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In the Thick of It

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

This week saw the first round of workshops involving three days of relatively intense work. After weeks of negotiating with the unit heads and wrangling with my own sense of inadequacy regarding the field of collection development, it was time to get in the trenches and do it. I had arranged for a series of three meetings with the people doing collection development. There are about sixty selectors, almost all of whom also work as reference librarians. We would meet for ninety minutes each day and work on a different aspect of their selection jobs in each session. Since the collection development work is done by librarians who also do reference work, I had to offer two sections of each session, one for the daytime reference staff and another for the evening people. I had no idea how many people would show up and no CLEAR idea of whether or not I would be providing them with what they needed, despite a series of meetings with their supervisors.

As a result of several meetings with the head of collection development over the past weeks, I understood that the selectors needed to do several things. First, the library’s collection development policy had been left incomplete. The mission statement, goals, and the overall policy outlining the collection as a whole had been done, but the policies for individual disciplines and special collections had not yet been written. They wanted that addressed. Second, selectors needed guidance regarding what selection tools were available to them and how they should be using them to do their work. Third, there was an issue regarding the handling of information about the collection—particularly its gaps—that the selectors developed or discovered as reference librarians, that is, through their interactions with readers. The collection development head saw a problem with the results of this aspect of the selectors’ work.

I thought that these three topics could be handled in such a way as to show the relationship between the activities, to show that they were aspects of the same work. Consequently, having reviewed the collection development policy, I decided to begin with a session during which we would work on creating statements about the purpose of the individual collections and the formats to be collected. I considered addressing these two components, which are only parts of a much more elaborate statement about the function and nature of each individual collection, to be a way of getting the selectors to start thinking about what they wanted their collections to be and then to define their collection so they might have a better sense of how to go about building and repairing it.

In the first session, I began by showing the group the web page containing the Collection Development Policy for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and focused on a few words and phrases that they might use to get started on writing their own statements, phrases such as “well rounded scholarly collection,” with them aim of “enrich[ing] scholarly research and public knowledge…” I emphasized that their policy statements, while describing their unique collections, had to conform, at least broadly, to the library’s overall collection development statement. I distributed an assignment sheet on which they were to compose a “summary” and “format” section for their collection. I told the group that they would be expected to hand the completed assignment in by the end of the week.

The next step was to show them other tools that they might use to complete their assignments. I showed them collection development policy statements from various university, public and specialized libraries available on the web and suggested that they could use ideas (not the actual prose!) from policies that were most like theirs, or which they would most like their policy to resemble. I also suggested that they look at professional web sites, particularly ALA, which had links to sites dealing with collection development. In response to my question of whether or not the library had a resource shelf or professional collection for collection development, I was told no. I suggested they start one. There was a large number of resources, both electronic and print, available to them and I encouraged them to consult some of these and get started on a rough draft as soon as possible.

I had hoped that we might be in a training area that had enough computers for everyone to begin working and I would circulate among them and offer suggestions and direction, getting them started. Unfortunately, the training room had no such facilities, so I told them that I would make myself available for consultations with them by extending the time I was in the library each day. The session ended and I was in the process of preparing for the next group when I was approached by four of the department heads, including the head of public services, the head of collection development and the head of reference services. Omnia, the collection development person, jumped right to the point and told me that they were unhappy with what I had done; that it was inadequate and had not addressed the issues.

I was a bit taken aback, but asked them what, specifically they had found wanting. One said that the selectors needed to know HOW to write a collection development policy; they needed to know what should be included in a policy; they needed to see exactly how a policy was constructed; and so forth. The bombshell, for me, was the revelation from the head of reference that the average length of service for current selectors was less than two years. Now, I had been told that there was a problem with employee turnover in the reference department, but it had never been made clear to me that this meant that ALL of the selectors were still in the egg. I thanked them for the additional information and told them that I would take their concerns into account for the second section. I realized moreover, that I would have to rework my remaining two sessions so that they would be accessible to a much less sophisticated audience.

The second session went a bit better, but trying to re-engineer the program on the fly was not a good thing and I ended the day feeling drained and discouraged. I went home and spent the entire evening reworking my second session in light of what I had learned the first day. I had disappointed my client and went to bed depressed.

