A Sense of Service: Service outside of the public eye

By reeset / On / In Library

Last week, I was on a panel at the Oregon Library Association entitled, A Sense of Service.  The title of the panel and the impetus for the discussion came out of the Oregon Library Association’s Quarterly publication, or more specifically, Janet Webster’s article entitled, “A Sense of Service(1).”  The article, and the publication in general, focused on what it means as a librarian to serve.  As one might expect, most of the articles in the publication focused on how librarians ultimately work to serve their patrons – which I guess makes sense – it is our most visible role to the public, and one that takes on more importance as libraries struggle to demonstrate their value to their communities.  But it’s also a viewpoint that excludes the majority of people that work in libraries.  If we define service with such a narrow lens, what does that mean for technical services staff, support staff, administration…all of which perform functions that help to meet their patron’s needs. 

I ask this question because this was the question posed to me.  I had been asked to participate on this panel and as the sole librarian on the panel without direct contact with library’s patrons, how and who exactly do I serve and how do you identify if your service has impact aren’t necessarily straightforward questions?  But it’s an interesting question, and one that I actually spent a good deal of time thinking about prior to speaking on the panel.

I guess like many people that work in non-public service positions, I tend to think very little about service – at least in the sense of making people happy.  And so in that respect, I was having a difficult time wondering what I might be able to add to the conversation.  The very talented librarians on my panel would be talking about how they are changing lives by embodying an ethic of service to ensure that their patrons (students, community members, etc.) have access to the information that they need.  These librarians can discuss how their service tangibly impacts their communities – from students who grow into life-long readers, or community members discovering new digital services, or students successfully traversing their library’s vast information resources, these librarians could see that they made a difference every day.  I may have been a panelist, but I was looking forward to hearing my colleagues share their excitement, because often times, the why we serve is very closely aligned to the why we work in libraries.

But as I said, I don’t work with patrons.  As the Gray Family Chair for Innovative Library Services, my job at OSU Libraries is to build bridges, understand how new technology will impact the library, develop experimental services, and help the library strategically align itself to meet future needs.  Sure, patrons are helped by the work that I do – but it’s service that’s one or two steps removed from those that use the library.  Which got me wondering again, what exactly do I have to offer to a panel on service or to those librarians that don’t work directly with the public? 

So what kinds of service could I point to?  My first thought was to look at my dossier.  I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at my dossier lately – mostly because I’m trying to decide when it will be strong enough to take a shot at full professor.  Given that this isn’t judged by the library, but a group largely made up of research scientists at the University, the process can be a difficult one.  Anyway, one of the sections that make up our dossier and candidate statement is one on service.  But honestly, what I find there doesn’t inspire me.  Service in this case is service to the profession, to the university – i.e., committees served, leadership positions held.  Hardly inspirational material for an up and coming librarian.  I had visions of being the lone person on the panel trying to inspire librarians to better service through an adherence to parliamentary procedure.  (Actually, if you ever want to depress yourself, look at the committees your university happens to have.  I swear to God, the one that still makes me laugh ever time I see it at OSU is the Committee on Committees.  I have a feeling that it must be important, but I get such an overwhelming sense of apathy when I see it.) 

Certainly there must be more – so I started to think about why I work in a library.  Actually, not just a library, but why I work at a land grant institution, and an idea started to take shape – especially around my own sense of what service.  And I came to an understanding that for me – there are two distinct ways in which I serve: professionally (which are things I have to do) and selfishly (things I have to do – but want to do).  Well, maybe selfishly isn’t the best way to describe it…no, maybe it is.

Sweeping away the professional service for the moment, I want to focus specifically on how I serve selfishly, and the philosophy that I apply.  As part of the panel, we were asked to address three questions:

  1. Whom do you serve?
  2. How do you serve?
  3. Why do you serve?

Honestly, I couldn’t cleanly answer those questions.  So, I wanted to describe how I serve and place it within the context of libraries. 

Service of Gaps

I think that the best way that I can describe my service and how I would encourage non-public services librarians to make a difference in their libraries, the library community and their local communities is to consider adopting a philosophy of a service of gaps.  It’s a philosophy of service that places an obligation on those people that see needs, to fill them.  And I think I have to explain this a little bit – so I’m going to explain it through three different examples. 

