Holistic Librarianship

A Cure for the Technical/Public Services Rivalry?

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

Almost since librarianship became a profession, it has been divided into technical and public services. While the people in technical services work quietly tucked away in odd rooms out of sight of the general public and are rarely seen or noticed by anyone who doesn't have to deal directly with them, the people in public services work directly with patrons and are seen every day. This division has become so deeply ingrained that many librarians regard it as being the only possible way to organize a library. In perfect pseudo-Biblical prose Michael Gorman parodied this attitude with his humorous myth of Kuttah the library god establishing the traditional division of library service into technical and public service divisions.1 However many librarians do seriously regard this traditional division as being something almost sacred, as though it came directly from Thoth and the first libraries of ancient Egypt.

In spite of the status of this structure of librarianship as an institution, it should not be held above any possible scrutiny, for there are a number of problems that are created by this system. The most glaring is the estrangement between the two departments until neither one has a real idea of what the other is doing, or a proper appreciation for the contributions that the other department makes to the library as a whole. Because of this estrangement, each side may end up doing things less effectively.2 Many reference librarians, for instance, regard cataloging as a purely mechanical exercise which isn't really quite as professional as reference work.3 Because of their distaste for cataloging, these reference librarians avoid having anything to do with the process, and thus aren't able to use the library's catalog effectively, if they even use it at all.

Equally, the cataloging department which becomes estranged from the ultimate purpose of their work in providing access to the library's holdings for the patrons who are using the library may easily fall into the trap of cataloging for cataloging's sake instead of cataloging for use. An excellent example of this is the use of esoteric rules in descriptive cataloging or obscure subject headings, neither of which reflect how the patrons actually think. Almost everybody who has ever used a library's catalog can tell horror stories of looking for something very commonplace and not finding it because it was cataloged under a term that was twenty years out of date, or used only by specialists in the field, not the general public. A concrete example of this commonplace cataloging folly would be the pre- AACR2 practice of researching every author and filing pseudonomous works under the author's "real" name. This practice not only was a vicious attack on the stated preferences of the authors for a particular name, but an endless headache for readers who simply wanted a book by a particular author and really didn't care what name the person had been christened as an infant. Equally, subject cataloging provides endless hilarious examples of subject headings that nobody but nobody uses anymore, although the terms were in common use back when the subject heading lists were compiled. How did these travesties come to be? Simply because cataloging has been allowed to develop into its own little profession so divorced from the ultimate users of the catalog. Then catalogers began creating rules which looked nice from a theoretical standpoint but really had nothing to do with the way that patrons actually use the catalog.

Worse yet, when numerous catalogers with specialized knowledge in particular subject areas allow themselves to be shut off from the public and never serve a patron, their knowledge is effectively lost to the patrons.4 Particularly if they are not doing a large amount of cataloging that requires their specialized knowledge, and instead end up spending most of their time on things that a more generalizing cataloger could easily handle, the loss in terms of service to the public becomes even more distressing. After all, with the advent of bibliographic utilities such as OCLC, very few books require original cataloging, even at a university library. At a smaller public library or junior college, almost everything that would be coming in, with the exception of local history materials, could be copy cataloged by a clerk and the professional librarian could simply supervise and make checks for things that need to be touched up to meet the needs of the local user community.5

With all these problems created by the traditional division of librarianship between technical and public services departments, it is easy to see that something has to be done. But what can we put in the place of that traditional organization? This is where many library administrators have offered the concept of holistic librarianship as a prescription for the ills of traditional library organization.

In the holistic concept, library functions would be grouped according to subject, and all functions dealing with a particular subject would be put together. According to the theory, the same person or group of people should handle everything having to do with a particular collection, from selection through cataloging to reference. This would serve to break up the cult of cataloging as an end in itself and stop the practice of dumping personnel problems into the cataloging department with the idea that they will be out of the way in the "back room."6 In the holistic library the professional staff in each subject-oriented department would then take care of all the professional duties related to the library, while non-professionals could do such routine tasks as copy cataloging from a bibliographic utility.

Although many large academic libraries such as the University of Illinois have had departmental collections in remote locations for many years, these have usually dealt only with reference while acquisition and cataloging was done by a central technical services department back in the main library. This was due primarily to the pre-automation library's dependence upon large paper files that were available only in a single place and were not particularly portable.7

But the advent of online systems broke up this whole system. Once those files such as the main catalog, the order file and the serials file were transformed into machine-readable databases, it was no longer necessary for those who would be making use of them to be within easy walking distance of the central file. Instead, all that was necessary was to have a terminal available and be able to access the appropriate databases. Thus online systems broke up the distance dependancy so that technical services activities were no longer bound to a particular place as they had been under the old system of paper files.8 Furthermore the advent of computer searching of the library catalog allowed new access points and methods of searching. Because of this, cataloging became less the arcane discipline it had been, using its own obscure rules that no one outside the circle of catalogers had ever seen. Instead it began to become more like other forms of computer access, breaking down some of the walls around the profession of cataloging.9

At the same time that technological change was enabling the decentralization of technical services by breaking down the tyranny of the single-copy paper master files, budget constraints were placing an additional pressure for change on academic libraries. In order to continue to provide quality service even in the face of budget cuts from economy-minded boards of trustees who were feeling the pressures of changing economic patterns, libraries had to find new ways to provide the same services at lesser cost. And then they noticed the way in which they were losing money by having subject specialists spend all their time in back rooms cataloging while reference in those subjects was being handled by a general reference librarian who really didn't have the necessary background, or by a second subject specialist who had been hired as a reference librarian. And when the latter pattern held true, it often turned out that each subject specialist librarian spend only a part of his or her time working with the subject specialty, and the rest of the time dealing with matters only marginally related to it. This was obviously a waste of resources and money.

