IT and the Library

Library/IT Relations: Down the Hatch

As centralized information technology departments swallow up library IT, the question for many universities becomes: How do you get the best value out of realigned organizations?

Due to considerable budget cuts, a sizable state university recently was forced to consolidate all IT operations under one roof. That included reassigning two technology experts that the library preferred not to lose. The problem was twofold, according to one library director who requested anonymity: First, the two staffers were already busy enough in their jobs with the library; they didn't have time to do work for other departments. Second, their salaries belonged to the library budget--now that budget belongs to IT. "We've lost control over what we do, because most of what we do is electronic," the library director sighs.

If you're in campus IT, you may just be shrugging your shoulders--that's life in the budget cudgel lane. But if you're part of a library operation, you may be shaking your head, thinking, why does IT keep stealing our best people?

Small and midsize institutions have proven the success of a blended library/IT organization, a hybrid model in which both librarians and IT professionals report to the same senior leader (see "Culture Morph," CT June 2007; campustechnology.com/articles/2007/06/culture-morph.aspx). What hasn't been proven is how well such a blend works for larger universities. There the challenge has become part of the larger institutional budget debate: Who is best positioned to deliver the services needed? Should a library--or any department for that matter--maintain its own technology staff? Or is it possible for library technology needs to be addressed by a larger IT division on campus in the hopes of reaping operational savings and efficiencies?

Campus reorganizations are part and parcel of this era when every department is trying to wring out savings. That includes IT, which often finds itself in the unenviable position of defending changes to reporting lines in order to help preserve jobs: An IT person is brought over from enrollment management in order to handle the work formerly done in the data center by somebody who was lost to retirement. With each adjustment, IT has to step into somebody else's fiefdom and tell the folks living there how computing work will be done in the future.

But there's something about IT stepping into library business specifically that brings into focus the cultural differences that can exist between information organizations working in the same institution. Those differences make it tougher for the two groups to work together in formulating an IT/library strategy that can adapt to constant change and economic strain.

Content People/Infrastructure People
To some librarians, the cultural divide is endemic to the nature of the profession.

"Libraries give away information free to anyone. Campus IT accounts for every bit of work," says Patrick Newell, associate university librarian for IT at California State University, Fresno. "You can walk into any library and get anything from the databases, which creates a culture of keeping things open and available to people. If you're a campus IT person, you want people to sign into the computer network."

IT and the Library

Which IT Group Should Take on the Work?

Association of College and Research Libraries President Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe listed off common IT functions performed in a typical institutional library. CT asked Chico State CIO Bill Post which of these functions could be moved to a central IT organization and which ones should probably stay with library IT. As this table demonstrates, Post believes the functions should follow the skills.

Newell offers another illustration of a fundamental difference between the IT and library approaches to information. A library patron's usage records have been requested--for example, as part of some national security investigation. In this situation, the librarian would like to make sure the library responds appropriately, according to carefully thought-out library policy. "We don't want somebody in central IT to just go in through Active Directory, see what's on the machine, and report that." That would be, Newell adds, "completely counter to our service ethic."

Carolyn Dusenbury, former dean of the library at California State University, Chico, explains the difference between the two organizations this way: "IT provides the pipe. We know more about the water that comes through the pipe. We're the content people. They're the infrastructure people."

That difference in priorities can generate friction in large issues--such as invasion of privacy--as well as smaller matters. Dusenbury, who officially retired as dean in July 2009, says she would never have given up dedicated IT people in the library "until I had to--and I never absolutely had to." When the printer in the public computing lab goes down at the library, for example, she wouldn't want to have to wait a half hour for help to arrive. "I want 'em there in three minutes. I don't want to have to deal with somebody else's supervisor to say, 'This has to happen now.' I always wanted that under my control."

Now, she acknowledges, "Things have changed because the economics have changed."

Just after Dusenbury's departure, the Chico State library also saw the departure of one IT staff member responsible for desktop support within the library who pursued and received a promotion to the help desk in the student computing team. His library position wasn't restaffed. At that point, the university made the decision that the library's desktop support would need to go through the same help desk as everybody else on campus. That same group would also be managing all public computers in the library.

With a bit of distance, Dusenbury, who now works part-time at the library while the organization continues its search for her replacement, observes that the changes haven't been bad. In fact, she says, they've hardly been noticeable. "One of the reasons why we don't threaten homicide when this stuff happens is that for 30 years the library and IT have always been together in information resources," she says. "We're in the same space. We work with these people."

The Stress of Realignment
William Post, who serves as both vice provost for information resources and CIO for the same university as Dusenbury, also notes that these struggles can't simply be classified as the library versus IT. "They don't all fit in one big box by saying these are library people and those are technical people." Cultural gaps are inherent within each entity too. In the library, operational differences surface between the technical side and the public service side; for IT it's between academic and administrative technologies.

Yet for both, he adds, reorganization is a constant stress right now. Over the last three years, the budgets for the library and IT--both of which he oversees--have been reduced by 20 percent. At Chico State the staff reductions that go along with budget cuts have been handled through attrition rather than layoffs. "That's fortunate," he says, because nobody's been laid off. "But it's unfortunate in that these people were doing something." As a result, those two groups have seen six or seven formal reorganizations over that period and a number of informal reorganizations, "because you don't have enough people to perform the tasks as they were done before."

