Mary Beth Weber and Melissa De Fino wrote Virtual Technical Services: A Handbook. The book is available from Rowan & Littlefield. My interview with them is below.
Lauren Hays: Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Mary Beth Weber: I’m Mary Beth Weber, and am the head of Central Technical Services at Rutgers University Libraries. We are responsible for cataloging for the entire library system, which supports three geographically remote campuses. We also do digital projects and other assignments, but our main focus is resource description. I have worked at Rutgers for many years. I’ve seen a lot of changes in our profession, including the fact that we are in a building separate from a library. When this building was built in 1989, we were one of the first library systems to have a technical services department that was separate from an actual functioning library building.
Melissa De Fino: Thank you and I’m Melissa De Fino. I am the Metadata Librarian for special collections and audio-visual materials at Rutgers University Libraries. Because I work with special collections materials, I’ve always had occasion to work on site in our archives and special collections, taking me away from the technical services operation and working sort of in a remote capacity, even though I was on site in a physical library.
Lauren Hays: Would you briefly summarize the book Virtual Technical Services: A Handbook?
Mary Beth Weber: The book is designed for people who are transitioning to working in a remote or hybrid situation. It covers things such as aspects of management and developing sustainable workflows. We also looked at things like self-care. We didn’t just concentrate on the work. We also looked at employees holistically.
The book also addresses management concerns, including communications and best practices for personnel management and performance appraisals, and how those things are tied into a hybrid and remote environment. We also discussed returning to work on site after you have worked virtually or remotely, and how to ease your employees back into it.
Lauren Hays: Why did you decide to write this book?
Mary Beth Weber: When we first started to work remotely during quarantine, I noticed that there was no literature, at least not related to technical services, about moving off-site. We originally thought we would be working offsite for two weeks or a month, and it kept continuing.
I was going to write something about how to prepare for a disaster and planning to move your operations off site, but we realized that this was more extensive. I reached out to my editor at Rowan and Littlefield and pitched the idea to him. He really liked it, and I invited Melissa to co-author the book. She provided an additional perspective and ideas to the proposal. We realized that the changes created by COVID helped to accelerate were ushering in a new era of technical services.
Melissa De Fino: There was a lot of interest right from the start, because everyone was in the same boat. We were all struggling with this together. I think early on we thought this was just going to be about remote work during disasters or crisis situations. Then, as the crisis grew, we realized the work that we were doing to respond to a crisis actually had the potential to revolutionize technical services librarianship and change the way we had worked for decades in a positive way. So, the focus of the book shifted at that point to how to work in a remote or hybrid technical services department.
Mary Beth Weber: We realized that vendors have had remote employees for years, and have been successful. So there was a precedent for this, and we thought that we could borrow some of those ideas and expand on them for our use.
Lauren Hays: What are some of the biggest challenges of virtual technical services?
Mary Beth Weber: I think initially, one of the challenges was making sure people had meaningful work—that they weren’t just doing busy work, that they were doing work that was of the same caliber, and of the same importance as what they were doing on site, and that it was sustainable. One of the biggest things we found out was that people need the right equipment, technology and skills. Some staff needed training on how to use certain remote work tools, and we had an employee who didn’t have Internet access.
Melissa De Fino: It was a big change for all of us. I remember in the beginning we thought, “okay, we’ll be home. Well, we can update our website!” As it stretched on, we realized we had to find ways to do the work that we had done on site, but remotely, and it turned out that was a lot easier than we initially thought.
Lauren Hays: What are the biggest opportunities of virtual technical services?
Melissa De Fino: We realized pretty quickly that we’d already been moving from a physical workplace to a remote or digital workplace for decades without even realizing it. The work itself was moving to a remote environment. So, for example, the resources we were purchasing for the libraries were increasingly digital and electronic, and less often print. The library’s web presence itself was expanding to the point where our users were interacting with our website or interacting with us online over email or virtually in some form before, and often even instead of stepping foot in a physical library building. The resources that we use in technical services, whether they’re tools like classification schedules or our ILS had already moved to the cloud.
The reason it was so easy for us to transition to a remote environment is that the work had already moved remote ahead of us. It was just the people that still remained in the physical site. We were going to our technical services building, but all of the tools we were working with were online.
Mary Beth Weber: We have an established way of communicating with people when they needed us to catalog things. We use a LibAnswers queue to receive requests for cataloging. And as Melissa mentioned, the materials that we purchased for the most part have moved electronic, so it didn’t matter where we were working on them.
Some of the opportunities, too, are that we have more flexibility in our scheduling. We can accommodate people’s needs. We had an employee at one point who had small children, and we were able to let her work a little bit later in the day, for example. We have other staff who are early risers, and they could start a little bit earlier.
