Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
 
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
 
 

Vol. 28, No. 5                               printable version (pdf)    home

May 2008


The Merged Organization: Confronting the Service Overlap between Libraries and Computer Centers

by Tom Kirk

The notion of a merger of the academic library and computing services/instructional technology has been around for a number of years. A rash of mergers occurred in the 1980s in large university libraries and then seemed to fade as a hot topic. After a lull the formation of merged organizations took off among smaller predominately undergraduate colleges in the 1990s. But what exactly is a “merged organization”? Why do institutions move to a merged organization? What is the evidence that a merged organization is effective? These are the questions we will address here. While the focus will be primarily on small predominately undergraduate institutions, many of the ideas will be applicable in larger academic institutions.

What is a Merged Organization

The concept of the merged organization has certainly evolved over time. The old notion was one of an ideal structure that would solve the problems of the overlapping and competing activities of the library and the computing center. The early conceptualization of the merged organization envisioned a fixed, clearly defined entity, headed by a chief information officer (CIO) who reported to the president or provost of the institution, and had comprehensive responsibility for the library and all technology units of the institution. The organization had names such as Information Services, or Library and Information Services. The merging was viewed largely as a mechanism for building a unified budget and establishing a position with specific responsibility for coordinating the work of the units.

In larger organizations it was, in part, a workload issue, and when the CIO reported to the president, it was a matter of recognizing the institution-wide level of importance of the technology and the library and their collaboration.

In smaller, predominately undergraduate institutions, the merged organization has been more focused on improving the support of academic uses of computing and information resources or to put a leader in place who could focus on coordination among the units. In these mergers there has been a wide variety of levels of integration in the organizational structure.

Examples of Mergers. The most dramatic example is the merger at Kenyon College which resulted in a complete reorganization of the library and computing services. The key idea guiding the merger was to create integrated support services across the full scope of library and computing services. Perhaps the most radical part of the reorganization was the establishment of Librarian and Technology Consultant positions which have comprehensive responsibility for supporting faculty and their classes across the entire spectrum of information services — library collection development, information literacy instruction, use of technology in teaching and research, and technology support. This has clearly merged many functions of the library and computing services into one type of position.

Other institutions have found this scope to be too big a stretch for staff and have developed alternative structures. These structures involve a variety of ways in which staff for the Helpdesk, Reference Desk, Circulation Desk, and Instructional Technologists group themselves. Some structures have created various combinations and degrees of integration of the three desks. In some cases they are co-located with separate staff while at others staff members have dual responsibilities. In other cases librarians take on information technologist’s roles while the Helpdesk function remains separate.

Characteristics of Mergers. How can this range of organizations all said to be merged? An article by Ferguson, Spencer and Metz explores the concept of the merged organization by describing four characteristics that are essential to an effective merged organization. These are:

the administrative dimension

the physical dimension

the collaborative (or operational) dimension

the cultural dimension

The administrative dimension is the organizational structure. The point is that the organizational structure must support the overall mission of the merged organization. The structure can neither be some kind of cookie-cutter standard, nor can it simply be the combination of the existing structures of the library and computing. The structure is created, reviewed and revised in keeping with the goal of supporting collaboration, and the situational realities.

The physical dimension suggests that a merged organization will be more effective if the organization is housed in contiguous space. The high degree of collaboration operating among its staff, creates a holistic culture that recognizes the contributions of librarianship and computer services. It synthesizes their positive attributes so they contribute to the mission of the organization.

The collaborative dimension: The goal or mission of the library and computing services ought to be the provision of seamless service and support that covers the range of services which students and faculty now need in order to pursue their academic goals. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

The key point is that this range of services can not be clearly delineated into service points or individual offices and, therefore, it is unreasonable to expect users to know whom to contact for each of these services. This range of services, however, requires a wide range of expertise which is unreasonable to expect any one individual employee to have. Therefore, the challenge is how to deploy service points, to develop mechanisms that comfortably get users to the “appropriate expertise” and, where appropriate, to collaborate in providing support that is seamless and does not multiple the work load for the user.

The cultural dimension: When two professions with very different histories, educational requirements and status within an organization are brought together in an integrated organization those differences can cause the organization to dysfunction. In a merged organization those differences have satisfactorily been addressed so that the effectiveness of the organization is not limited by the conflict over the differences. The staff in the various units of the organization should have a common appreciation for the overall mission of the college or university, and an understanding of how the goals of the merged organization support the mission. Furthermore, that appreciation needs to recognize how the units of the merged organization complement each other in supporting that mission.

