June 21, 2018

“You’re Not Special” Revisited

Almost five years ago to the day, I wrote a piece titled “You’re Not Special”. In it, I championed the idea of routinizing common library workflows so that staff could be reallocated to services that directly impact end-users.

At ALA Annual in Anaheim, which just ended, I had occasion to refer to that piece again. As a panelist in the LITA “Ultimate Debate” program titled “Cloud Computing: Floating or Free Falling?,” I was trying to make the point that one potential impact of cloud computing that gets very little attention is that we will likely either be cajoled or forced into limiting local customizations of common library tasks. And that, I assert, is a good thing.

This is because we have allowed ourselves, in the age of locally-installed and maintained computer systems, to indulge our urge to control and tinker. The upshot of this activity has, at least in a number of cases, led to lengthy, complicated processes that have only dubious impact on end-user interaction. The only thing less apparent to end-users than our tinkerings are the staff members performing those actions. Most of these staff members have long been secreted behind “Staff Only” doors, never to be seen by the people they serve.

Yes, I am aware that some libraries require staff to both serve the public as well as perform back office duties, but those libraries are the exceptions that prove the rule. The scenario depicted above is far more likely in most libraries today.

The future I want is one where back office functions (acquiring materials, checking them in, making them available, circulating them, etc.) are all as automated and automatic as we can possibly make them so we can spend more time actually serving our clientele. As I said in the previous piece:

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you’re less special than you think. We are all doing many of the same things, mostly in our own idiosyncratic ways, and we need to stop it. We need to become much more efficient than we are today — both individually and collectively so we can better meet our goals and fulfill our missions. It’s time to get over our uniqueness and start getting seriously in tune with our sameness.

Only once we have done that can we really focus all of our energies on creating unique and useful ways to make our operations essential to the organizations we serve. We may be five years on, but that has only made it more imperative.


Photo by Janet Galore, Creative Commons License By-SA 2.0

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Reference librarians do their best work with the best tools. Therefore, a catalog with detailed information about the library’s holdings is needed to find information efficiently. So as a librarian who works with the public daily, I appreciate the staff working in those “staff only” rooms. They don’t interact with the public face to face, but their work streamlines my job and improves the library experiences of the public.
    I wish that more libraries could work “in our own idiosyncratic ways” to serve our equally idiosyncratic communities. Let’s change the negatively charged word,”ideosyncratic” to “diverse” — and appreciate that we are more special than Mr. Tennant believes.