September 2008 Archives
In my previous library-related employment, I have been a reference contact in a corporate library, a metadata librarian for a large academic library, and a project archivist for a large state historical society. It was thinking about this last one, and a previous non-library job, that inspired this post.
Large backlogs are a problem for many archives and special collections. Crippled by time-consuming processing traditions and increasing collection sizes, many collections have high percentages of their materials uncontrolled and unavailable.
The seminal 2005 paper by Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner, "More Product, Less Process," laid it out plainly: "We have to get over practices that treat massive 20th-century collections as if each piece of paper is a priceless artifact, and that providing clean and tidy collections to our researchers is more important than providing more collections." For many, especially those who have argued for deep, intensive processing of high-value or high-use collections, this language may shock. What Greene and Meissner are pushing for is a minimal level of description for all all collections before any deeper description of specific collections is performed.
Several institutions have explored implementation of the Greene and Meissner recommendations. In a presentation entitled "How Do We Keep From Getting Further Behind," Elizabeth Nielsen of Oregon State University communicated some results from their activities. Their efforts sought to create collection-level description for all new collections accessioned in 2006. This meant an Encoded Archival Description (EAD) that omitted inventory and container list information, but still had robust workflows for controlling access points. The Oregon State work plan also took into account relative priority, an important point to consider. Most institutions that would seek to pursue uniform collection-level description would still need to operate in a world where some collections are more prominent or time-sensitive.
To pursue an metaphor: In doing a shallow yet broad survey, archives gain an understanding of the borders and landscape of their collection, while giving up some of the most intricate mapping and mining. By doing so, this allows archives to better serve their users in the simplest of their questions - "Do you have what I need?" - while allowing them to do the dirty work of digging and excavating. Or perhaps the operative metaphor, when one sees folders and folders of loose leaves, is that of the forest and the trees. Bring in the forester before the arborist.
I have written and spoken often of the pressures on library technical services departments, which are being asked to do more work with the same or fewer resources at a time when they must find ways to become involved in new library initiatives. To achieve the results they need, technical services departments require breakthrough, double-digit improvements in cost, time, and effectiveness.
Some process redesign pioneers like Stanford and Cornell--braving the scorn of others--began over a decade ago to blaze a trail, and today some very large players indeed are embracing the concepts of process redesign and continuous improvement (systematic and continual rethinking of an entire process, not just bits and pieces of it). In 2007, for example, I became aware of the achievements of the Collection Acquisition and Description (CA&D) division at the British Library at Boston Spa, under the leadership of Caroline Brazier (then Head of CA&D, now Head of Resource Discovery) and Alasdair Ball (Head of CA&D Operations).
As is the case in so many places, the British Library's Boston Spa processing operations needed to keep up with the traditional work of selection, acquisitions and cataloging while simultaneously shifting focus to digital developments--all at a time of flat or shrinking resources. Through changes informed by workflow analysis and process mapping, Alasdair guided CA&D staff to 15% staff savings a year and faster turnaround of materials while also freeing up staff time for a digital processing team and other projects.
In late 2007 I invited Alasdair to visit OCLC's
The lower left corner of the floor plan shows where materials arrive. As many materials as possible are "fast tracked" and returned to "finishing" in the shortest possible path (shown in red) through the room. Teams located in the bottom half of the floor plan--a few more dozen feet into the room--complete the processing of still more materials and return them for finishing. Only those materials requiring the attention of original catalogers or other specialists make their way the full length of the red path through the room.
The following photos illustrate how our Contract Services in Dublin Ohio applied what they learned from Alasdair to our workflow redesign and space renovation. The
This photo illustrates the efforts of the "order entry" group. Our "air traffic controllers," these staff members organize the flow of materials by checking them in, searching, and using a set of automated tools to process as many materials as possible. What cannot be completed at this early stage is routed to the next appropriate team.View image
Three objectives of the workspace redesign were to provide equally for privacy, teamwork, and a logical flow of materials, while also taking advantage of the bright and airy nature of this large room. View image
The co-located original cataloging teams are organized by type and/or language of material.
Preparation for finishing--for example, custom editing according to a particular library's contract--is completed at the end of the process in a spacious work area that allows for multiple bins of different libraries' materials. View image
Space for physical processing and preparation for shipping is located on the way out of the building.View image
The workflow redesign and space renovation were completed at the end of June 2008. Later in the summer, we invited our OCLC colleagues to a big opening, complete with tours and a picnic lunch, to celebrate what everyone had accomplished and the new beginning. At this point, what is the most evident to me about the change is the pride of the staff in their new space and in what they have accomplished together. We are grateful to Caroline Brazier, Alasdair Ball, and the British Library for their generosity and good counsel.
Worthy of note in this context is LC's movement to new workflows and an organizational structure that combines acquisitions and cataloging. As Beacher Wiggins, director of LC's Acquisitions and Bibliographic Access Directorate, put it in a talk at a June 2007 ALCTS preconference
Your comments on the concepts of continuous improvement and how they have been or might be applied in library technical services, or your accounts of experiences with technical services space renovation and process redesign are welcome here.