Friday 5 April 2013

In praise of the Mundane.

I keep hearing in library circles the phrase 'mundane tasks' used especially in relation to self serve;

"Communicate to your staff that self-checkout allows them more time to provide personalized assistance and customer service to patrons when it is genuinely needed, instead of spending their valuable time on the mundane tasks at the circulation desk."

"With self-service machines taking on mundane tasks, staff are freed up to improve service in other areas."

"Taking routine, mundane tasks away from skilled staff frees them up to deal with more complex enquiries."

"Added value - library staff can spend more time helping the public rather than the mundane task of booking items in and out."

You get the drift.

What are these 'mundane tasks' and should we be 'freed up' from them?

Library work has always had at it's foundations a host of small, methodical jobs that combined not only contribute to the smooth running of the service but also teach library staff their trade. In the morning, throughout the working day and at closing we all have a list of tasks that need to be done in order that we can do what we do. To me these tasks have a contemplative almost meditational quality, I used to love filing amendments into loose leaf volumes and hand writing hundreds of cards for the beautiful wooden catalogue cabinets.

Some of the more interactive tasks are done at the circulation desk, someone returning or borrowing a book might get into a conversation with a member of library staff about the book, this personal interation is key to what we do and who we are, and herein lies the problem, an ever increasing amount of libraries have either removed or reduced their desks and have either removed or reduced their paid staff. I've also had front line library staff tell me that their managers don't like them talking to the users too much, which I'm sure you will agree raises serious ethical and professional issues.

I know that a lot of front line library staff are very concerned about this and feel that they are being de-skilled and the relationship that they have built up over the years with users and local community is being eroded.

Don't get me wrong I'm not saying that staff should spend all their time doing these tasks, it's very important for staff development and morale/motivation that staff are given a wide spectrum of responsibilities and roles and I'm not saying that we should not embrace new technology, of course we should, although with a caveat that it is relevant and needed, all i am saying is that we all, too varying degrees, learn our 'trade' through attention to detail, being methodical and performing essential 'mundane tasks'.

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