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The Digital Library

Culture Morph

Technologists and librarians are discovering that intelligent organizational overlap is the route to the digital library of the future.

Historically, it's been an unavoidable truth: IT people and library people have not been inclined to come to the concept of service with the same view. For IT, it's been all about keeping the servers and systems up, the websites going, and the help desk calls and their turnaround times to a minimum. For library professionals, service has meant keeping multimedia information and reference accessible; books, tapes, CDs, and other sources in order; and the environment primed for research and study.

Bob Johnson

At Rhodes College, Bob Johnson's merged IT/librarian team undergoes training to provide a single point of contact for most customer service issues-- research or technical.

Yet, in higher education today, the term "library" no longer denotes just a physical place, nor does "IT" denote a job so behind the academic scene that students are unaware it exists on campus.

The fact is, when these two essential campus areas work together well, magic happens--and that is especially true in small, private institutions of higher education.

Harmonious Culture Clash

At Rhodes College (TN), a 1,700-student Presbyterian-affiliated institution near downtown Memphis, 1999 was a year that Bob Johnson remembers well: That was when the library and IT organizations came together, and Johnson was hired to manage both (in addition to institutional research), as CIO and VP for information services.

"What we were trying to do here is realize the potential of the larger group, as opposed to remaining in smaller groups that were working on similar issues," he explains. The concept was a good one, but the transition wasn't without its headaches, he admits.

"Before we moved into the building that we're in now, the organization was split across four locations: the IT staff was divided between two classroom buildings, librarians were in the library, and the administrative office was in a building used for both classrooms and administrative functions. There were aspects of that arrangement that didn't contribute to working well together, but at least we were getting our work done," Johnson recalls. "As soon as we came together [in the same building], we increased the potential for people to work together--and to quarrel."

A multitude of differences between the two organizations surfaced: Librarians were used to working in conjunction with one another in open spaces, and IT workers were accustomed to working individually in their own offices. Similarly, librarians tended toward regimentation in their work days. ("They always knew when their coffee break was going to be," explains Johnson, "but IT got around to it when they got around to it.") Librarians generally come equipped with master's degrees; not all IT workers do. What's more, says Johnson, librarians have a "100-year horizon," while IT people need to deliver results "yesterday."

Today, the merged team has a dozen IT workers, a dozen librarians, and one research person, all focused on unifying operations by working with each other in specific areas. Internally, each professional culture retains its individuality, and there's no push to blend those cultural aspects of the organization, says Johnson. He considers the group's mission "to deliver consistent, reliable, and secure support for the academic mission of the college."

A merged team at Rhodes College has a dozen IT workers, a dozen librarians, and one research person, all focused on unifying operations by working with each other in specific areas.

While that may sound like a technical person's take on the job, there's actually more to it. "The story begins with data capture," Johnson insists. "The way I see it, that's a shared responsibility across the campus. We capture the information. We store it securely and appropriately. Those are IT functions. But the story also is about supplementing the information with the right kinds of resources, which is a library function. The librarians' whole deal is to make sure people can find what they're looking for, and can use it appropriately."

That's where the ability to work with one another in specific areas comes in: One cross-functional team works on customer service issues, another on research and development. For example, in the area of customer service, the organization offers one point of contact for any question that relates to information services (informational or technical) and for questions coming from any campus sector (students, faculty members, staff, or visitors), whether the queries be walkins, e-mails, or phone calls.

"We train at that consolidated service point," offers Johnson. "Our people answer both library and IT questions. The customers don't need to know how we work; we train the library staff to answer at least three-quarters of technical questions likely to be asked." And when a librarian can't handle a techrelated question, says Johnson, he or she hands it off immediately to an IT person.

On the back end, the merged organization has "really paid off internally," the CIO reports, possibly because of the way technology is evolving. "As certain technologies have grown up, they really blur the boundaries of the library and IT." He cites the management of digital assets: For instance, take the case of the professor who has 8,000 slides that she wants to make accessible to people in her class, as well as to other classes and other institutions. Says Johnson, "An IT staffer may be able to tell you how to maintain the slides or store them, but he may not know anything about making them easy for anybody to find. On the other hand, librarians aren't ready to tackle the technical side of that challenge." But, "Having the group already merged, we're ready when challenges like this pop up. We don't have to rush to create a group to manage them."

