Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College; Mark Sandler, University of Michigan

Vol. 18, No. 1 September 1997

Library and Computer Center Relations at Smaller Academic Institutions

by Larry Hardesty

Creating CIOs [chief information officers] and mergers may be like getting married to have a spouse to help you with problems you would not have if you had not gotten married," so quipped a wit recently. Yet many presidents, deans, and even a few trustees these days are giving computer center-library relations substantial thought—particularly when there is a vacancy in the leadership position of either unit. Mergers, the creation of CIO positions, and similar amalgamations of computer centers and libraries are also much on the minds of library and computer center personnel—with considerable concern and anxiety in both camps. "My counterpart in computing and I both feel uneasy about the other's aspirations and what responsibilities will be left for us in the future....I have a feeling that, in the end, one or the other of us will lose out," so spoke a candid library director at a prestigious small college. Expressing equal apprehension, a computer center administrator at a well-known midwestern small college declared that a merger at a large university, "Wasn't really a merger; the library took control of computing. Then, most of the computing folks quit and went elsewhere."

As described both in published reports1 and in private communications with me, some institutions have changed the relationships between the two units and the changes have worked well. On the other hand, some have made changes and then reverted back to more traditional organizational structures. Still others have continued with the new structures despite reports of resignations, early retirements, sudden reassignments, considerable personnel stress, and other evidence of dysfunctional organizational structures.

The concern among library directors and computer center administrators at small colleges over shifting roles prompted me to seek to identify and describe their attitudes regarding their roles and the relationships between their two units. From January 1994 to October 1996 with the financial support of the Council on Library and Information Resources, I interviewed 51 librarians (49 library directors) and 40 computer center administrators at 51 small colleges throughout the United States.

Most computer centers and libraries at small colleges have not merged nor have they closely converged. When they have moved more closely together, the impetus generally (but not always) has come from outside the units—most often from top administrators. I can only speculate on the motives and goals of these top administrators since I did not interview them. However, I can ask: why does the impetus seldom come from the grass roots? Why are many librarians and computer center personnel so uneasy about mergers of the two units? "Is it possible," as a dean of a southern college communicated to me, "the hesitancy, even resistance, to structural changes of this sort from library and computer services directors has more to do with issues of control and autonomy than with the validity of the conceptual model?" Are there two different cultures that do not mix well together?

Dissimilarities of Backgrounds
The library directors and computer center administrators interviewed generally came from dissimilar backgrounds. While the library directors all had the same graduate degree—the masters in library science—computer center administrators did not have a common degree. As one computer director described the situation:

Librarians represent a profession in which you have an accepted degree. You have an organization—a librarian association that makes you a profession—and we are not. We all came to computing by the back door—almost all of us. We are just a rag tag group of folks who are doing some interesting things. I think we are quite professional, but we do not belong to a profession.

Degrees. Undergraduate and graduate degrees in the social sciences and humanities predominated among the library directors. While undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics and the sciences (both virtually nonexistent areas among degrees of the library directors) predominated among the computer center administrators, some had degrees in the social sciences and humanities. A few computer center administrators did not have any advanced degrees—something not found among the library directors.

Stereotypes. Members of both groups are aware of their dissimilarities. One computer center administrator, with tongue-in-cheek, described stereotypical images of the two groups:

There is the view of computer people as being bearded, long-haired, wearing flannel shirts, sitting in a room at 1:00 a.m., and playing with computers. And librarians as being stiff, prim, and proper and keeping everything down to the finest detail.

Library directors often mentioned the long tradition of libraries, the closeness of the library to the academic enterprise, and the service orientation of librarians. They also seemed to be more concerned about preservation issues, standards, and what will happen to information 10, 20, and 30 years from now. Librarians tend to evaluate decisions more carefully before embarking on a new direction but not necessarily revisiting decisions often. To many computer center administrators, the librarians appear to move more slowly and cautiously. A computer center administrator observed, "They [the librarians] would like to see things settled and tied up and permanent and regulated before they will allow anyone to have access to it. I want to be able to provide access if people want access."

"I see librarians more as educators
and computer people more as technologists."

In contrast, computer centers are a relatively recent addition on campus and do not have a long history of a stable organizational structure. The rate of change is generally faster in their area. Computer center personnel appear more likely to revisit decisions, change them, and move on—sometimes without ever reaching closure. One computer center administrator colorfully described the mode in his area as "slash and burn." He explained, "We move over and chop down the trees, plant a crop, and, if we are lucky, we stay long enough to get the first yield."

