Friday, February 29, 2008

Gale Virtual Reference Library

I have been pleased to add the Gale Virtual Reference Library to our online offerings. As our seminary begins to offer distance education and online courses, I have been looking for ways to increase our online holdings. And, yes, one does hold VRL titles; Gale provides free archival CDs with PDF copies of your titles. Gale's VRL includes a number of significant theological reference resources and makes them available in a user-friendly format. My only complaint about the VRL is that I find the response time to be slow.

I have been particularly interested in Gale's offering of third-party resources. Where I originally thought the VRL to be a platform for marketing Gale/Thompson publications, I have found it to include an expanding number of titles from other publishers. The VRL now includes what I consider to be e-books in addition to online editions of traditional reference works like dictionaries and encyclopedias. While the VRL interface is clearly not designed to be an e-book reader, one can with a fair amount of persistance and clicking eventually reach and page through the text of a work. Its primary value, though, remains as a search interface that uncovers texts that might otherwise remain undiscovered.

Along with the rest of the wired world, I'm still waiting for someone to invent an e-book reader that is better than a book. No -- while I think it is a significant, good effort, I do not think that Amazon's Kindle is the answer for reasons that have been noted elsewhere. In the mean time, I am pleased to find any available online offerings in religion and theology, and I continue to hope that major theological publishers will see the light and begin offering their works in electronic format.

The two e-books that I have added to our VRL collection as test cases are Baptists in America, by Bill Leonard (Columbia UP, 2005) and Protestantism in America, by Randall Balmer and Lauren Winner (Columbia UP, 2002). I am not expecting our students to necessarily read these books online, but I am hoping that having an electronic copy available will assist with finding appropriate content in these works and retrieving citations for use in papers. Did I mention that the VRL also provides usage reports via email? As I continue to monitor usage patterns, and as Gale continues to add significant titles in the area of religion and theology, I am hoping that the VRL can serve as a good, full-text reference resource for our students.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Thoughts on Library Staffing

After a prolonged silence, I am returning to my blog with a few thoughts, appropriately enough, about library staffing.

While I tend to do much of my blogging in off hours, I have also relied on times when I have been able to do some blogging at my desk at work. Not only did I have a very busy fall season in my personal life (with shoulder surgery thrown into the mix), I have found my life at the library to be busier this academic year, too. We lost a part time staff position, bringing our library down to three full time staff members (including myself) plus a complement of part time student workers. This has been a busier year for everyone here.

This raises questions in a library director's mind like, "How much staffing is enough? How much staffing is not enough?" Like good looks and money, one can probably never be endowed with too much (competent!) staffing.

The difficulty is finding the right balance. I suspect that theological libraries are not alone in the struggle to achieve that delicate balance between:
  • materials (books, journals, e-resources),
  • operations (infrastructure, especially technology), and
  • personnel.
At least in Illinois, state library programs are continuing to see reductions in funding, and from what I read in the library bulletins, it sounds like levies are not getting any easier to pass for the public libraries.

In the theological libraries where I have worked, I have felt like there is a swinging budgetary compass that allows one to concentrate and move forward on one front--materials, operations, or personnel--but not on all three at once. Does one take a hit in the book budget to allow for the upgrading of computer equipment? Does one choose to invest in more materials to expand the collection, or to invest in personnel to catalog the collection?

Then there is that seductive siren of grant funding. At our library, we continue to be very grateful for a Chatlos Foundation grant in 2006 that allowed us to significantly upgrade library staff workstations. The difficulty, of course, is that in tight budget times, if you can't land a grant, you often can't make progress that year, either. There is also the danger of finding one's job description expanded a notch with the expectation that the library director become a de facto member of the advancement office, writing grants in order to make a living. And it is difficult to get grants that will support your personnel needs, at least on a permanent basis.

So I find myself comparing my departmental needs to those of other campus departments. Does it profit a library if it has staff members, but they all break their necks walking in to work because there is no one to salt the sidewalks? (A genuine concern this winter.) Can adding a cataloger contribute more to student recruitment than adding another person in enrollment? These, however, are false comparisons and cannot answer that fundamental question, "How much staffing is enough?" The answer to this question has to be guided by mission, both at a campus level and at the library level. Adequate library staffing has to grow out of the integration of library services with the overall campus mission.

Which means that this posting is not really about library staffing--it is about library assessment. Having just lived through our joint accreditation visit from ATS and HLC, I am acutely aware that assessing our library's performance requires much more than just counting books and borrowers. I am encouraged that ATLA is taking a look at updating the annual statistics form reported to both ATLA and ATS. We need to be collecting data that tells us how well we are doing at supporting our campus missions. Do we have sufficient library staff to get the job done and to do it well? While there are not any magical formulas to help answer that question, posing the question in these terms will hopefully move us closer to coming up with useful answers about library staffing.