Sunday, November 23, 2008

Introduction to Libraries: Basic library functions

Although there are different types of libraries, they all perform the same basic functions to effectively provide information and services to their clients.

Types of Libraries
Early libraries were often part of religious institutions. Many private libraries and royal libraries also existed in ancient times. Libraries are now divided into four major types:

  1. Academic,
  2. Public,
  3. School, and
  4. Special
In addition, there is an emerging fifth type of library, the "virtual" or "electronic library". This type of library is not yet "officially" included in this list of libraries because it is so new that there is not yet a consensus in the library field as to what definitely constitutes a "virtual library". "Time will tell", as the saying goes.

Although the infomation needs of a college student writing a term paper is quite different from those of a public library patron wanting a book on effective parenting, all types of libraries serve the needs of their clientele by performing the same basic library functions.

Public services

Public services are those activities in which library staff have direct contact with library users. Library patrons judge the quality of library services by their experiences with public services staff members. In customer service literature, these experiences are known as "moments of truth". If a library patron has a bad experience he or she may never use the library again.

Major public service activities include:

1. Circulation
2. Information Services (Reference work)
3. Document Delivery (Interlibrary loan)
4. Library Promotion

There are four major tasks in circulation:

1. Registering new borrowers
2. Charging out or renewing items
3. Discharging items

4. Returning items to their proper location.

Registering new borrowers
To register a new borrower, library staff have to determine if the individual is permitted to borrow library materials or if the individual has to pay a fee for borrowing privileges. The table below identifies typical categories of patrons with borrowing privileges in the four types of libraries. Borrower registration is essential, as it allows the library to keep records of which items are signed out to each borrower.

Registering new borrowers
To register a borrower, library staff must determine if the individual is permitted to borrow library materials or if the individual has to pay a fee for borrowing privileges. The table below identifies typical categories of patrons with borrowing privileges in the four types of libraries.

Type of library

Patrons with borrowing privileges


Students, faculty, non-academic and administrative staff, alumni; General public often pay for a fee for borrowing privileges


All residents of the community; Residents of other communities may have to pay a fee to borrow materialis


Students, teachers, administration, staff; Some schools also allows parents, students from other schools and the general public to borrow


Most often only employees of the company or institution; Some government libraries or libraries in social services agencies or societies lend to the general public

Charging out items or renewing items
When an item is charged out, a record is created linking the borrower's record to the item's record and a due date is assigned. Accuracy is essential in a circulation transaction. Items, which are charged out incorrectly can result in an individual being charged overdue fines for items never borrowed. Items are renewed when the due date is extended. Speed is important. Labour-intensive circulation systems cause line-ups at the desk and frustrated library patrons.

Discharging items
When items are returned, the link between the borrower's record to the item's record must be cancelled. This is called discharging. Again, accuracy is important to avoid overdue fines for materials, which have been returned and are on the shelf.

Returning items to their proper location
This activity is commonly called shelving. Today's libraries have many different forms of materials. Not all items are placed on shelves. Speed and accuracy are important in undertaking this task. An item shelved or filed incorrectly is a missing item in the library patron's eyes. Many patrons may not take the time to ask if an item has been returned recently or request library staff to search for an item not on the shelf. Consequently, discharged materials not returned to their proper location quickly may also be considered missing.

Information services
Formerly called "Reference work", information services include the following activities:
1. Answering directional questions
2. Information retrieval
a) Ready or quick reference
b) In-depth research
c) Information referral
3. Readers' advisory

When a library user asks where the photocopiers are, he or she is asking a directional question. The same attention and care should be given in answering a directional question as for an in-depth research request. If library staff are perceived as being friendly and helpful, the individual will be more likely to seek the staff's assistance in finding information.

Ready or quick reference
When a question can be answered by quickly consulting such reference works as a dictionary, encyclopedia or directory, it is a ready or quick reference questions. Such questions normally seek simple, straightforward answers based on factual information that can be easily found or verified in an appropriate reference work. The challenge for the library worker is to know which reference tool would provide the most efficient and direct means to find the information. As the great British lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, is attributed to say, "The importance of information is on knowing where to find it".
The following questions fall into the category of "quick" or "ready" reference question.
When did Elvis Presley die? (Some may not consider this a quick reference question!)
Who was Prime Minister of Canada in 1900?

In-depth research
Some requests require an extensive search of many different sources and media formats. Assisting someone in locating material on the portrayal of women in advertising would require searching for books, periodical articles, advertising in magazines and newspapers held in the library, and video resources. Library staff also use periodical indexes on CD-ROM and remote databases to assist them in conducting in-depth research.

Information referral
When information is not available in the library, patrons need to be referred to other resources. This may be another library, an association or social agency. For example, if a person needed information about a rare disease, a support group would be an excellent source of information. To the patron, it does not matter that the library did not have the information, if he or she is given an alternate resource. Libraries do well not to let patrons leave empty-handed and unsatisfied. To the extent that "perception is everything" this practice of at least giving something to patrons to go on allows patrons to go on allows patrons to see that they can depend on the library as an effective source of information.