The New Information Literacy

INFORMATION LITERACY generally has referred to the ability to know what resources to use for a given assignment, how to use them, and how to evaluate their merits. In earlier days, it was referred to as library instruction; then bibliographic instruction. But the web has played havoc with the concept. Is Wikipedia now a reliable source? Can an interview in a podcast be used for reference material? Some online sources are better than others--an obvious point for educators, but not necessarily as obvious to students. And clearly, library professionals are usually the best-trained individuals on campus to teach the nuances to students. Below, Searchpath, a resource created by Western Michigan University to teach students basic library and research skills, delineates the pitfalls of random web-based research:


  • Library resources go through a review process, performed by editors and/or peers of the authors, and then are selected by librarians for inclusion in a library collection.
  • Library resources are free or discounted for use by patrons.
  • Library resources are organized. When you find a book on a given topic, the books shelved nearby cover the same or similar topics.
  • Library resources are meant to be kept permanently. Some collections are hundreds of years old. Library resources come with personal assistance.
  • Patrons get quality.


  • Most information on the web doesn't go through a review process.
  • Some sites charge for access to their content.
  • Overall, information on the web isn't organized.
  • For the most part, anything published prior to the mid-1990s doesn't exist, as far as the web is concerned. And there's no guarantee that a site will be there next week, let alone next year.
  • Users are on their own.
  • Users get quantity.

Certainly, Rhodes College isn't alone in its merged IT/Library organization, but that doesn't mean it's a common structure. According to the Council on Library and Information Resources, within the universe of US liberal arts colleges there are only about three dozen or so CIOs leading merged Library and IT groups. That puts Johnson in an ideal position to offer advice to any CIO considering a blended organization for a smaller campus: Head over to the campus library and ask for help, he says simply. "I guarantee that every CIO has an issue that could be improved if only he or she were to ask for help from a librarian. Nothing tells people you value them more than asking them for help."

Librarian Sensibilities Elevate IT

At Earlham College (IN), there's a solid appreciation for the impact the librarian viewpoint can have on IT; in fact, it trickles down from the top, where both IT and library leadership reside in the same person-- Thomas Kirk. Kirk was educated as a librarian, and holds the posts of library director and coordinator of information services for the 1,250-student institution. He points out that the CLIR counts only 30 or 40 institutions of higher education where one individual handles the two jobs simultaneously--yet even those, he says, are generally situational instances, "having to do with the nature and culture of the organization."

Why isn't the blended role more common? Beyond the culture gap that exists between the two functions is the perception each group has of the other, he explains. CIOs need to understand that "When the librarians bring you what appear to be tough issues, they are reflecting the users' needs; what the patrons are asking for." Kirk points out that although CIOs sometimes are tempted to respond with the knee-jerk reaction of "Why we can't do it," they need to understand where the expectation is actually coming from (the campus community), and then "figure out how it can best be done." Likewise, his advice to librarians: "Don't fall into the stereotypes about computing people. Understand what their values are and what they mean by 'service.' That's where the conflict [between librarians and IT people] grows from," he maintains.

Maybe that's why, when Kirk describes the librarian role at Earlham, the terms "facilitator" or "liaison" come to mind. At the college, librarians have evolved to act as the middleware between faculty and IT. "Librarians are more concerned with what's going on in the curriculum," and that's important, says Kirk. Their role is to ask, "How can the library support teaching and learning on campus? How do we help students and faculty navigate the world of print and digital resources?"

Now, with the recent explosion in the use of technology as part of the teaching and learning process, the need for a liaison between the campus community and IT is even greater. "Usually when faculty are looking at the new technologies, they're looking at ways to enhance what they're already doing," says Kirk. "It used to be that the students did research and wrote a term paper. Now they do research and create a poster, a class presentation, or a podcast."

But many faculty still are not versed in the use of the new technologies, he acknowledges. "They may have had a pretty good understanding of scholarly literature and the bibliographic apparatus of the field, but when the technology came along, they suddenly lost their grip--particularly in colleges where the primary role of faculty is teaching and, secondarily, research," he notes. "They didn't stay current with the new tools."

