Workflow Automation in Technical Services: Part 1

Note: This is part one of a two part series on workflow automation in Technical Services. Part one will cover the what and process of workflow automation and an example of an item level workflow automation process. Part two will discuss batch level workflow automation and resources/tools for workflow automation.

The mysterious door at the library

Door leading into Technical Services

Photo by author

A majority of you might have passed by this door many times in your library lives. Sometimes it isn’t even a door; maybe a room divider, or an invisible line that runs across the room. In any case, you may have ventured into the space called “Technical Services” (or a similar name), but do you know what goes on there? For most libraries, Technical Services staff acquire, create, and maintain access to library materials, spanning from books and a box of rocks to various electronic databases and digitized local collections. Without them, it would be hard for a library to serve its users: no physical items to borrow, no electronic journals to search for articles, and no metadata in the library discovery layer for users and staff to search for those resources. With the variety of items come a variety of workflows to process those items, many of which are repeated at various intervals: some once a week while others repeated multiple times a day. Staff time and resources are spoken for every time a workflow is repeated. Every time a workflow is manually repeated, less time and resources can be spent on other projects or on new projects that would add value to existing collections or add new collections for library users to use. Technology provides a variety of strategies for workflow automation that reduce time spent on repetitive workflows.

What is workflow automation?

The oversimplified answer to this question is that workflow automation is the process where you have the computer do the things that it can be programmed to do, thereby reducing repetitive manual actions by the staff member.

There are two types of automation to consider when you look at your workflows:

  1. Data Entry: This type of automation is fairly straight forward, and you’ve probably already done this type of automation already without realizing it. For example, the automation script completes a form with data that remains the same for each form or types out standard text in an email being sent to a vendor. Useful for automating repetitive keystrokes, be it system codes, text, or even creating new documents in certain applications, such as an item recor. The automation script is hard-coded, meaning that the output of that script will be the same every time you run it.
  2. Decision Making: This type of automation makes all the decisions for you! Okay, while it won’t make every decision for you, several automation languages and programs can handle fairly complex decision making flowcharts using standard conditionals. For example, if bibliographic record “A” has field “B”, then do action ”C”; else do action “D”. As you probably already guessed, this type of automation resembles coding to a certain extent. The automation script that is designed to deal with several possible outcomes is not hard-coded like the data entry script described above.

What can be automated?

Most Technical Services departments acquire, create, and maintain access to a variety of different formats, from physical to electronic formats. Traditionally, workflows focus on the individual item going through the department and its various teams: acquisitions, cataloging, and processing, for example. With the changeover to electronic formats, workflows are going more towards a batch approach, processing and/or cataloging multiple items (for example, a collection of ebooks) at once.

In addition to adding materials to library collections, a library’s Technical Services staff do a fair amount of database maintenance for the library’s ILS (Integrated Library System). The term “dirty data” is thrown around the TS departments, covering database projects dealing with misspellings, outdated codes, or incorrect codes – anything that could inhibit a library user’s access to the resource.

Why should I automate my workflows?

  • Better quality control of workflow and data. Any time you let a human near a workflow, errors can be introduced into a workflow: incorrect codes, mistyped text, or mishandled items. Having an automated workflow cuts down on the workflow’s fail points and allow for better overall consistency and accuracy.
  • Save staff time.  You and your staff spend a good amount of time with repetitive keystrokes and decisions. Even small repetitive actions add up during the work day, resulting in hours of valuable staff time and resources. By automating the repetitive actions, you free up staff time to work on more complex workflows which are not as easily automated.

How do you decide what workflows to automate?

  • Flowchart your workflow.  A simple flowchart from the beginning of the workflow to the end might reveal several places where current manual decision making can be relegated to a script. If a person is currently looking for a code in the order record to figure out what location code they should enter in the item record, the script could be set to do the same.
  • What are the patterns? In each step, what data remains constant throughout all items? What codes, phrases, or fields do you insert every time you go through the workflow? Is there a pattern of going from one application to another at the same point in every workflow? One record to another?
  • How will the script access the data? Working with a file of MARC records will be different than working with a bibliographic record that is open in your ILS. Having a file of data is easier, but if you’re automating an item-level workflow, you will be dealing with windows that you have to work with. Getting data from a window can be tricky; sometimes you are able to access the data directly, and other times you will have to scrape the screen to get to the data that you want to work on with the script.

Example: Receipt Cataloging

At my former place of work, Technical Services had three levels of cataloging: receipt cataloging, copy cataloging, and original cataloging. All monographs would go through the receipt cataloging process, with items being bumped to the two higher levels of cataloging. The majority of items that go through receipt cataloging, having met a list of 40+ criteria, are fast-tracked to physical processing, shortening the time between the item arriving at the library to being placed on the shelf, which is the overreaching goal of receipt cataloging. The criteria range from determining if the record is DLC (Library of Congress) to determining if the 008, 050, and 260 ‡c dates match in the bibliographic record (if not a conference publication).

Given that the criteria and the decision making flowchart are fairly standard and straightforward, this workflow was built with automation in mind. My predecessor used Macro Express (ME) for the first version of the receipt cataloging macros. When we got to the point where we were bumping up against ME’s limits, I migrated the macros to AutoIt, where I was able to include many more quality control checks on the bibliographic and item records.

Below is a screencast where I walk through the receipt cataloging process. If I wasn’t explaining what was happening, the whole process would have taken a minute and 10 seconds to complete, a couple of seconds more if the item was bumped to another team in the department. Compared to a five minute turnaround time if our staff manually checked every criteria, the macros allows the department to go through more items during the day with better quality control.

Bonus Example: Ordering from GOBI

Another workflow at my former place of work involved ordering monographs from GOBI. The workflow, unlike receipt cataloging, have a lot more complex decision making flowchart and more exceptions. While I could not automate on the level of receipt cataloging, there were still patterns and routines that I could automate, such as searching the library catalog with information supplied by GOBI, and determining which codes to enter in the 949 field in the OCLC record (for exporting into our database).

Below is a screencast that shows a part of the notification ordering automation script set.

Preview for Part 2

In this post, I covered more of the item level workflow automation possibilities. More of Technical Services workflows, however, are changing towards dealing with many items at once. In part 2, I will discuss some examples of batch process automation and several tools (including those mentioned in this post) that can assist in making life easier in Technical Services.


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