Rutgers is in New Jersey which is densely populated. I have an hour commute, and Melissa’s is longer. Removing that commute has been an opportunity because people can start working earlier. They can be more productive without the stress of a commute. We’re going to see future generations of people who will expect the ability to work remotely to be part of the job offer. And why shouldn’t it be?
Furthermore, we have freed enough space to repurpose buildings and by removing the commute, we are helping the environment and reducing spending on gas.
One thing to note is that no matter where you’re located, the work should be seamless. It is important that the same quality is maintained regardless of where the work is done. There have been times when priority cataloging was needed, and since we all have smartphones, someone can take a picture of the materials and text them to the person who needs to see the physical item.
Melissa De Fino: One thing I found pretty quickly cataloging special collections and audio visuals is that everything is available in some form online already. So even for special collections, you wouldn’t think a rare book would be available online. But at this point it almost always is. I have been able to find whatever information I need online. I catalog a lot of artist books, and the artists have detailed descriptions of their works on their websites, so I am able to get information for my resource description. It really has been a shock how seamless and natural it was to do this work remotely instead of on-site.
Also, Mary Beth mentioned commuting, I have a ninety-minute commute each way. So that’s three hours of my day that were suddenly reclaimed. Those three hours weren’t helping Rutgers. They weren’t helping our students or our users. They weren’t helping me or my family. Now that’s time that I can spend working, I can spend it with my family. I can spend it on self-care that ultimately makes me a better employee and human being overall, as we describe in our book. It’s just been a complete game changer. I was speaking with a professor at Rutgers the other day, who also has children, and she said she can’t believe that for so long we were all just expected to get up and drive an hour and a half to work, work a full eight-hour day, and then come home and do our second job of family care, not just children, but elder care as well.
Whatever else we have going on, for people with disabilities, for people who live in geographically remote areas, it’s opened up so much opportunity.
Lauren Hays: Do you feel that there are things about the technical services work that virtual work helps improve?
Melissa De Fino: Funny enough, even when I was on site, I was using the online resources I mentioned earlier that I use in remote work, because so often you will have something in front of you like an artist’s book and you can’t really tell a whole lot about the object from the object itself. You need a little bit of research. You need some background. So, I was always online looking at the artist websites, looking at vendor websites trying to piece together what I had, so that I could describe it.
Little of what I was using in my bibliographic records was coming from the object itself, which I think is a transition that a lot of people don’t realize we’ve taken. Years ago, when I started cataloging, we were told to catalog from the item in hand, but that really doesn’t apply anymore.
Mary Beth Weber: There’s so much available online through OCLC or individual websites. In fact, when items need to be cataloged quickly, we can do it faster now and protect items so they do not have to be shipped between library locations.
Lauren Hays: What changes do you anticipate occurring in the future for virtual technical services?
Mary Beth Weber: Definitely less handling the physical materials. Those will be the exception rather than the rule. When I first came to Rutgers, there were overflowing book trucks. Our shipping room was filled with donations. We’re going to be much more careful about what we buy or what we accept. In fact, we’ve already started to put the brakes on donations.
There will be people with different types of skills. There will still be a need for catalogers, but they’re going to work very differently. They’ll work more closely with the collection development people to do things like DDAs or evidence-based acquisitions.
COVID helped us to be more of a cohesive team. Before we worked separately, and work would move from one person to the next. Now we’re more inclusive and will copy the relevant people from the start. We have a discussion at the beginning of the process. In the past, we might have worked more piecemeal, or people might not have known who was the right person to do something.
Melissa De Fino: The world’s changing in ways that I think none of us really anticipated, or we anticipated, but didn’t expect to come quite so quickly.
Lauren Hays: Is there anything else that you would like to share?
Mary Beth Weber: I feel that in technical services we are innovators, but people don’t always think of it that way. There was something that I said in the introduction of the book that people tend to think of us as the inept introverts with overflowing inboxes. And that’s not the case. A lot of technical services people are very vocal. They’ve brought about change, for example, with subject headings or workflows, or just asking for better things. A lot of leaders come out of technical services. Our work may seem like it’s behind the scenes, but it actually supports everybody else.
Melissa De Fino: We’re fortunate at Rutgers that we have been given the flexibility and the choice.
Lauren Hays, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at the University of Central Missouri, and a frequent presenter on topics related to libraries and librarianship. Her expertise includes information literacy, educational technology, and library and information science education. Please read Lauren’s other posts relevant to special librarians. And take a look at Lucidea’s powerful integrated library systems, SydneyEnterprise, and GeniePlus used daily by innovative special librarians in libraries of all types, sizes and budgets.
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