Interestingly, as the technology provided more information resources, the librarians' role (in terms of the faculty) became more and more one of mentoring and teaching, says Kirk. And that shift placed the librarian into the position of collaborating with the faculty member. "We have a tradition here of the faculty coming to the librarian and saying, 'I've been thinking of creating this kind of assignment. How would I do this? What resources do we have that would allow me to set up this kind of assignment?' This gets us into questions about what collections are available, how to gain access to them, how to use them--and perhaps the most important question--how to evaluate the resources that are found."

Importantly, with one person in the dual role of CIO and head librarian, silos can effectively be dismantled. "It's essential that there be a lot of communication between computing services and the library," he asserts. "I do think it's important that the library and computing areas report to the same person. I've seen situations where Computing reports to the business side of the college and the Library reports to the academic side. [When that happens,] you have to get to two VPs to achieve resolution on issues."

Kirk believes that by merging the library and IT areas, his advantage lies in a true functional view of the combined organization. "A lot of this stuff on the merged organization pays too much attention to where the walls are and how people report, rather than looking at what people are doing, who they're talking to, and who's [effectively] communicating with whom."

Creating a Digital Library Hub

When Immaculata University (PA)-- formerly an all-girls Catholic school-- redesigned its Gabriele Library in 1994, administrators went for the "state-ofthe- art" facility of the day, and provided a computer lab, a digital card catalog, and 10 electronic databases (on CD).

Gabriele Library

VIEWING THE GABRIELE Library as the center of information and collaboration, Immaculata U administrators decided to house the tech folks in the building.

Today, the university boasts a resource center that's the perfect melding of library and IT--and nothing like the hushed study centers of yesteryear. "When you walk in, the first floor is filled with students talking with each other," says Jeff Rollison, executive director of the library. "It's very much a place where students meet and work collaboratively."

"It's definitely not quiet," echoes Sister M. Carroll Isselmann, vice president for academic affairs.

At the Gabriele Library, students can leave a driver's license or dorm key at the front desk and borrow one of the library's wireless notebook computers to take elsewhere in the building. To save their work from the laptop, they can check out a flash drive just as if they were checking out a book. And the library has long since moved from those initial CD-based databases to about 40 different online databases. It has added to the digital collection by licensing electronic books through NetLibrary and

Transforming the College Library: A Plan

"WE ARE ON THE CUSP of an important change," says Scott Bennett, Yale University (CT) librarian emeritus, former librarian at The Johns Hopkins University (MD), and currently a senior adviser for the library program of The Council of Independent Colleges. Bennett, who did research on higher ed library construction projects, says that of 400 projects completed between 1992 and 2001, respondents reported that what most motivated their projects during that period was the need for additional shelving. When he asked (in follow-up interviews with 30 CAOs and library directors) whether that was going to be the same driver for their next library projects, their response was, "We think not.We hope not."

Yet, figuring out what the new drivers for library design are poses a challenge for campuses. The reason this is so difficult, says Bennett, is because "We have a genetically conditioned sense of ourselves as [belonging to a] service profession; we're still fixated on service.We get lots of libraries that are traditional, dressed as new. They're successful; they're very fine libraries. They're not libraries designed for learning, however, but designed for service."

What's the distinction? "We think of students as consumers of services, but we're not treating them as learners," he stresses. And the principle space where students take command of their own learning, Bennett believes, is the library. For example, he says, a year or two ago he was consulting at an institution and talking with faculty, "who were justly proud of the way they were shaping assignments for students to work with each other collaboratively." Yet when he asked them, "Where do they do that?" the instructors scratched their heads and said: "We don't know." His point: If you think it's important for students to work collaboratively, then you'd better design your library to foster that.

That's where the CIC comes into play. Since 2002, in partnership with the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, the CIC has offered the workshop series, "The Transformation of the College Library." The goal of the three-day events: to help small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities deal with the change sweeping through college libraries.

Two unique features of the workshops are notable: 1) Aside from the cost of housing, transportation, and meals, they are fee-free to participants, through financial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and 2) Each institution participating must commit to sending three representatives: the library director, a "rainmaker" faculty member who can shape faculty opinion, and the chief academic officer. Bennett offers simply, "If you can't get all three together in one place at our workshop, then you're going to be wasting our time and resources."

That may sound a bit harsh, but by the time participants leave, he insists, their teams have developed a plan for strengthening their information literacy programs, encouraging faculty and librarians to work together, and fostering collaboration between IT and library staffs. No small feat. Yet, even with all that effort behind it, persistence is the operative word: Transformation, Bennett acknowledges, "is going to take a while."