Different Perspectives
Whatever caution librarians may have regarding technology, it has presented them with an array of ways to enhance library services. On the other hand, whatever interest computer center personnel have in facilitating the use of new technology, it has presented them with formidable challenges in meeting the needs of their various clienteles—including the librarians. As one computer administrator remarked somewhat wearily, "You are looking at an overworked [computer] staff, and the librarians have a lot of new ideas." The result can be tensions between the two groups that the lack of understanding of the perspectives of each other can exacerbate.

There is no formal educational path to becoming a computer center administrator. Many computer center administrators evolved from faculty members interested in the technology. Typically, a computer center administrator reported, "Computer services started here with me. I did everything. That meant I cut the wires. I soldered the wires. I planned the budget." Now, 10 to 15 years later, such individuals find themselves instead overseeing a demanding and challenging organization—even for the best of managers. Many computer center administrators at small colleges have had experienced their responsibilities evolve from directing a one-person operation to heading a diverse unit with 10, 15, 20 or more individuals from very disparate backgrounds.

Service vs. support. There can be some marked differences in perspective between the two groups. Library directors usually held that librarians know how people search for information and actively provide information seekers with the needed guidance and instruction. Typically, one of the library directors observed during an interview, "The service aspect in librarianship is really fundamental." However, he continued, "I think this is not nearly as true in the computer area. They do not draw that identity from their professional vocation." Another library director commented, "The library feels responsible for supplying ongoing support." In contrast, he elaborated, "Their [computer center personnel's] view is often 'Let's try that, and see if people want it.' If they don't want it, they're ready to walk away from it, and even sometimes when they do want it, they leave it to others to support."

The responses of some computer center administrators seem to provide librarians with grounds for such observations. A computer center administrator noted, "The library has taken an attitude of being aggressively helpful, and I have taken an attitude 'if you ask me I will help.'" Another computer center director remarked, "I would say that our concern is much more with getting access, and we do not fret about the uses."

On the other hand, some computer center administrators expressed concerns about the philosophy and motives of librarians. A computer center administrator observed, "While our views are extremely charitable toward the users, theirs [the librarians] are overly compensatory." He added that, among librarians, "There is almost the presumption of the user being lost. You cannot do without us." Perhaps the type of student with which each group primarily deals can explain the differences. Computer center personnel may tend to deal with students who take it as a challenge to figure out a program and, as one computer center administrator put it, "read technical manuals for fun." Librarians may tend to deal with students who walk away from an expensive computer-based catalog if it is not obvious in the first thirty seconds how to use it.

Content vs. conduit. A frequently reported dichotomy by both parties is "content vs. conduit." "I see the computer center as simply a delivery mechanism," responded one midwestern library director. Another commented, "It is like the electricity and plumbing. It needs to be running or none of us can do our work." Many, but not all, computer center administrators accepted this analogy. Typically, a computer center administrator stated, "They [the librarians] do the intellectual side. We do the technical side. We make sure that the connections work, but we are not in the information providing business." Sharing this view, another computer center administrator observed, "My staff and my strength will never be in saying 'this is good information.'"

This difference can be another source of tension. With some exasperation, a library director responded:

I just listened to three computer center fellows talk with me yesterday....While I was trying to get at content and evaluation and the material that is there, they were not interested in that at all....The documents themselves had no intrinsic interest for them.

This feeling led one well-respected midwestern college librarian to say, "This may appear smug, but I see librarians more as educators and computer people more as technologists."

Many individuals on both sides referred to the differences as strengths rather than weaknesses. One computer center administrator contended, "You need the computing folks to be a leavening and say 'let us try this,' and you need the library folks to have some reservations and say 'have you thought about...?" Another computer center administrator observed, "If I think of librarians as being the epitome of organization, and computer people as being the epitome of disorganization, there are strengths in both." He added, "The key is understanding each other."

"The key to an effective organization is not the structure—
it is the people."

Why Come Together— and at What Cost?
Engeldinger and Meachen wrote, "Those who suggest that the cultures and missions of computing services and library services are too different to merge successfully are, we believe, mistaken."2 In part, I agree. Those individuals interviewed provided considerable evidence of successful cooperation and collaboration between the two units through traditional structures. Also, successful mergers exist; successful CIOs exist. Nevertheless, we should not overlook or underestimate the differences between the two units and the resulting challenges involved in bringing the two units closer together. We should consider not just if the two units can be brought together but, more importantly, why and at what costs—both monetary and human.

