Sustainable Service Models

Tips for libraries undergoing structural shifts

May 1, 2023

Headshot of Jess Williams

Academic libraries in the US have shifted service models over the years for several reasons. Rapid changes in technology play a large role, but other external factors—like budget cuts and institutional needs—also drive evolution. As new skillsets are identified and positions created, leaders can also introduce new frameworks.

Many academic libraries have pivoted away from subject-based or discipline-based liaison models, which have traditionally relied on designated staffers to build relationships with faculty and act as points of contact for specific services. They are now switching to team-based models that prioritize functions like teaching, learning, research support, outreach, and collection strategies. The idea is if librarians divide functional tasks and focus on fewer types of work, staffers can improve service and feel less overwhelmed.

Some libraries are also adopting hybrid models. My institution is an example of this. We reassigned librarians to liaise with specific colleges rather than individual departments, shifted collection development duties to the collections department, and brought in more support for outreach and communication. We are also developing new skills, expanding digital resources, and practicing open pedagogy.

These kinds of changes can be difficult. As a millennial librarian who has worked in various types of institutions, I have experienced a handful of library reorganizations. For academic libraries on the precipice of changing service models, here’s some advice I can offer leaders.

As new skillsets are identified and positions created, leaders can also introduce new frameworks.

Be strategic. Before onboarding staff or creating new positions, thoroughly review job descriptions and be clear with expectations once employees start. Make it obvious to candidates that creating the job is part of the job. Keep duties broad and annual goals specific to make evolution more organic.

Center labor equity. Revisit your pay and promotion structure. Is it applied equitably across the organization? Do you rely on soft money or temporary positions? Are you unintentionally cursing the hardest-working with more work than others? Are diversity and representation involved in decision making?

Protect learning time for employees. Library workers are generally curious folks who love to learn. Provide professional development opportunities, affinity groups, and time for self-directed learning to foster an energized, creative staff.

Cross-train core functions. Stories of employee burnout have been widely reported. Ensure service models are sustainable by equipping a larger number of staffers to perform essential duties. Rotate shifts so that everyone receives time to engage in deep, uninterrupted work.

Build infrastructure. Setting a foundation for new services is essential for scaling up, succession planning, and sustainability. Dedicating time to creating transparent documentation and workflows will prevent frustration and bottlenecks later.

Resist vocational awe and toxic positivity. Librarian and scholar Fobazi Ettarh defined vocational awe as the mindset that an institution or career is inherently good, “therefore beyond critique.” Be authentic, hold team members accountable, and cultivate a culture of genuine encouragement. This also means recognizing invisible labor, particularly for those in public-facing roles who exert greater emotional energy.

Embrace saying “no.” Offering new services may mean cutting others. You may need to let old functions go, outsource processes, or move initiatives in a new direction.

Create opportunities for experimentation and failure. If a decision can be easily reversed, make it fast and move forward. Remove punitive consequences for failure and add incentives for innovation.

These strategies will enable your organization not only to adapt and respond to the needs of the institution but also to grow into a proactive library that moves your university or college forward.


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