With all these pressures, both positive and negative, it was only a matter of time before library administrators decided that something had to be done. And many major academic libraries did reorganize along some variation of the holistic librarianship model. Notable among these libraries was that of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where two of the most vocal proponents of this plan (Atkinson and Gorman) were in top-level administrative positions.

Before reorganization, the UIUC library was divided into the predictable technical and public services divisions. Technical services contained Acquisitions, Cataloging, Serials and Special Languages, while public services included the central reference and circulation departments as well as the subject-oriented departmental liraries. Under the reorganization, the Serials department was broken up and each departmental library was made responsable for managing its own serials collection. A new Automated Systems department was created to handle LCS/FBR, the library's online catalog and circulation system. Collection Development and Preservation was made a department of its own, bringing together a number of diffuse activities that had never been previously given formal standing as a specialization. Original cataloging was separated from copy cataloging from OCLC adn dispersed into the departmental libraries. The Special Languages department was divided and transformed into the Slavic and Asian libraries, each of which would handle its own reference services as well as technical services. Finally central circulation and reference and special collection were added to Technical Services, which was then renamed General Services to better reflect its new purpose.10

Similarly, the public services side was reorganized with the dispersal of professionals specializing in collection development and original cataloging to the various departmental liraries. The various departmental libraries were grouped into a number of Councils according to broad subject areas such as Sciences and Humanities, with the Undergraduate Library making an additional Council of its own. Although original cataloging was spread among the various Councils, the Office of the Principal Cataloger was retained to maintain quality control and handle serials cataloging.11 All original cataloging was to be done by those who ordered the items, whether they were to go onto the shelves of the departmental library or into the central stacks.12

Naturally a restructuring on this sort of scale does not come without problems, and as it may be expected, there were many. Some of them were the sort of problems that are directly caused by the solution to the original problem. Most glaring was the problem of ignorance of the functions of the other side, which requred retraining or refresher training for many former catalogers and reference librarians who found themselves being required to do tasks that were outside of their former specialization.13

Also there was the problem of quality control in cataloging. Subject cataloin seemed to benefit from catalogers who were dealing only with their subject specialty and could bring to bear their knowledge in that area.14 However descriptive cataloging seemed to suffer from the organization. It was theorized that descriptive cataloging is a very skill-intensive discipline, and working two jobs ended up meaning that one would do both of them poorly.15 It seemed to work best in libraries with at least three professionals, where one could specialize in cataloging.16 However this arrangement runs counter to the central philosophy of holistic librarianship.

Another problem that developed was a new tension between the needs of the individual departmental libraries and the university library as a whole.17 Atkinson observed that in this sort of library it was essential to have smooth interaction between the head librarian and the various department librarians to keep everything in balance and avoid conflicts that would pit one department against another.18 However this sort of interpersonal balancing act requires a very capable administrator and a collegial relationship between the administration and the various departmental library professionals, as well as between the various departmental libraries. And unfortunately not all administrators are able to keep that many things all in balance all at once.

However the results of the reorganization were not entirely negative. Reference services seemed to benefit most from the dispersal of professional librarians to work in the departmental libraries where the people with the questions needing specialized knowledge were most likely to come and ask.19 And most of all the need for a good support staff to relieve the professional librarians of run-of-the-mill tasks so that they could concentrate on real professional activities was underscored.20 It has often been said that the most important thing for any professional is to have a good support staff.

What then may be concluded from this? Most importantly, although holistic librarianship is a good concept, it is not a panacea for all the administrative headaches of a library divided between hostile technical and public services departments. However it is important that each sub-discipline within the profession understands and appreciates the work of the other side.



Atkinson, Hugh C. "The Impact of Closing the Catalog on Library Organization," in Closing the Catalog: Proceedings of the 1978 and 1979 Library and Information Techonology Institutes. D. Kaye Gaspen and Bonnie Jurgens, eds. Phonix, AZ: Oryx 1980

______ . "The Impact of New Technology on Library Organization," in The Bowker Annual of Library and Book Trade Information. 19th edition, New York: Bowker 1984

Bingham, Karen Havill. "Management of Original Cataloging Activities in a Decentralized System." Cataloging and Classification Quarterly. volume 8, issue 1, pp. 49-63, 1987

Clark, Barton M. and Karen Havill Bingham. "Holistic Librarianship." Library Personnel News volume 3 issue 4, Fall 1989, pp. 55-57

Gorman, Michael. "On Doing Away with Technical Services Departments." American Libraries. volume 10, number 7, July/August 1979, pp. 435-437

_____ . "The Ecumenical Librarian." The Reference Librarian. number 9, Fall/Winter 1983 pp. 55-64

_____ . "Reorganization at the University of Illinois -- Urbana- Champaign Library: A Case Study." Journal of Academic Librarianship. voulme 9, September 1983, pp. 223-225

Holley, Robert P. "The Future of Catalogers and Cataloging." Journal of Academic Librarianship. volume 7 number 2, May 1981, pp. 90-93

RTSD Newsletter number 9, issue 3 1984, pp 27-29

Lundy, Frank A. and Kathryn R. Renfro and Esther M. Shubert. "The Dual Assignment: Cataloging and Reference: A Four-Year Review of Cataloging in the Divisional Plan." Library Resources and Technical Services volume 3, Summer 1959, pp. 167-87

Murray-Lachappelle, Rosemary. "A Holistic Approach to Library Organization." Canadian Library Journal. volume 40 number 6, December 1983, p 349

Williams, James W. "The Decentralization of Selected Technical Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign." Technical Services Quarterly volume 4 Summer 1987 pp. 5-19

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This paper was originally written for a class in Library Administration, taught by Assistant Professor Bryce Allen, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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