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The Merging of Widener and Lamont Access Services

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The daily operations of the Widener and Lamont stacks is part of the work of the Collection Management division of Access Services.

August 4, 2010 – Not long after she arrived at Harvard College Library as the Head of Widener Access Services, Cheryl McGrath and her staff began planning a reorganization of the unit.  They recognized that the Circulation, Billing and Privileges, and Interlibrary Loan divisions within Access Services were operating as silos, although there was a large overlap in their work and a need for coordination and communication on a daily basis among the managers. In addition, technical services functions were being performed by groups within the Serials Services, HD Transfer, and Stacks divisions.

In the midst of this early planning, a confluence of factors – the budget crisis, layoffs, voluntary retirements, and the departure of the Librarian of Lamont Library – prompted the HCL Administration and Senior Managers to begin to explore how the entire Library could continue to fulfill its mission under much reduced circumstances.  First steps in the rebuilding of HCL were the reorganization of HCL Technical Services and the overhaul of public services (both reference and access services) beginning in Widener and Lamont. 

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“The goal was to build an organization that best serves our users and utilizes our staff expertise in a more coordinated and effective fashion,” said McGrath, who oversees Access Services in both libraries as Head of Access Services.

By the end of the restructuring, Access Services units in Widener and Lamont had merged into a centralized unit made up of three function-based divisions – Collection Management, Reader Services and Resource Sharing – while some functions of Serials Services were integrated into HCL Technical Services at 625 Mass. Ave.  However, the process and the effects of the reorganization differed between Widener and Lamont.

In March 2009, Widener Access Services personnel were invited to brainstorm ways to improve services while coping with staffing changes as a result of attrition and voluntary retirements. Based on input from that meeting, managers in May unveiled a draft plan to restructure the unit into three function-based divisions, and integrating Serials Services into Harvard College Library Technical Services (HCLTS).

Armed with a new vision for Widener Access Services, a handful of working groups convened to study all aspects of the unit’s work. In addition to studying dozens of workflows and developing systems to better coordinate student workers, all employees completed a skills assessment, and opportunities for staff cross-training were identified. A series of separate meetings were held with Serials staff to ensure a smooth transition as their work shifted to HCLTS.

By the beginning of July 2009, McGrath said, the unit was experiencing wide-reaching changes as part of the reorganization process.

Chief among those changes was the creation of a new division of Collection Management, called Materials Transfer. Headed by Marek Kornilowicz, the division was created to better coordinate a number of related workflows, including transfers to and from Harvard Depository and the receipt and management of the periodicals collection. The reorganization also resulted in the reimagining of a vacant position into a Student Coordinator position, and the implementation of new software to manage the scheduling of their large student workforce.

While personnel in Widener Access Services adjusted to their new roles and responsibilities throughout the summer and into the fall, change was also afoot at Lamont Library.

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Reader Services, one of the function-based divisions created as part of the merging of Widener and Lamont Access Services, includes Circulation Desks in both libraries.

In October 2009, it was announced that Widener and Lamont Access Services units would merge, forming a single unit.

“When the merger was announced, we considered whether what we had put into place in Widener months earlier would scale to include Lamont, and we felt strongly that the organization we had built would scale,” said McGrath. “Rather than begin from scratch, we were able to look at the Lamont organization and say, ‘Where do our mutual services align?’”

As part of that merger, the vacant Head of Readers Services position at Widener was expanded to include Lamont, and to oversee Circulation, Library Billing and Privileges and Reserves across both libraries. To fill the position, McGrath turned to former Lamont Access Services Head Linda Collins.

“One of the main reasons for centralizing Widener and Lamont Access Services is to create a consistent, high-quality user experience,” McGrath said. “What Linda brought to this position was the ability to share her understanding of how Lamont works, while learning about Widener’s systems, helping to inform the direction we should be taking.”

Other changes included shifting a staff member from Lamont’s Government Documents/Microforms Collection to the Materials Transfer division and establishing an informal reporting line between Lamont stacks workers and Collections Management in Widener.  Despite those changes, McGrath said, the restructuring resulted in few changes to the day-to-day work of most Lamont staff.