Immaculata also joined the consortium of schools using Searchpath, a flash tutorial originally created by librarians and staff from Western Michigan University in 2001/2002. Searchpath teaches students the basics of information literacy: how to conduct research in the library and on the web more effectively and accurately, including performing a qualitative evaluation of the source being used for research.

In addition, the librarians and IT team behind the library went on to adopt Adobe Captivate (formerly from Macromedia), a flash creation tool. The library uses Captivate to create brief tutorials that walk students through the use of its specialized online databases. And the school is producing three new tutorials a month, not limited to the library, reports Isselmann, who adds that the team has applied the technology to the creation of lessons designed to teach new users how to work with the school's course management system and portal.

Still, the evolution of Immaculata's digital library didn't simply kick off with the ribbon-cutting of the new building, even though "We had this new building with space, and not much space in other places," recalls Isselmann. "So, seeing the library as the center of information, we made the decision to house the technical folks in the library." The initiative really shifted into high gear four years later, when university administrators made the decision to outsource the management of the institution's technology and IT services--including the post of the campus CIO. After an evaluation process, the campus chose Collegis (since subsumed into SunGard).

Today, nearly a decade later, the library and IT cultures have changed distinctly. Isselmann relates that recently, when the growth of the technical staff prompted administrators to move the help desk out of the library, Rollison protested. Isselmann laughs, "We put our IT folks in the library and they're all joined at the hip now."

Rollison calls the relationship between the two groups a natural fit. "Librarians have become very tech-savvy. They've had to be; the students they're working with have become tech-savvy, and expect it. So the librarians understand how to use the tools, but don't necessarily understand [all the technology behind it]." The IT staff and the librarians don't "step on each other toes," he says; "we're complementing each other."

By way of example, Isselmann points to the school's move to the SirsiDynix library catalog, and the early talks about migration to that system. "The CIO was on that committee. Certainly, the librarians knew what they wanted out of that system, in terms of the library processes," she says. "But the CIO knew what kind of server we would need to put it on, and what other institutional systems would need to interface with it." And when Immaculata began serving offsite students, the library wanted to make its databases accessible to distance learners. Yet, in order to respect the licensing requirement that the software be accessible only by its own population, the campus had to set up a firewall and password access, which was created by the IT staff.

"Today, everything librarians want to do--in terms of service--requires some back-room, deep-in-the-interior work done by the tech folks," says Isselmann.

But the librarians often are driving the search for new ways to provide learning to students. For instance, says Rollison, they were the ones who saw the need to handle reserved materials in a different way. "Faculty put their materials-onreserve on paper, which is fine if you live on campus, but difficult for students who don't." So the instructional design team was called in to create an online reserve system that could work through the campus' WebCT system. Now faculty make articles available through their course shells on WebCT via a scanning-and-documentdelivery service, and the library has extended that service to include other articles it owns in physical form.

Conversely, though Immaculata librarians are not technicians, they routinely head to any of the campus' 50 "smart" classrooms and command the control podia, in order to instruct faculty members and students on the use of a new library or research resource. Isselmann maintains that the librarians at Immaculata are no longer considered simply guardians or custodians of information, but technology-enabled educators.

So, when the librarians and the technologists at Immaculata put their heads together and look to the future, what do they see on the horizon? A move to a more integrated platform, says Rollison. "That way, when students come into the library, searching will be a lot more seamless than it is now. They won't have three or four places to find information, whether it be a book, piece of music, or article." And with eBay's Skype, the librarians hope to do even more. Isselmann says she envisions the librarians applying the VoIP service to their own offerings (the school already uses Skype to provide Writing Center services). Says the VP: "A student has a paper in front of her and she's talking hands-free on Skype to Writing Center staffers, and it's a one-on-one tutorial. They're not side by side; they're PC to PC. I see something similar for the librarians." They're calling it "co-browsing," says Isselmann, and the teaming of librarians and technical staff will be needed to deliver all of these new services, too.

::WEBEXTRAS :: Viewpoint: "We Had to Destroy the Library in Order to Save It." :: Richard Ekman, president of The Council of Independent Colleges, will present "Leading Organizational and Program Change to Foster 21st-Century Digital Literacy," at Campus Technology 2007 in Washington, DC, July 30-Aug. 2.

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