Pathfinder Tim Collins: Providing the Expertise for What You See on Our Shelves!

Pathfinder is a series of blogs about intrepid library staff who are leading interesting programs that you may not yet know about.

Librarian Tim Collins did not start his career as a librarian.  His first job was as an auditor.

Tim tells me that his time as an auditor, though unsatisfying after a time, provided him with the skills he needed to prepare spreadsheets, which are necessary in his work today.

Seeing the need for a career shift, Tim earned his Master in Library and Information Science at San José State University.

Finding more fulfillment as a librarian, Tim says:

"I’m much happier as a librarian than I was as an auditor.  As a librarian, I help people in a more direct way than I did as an auditor.  However, in my position I still make use of my spreadsheet skills.  Plus, tracking skills, seeing how things work."

Tim has had fulfilling extracurricular activities, outside of his library work.  He spent six personally-fulfilling years in community theater.  Talented at acting, a local reporter said of Tim, “One player, Tim Collins, demonstrated a comedic timing and ability beyond the scope offered by his part.”  However, Tim's time as an actor was cut short.  Since the Library is often open during rehearsal hours, he needed to give up his aspirations as a community theater actor.  These days, Tim calls himself "a frustrated actor."  Still, Tim practices his theatricality when he occasionally performs storytimes for the Library, or otherwise is called on to teach or speak publicly.

Today, Tim is a vital part of Technical Services at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in downtown San José.

Tim Finds Fulfillment in the Library's Technical Services Department

You might wonder what the Technical Services Department does.  This vital behind the scenes department includes Celine Lee, whom I spotlighted a few months ago in the Cataloging Department.  In addition, Tim would like to recognize other members of his team, including:  Austin Carrell in the Cataloging Department, Kelly Hubbard in Receiving, Gina Willson in Periodicals, and Laura Martinez in Accounting.  The Technical Services Department is responsible for "ordering, receiving, recording, accounting and cataloging materials" prior to materials reaching your hands.

Tim works in the section that is responsible for ordering those materials that you eventually find in our catalog.  Specifically, he orders adult non-fiction materials.

Originally, Tim worked at the library branches.  I have known Tim for a number of years and have noticed that he is always learning and sharing his knowledge with others.  Sometime before he started his current position, Tim:

"volunteered for and subsequently acquired the duty of “Branch Reference Selector” when the librarian who formerly had that duty retired.  As the new Branch Reference Selector, I visited all the branches and spent time with a fellow librarian based at the branch I visited, going through their reference collection one book by one.  So that was my first taste of the sort of work that Technical Services does."

A Library manager, the late Mary Nacu, noted Tim's talent at selection and encouraged him to apply for a position in the Technical Services Department.

Since Tim has been reporting at various staff meetings over the years, library staff have become more informed and appreciative of the Technical Services Department.

As a selector, Tim's selections depend upon the amount of money allocated to adult non-fiction materials.

The Budget

Tim makes an analogy to the heart as an organ to explain the role of the Technical Services Department within the structure of the Library.  He says of the Technical Services Department,

"We are a behind-the-scenes department as far as the general public is concerned. But then, biologically speaking, the beating heart is also an unseen organ as far as what the general public sees. I tend to think of our Technical Services department as the beating heart of the library.

We’re the department that takes the materials budget that the City of San José taxpayers have entrusted to us, and we acquire materials for the library. We have various book selectors who have various specialties. My area of selection is general adult nonfiction. I look at purchase candidates provided to me, that is, books due to be published in the coming few months, and given the budget over which I’m the steward, I decide how many copies San Jose Public Library will acquire, and at which branches the copies will be housed."