Fundamentally the term “merged organization” is very imprecise and as a label is a misnomer which wrongly implies a fixed structure with certain characteristics. I believe it is more important to talk about the relationship between technology-based units and library services and to conceive of them as “collaborating organizations” that may take on a number of structures. A specific structure is not the destination. The critical issue in thinking about a merged organization is not to find a model to apply in a particular institution but rather to understand the dynamics of coordination and collaboration and how structures are used to support those dynamics.

Why Create a Merged Organization

It is not to save money. Larry Hardesty in Books, bytes and bridges puts it well when he posses the question: why would anyone think that combining the bottomless pit of library acquisitions and the black hole of computing equipment purchases saves money? While there may be some incidental efficiencies in a merged organization or a merged organization might find ways to do things that are less expensive, there will not be a specific percentage savings of a merged organization’s budget compared with that of the existing separate library and computing center.

Instead there are several reasons why an institution might want to merge the organization based on local circumstances.

1. The senior administration wants to have a single person who is responsible for the range of staff, services and facilities of the library and the computing center. They may see that the job of coordinating the work of these units is bigger than a busy president, provost, academic dean or financial VP can give adequate attention to.

2. The institution may find itself without either a computer center director or a library director and has an incumbent in the other position who is judged to be able to improve the services and operations of the other without the institution hiring a chief information officer (CIO). While this might appear to save money, in reality, the institution should rearrange responsibilities so the position of director and CIO are not simply added together. Others will have to take on additional responsibilities or staff will need to be added to cover the work that needs to be done.

3. Developments within the two units may lead to the need for more attention to collaboration than the current directors can handle. For example, a significant collaborative effort which develops between the manager of the course management system (e.g., Moodle, Blackboard, WebCT) and librarians may necessitate the creation of a new unit and reporting structure to sustain the collaboration. This might be handled more effectively if there is a CIO coordinating work between library and instructional technology.

4. While most of these reasons listed are positive responses to institutional developments there can also be organizational problems that need to be fixed for which a merged organization is viewed as the solution. For example, if one unit is not collaborating well with the other and as a result services are not provided effectively, then appointing a CIO and restructuring the organization may provide better services.

5. Mergers are also seen as ways to gain some control over what appear to be uncontrollable developments. These include the increasing demand for services, the sense that the implications of technology use in teaching create the need for greater collaboration among faculty and staff in computing and library, the relentless demand for administrative computing and the perceptions of insufficient budgets for library materials, software and equipment. Senior staff may sense that a stronger control mechanism is needed to help them have confidence that the services are appropriately deployed and that adequate budgetary control is being exercised.

This final point is the first time that administrative computing has been mentioned. In the past academic and administrative computing were seen as competing functions and a merger might be seen as a way to coordinate budgets and get a clear sense of priorities. Increasingly the distinction between administrative and academic computing has become less distinct. Enterprise systems (e.g., Banner, PeopleSoft, Jenzabar, among others) now do far more than the business of running the college. These systems now support advising, interface with a course management system and serve as information utilities for all members of the campus community and perhaps even the alumni. So while mergers might have been seen as a way to balance competing demands of library and computing services the merger might also balance administrative and academic computing, and find ways to support the collaborative efforts to make the enterprise system better meet the diversity of campus needs.

There is no doubt that there are other motivations which would lead an institution to create a merged organization. One of the most important steps in developing a merged organization is to articulate the goals to be achieved and establish a clear set of rubrics for measuring success. The choice of structure should be grounded in those goals and the institutional context. The structure should not be imposed from the outside.

Is a Merged Organization Effective?

Unfortunately, there is not much assessment data to demonstrate the effectiveness of a merged organization. Furthermore, good assessment instruments are only in the early stages of development.1 While we certainly need more assessment of the effectiveness of a merged organization, there is also a sense that effectiveness can not be measured simply by comparing survey scores between organizations. The diversity of organizational structures, staffing and organizational culture create too many variables to be accounted for in such a comparison. Assessment is likely to need qualitative measurement based on in-depth interviews with users of the services and how the organizational structure and level of collaboration facilitate or hinder effective service.

