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Researcher’s Corner: Education and Training of Access Services Librarians

I’m happy to introduce this piece by Michael Krasulski, which discusses an aspect of librarianship that we haven’t talked about very much on this blog, access services.  If you’re interested in reading a more scholarly description of his research, read the article:

Krasulski, M. (2014). “Where do they come from, and how are they trained?” Professional education and training of access services librarians in academic libraries. Journal of Access Services, 11(1), 14-29

Access services is the administrative umbrella under which the circulation, reserves, interlibrary loan, stacks maintenance, and related functions typically reside within an academic library. Since the late 1970s, the access services librarian or equivalent position has become commonplace in academic libraries, and degreed professionals have been sought for these positions since the beginning. In 2009, David McCaslin, then at Yale University and now at California Institute of Technology, studied the place of access services within library and information science education. He found, generally speaking, a dedicated course in access services is not taught in American Library Association-accredited library and information science graduate programs, though aspects of access services may be covered elsewhere in the curriculum. In passing, David asked rhetorically in his article, “The question begs to be asked ‘where to [access services librarians] come from, and how are [access services librarians] trained?” Answering McCaslin’s question was the impetus for research study that was later published by the Journal of Access Services in 2014.
To determine the ways heads of access services acquired the necessary skills to assume these positions, I developed a survey instrument that helped illuminate how heads of access services achieved their positions, the skills and competencies needed to be a head of access services, professional attitudes of heads of access services, and the ways LIS programs are, and more important, are not involved in producing and developing leaders in access services. The survey was non-scientific and distributed over the various access services related listservs. A total of 171 surveys were returned. Of those, 20 surveys were eventually excluded from the final analysis: 14 because less than half of the survey was completed, and six because the respondents did not hold an ALA-accredited MLS or equivalent degree. The remaining 151 were analyzed for the purposes of the study.
The results showed that access services professionals typically learn the skills directly related to circulation, reserves, interlibrary loan, and stacks maintenance on the job. There was some disagreement concerning the appropriateness or necessity of the head of access services performing these types of tasks. For example, a large majority, 98%, agreed or strongly agreed that heads of access services should know how to answer directional and informational question at service points. Less than 95% agreed or strongly agreed that heads of access services should know how to perform various circulation desk activities, such as checking in and out materials, negotiating payment for lost books or overdue fines, and managing patron records, and less than 70% agreed or strongly agreed that heads of access services should know how to do tasks related to photocopiers, printers, and microform machines. Surprising, at least to me anyway, only 86.1% agreed or strongly agreed that a head of access services should know how to train student workers. The lack of consensus among heads of access services about lower level tasks is likely due to department size. The larger the access services department, the less the department head needs to have working knowledge of the department’s lower-level tasks.
The results also showed that higher order managerial skills are equally as important as access services specific skills to the success of the access services practitioner. The overwhelming majority of respondents reported that the ability to formulate policies, delegate responsibilities, determine policies, supervise and evaluate staff, utilize existing resources effectively, and collect, calculate, and analyze statistics were important to the success of the access services professional. The only area of real “disagreement” among higher-order managerial tasks involved budgetary planning and control. Only 84.1% agreed or strongly agreed that a head of access services should know how to perform this task. Practitioners are likely to be exposed to these types of management and statistical skills during their library and information science educational experience.
Respondents were asked to reflect upon their level of familiarity with circulation, interlibrary loan, reserves, collection management, personnel management, and customer service at the time they first became a head of access services. A majority responded excellent with respect to circulation and customer service (54.3% and 71.5% respectively). The largest group rated their familiarity with interlibrary loan (39.7%), reserves (35.7%), and collection management (47.7%) as average. At least 19% acknowledged that their familiarly with interlibrary loan and reserves was poor or very poor at the time of their appointment.
The survey results showed that heads of access services learned the majority of their access services competencies while on the job. In the survey, 94.1% of participants reported learning circulation, 89.4% reported learning interlibrary loan, and 92.7% reported learning reserves on the job. Over 60% of respondents learned the majority of their customer service and personnel management skills on the job. 27.8% of respondents learned the majority of their collection management skills through library and information science graduate education. I found this result surprising. The result may be due to the phrasing of the question. Perhaps respondents thought collection management skills meant collection development, in which case, it would make sense that the skill was acquired though LIS education.
The survey results indicated no one path to becoming a head of access services. Some began as paraprofessionals in access services departments and then assume the position once they earn the MLS degree, and others begin in other areas of the library, notably reference, and then are promoted into the head of access services position. Regardless of where one starts, they survey results are clear. Heads of access services learn their jobs on the job. Who then is training the heads of access services? I did not ask this question on the survey, but one could assume that their subordinates, the frontline paraprofessionals are.

Mike Krasulski

Michael J. Krasulski, University of the Sciences

Michael J. Krasulski is Assistant Professor of Information Sciences and Coordinator of Access Services at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Access Services. Besides his interests in the education and training of access services librarians, Michael blogs about the history of the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

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Take advantage of free online resources and learn to code

School at Pie Town, New Mexico is held at the Farm Bureau BuildingThis anonymous interview is with an academic librarian who has been a hiring manager and a member of a hiring or search committee. This person hires the following types of LIS professionals:

Cataloguers, reference work, marketing

This librarian works at a library with 200+ staff members in a city/town in the UK.

Do library schools teach candidates the job skills you are looking for in potential hires?

√ No

Should library students focus on learning theory or gaining practical skills? (Where 1 means Theory, 5 means practice, and 3 means both equally)


What coursework do you think all (or most) MLS/MLIS holders should take, regardless of focus?

√ Cataloging
√ Budgeting/Accounting
√ Grant Writing
√ Project Management
√ Library Management
√ Programming (Events)
√ Programming (Coding)
√ Web Design/Usability
√ Metadata
√ History of Books/Libraries
√ Outreach
√ Marketing
√ Instruction
√ Soft Skills (e.g. Communication, Interpersonal Relations)
√ Field Work/Internships

Do you find that there are skills that are commonly lacking in MLS/MLIS holders? If so, which ones?

Yes, particularly ‘non-traditional’ ones. I would like to see MLIS holders with some knowledge of communications, marketing, fundraising (e.g. grant writing), web design/usability (even if just basic), and teaching skills.

When deciding who to hire out of a pool of candidates, do you value skills gained through coursework and skills gained through practice differently?

√ No preference–as long as they have the skill, I don’t care how they got it

Which skills (or types of skills) do you expect a new hire to learn on the job (as opposed to at library school)?

I expect that the practical skills will often come on the job – cataloguing and classification (though theoretical knowledge is helpful), collection management, building budgets, reference work.

Which of the following experiences should library students have upon graduating?

√ Library work experience
√ Conference presentation
√ Professional organization involvement
√ Teaching assistant/Other instructional experience

Which library schools give candidates an edge (you prefer candidates from these schools)?

Sheffield, UCL

What advice do you have for students who want to make the most of their time in library school?

Go beyond the classroom! Take advantage of free online resources and learn to code, get marketing or social media experience, give presentations, etc .

This survey was coauthored by Brianna Marshallfrom Hack Library School. Interested in progressive blogging, by, for, and about library students? Check it out!

Special Note: From December 6, 2013 to October 24, 2014, the ALA will accept comments on the Draft revised Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies. More information about the process of changing these standards is here. If you have opinions about what people should be learning in library school, here’s a way that you can influence change.

Do you hire librarians? Tell us, “What Should Potential Hires Learn in Library School?”: http://tinyurl.com/hiringlibschoolsurvey

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Filed under 200+ staff members, UK, What Should Potential Hires Learn in Library School