Circulation and frontline service – the forgotten library profession?

We have a mission: impossible. A library will try to provide the knowledge our users require, knowing it will never have the resources to do so. So we lend and ensure that the limited materials we have are shared amongst our users. Behind the scenes, our colleagues are working hard to find out what our users want, to get the resources, to get more for our money, to make everything better, easier, quicker. We hate saying no and we’re always trying to find a way to say yes. The library is in a period of transistion, always, and at the frontline we’re trying to bridge the gap between the old and the new, the known and the unknown.

Everything we offer we do so without distinctions of class, culture, age, gender, race, disability, status. At the heart of our service is a commitment to equal opportunities – to treat everyone as a individual and give them the help they need to get access to the material they need.

Yet we are there for thousands of staff and tens of thousands of students. At the frontline of our library service we see more members of our community in one day than many others see in a week. We are still providing a traditional library service, managing hundreds of thousands of items and ensuring that as many people as possible can access this material as quickly as possible. Our users still want print; it’s essential. And we don’t have a copy of a book for everyone that needs it. So we continue to work within a set of circulation policies and procedures with rules that we enforce to ensure consistency, equality and fairness. It’s not easy. We have to be hard to be fair. We don’t always have the answers people want, and we’re not always popular. But we’re constantly questioning what we’re doing and changing when we can.

And as the profession continues to change, at the frontline we’re trying to keep up. We’re asked questions and come up against problems all the time, and the answer’s not always obvious. There’s a mind boggling array of information out there and it’s our responsibility at the frontline to know in which direction to point our users, to know and to tell them what the options are, that someone can find a solution for them even if we can’t provide it ourselves.

Sometimes frontline staff are seen as automatons, easily replaced by self-service. But that is to forget the amount of work that goes into running and improving a circulation service – to solve problems, to make things run smoothly, to make them run better. And more importantly it is to forget the possibilities of human intuition, the small exchanges that can lead to someone picking up on a baffled look, to someone completing the end of a question the user didn’t know how to ask. We are there for them when they don’t know where to start. We are there for them on the night before they have to hand in an essay, giving them something that we hope will lead them to discovering and utilising the full potential of the library.

Some of us are library professionals, some of us para-professionals, some of us just work in a nice place, where we meet nice people. We are all human. We have good days and bad days. Sometimes we don’t know the answer. Sometimes we have to say no. But we are here, trying to do our best not just for the individuals, but for the whole community.


3 thoughts on “Circulation and frontline service – the forgotten library profession?

  1. I think Circulation is often a victim of the (in my opinion rather fake) distinction between professional and non-professional roles (or librarian/non-librarian to use the terms of your earlier post). Perhaps it is because lots of librarians, including me, start at the issue desk so think that to progress is to get away; perhaps there is also the constant inaccurate comparison with shop counter work. Although I probably follow the wrong conversations now I live in a cataloguing ivory tower, it doesn’t seem to seen as a distinct aspect of librarianship, like enquiry work, cataloguing, or subject liaison. It really should of course as it includes bits of all of these, as well as having to deal with the consequences and failings of the work done by all of them, on top of its own unique challenges.

    Perhaps overdoing it, but Churchill said of the commander of the British fleet in WW1 that “Jellicoe was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” I think the issue desk has a similar relation to the reputation of the library. As a librarian I’ve only ever made someone cry (fines) and been called a w***er (prompt Christmas closure) on the issue desk but I’ve only ever been called “My favourite librarian” on the issue desk too.

    1. Thanks for leaving a reply, I completely agree. And yes you certainly see a lot at the issue desks and you can’t beat someone saying how great your service has been, it’s worth putting up with the bad!
      I think the only thing you can do is try and work somewhere where you think you can be useful to your users and it’s possible to do this in any area of library work.

  2. Thank you for the insightful post, I agree with your idea that libraries are constantly in transition. I suppose we are aiming to create the shortest and most easily traversable bridge possible! I also think that people forget about the value of human intuition on frontline services. There have been plenty of times when I’ve guessed what the baffled look is about and tried to help.

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