Digital and the changing role of front-line library staff

Subject Specialists Lis Parcell and Scott Hibberson presented two workshops for the M25 consortium. Both workshops explored how digital has affected front-line library staff, from the perspective of front-line staff themselves and their managers.

Member of front-line staffThe M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries is a collaborative organisation. They work to improve library and information services within the M25 region and more widely across the East and Southeast.

How is digital impacting on front-line staff?

The first workshop looked at the challenges front-line staff face and how their role has changed. For many students, the first perception they have of the university is via front-line staff.

First impressions matter, which makes the front-line role a key one in creating a positive student experience.

What is your digital superpower?

We started by looking at the front-line service through a digital lens. Asking the questions: How are you currently using digital? How does it impact on your role? What areas of digital capability do you need to develop? This all helped to inform the second workshop, aimed at managers and how they could best support their staff.

Jisc’s digital capability framework was useful to help frame the discussions. Participants shared their digital superpower via a Google Jamboard. We used the term ‘superpower’ because it’s important to recognise that front-line library staff have often been the ones at the sharp end during the last eighteen months or so.

Whilst many academic staff moved to remote working, much of the enquiry/help desk functions still had to be staffed. The added pressures of the pandemic meant that people working in this role experienced an increase in support requests. The range of enquiries also became more varied and often went beyond the scope of what is perceived to fall within the library sphere.

Sample superpowers

Here’s a sample of the superpowers taken from the Google Jamboard:-

  • ICT (digital) proficiency – The use of ICT-based tools to carry out tasks effectively, productively and with attention to quality cut across many roles. For front-line staff this often included maintaining databases of enquiries to log and report responses as well as use Office based packages to create reading lists and guidance for students.
  • Information, data and media literacies – There are multiple platforms and software for front-line staff to navigate to support students with their studies. These range from bespoke in-house systems to more specialised reading list management software (e.g. Leganto).
  • Digital creation – Front-line staff also played a key role in raising awareness amongst the student body about the broader lines of support open to them across the institituion. For some staff this involved created digital signage, posters and promotional material using specialist digital publishing software.
  • Digital communication, collaboration and participation – Many staff reported on the blurring of the definition of the front-line role and how they often had to signpost to other areas of support within the institution. For example, library staff often have links with student services for student counselling support and other enrichment activities. They may also have to refer students to other members of the library team for more in-depth study support. This makes communication software, such as live chat, platforms like Microsoft Teams and social media key development areas.
  • Digital identity and wellbeing – In a front-line role the breadth of digital information managed can, at times, be overwhelming. We can be quite unforgiving with ourselves when we don’t always have the depth of technical know-how when it comes to using digital platforms. A message of being kinder to ourselves resonated, along with strategies for mitigating digital overload. The M25 consortium of libraries also have their own wellbeing resources for library staff.

Useful Resources

Our thanks to the M25 consortium for inviting us to their CPD day. It was a really productive day and a good opportunity for front-line staff and their managers to reflect on emerging practice.

Watch this space for a future post from Lis with her reflections from the event too! We have compiled a list of useful resources from both workshops if you’d like to find out more.

By Scott Hibberson

Subject Specialist (Online learning) at Jisc.

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