When librarian selectors like Tim are selecting materials to hold within our libraries, they consider their job to be stewards: their entrusted roles are very serious and weighty.  The City of San José's taxpayers have provided funds for the Library to purchase materials.  This is a significant and powerful responsibility that lies upon their shoulders.  The City's taxpayers are trusting material selectors to choose items that they want and need on the library shelves.  Selectors have to be certain that what they buy will be considered useful and valuable to the City's taxpayers.  Here are a few examples that selectors must consider:

  • The choice to purchase one title might mean that another title is not chosen.
  • A very expensive title, might preclude the purchase of many other titles.  However, if the expensive title is needed, then other less-needed titles may have to wait for a future time period when the budget allows those purchases.
  • The purchase of less expensive materials that cover subjects that may be popular for only a certain period allows a selector to purchase more materials elsewhere.

Therefore, selectors like Tim must weigh the costs and benefits of each item that they purchase for the libraries.

Each selector is given a portion of the purchasing budget based upon the Materials Budget Allocation document.

Tim tells me,

"This is so we split up the overall materials budget in a way that's connected to statistics, mostly circulation statistics, justifying the amount that we allocate to this area of the collection, that area of the collection, etc.

Starting in the latter part of June, most of the month of July, and sometimes spilling into August, I spend a great deal of time crunching numbers, and putting documents together that are arranged the same way and hence can readily tie into the budget allocation document."

Tim's manager, Sharon Fung, uses the documents that Tim provides to justify purchases for certain items.  Tim utilizes his auditing skills to condense the immense amount of statistical information into a readable format.

The purchasing decision can best be described as part of the purchasing process.

The Purchasing Process

Generally, Tim reports the following as the purchasing process:

"My colleagues in Technical Services place the orders with our contractual material vendors, they receive and record the materials as they come in, they account for the materials, and they catalogue the materials so the general public sees them, knows we have them, and can request them or otherwise come in to the library and borrow them. Having a good collection on the shelves is nice. Having a good collection in the hands of our customers, the taxpayers whom we serve, is better!

As the beating heart and the blood supply carries vital nutrients to all corners of the human body, so the Technical Services department acquires the library materials and gets them out to the library branches the books, DVDs, CDs, electronic materials and similar that our public wants and demands. People look to the library to provide materials to satisfy their educational and entertainment needs. When customers make purchase suggestions, it’s the selectors, especially the selectors within the Technical Services unit who see and act on suggestions. We’re not able to purchase some items, for example things that are out of print, but speaking personally I probably do purchase a majority of what customers ask for. But again, we are kind of an unseen function. The general public does not have a view, by and large, of what we do. So our direct customers with whom our department in general and me in particular tends to deal with, are our fellow San José Public Library staff, who in turn interact with customers."

Tim and his colleagues receive selection suggestion inputs from various sources:

  • The Library has contractual relationships with several vendors.  Tim says that the "vendor he personally works with the most is Baker and Taylor" and the second is Ingram.  These vendors send lists of suggestions, which are also known as "carts," to the selectors.  Tim says that he receives them every two weeks.  These lists contain "upcoming books," which are books that will be published up to six months from the date sent.  Tim says that he usually buys most of the titles by denoting how many copies he wants and which branches will house those titles.
  • If Tim already has a subject or topic that he sees will be needed, he will search for items on the vendors' sites.
  • Tim and other selectors also receive suggestions from you through the feature called “Suggest a Purchase” on our website. He says, "weekly, the Library's Web Team sends us selectors a recap of customer suggestions. We selectors go through this recap. We like to honor customer requests, but it isn’t always possible."
  • The Library's catalog will also show titles that have more holds than our inventory can sustain.  He and the other selectors use the overflow list of requests to determine whether they should reorder more of the same title.

One of the most important outputs for the Technical Services Department is the statistical report.  Statistical reports are valuable because they show others how well the Library is doing.  Tim says that his manager and other Technical Services staff are also required to provide statistical reports to various people upon request.  This is when Tim's accounting background is extremely useful, as his excellent spreadsheet skills are often required.

Here is a list of some of the requestors of statistical reports:

  • Library upper management
  • City Hall representatives
  • California State Library

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below!