The Faces of Circulation

Staff attitudes can slight their centrality to library operations

December 29, 2009


What is the recipe for creating a circulation worker? You add three or four able-bodied individuals, one tablespoon of a circulation study guide, bake for about one month of trial-by-fire on-the-desk  experience, and you have what is called the circulation worker.

As a former circulation worker who ultimately became a reference librarian (in other words, I was just passing through the department), I find myself compelled to vent on the lack of respect shown to  circulation workers.

 Inviolate boundaries

Judging by the attitudes held by some reference staff at my library (conscious or not), circulation workers and the circulation desk may as well have gone by the moniker “dummy worker” or “dummy desk.” Why? There were clear boundaries set between circulation and reference, both stated in the job handbook and observed tacitly. Circulation workers were not to provide assistance to patrons unless questions were directional in nature or related to a circulation-oriented function like a basic library  catalog search. Crossing that line resulted in stern looks from some reference staff, followed by a review of duties administered by the supervisor. Yet reference staff could freely roam around the circulation desk performing that department’s duties, whether circulation staff were present or not, without reproach.

These attitudes lead to the work of circulation being deemed simple or far below the level of tasks a professional librarian should stoop to. In Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver analyzed the relationship between whites and blacks as the physical body being metaphorically representative of the black man, whereas the white man represented the brain. Similarly, circulation seemingly represents the physical being—that is, the lifting and shelving of heavy loads from book and media carts. Certainly the brain is not used in these duties, right? The reference desk, in turn, is symbolic of the cerebral, being the turf of those with a vast knowledge base and the cognitive abilities to locate sources in the library, perform the reference interview, and offer readers’ advisory.

Delivery problems

The problem in all of this is less in the message itself—different departments obviously have different responsibilities—but in how that message is delivered. One type of worker should not be treated as   inferior because the nature of the work varies.

Circulation work is not solely limited to physical duties. It represents the first point of contact for most library users. The location of the circulation desk is generally nearest to the entrance doors. Circulation workers can set the tone for the manner of customer service that patrons can expect to receive at other service desks in the library.

Technology central

Circulation workers are also technologically savvy. Integrated library systems, scanning machinery, theft systems, and robotic retrieval systems are all part of the technology used in various circulation  departments. The skills needed to operate these systems are department-specific but are just as central  to the daily operations of the library as reference or special collections.

The list can go on. The main point is that every position in the library is necessary to help all workers  perform their job efficiently. Circulation staff are valuable to the service of a library and should be  treated that way.


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