Monetary costs. While creating better service may be the major impetus for most mergers and CIO positions, some senior administrators have expressed their hope that the changes will also result in some economies. Others, however, do not find it clear how this will occur. One library director turned CIO adamantly stated, "Every time I talk with an administrator about this [mergers], the first thing I try to get out of their head is that they are going to save money!" As one wit put it, "How can you save money by combining the old 'bottomless pit' [the library] with the new 'black hole'[the computer center]?" Regarding the CIO position, a computer center administrator at a wealthy northeastern college reported that in order to attract an individual with the necessary skills, "They may have to talk about the $100,000 and up price range." Others reported similar conclusions. Given such costs, many library directors and computer center administrators thought faculty would not be likely to support the creation of another senior administrative position.

Human costs. There are other, perhaps less obvious, costs—the human costs. Some institutions have put either the current library director or computer center administrator in the CIO position. However, at small colleges the directors of each unit typically have operational responsibilities. Individuals may find themselves, as one library director turned CIO reported, "Doing a job that previously they were paying one and a half people or one and two-thirds people to do." As a result some responsibilities are unmet or left to become responsibilities of other members of the unit—sometimes to the dismay of everyone involved. Or, the day simply becomes longer. "I would hate to think that whenever I retire that I will still have the same job that I will have on July 1," volunteered a library director soon to assume responsibilities for directing the computer center. When asked why, he answered, "I would like to have some free time in my life!"

The selection of the director of one unit to administer both units creates another challenge. Members of one unit may view an inexperienced CIO as an interloper while the members of the other unit may view the individual as negligent for not fulfilling previous responsibilities. The increased responsibilities are sufficiently challenging that one individual who had been through a merger understatedly commented, "Anybody who is taking on the process of a merger of this kind ought to be prepared to give much of himself into it for a few years!"

Thoughts for the Future
Since completing the interviews, several senior college administrators have queried me about the effectiveness of particular organizational structures. Clearly most of the individuals interviewed believed the key to an effective organization is not the structure—it is the people involved. "If the personalities and styles of operation do not fit, then no matter how good it looks on paper, it will not work," responded one computer center administrator.

In the short term, most library directors and computer center administrators want to, and will continue to, collaborate and cooperate closely with their counterparts through traditional organizational structures. In the long term, most individuals interviewed believe the two units will evolve in order to work more closely together.

Also in the long run, changes in the preparation of individuals who lead both units will have a profound influence on these units. When asked about needed skills and abilities, the leaders of each unit seemed to look to their counterparts for the expertise they believe they needed. Library directors usually answered they needed more technical knowledge (although not highly technical skills). Computer center administrators typically responded they needed better management and communications skills. Observed a computer center administrator, "There comes a point in the operation when the need for management skills overshadows the need for technical skills." As one particularly insightful computer center administrator put it, "I do not manage hardware. I manage emotions."

Components for Success. While not underestimating the importance of increased tech-nological sophistication among library directors, the professional-ization of the education of computer center administrators with increased emphasis on management and communications skills is the most important component in the equation for better relations and service. As computer center directors whose primary interest is in the technology return to the classroom or retire, institutions will employ more computer center administrators possessing "softer" skills of leadership, vision, interpersonal relations, and an understanding of the educational mission. This is already occurring. Reported a former senior administrator to me, "When we looked for a computer person, we were looking for compatibility with faculty mission and a mind set about what education is all about." Likewise, a library director colleague observed about current computer center administrators, "I have met a lot of heads of academic computing, and many of them are really outstanding."

No Single Solution. Numerous factors drive both computer centers and libraries to provide better service and to seek economies. More and more students and faculty are wanting to plug in their computer in their dorm rooms and offices to access the growing myriad of electronic resources. While trying to respond to a diverse and demanding clientele, libraries and computer centers are both experiencing increased costs, rapid technological change and obsolescence, and decreased resources. There is no single organizational structure that will resolve all, or even most of, these complex challenges. In seeking a solution, we make little progress if we add to the stress and anxiety of dedicated individuals by creating expensive and potentially dysfunctional organizational structures. We must define carefully the problems we seek to solve before hastening to a particular solution.
Larry Hardesty is College Librarian, Austin College, Sherman, TX. E-mail: lhardesty@Austinc.edu

 

The author wishes to acknowledge the following people for their editorial assistance:
Evan Farber, David Henderson and Jamie Hastreiter.

 

References

1For a description of positive results at Carthage College and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside: Eugene A. Engeldinger and Edward Meachen, "Merging Libraries and Computer Centers at Small Academic Institutions," Library Issues, 16 (January 1996): 1-4

2Engeldinger and Meachen, p. 4.

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