“I think employees in Widener and Lamont experienced the reorganization very differently,” McGrath said. “At Widener, many people had to learn new jobs as their responsibilities changed, which can be stressful. The restructuring at Lamont, however, was largely focused on the reporting structure – people’s day-to-day work didn’t change, but the world around them is vastly different. From an emotional perspective, that change has been huge.”

To help staff deal with those changes, McGrath said, she personally took steps to ensure each had opportunities to voice concerns about the restructuring plans, and received regular communication from managers and administrators as the process went forward.

“I met with every single person who was affected in Lamont and Widener,” she said. “That was very important for me to do, to give people the private time to talk about what their concerns might be. By having that one-on-one time, I often received emails from people afterwards highlighting a particular concern or a challenge that we may not have thought of. That people cared enough to take the time to send those messages showed they wanted this effort to succeed, and that was really important for me as we moved forward.”

McGrath’s communication efforts didn’t go unnoticed.

“It definitely was not a one-way street,” Widener Stacks Specialist Albert Genna said, of the reorganization. “Of course, everyone would like to have the full story early on, but obviously, with any change like this, there are going to be things senior managers can’t say right away. That caused some apprehension, but I feel they made a good faith effort to keep people informed on what was happening.”

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As part of the merging of Access Services units in Widener and Lamont libraries, the Resource Sharing division was created to oversee Interlibrary Loan and Scan and Deliver.

  

In addition to creating working groups to study various parts of the reorganization, Genna said the Stacks Division’s close knit working environment created ample opportunity for informal discussion and communication between managers and workers. As the process moved forward, and need for increased cross-training of Access Services personnel became clear, that informal communications channel proved particularly important.

“We were facing a situation where there were gaps that had to be covered,” Genna said. “So it became essential that people know how to do a job in addition to what they normally did. In some cases, that resulted in a person helping out in another division on an ongoing basis. We take great pride in what we do, so it can become a challenge when we have to take time away from that to help out in another area. It’s essential for managers to communicate to staff why helping out is important. The communication from, and the presence of managers during this whole process made people feel a lot more comfortable.”

“For me, the communication was extremely important,” Assistant Head of Library Billing and Privileges Ann-Marie Costa said. “I wouldn’t like the idea of having something thrust upon me without the opportunity to offer my own thoughts and ideas. In this case, the process was very collaborative – others were willing to hear my opinions regarding what I thought would work, which makes me feel like my experience matters.”

When the plan to merge Access Services in Widener and Lamont was first announced, Widener Stacks Specialist Austin Haley said, confusion and apprehension was high.

“We didn’t quite understand what it was going to entail,” he said. “Over the past two years, we’ve dealt with staff reductions through layoffs and early retirements, and the shifts in responsibilities that come with that, and as a result, staff members are somewhat wary of big announcements in general.”

But as the restructuring got underway, Haley said, that initial wariness faded.

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The Circulation Desk in Widener Library is part of the Reader Services division in the reorganized Access Services unit.

“From my perspective, it seemed to be an administrative merger,” he said. “It hasn’t drastically affected my day-to-day workflow, I just have a new set of colleagues and I’m more aware of what goes on there.”

The restructuring was not without its bumps, and McGrath is the first to admit they are still learning how best to make this new, centralized unit operate. 

 “I think it’s easy to say we’re one library, and it’s just two buildings,” Lamont Access Services Assistant Gwang-Ho Kim said. “That actually was something that was said during the staff meeting when the reorganization was announced – we were told not to be bound by the physical boundary. It’s a great idea, but you can’t erase that distance. We felt isolated – we lost our head librarian and our head of Access Services was gone as well. It was very confusing.”

While Kim’s experience suggests not all aspects of the restructuring have gone smoothly, he did say managers have been working to identify and rectify problems.

In the months following the restructuring, McGrath and Collins have worked to bring staff at Widener and Lamont closer together. In recent weeks, Costa has held meetings to review billing procedures at the two libraries, and Student Coordinator Jason Clarke met with Lamont staff to discuss how the two libraries manage student workers.

“The thing that struck me the most over the past year was how much people care about the patron experience being a good one, and how much they care about their colleagues,” McGrath said. “I never felt in any part of the reorganization that there were individuals who were only concerned about their own jobs. Everyone understood how they fit into the bigger picture and participated at that level, and that made it much easier to move forward.”

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