Monday, 19 November 2012

The back room and the back office

We are hearing a lot these days about the "back office". Everywhere you look, "efficiencies" are being achieved by slimming down the functions of the back office - that is, that part of an organisation which does not deal directly (face-to-face) with customers and clients, or taxpayers. (I was amused, when looking at a few websites as background for this post, to find that I couldn't view some of them in my local library as they don't make it through the local government firewall. The blocking is a bit arbitrary though: the most well-known - or notorious, depending on your point of view - UK-based outsourcing firms are not blocked).

"An alternative to hiring locally" is how one company advertises itself. Pause to consider that for a moment, and wonder just how any politician could ever recommend such a thing to his/her constituents. Pay, possibly with public money, to send work somewhere else, into someone else's economy (India, in the case of that company)? Bring this down to local level, and you are actually talking about the employment prospects of people you may know (and who have a vote) - and you are talking about impoverishing your own neighbourhood, as people without jobs cannot support local businesses, and some of them will need help in the form of benefits paid by taxing those who remain in employment. In Wales, this point appears to be at least partly understood and acted upon in the awarding of government contracts: it remains to be seen whether this idea will flourish.

I have worked in both the iniquitous "back office" and in the more immediately public parts of libraries. (I'm trying to avoid using the term "front line" here - it seems antagonistic and not an expression we should be using in terms of our relationship with the public - but I'm afraid that it's a very common term in this context!) I know that I depend on things happening successfully behind the scenes to make the "public" part of my job work well, and it is sad to see that the back office is seen as an inefficient encumbrance merely because it is hidden from view. (Is that the problem? Perhaps people don't really believe in the value of things they can't see happening?)

Capita is one of several well-known firms who offer not only to achieve efficiency in this area, but also, note, to "improve the end user experience" by doing so. The implication is that the users will be better off without your own in-house way of doing things (and your expensive staff with their long-standing employment rights). This is not very pleasant for a cataloguer to read, but if you're not one you might very well think that's fine. In which case, why stop there? Information Literacy in academic libraries might be a good candidate for outsourcing, when you consider it. Qualified teachers working for an agency (which could be one of the same well-known outsourcing firms) could do the work with more consistency across subjects than subject librarians, and less duplication of effort. (I'm not particularly advocating it myself, just playing devil's advocate and idly wondering whether the reaction to outsourcing might be rather different if it affected people in a more visible role).

The High Visibility Cataloguing blog is one step towards improving the general awareness of what cataloguers do in that mysterious and much-maligned "back office", encouraging cataloguers to emerge and engage, where possible, with the wider library community and beyond.

All larger workplaces have an element of hidden or "invisible" support. There used generally to be far more of these roles: those who have been around for a while will remember that at one time typing was confined to those who had qualifications in it. The back office has been shrinking for a long time. And the back room? A different thing entirely! Possibly not shrinking, but definitely has fewer cataloguers!

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