Outsourcing: time for a new look?

By Sarah Menzies

Sarah Menzies from Wheelers Books explores the benefits that specialist library suppliers offer to school libraries.

Outsourcing – the contracting out of some functions to an outside supplier – was once hotly debated in library literature. More recently it has become widely accepted that some or all public libraries’ cataloguing and physical processing will be outsourced, although the same cannot be said of school libraries.

Although school libraries in Australia and New Zealand use the services of SCIS for cataloguing, they have been slow to take up services offered by specialist library suppliers. Reasons given are that budgets of school libraries are too small, and that their collections must be tailored to the individual school communities in which they operate. This may have led to an expectation that benefits from the use of specialist suppliers will not be on the same scale as those achieved by public libraries.

Why reconsider specialist library suppliers?

The specialist library supply market has matured to the point that many of the time and cost benefits may now apply at least equally to public and school libraries.

Financial and time constraints

Any survey of school libraries literature highlights the challenges of an environment characterised by significant financial and time constraints.

  • The 2018 Softlink Australia, New Zealand, and Asia-Pacific School Library Survey Report found that ‘62 per cent of respondents felt their library was not adequately resourced in terms of either staffing or budget’.
  • Recent literature in Australia portrays a crisis, with many libraries starved of funding. An Australian Council for Educational Research report shows the large decline in the number of teacher librarians in primary schools.
  • SLANZA’s 2018 survey of New Zealand school libraries revealed that one-third had budgets cut in the previous year. It raised concern at the low average hours per week worked by library staff in both primary and intermediate schools.

A constant juggling of priorities

School librarians regularly report the extraordinary range of tasks they juggle, and the pull between their specialist teaching and library responsibilities. Surveys reveal that school librarians would like to be able to provide more student engagement and learning programs, develop research skills, and curate information and resources to support learning and the curriculum.

Woman laminating a book with clear contact

Benefits found by public libraries

The main reasons given by public libraries for outsourcing have focused on some or all of these things:

  • achieving cost savings
  • acquiring expertise that regular staff do not have
  • taking advantage of specialised equipment not cost-effective to own
  • being able to concentrate on core activities.

Having materials arriving catalogued and processed is widely reported to result in more streamlined workflows, a reduction in the turnaround time of new stock and a sharper focus on more outward-looking tasks. 

These tasks include supporting literacy and developing readers’ advisory programs, and user-outreach activities.

Benefits specific to school librarians

In the current environment, school librarians would benefit from the following things.

  1. Efficient and cost-effective delivery
    A good partnership with a quality specialist library supplier has the potential to support the delivery of highly useful service at no additional cost or loss of control over the collection. Some suppliers may be able to offer shelf-ready services at a lower cost than a school library could accomplish on its own.
  2. Relevant expertise
    The best library suppliers employ specialist children’s and former school librarians to support their school library customers. In Australia and New Zealand, some also work with SCIS cataloguers to guarantee the fast and accurate provision of records for every title ordered.
  3. Some useful extra services
    A few suppliers – Wheelers included – offer value-added services, such as curated pre-publication lists for different age ranges; compiling awards lists and relevant subject lists; managing back-orders for libraries; and providing budget updates and reports tailored to their individual library’s needs.

Too small, too niche for outsourcing?

If a library is small, there is still an argument for outsourcing. Access to specialist partnerships can free the school librarian from back-room tasks and manual processes. The crucial teacher librarian position can then be a more vital part of the school community, and more responsive to its particular needs.

Wheelers Books is one of Australasia’s largest online suppliers of new books and eBooks to schools, offering over 20.2 million titles sourced from all over the world. 


Sarah Menzies

MLIS, Dip. Museum Studies

Wheelers Books