Libraries are Making Noise in the Outsourcing World | Article

stack of outsourcing books next to buildingLibrary rules haven’t changed much over the years, though the library’s look has. Visitors must still remain quiet and are fined for returning books late. But computers now occupy the space once held by a card catalog and periodical information is found on computer files as opposed to microfiche and a backroom filled to the hilt with hard copies of journals, magazines and newspapers. And whether for good or bad, outsourcing has become the buzzword in the library industry.

The nature of the library business is the organization of information, says Arnold Hirshon, author of a book titled Outsourcing Library Technical Services. And information organization is an essential but tedious process that presides over a library culture of conservatives who usually prefer careful deliberation to rapid action. Undoubtedly outsourcing can be deemed – rapid action. But many libraries are beginning to use outsourcing regardless, as a tool to increase efficiency and speed up the process of getting books on the shelf.

Constructing the “Wright” Plan

Hirshon is an old veteran in outsourcing terms. He constructed a plan to change the way the library was run during his stint as the university librarian at Wright State University from 1990 to 1995. The library operation at Wright State had hit a level of productivity that was wholly insufficient for what the organization was trying to accomplish. “Internal efforts to improve training, to improve work flow and to improve general productivity were not yielding sufficient results over a two-year period of time,” he says.

So, Hirshon and his staff decided to explore other options including outsourcing, which was ultimately the chosen solution. The outsourcing effort paid off in several ways for the library that had more than 800,000 volumes and had a $5 million budget. The outsourcing arrangement reduced costs, eliminated backlogs and reduced the amount of time it took to get books on the shelf. And it allowed the library staff the time to do other things that had been put on the back burner. For example, the Wright State library had some collections that had no hope of being cataloged because of backlogs. Outsourcing some of the library functions gave the staff the needed time to get them cataloged.

Most of the outsourcing that is done by libraries is in the area of purchasing library materials, which can be done through the use of book and journal vendors that provide various value added services. The vendors act as the middleman between libraries and publishers. The vendors obtain the material and resell it at a discount to the libraries. They also provide statistical reports and provide pre-selection of materials called approval plans. In other words, the library is sent books on approval and the library decides whether or not it really wants them. But these types of services have been around for decades, Hirshon says. The outsourcing of cataloging hasn’t been around as long.

“Actually hiring vendors to do the work of cataloging is something that was pretty new for universities when we did it at Wright State,” he says. “Some public libraries were already doing it, but nobody in an academic library had done it to the extent that we did it.”

There are many companies that cater to libraries. There are organizations that sell books, do journal subscriptions and cataloging, and they tend to work solely in the library profession. Some companies have library divisions that are separate parts of a larger enterprise. For example Baker and Taylor (that just merged with Yankee Book Peddler) is a big reseller to libraries, but they also distribute materials to bookstores and are one of the major suppliers for amazon.com.

The Difficulties of Downsizing

The biggest challenge in the outsourcing of library technical services is dealing with the staff. At least it was for Hirshon. In the Wright State arrangement, a staff of about 110 library employees was reduced to 100. So ten positions were eliminated and the employees were reassigned to other parts of the university, Hirshon says. Part of the money that was saved from the elimination of the employees was used to buy the outsourcing services and the additional savings were reinvested into other library services that were non-personnel related, such as equipment and operating expenses.

“Outsourcing is a big culture change,” he says. “And the people have to understand why you are outsourcing, how it’s going to happen and how it will effect them. There are a whole host of human resources issues that need to be dealt with. More than likely there will either be layoffs, job switches or job rotations and it hits people at a very personal level. People tend to assume that you don’t value their work, when in fact that is generally not the motivation. So you have to communicate with them at many levels.”

Get the employees involved in the decision making, he continues. Make sure they understand the time frame of the arrangement and provide them with as much information as can reasonably be provided.

When to Consider Outsourcing

Since libraries are fairly conservative in their approach, and though most outsourcing cases that Hirshon has seen (including the ones that he has been involved in) have been successful, libraries do not necessarily jump on the outsourcing bandwagon quickly or willingly. There tends to be the need for a precipitating event for them to seriously consider it, he says. Either a budget cut or a need for productivity changes has to occur. In other words, when inertia takes over.

“But I think it makes a lot of sense to look into outsourcing before there is an absolute need to do it,” he says. “It gives you the time to explore all of the options and to work out the details. But either way it can be done. But I think that if you can manage your problems, rather then have your problems manage you, it is always to be preferred.”

After his stint with Wright State University, Hirshon served as Vice Provost for Information Services at Lehigh University. He is currently the executive direction of Nelinet (New England Library Information Network), which assists libraries in training and support services. Besides his book titled Outsourcing Library Technical Services, he also wrote another monograph titled Integrating Computer and Library Services: An Administrative Planning and Implementation Guide.

Lessons From The Outsourcing Primer

  • Outsourcing library services enables the library staff to be more productive with their time.
  • Most of the outsourcing that libraries do is in the area of purchasing library materials.
  • Hiring vendors to catalog is something libraries are just beginning to do.
  • There are several vendors that cater to libraries.
  • In order to keep employee morale during a transition, the head librarians must communicate frequently with the staff.


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