  1. The Libraries of Oregon
  2. MarcEdit
  3. Community Committee work (library board work)

The three above examples represent three different types of service that I participate in because we seen needs and had the capacity to fill the gaps.  The first is the Libraries of Oregon.  This project was born out of a partnership between the Oregon State Library, the Oregon State University Libraries (confusing) and the LSTA Board in Oregon.  For years, the state librarian has been supporting projects targeting the underserved and unserved residents of the state (which hovers around 20%).  The Libraries of Oregon is a project that we hope will begin to address some of the issues relating to access to information within the state.  And yet, this isn’t a project that OSU Libraries had to do (or was originally asked to do).  It doesn’t directly help the OSU community, it diverts some scarce resources to an outside project – and yet, this was a project OSU Libraries sought out and undertook because we should.  As the land grant institution, we had an obligation to fill this gap – and my position allows the library to do that.  I may never meet any of the residents or kids that we help through this program – but because of this work – they will have more access with fewer barriers than before.  And as a father who sees other kids struggling to do homework because they can’t get to a public library or they no longer have adequate school library resources, it’s work I believe very strongly in.  So, I serve selfishly.

For librarians and professionals that spend most of their time writing code, I think that there is an easy tendency to focus on the work that you are doing and forget about the larger impact of this work.  Sure – we understand that the coding we do makes information _____ (fill in the blank, easier to find, safer, richer, visible, etc.), but I also argue that it provides an important avenue for service as well.  Release your code and you contribute to the larger “discussion” of library science.  Develop something useful, and you can help to simplify someone’s work and help them provide better service for their patrons as well.  Engender a community and your can help users/practitioners share workflows, best practices, and build relationships.  I’d love to be able to say that I wrote MarcEdit with such noble thoughts in mind, but it’s the epitome of serving selfishly.  As a cataloger – I needed better tools – so I wrote one.  At the time, cataloging tools were expensive or worked primarily under DOS.  (Of course, there was the fabulous MARC.pm modules for PERL, but I’d rather have someone punch me in the face that have to write PERL [I’m just not that good at it.])  So I wrote MarcEdit to understand MARC and give myself a toolkit for developing other applications needing to access MARC data.  Making it available to the larger community was something done as an afterthought because a few folks (thanks Kyle Banerjee) thought the program might be useful to other people.  Today, I’m not a cataloger, but I continue to develop MarcEdit because it affords me the opportunity to work with catalogers and work with a lot of people doing a lot of very interesting things.  I’m certain I get a lot more out of those connections and relationships than the people that actually use the program – but again, its been a gap that I could fill and I’ve been happy to do it.

The last example is a very personal one to me.  While I joked about professional responsibilities and committee work, there are times when they can take on a special meaning.  Two years ago, I volunteered to serve on my city’s local library board.  Not because I had to or even because they couldn’t have found someone to do it – but because I owed the community and the library a debt and had an opportunity to repay it.  In my family, the public library is almost a second home.  My wife volunteers there, my kids love to visit there – the librarians are close to family (though not as crazy).  So, when an opportunity to serve opened up – I was happy to oblige – and through it, I’ve been able to find small ways to make contributions.  My hope is that I’ll be able to repay in small measure, what the library has personally provided for my family during the 9 years in the community.

These were the kinds of things I talked about during the panel presentation – this idea of a service of gaps and a notion that service is a fulfillment of an obligation to step in and fill needs.  It’s not that much different than what public librarians do – it’s just behind the curtain where people don’t always see it, and where maybe we don’t always recognize it.  I know I was happy to have been a part of the panel because it got me to think about service in a way that I hadn’t before.  It got me to broaden my lens and think about some of the reasons I enjoy working in a library.  And once I started down that path, answering those three questions in the beginning became a lot easier.

  • Whom do you server?
    Those in my sphere of influence that have a need (be that my community, profession, etc.)
  • How do you serve?
    By filling in the gaps, and often times, selfishly
  • Why do you serve?
    Because its my obligation to fill the gaps that I can



2 thoughts on “A Sense of Service: Service outside of the public eye

  1. At parties (but never at work), when someone says “oh, but you’re not, like, a real librarian, you don’t work with patrons,” I’ve begun responding that I suspect many more patron-hours are spent interacting with the systems i’m responsible for than are spent interacting directly with an librarian (in person, email, chat, all of em).

    yep, we’re serving users.

    the same could possibly be said about catalogers, more patron-hours spent interacting with systems based on their metadata.