student Services Team, to provide a single team to deal with a wider range of enquiries.

It is User Services who have re-opened the David Wilson Library and who keep it operating. The University appeared to value their contribution by giving them critical worker status.

But days later, the plans for the merged team were revealed. There are not enough places in the proposed new team for everyone.  Have they wasted their time over the last six months? I fear they think so. Is all their hard work, at some risk to themselves, appreciated by the University’s senior management? I fear they think it is not.

Does the University’s senior management appreciate what User Services does? I fear colleagues think they do not.

User Services colleagues are front of house, on the library reception desk. They answer your enquiries, and if you have emailed or phoned, they answer those too. In pre-COVID times, if you couldn’t get into the building, couldn’t find a book on the shelves, had a question about what you’d borrowed, or couldn’t get access to an online book, it was User Services colleagues who helped you.

Some subjects have fewer print books now, but some still rely on them. Whichever subject is yours, the print books need reshelving and the shelves tidying. That is done by User Services. Properly ordered shelves are important for serendipitous discovery, especially in the humanities. There are no dedicated shelvers in the new plans, and I am concerned that the new team will have less capacity to shelve and keep the shelves tidy.

Online books and resources don’t always work. Have you ever been unable to login? Or has the book or resource disappeared at the whim of the publisher or supplier? Dealing with the issue you are having is User Services. Maybe shelving takes less time than years ago, but dealing with online resources certainly takes more.

Were you, like me, able to collect a University laptop to work better from home? It was User Services who made the David Wilson Library a safe collection point.

Some of those at risk of having no place in the new team are UCU members. Many are not, as the most affected group is colleagues on Grades 2 and 3. This is very serious for them all. It is serious for the Library too, as we will lose people who have worked in the Library for many years, and with them, all their experience about library work and the University’s library services.

It is also serious for the part the Library is able to play in the careers of people who want to have the sort of post I now have. Postgraduate courses in library and information science may require pre-course experience in exactly this sort of grade 2 or 3 post. What role do we want to have in the wider profession? How seriously does the senior university leadership take librarianship as a profession?

This new team will be managed by someone at a lower grade than other library team managers, and who may not be a librarian. How seriously does the senior university leadership take librarianship as a profession?

As well as answering lots of your questions, my User Services colleagues triage enquiries to Academic Librarians or IT Services.

What if more enquiries need to be referred to other teams, because the required knowledge base is too large for the new smaller team? What if it takes longer to have enquiries answered and resolved, and more students need to be asked to return later for an answer? What will the student experience be? What would the impact of the proposed changes be on the University as a learning community?

If there are fewer people in the new team, split across enquiry points, how well will they be able to react to emergency situations in the library?

What will the impact of the changes be on our status as a member of Research Libraries UK?

Colleagues in the Leicester Learning Institute (LLI) are affected by a separate but similar case, which involves merging them with other specialist teams to create one team. Academic Librarians (and academics, of course) have taught and met students online, and we could not have done this without LLI’s expertise. The very people who have helped the University set up Ignite are the very people whose jobs are in jeopardy. What happens when the University wants to introduce the next new teaching approach? Who will help academics (and librarians) get that off the ground? Will this also be a case of thinly spread knowledge? What will the student experience be?

Libraries change, and so do librarians. We do it all the time. But we change to make things better for those concerned, to make a better service and better user experience. I cannot see how these plans make anything better. Shaping for whose Excellence?