These difficulties suggest an important lesson for those who are thinking about a merged organization:

Final advice

Those contemplating a merger should keep in mind the following caveats:

Critical to discussions about the appropriate organizational structure of the library and computing units is that all parties involved in the institution need to stay focused on the goals of the merged organization, how they relate to the institution’s mission and how the organizational structure will support or hinder achievement of that mission. The organizational structure also needs to take advantage of the talents of the existing staff. Attention to these two points will significantly affect whether the merged organization, what ever its structure, is successful. —Tom Kirk is the Library Director & Coordinator of Information Services at Earlham College <kirkto@earlham.edu>

References

1In response to the growth in the number of small institutions who saw themselves as a merged organization seeking mutual support, the Council of Library and Information Resources (CLIR), through financial support from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and with the leadership of Susan Perry, formed the CLIR CIOs group. The group has been meeting regularly twice a year since spring 2003. More information is available at http://www.clir.org/activities/details/cios.html. Perhaps the most well developed instrument for small academic institutions is the MISO Survey. The results do not yet show that organizational structure makes a difference in the quality of service. For more information on the survey instrument see

http://www.brynmawr.edu/miso/about.html and http://connect.educause.edu/Library/Abstract/MeasuringtheSoupTheMISOSu/38878.

Bibliography of Best Sources for Background

Anybody interested in a serious study of the merger concept should read these items. They are among the best at introducing the concept, explaining the rationale for mergers and cite by name many colleges and universities that have merged, and in some cases unmerged, over the past 25 years.

Battin, Patricia (1984). “The Electronic Library: a Vision of the Future,” Educom Bulletin 19, 12–17

Bolin, Mary K. (2005). The library and the computer center: organizational patterns at land grant universities. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 31, 1 (January), 3–11.

Consiglio, David; Orr, Pattie; Peddie, Carol; Schoknecht, Patricia A.; West, Doug, and White, Andrew. Measuring the Soup: The MISO Survey. Presented at EDUCAUSE Annual Conferences, October 10, 2006. Retrieved April 9, 2008 from  http://connect.educause.edu/Library/Abstract/MeasuringtheSoupTheMISOSu/38878.

Dougherty, Richard. (1987). Libraries and Computer Centers: A Blueprint for Collaboration. College and Research Libraries 48 (July), 289-296.

Engeldinger, E. A. & Meachen, E. (1996). Merging libraries and computing centers at smaller academic institutions. Library Issues, 16, 3, 1-4.

Ferguson, Chris, Spencer, Gene and Metz, Terry. (2004). Greater than the sum of its parts; the integrated IT/library organization. EDUCAUSE Review 39, 3, 39-46. (May/June). Retrieved March 23, 2008 from http://www.educause.edu/LibraryDetailPage/666?ID=ERM0432

Hardesty, Larry. (2000). Books, bytes and bridges. Chicago: American Library Association.

Herro, Steven J.(1998). The impact of merging academic libraries and computer centers on user services. An Alternate Plan Paper Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Master of Science in Administration in Educational Administration. Minnesota State University, Mankato, December, 1998. Retrieved March 20, 2008 from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/CSD1193.pdf.

Kimmel-Smith, Stacey E. and Cox, Christopher N. (2006). Ten Years After: The Integrated Computing and Library Help Desk at Lehigh University. Internet Reference Services Quarterly 11, 3, 35-55.

Ludwig, Deborah M. and Bullington, Jeffrey S. (2007). Libraries and IT: are we there yet? Reference Services Review 35, 3, 360-378.

Oden, Robert A., Jr., Temple, Daniel B., Cottrell, Janet R., Griggs, Ronald K., Turney, Glen W., and Wojcik, Frank M. (2001). Merging Library and Computing Services at Kenyon College: A Progress Report. Educause Quarterly 24, 4, 8-25. Retrieved April 8, 2008 from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eqm0141.pdf.

Ward, David and Hawkins, Brian L. (2003). Presidential Leadership for Information Technology. Educause Review 38, 3, 36-47.

West, Sharon M. and Smith Steven L. (1995). Library and Computing Merger: Clash of Titans or Golden Opportunity. IN Realizing the Potential of Information Resources: Information, Technology, and Services-Proceedings of the 1995 CAUSE Annual Conference, pages 8-8-1 to 8-8-9.

Young, Arthur P. (1994). Information Technology and Libraries: A Virtual Convergence. Cause/Effect 17, 3, 5-6, 12.

 

 

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last modified: May 2008

 

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