Many Hands Make Libraries Work

On the main floor of the Theology and Ministry Library (TML), tucked away beyond the stairs leading to the third floor, is a separate section of stacks that is home to the TML’s collection of bound journals and serials. Reflective of the TML’s history, this collection is a mix of theological serials entrusted to the library by Weston Jesuit College, Saint John’s Seminary, and Boston College. For the first ten years of the library’s existence, this collection remained a bit of a mystery for both patrons and staff. Unlike the stacks on the second floor, this collection was shelved alphabetically by title and lacked barcodes, accurate records, or summary holdings. Needless to say, this collection caused numerous problems: “Do I look for The Way under T or under W?” “Do I pay attention to the contraction le in the title L’histoire…?” “Do you have issue 4, volume 2 from 2011 of The Journal of Ancient Judaism?”

These questions weren’t always easily answered and often resulted in staff physically going over to the stacks and attempting to find a volume or serial title. And every time I asked myself, “There must be a better way to organize this, right?” In time, I began voicing my questions and asking many more follow up questions; mostly of our cataloger Larry Busenbark. With his generous assistance and endless patience, I began forming a project that would reorganize the bound journal section completely.

In the Spring of 2018, with the blessings of our newly appointed Head Librarian, Steve Dalton, I began the preliminary planning and organization phases. This project would be absolutely huge, with over 40,000 items and hundreds of records that needed to be examined. We needed to correct and/or import records for every serial title, barcode every volume, label every volume with a call number, and update the summary holdings of every serial. The goal was for patrons and staff to definitively know which volumes we had of which titles and exactly where they were located.

I had only been at the TML for a little over a year and aside from doing some library page work as a teenager I had never worked in libraries before. But I did have over a decade of experience in supervision and project management in various settings. Perhaps I should have felt daunted by the sheer complexity and volume of the work I was proposing; after all, this project would essentially be reorganizing almost 20% of the TML’s total collection. Maybe being innocent of the technical details worked in my favor. More than anything I was excited to bring order to that wilderness of information.

Six book carts full of periodical volumes await processing in TML, next to a window with a view of trees.
Periodicals await processing at the Theology & Ministry Library

Work began on this project in May 2018. At first it was just me hidden among the stacks, scrutinizing the pontific serial Acta Apostolicae Sedis in the hushed silence of an infrequently used section. Soon I had three student workers assigned to assist me. And then I was assigned three more. And before the first six months of the project had elapsed, I had almost the entire student staff of the TML helping me with “The Bound Journal Project.”

When I was initially planning this project, I had originally created a system that would be folded into my ongoing daily tasks. With the introduction of the students, it became a true project and I became the project manager. As such, I felt that it was my priority to make the work clear, accessible, and streamlined for the students. I immediately rewrote half of the procedures to make them more student-friendly.  

With almost two dozen student workers, there were of course various levels of comfort with technology and library concepts. Furthermore, many of our student workers are international students who are often multilingual and have varying comfort levels with English.  I wanted to build a project culture to make every one of them feel a sense of shared responsibility and comfort.  This was a project that would operate on confidence, clear communication, and respect.  With the students working on the project, most of my time was spent training them as well as checking their work, answering questions, and correcting mistakes.  But a significant portion of my time was spent listening to them, encouraging them, and celebrating their work.  This was, for me, the most crucial part of this project.

The student response to this project was astounding!  Serials are an absolute quagmire of languages, standards, and exceptions; the rule of thumb is that there is no rule of thumb. Questions for me came thick and fast every day. But the students quickly began to turn this project into something beyond my highest hopes. Students were helping each other freely, taking the initiative when they felt they could, and only asking me for help when they felt they needed to. They eagerly discussed technical details of serials in between their classes, they prided themselves on catching mistakes I had made, and they laughed with me at how sometimes a serial made absolutely no sense at all. I was so proud to see that it had become very much their project as much as mine.

We finished the Bound Journals Project on February, 21st 2020: 645 days after we started. Over the course of 1200 hours, 26 student workers barcoded and labeled 42,107 volumes. 1,454 unique serial titles had their records corrected, updated, or imported and had their summary holdings updated. Several hundred records were removed from our online catalog due to duplication.

During the summer of 2020, my colleague Michael McGrath and a few student workers shifted the entire collection so that it is now shelved according to LC call number order. The result is a collection that is represented accurately in the BC catalog, more easily browsed, and has usage data that can be tracked (thanks to the barcodes). The impact on ILL requests is yet to be studied and–with the increase of ILL requests due to the current pandemic–it may be a while before we can quantify the benefits.  However, the immediate benefits are that items are easier to find, easier to discover, and in call number order like the rest of the BC libraries.

While I admit that my previous experience with managing projects was a great benefit to this project, it could not have come to fruition without the unfailing assistance and confidence of the TML staff (and Larry) and the passion, dedication, and hard work of our student workers.  Months later, I still wander the bound journals section of the TML in quiet awe of how a small group of students, in only two years, completely reorganized almost one-fifth of the library to benefit generations of future students.

Cody Mansley

Reference & Collection Development Assistant, Theology & Ministry Library