Getting back to printed books

Over the last few weeks, some members of CAL, the Collections and Academic Liaison department, have started working back in our South Wing 1 office in the main University Library.  Our work so far has needed to focus solely on the tasks agreed by the ominous PORG – the Print Operations Recovery Group.  What has this meant in practice?

The ‘Rukhnama’ (see end of post)

Since March, when my colleagues and I had last been in the building, large amounts of books we had ordered before lockdown had arrived.  The question was how to deal with this impressively enormous physical backlog.

Pid chuzhymy praporamy (C206.d.4424)

Normally, bought books pass through the hands of our colleagues in the Materials Processing department, who unpack parcels, deal with invoices, date-stamp the books and barcode them, and then they come to CAL for full cataloguing where possible and for classification, before going either straight to the shelf with a pre-printed label (for classes like the borrowable C200s) or to the labellers for a specific label (chiefly for open-shelf books).

With low staffing levels imposed by rules about maximum occupancy in offices, we needed to come up with a workflow that helped Materials Processing get through the backlog (in whose office the mountains of parcels had piled up) without it simply turning immediately into a CAL backlog.  Yet we did need to handle each book, to “unsuppress” each title’s entry in iDiscover at the very least, but we also needed to bear in mind that labelling staff had been assigned to reader-facing work during this recovery phase.

Pravoslavna TSerkva v Ukraini (C216.c.4098)

What we came up with was a workflow that would see books pushed where possible to the main classes whose classmark labels were pre-printed (C200s for borrowable books, S950 for non-borrowable), with physical processing the emphasis of the office-based part of the workflow and catalogue improvement (done by checking for better records for the same books in other catalogues such as OCLC WorldCat) the emphasis of the home-based part.  We also took on part of the work of Materials Processing for some material, to give them a bit more breathing space and to allow them to focus on other tasks such as fishing out from the parcels any new arrivals that had been requested by a reader to ensure as rapid a turnaround as possible.  Ultimately, our PORG workflow ensures that new books are getting into iDiscover as quickly as possible and can be used via one of the UL’s recovery services.

For readers keen on the details of library work, the full workflow is here.  In practice, each of us has gradually found a pattern we can settle into.  Yesterday, for example, I dealt with about 30 Ukrainian books that had been put aside for me, and I found that I did the work most effectively in batches, doing the barcoding work for all of them first while at the same time separating them into class- and size-specific groups to be tackled in turn for the rest of the process.

Kuchma – prezydent : desi︠a︡tʹ rokiv systemnykh peretvorenʹ (C206.d.4422)

In normal times, this kind of approach would be frustrating for us to take because it requires some pretty repetitive work for a department used to using its brain more and it separates cataloguing work from the handling of the physical book.  Such are the times, though, and it is at least satisfying to see scores of books go off to the shelves each day.

This kind of intensely practical approach is part of all librarians’ plans for bringing services back.  And if we thought the backlog of newly bought books was bad, the Legal Deposit backlog was quite something else! – and that was the case even though the Legal Deposit Agency itself stopped deliveries to the Legal Deposit Libraries for several months.

I should end by mentioning the books whose covers provide illustrations here.  They are largely the recent Ukrainian publications I processed yesterday.  The two-volume set shown at the top, though, was a reader request which my Russian supplier and I had struggled for some time to track down a copy of, either in the original Turkmen or in English or in Russian (she eventually managed to procure a Russian copy).  This is Rukhnama, the thoughts of the late Turkmen president Turkmenbashi, published first as a stand-alone book and later joined by a second volume.  I am extremely grateful to the student who recommended it.  The bizarre and dark story of the Rukhnama is quite fascinating (Wikipedia gives a pretty good summary), and I am glad that the UL has now got a copy.  It stands at C216.c.4095-4096.

Mel Bach (hlgb2@cam.ac.uk for any questions)

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