Post calls these changes "service realignments," and they're happening in divisions all over the campus. He says there is a movement across the 23 state universities in the California system to centralize IT. "The library is being swept up in that and not necessarily being singled out." Likewise, he adds, it isn't just the library people who complain when IT staffers are moved out from under a department's direct control. "If you were to talk to the enrollment management people or business information people, you'd find some screaming there along the same lines."

Right now, the functional areas where realignment is taking place the most don't necessarily need dedicated IT personnel, Post believes. Tools to manage workstations or servers remotely and centrally have been around for years. As he points out, there's no reason for one department to handle its desktop management differently from the rest of the campus. Whereas a department may have one server administrator managing eight servers for that office, IT may be managing as many as 70 or 80 servers per administrator, he says, "because we're using virtual server technology."

His point: "We've got to get out of that mode of doing things in the way we've done them before."

Of course, communicating that kind of nuanced thinking to those directly affected isn't easy. People see a staff reorg and assume that nothing will ever be the same across the board. Post insists that CIOs like him are doing their best to make sure the specialized IT areas continue getting dedicated support. Within the library, for example, that would encompass systems for categorizing periodical databases or creating search tools. "I would say the same thing that I would say to somebody in business affairs who is using [a specialized system] for managing business transactions: 'Yeah. That's something you know about and that's something you're best equipped to support.' "

Inside and Outside the Tent
Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and coordinator of information literacy services and instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, believes that local IT in libraries will always exist.

"There is a degree of decentralization that just happens because [it's] required," she says. "At some point, one says, 'Wouldn't it be better if these people who specialize in library things were with the library people?' So it's where we transition from the local to the central that's the question. Do we rely on what we hope will be a certain level of service from a central unit? If so, what happens if they have twice as much demand as they used to have?"

Chico State is one of only two campuses in the California State University system where the CIO manages both the IT and library organizations. Generally speaking, says Dusenbury, the library director will always prefer to be a dean and to report to the provost. "I was a dean, but I didn't report to the provost," she says. Reporting to the CIO, as she did, was both beneficial and detrimental, she says. "Being inside the tent is good and being inside the tent is bad. Which is the better situation, I don't know," she muses.

"The good news is that you're at the table with the rest of the IT people, so you're not blindsided when something gets changed with the technology." The bad news, Dusenbury says, is that the concerns of the library are one level removed from the university's top-level administration--specifically the provost. "When [the CIO] goes into a meeting of the deans, their hair is always on fire about something technical. Their questions are not about the library; their questions are about the learning management system. To get any serious time at a meeting with administrators to really talk about the library does not happen because everything else that happens in information resources is felt to be a crisis."

Dusenbury believes the situation would be most troubling in a setting where the CIO doesn't have the same roots as Post, who actually began his career at Chico State in 1978 as a systems analyst in the library. "If we got a CIO from the technical side rather than the information systems side, then I would be worried. [That individual] wouldn't understand the library. 'Why do you buy books? The library already has books on the shelves.' We don't get that from Bill. His background is the library."

Post says that although there may not be a direct link between the provost and library dean, at Chico State both the CIO and the head of the library do sit on the Deans Council. "At first there was some question about why we have two voices at the table," Post says. "But I think it works well. [Both groups are] respected on campus."

Accountability and Value
However, respect may be inadequate in a new world order that increasingly demands proof of accountability and value from every department or division on campus--including the library. As a recent report from the ACRL, "The Value of Academic Libraries" (acrl.ala.org/value), bluntly states, "Librarians no longer can rely on their stakeholders' belief in their importance. Rather, they must demonstrate their value." This value-add includes having a positive impact on such areas as student enrollment, retention, graduation rates, faculty research productivity, and "overarching institutional quality."

For example, librarians have done surveys for decades, the report's authors note. But these are often "one-shot" and tend to capture limited amounts of information--one librarian's class or one group of students. Now assessment systems need to document library progress toward institutional goals on a broader scale. Multiple librarians will need to enter assessment data; multiple student groups will need to be evaluated; multiple assessment methods will be used.

This is only the beginning. Librarians may want to track their department's contribution to retention and graduation rates by comparing performance of students who participated heavily in library services versus those who didn't. They could decide to monitor the impact of the library on faculty grant proposals and funding to show the monetary value of their contributions in generating institutional income.

These goals obviously go way beyond traditional reporting practices. As Post puts it, "Libraries have been reporting door counts and circulation figures for years." This is akin to IT reporting network and server usage or number of help desk calls responded to and how quickly: Good for a start, but what's needed in both areas are measures of success based on improvements "outside of our control," he says. "For IT the measures of success are with business processes; for the library they are found in student learning."

Providing evidence of that value requires new systems, and that in turn requires IT. First, creating and communicating value is nothing new to CIOs. They've been defining ROI for their services for as long as Gartner has been putting on conferences; they understand the challenge. Second, they're well suited to recommending and implementing enterprise applications that can help libraries collect the data and sift through it to identify performance measurements, and they're likely to know about other programs already in use on campus that are performing comparable functions.

Ultimately, IT may be the library's biggest ally in tackling new accountability demands set down by institutions. But the two organizations will have to work shoulder to shoulder to figure out where and how responsibilities should be met, according to the ACRL's Hinchliffe. "If the library is going to serve the faculty and students and meet the needs they have, we need to arrange our resources to make sure we're able to do that," she says.

To that end her organization has set up a task force specifically to focus on technology issues. Part of the mission, she expects, will be to examine how libraries can work most productively with IT: "How do we leverage our respective strengths? How do we keep up?" That's a question, she adds, that IT professionals will need to struggle with too.

comments powered by Disqus