Reader's advisory
This is primarily a public library service. Often library staff will be asked to recommend other books similar to those written by Len Deighten or if there are any new Canadian mystery writers. There are special reference tools to assist library staff in answering this type of request.

Document delivery
Formerly known as "interlibrary loan", document delivery is a rapidly growing service in all types of libraries. If an item is not available in the library, document delivery staff determine which library has the item and request it form that library on an interlibrary loan. As library budgets shrink and information resources explode in number, it is essential to share resources with other libraries and to seek out alternate methods of acquiring information. Commercial services are now available, which offer, for a fee, guaranteed delivery of copies of periodical articles within 24 hours or less. When a patron considers time is more important than money and is willing to pay, libraries will order from these commercial suppliers. Because these items are not received from another library, many interlibrary loan services are now called document delivery services.

Library promotion
In the current climate of deficit reduction and fiscal restraint, it is more important than ever to promote library services and maintain positive relationships with library clientele, granting agencies and parent organizations. The library must be viewed as an essential service in the community, schools, universities, colleges, and in business or it may face closure.
There are many ways to promote the library. The first and foremost is to constantly strive to give the best service possible to clients. Satisfied customers are repeat customers and can be the library's best allies when budget cuts arise. Libraries also need to market their services to ensure that the public is aware of the wealth of services libraries have to offer.
Libraries need to sponsor programs to attract new clients and encourage regular patrons to come more often. Libraries are increasingly involved in fundraising campaigns. It is not uncommon for libraries to sell T-shirts, coffee mugs and other promotional items.
Recently, the Canadian Library Association has endorsed a program called Library Advocacy Now! Friends of Libraries, library trustees and library staff members across Canada are receiving advocacy training. This involves learning how to promote public support of libraries throughout the use of the media, lobbying governments and awareness campaigns.

Technical Services
If you were to follow the steps from ordering library materials to their being available to the public, most technical services activities would be included. These are:
1. Collection Development
2. Acquisitions
3. Cataloguing
4. Processing

Collection Development
Also known as Selection, collection development is the process of determining which materials to acquire within a budget. Libraries have collection development policies to assist them in allocating scarce resources. The policy outlines what emphasis should be placed on different media, subject areas, audience level and fiction. It also states when multiple copies should be purchased, the criteria used to weed materials out of the collection (e.g. accuracy, currency, circulation, condition, etc.), and how to handle gifts or controversial materials. These policies are invaluable when individuals request the removal of items from the collection on moral or religious grounds. A well-written and detailed policty combined with an established procedure for handling challenged materials ensures the issue will be handled calmly and professionally.

Once materials are selected, they are are then acquired or purchased. There are many activities in acquisitions.
1. Bibliographic verification (author, title, publisher, price)
2. Checking against library's catalogue (to avoid duplication)
3. Choosing supplier (which company offers best price)
4. Preparing and sending orders (orders many now be sent electronically)
5. Maintaining order files (to keep track of what's ordered, received)
6. Maintaining accounts (to ensure proper billing and payment, staying within budget)
7. Receiving items (ensuring proper items received, back orders)
8. Paying invoices

It is important to keep accurate and up-to-date records in acquisitions. No library wishes to be under or over budget.

Cataloguing is the process of creating bibliographic records for items in the library's collection. Years ago, it was a very labour-intensive process. The advances in computer technology have allowed libraries to easily acquire bibliographic records from commercial sources and other libraries. To further reduce staff costs, many libraries now outsource their cataloguing. Outsourcing is contracting an outside agency to do the cataloguing for the library. However, libraries still catalogue items which, are locally produced and are unlikely to have been previously catalogued by another library.

Another major responsibility in cataloguing is maintaining the library's catalogue. Bibliographic records for missing items or items withdrawn from the collection must be removed from the catalogue.

After an item is catalogued, it must be prepared for use. Call number and barcode labels need to be affixed. Items need to be stamped with the library's name. Items also require protective measures. Book jackets are laminated or covered with a plastic cover. Audiovisual materials may need special containers. After prolonged use, some materials may need repairing. Most libraries perform only minor repairs, such as taping torn pages, tipping in loose pages, lor reinforcing the hignes and spine with binding tape.

Specials maintenance
Periodicals, because they are received on an ongoing basis, require special attention. As each issue is received, it must be recorded in a Kardex file or in an on-line serials management system. The date each issue is received is also recorded. This assists staff in predicting when the next issue should arrive. Much time is spent claiming issue swhich are late arriving and in processing invoices and in subscription renewal. Special and academic libraries generally have very large periodical collections. After a complete volume has been received, the issuesmay be prepared for binding. Many libraries buy complete volumes of periodicals in a microform format rather than bind them, to save space.

Interrelationships between services
small libraries, the distincition between public services and technical services are not as great as in large libraries. In a one-person library that person performs all the tasks and easily recognizes how all the activities contribute to effective service.
In larger libraries it is essential that staff members understand how their work interrelates with others. If circulation staff is slow in returning materials to the shelves, this has a serious impact on the reference staff's ability to provide quality service. If cataloguing staff is slow in removing records for missing or discarded items from the catalogue, circulation or reference staff can spend far too much time looking for an item which is no longer in the collection.

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