The second day, I had planned to show the selectors the various selection tools, both print and electronic, that were available to them for doing this work. There was a stack of professional journals awaiting me on the table in the classroom when I arrived (I had arranged for this before the start of the program) and I had prepared a handout listing kinds of resources (bibliographies, book reviews, publishers’ catalogues, etc.) and web-based tools that they could use. I covered the print materials first, stressing the importance of academic book reviews for academic disciplines, Choice magazine, and literary reviews for literature. I tried to give examples of a wide variety of resources so that everyone would understand that there would be tools for virtually everyone.

I moved on to electronic tools, some of which some people were already familiar with, and to collection analysis tools, like the Bowker product, which I urged the department heads to consider for licensing. I demonstrated as many of the electronic tools as I had time for and took some questions at the end. Nermin Baha came to me after the first session and expressed her approval of the way the second day’s session went. She said it was much better than the first day’s. The afternoon session also went well and I went home feeling that I had at least got one thing right. The sticky issue of how to work with information about the collections derived from interacting with the reading public engaged my attention for the rest of the day.

For Tuesday, the final day of the workshops, I had created a handout on which I had listed a series of questions. It was around these questions that I hoped to generate discussions about what worked and what didn’t work, what aspects of eliciting information from the public about the collections created frustration, what should be done differently. There are in place procedures for identifying gaps in the collections. Paper forms are completed by the reference person taking the request; these are sent to the head of collection development, who then sends the forms on to the appropriate selector. One difficulty comes when the reader, who is accustomed to dealing with one reference person, asks about the status of her/his request and is told that the reference librarian doesn’t know. If the reference librarian is not responsible for the field in question, she/he will probably not be aware of the book’s location in the acquisitions process and will be unable to give a satisfactory answer.

The selectors clearly had a different set of issues they wanted to talk about; it became clear that they were looking for some guidance about developing their collections which they could use at the Cairo Book Fair. They will all attend this event in January and use the opportunity to select materials (over-whelmingly in Arabic) for their collections. They were concerned about how they could do this given the fact that they would only be there for one day. I suggested that this was a perfect reason for them to have their policy statements ready. Their summary statements could serve as useful guides for their purchasing decisions; they would have a better idea of what they wanted their collections to look like, what they wanted them to hold, if they wrote out descriptions (summaries, in the language of the Bibliotheca’s policy) of them beforehand. With these in hand, they could then review their collections to see what they needed, identify publishers who were likely to publish the sorts of books they were interested in and overall make more productive use of their time there. If filling gaps was important, they would know what to look for; if expanding their collection was important, they would have a better idea of how to do that.

This suggestion seemed to energize them and finished both sessions on a positive note. I reminded the attendees that their assignments were due on Thursday and that I would then be setting up individual interviews with them to help them revise and improve their statements. My business cards were distributed and I gave everyone my office phone number as an additional method of contacting me. I told them also that they would be expected to continue working on the other components of their policies: geographical coverage, historical coverage, languages, and so forth, so that by the end of the year each person would have a good recension of her or his policy statement. A couple of selectors had already done some work on their summary and format statements and handed them to me at the end of the sessions. It will be very interesting to see how they do and how much work remains to be done.

I had one more obligation for this part of the project. I promised Nermin that I would write up a “model” policy to be distributed to the selectors so that they might have an idea of what a completed policy statement might look like. I promised that I would have that ready by Thursday. Nermin wanted me to write a policy statement for one of the library’s collections but I am reluctant to do that; this isn’t my library and I don’t feel comfortable taking on that responsibility. More to the point, I think that the purpose of this entire exercise is to get the selectors to do the thinking work necessary to write their own. I won’t do that work for them.

After the last session, I had a short meeting with Amira Hegazy and Ghada, a librarian from outreach to talk about the information literacy workshops, the first of which is to be held next Monday. Her team has much more experience and is much more stable than the collection development team, and the three of us came to a quick agreement about how to approach their need to re-think the information literacy program. We decided that the first session would be a problem identification exercise. From that, we would decide which problems were most acute and which ones needed attention. I’m hoping that that series of meetings goes much more smoothly and is more gratifying than the first ones. At least I won’t feel so out of my depth.

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