Friday, 1st December 2006
Integrating libraries and computer services, often together with other service units, has been one of the most interesting developments in universities, particularly in the UK and USA, in the last 20 years. Pioneering initiatives using the concept of the 'chief information officer' role can be traced back to the early 1980s to Columbia University and Carnegie Mellon University.
However, it became much more widely adopted in the UK in the late 1980s and first half of the 1990s. This was encouraged in part by the influential Follett Committee Report <http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/papers/follett/report>, published in 1993, which pushed UK university libraries to re-evaluate their changing roles and how they work with information technology. More recently, there's been a dynamic in the USA to create services that are 'greater than the sum of its parts', as spelled out in this article from Chris Ferguson, dean of Information Resources at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington, USA <http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erm0432.pdf>.
The shape of this so-called 'convergence' is highly variable -- almost as variable as the reasons for doing it in the first place. And convergence has had a somewhat mixed record of success.
Whatever the motivation behind it, there is no doubt that this kind of integration, in one flavour or another, has become a popular strategy, with more than 70 per cent of universities in the UK adopting some kind of serious convergence and common management. By 'serious', I mean at least having a single person devoting most of her/his time to the leadership of these services. The functions embraced by these structures include, in order of frequency:
In the US, the responsibility for broadcasting services (campus television and radio stations) can be added to this list. In the UK, unusually, one university's converged service at one time embraced student services (including careers advice), child care and the chaplaincy. In-house spiritual guidance would be very useful for those managers struggling with the task of defining an information strategy for their institutions in this environment!
Fundamentally, four imperatives, matters of both principle and expedience, have driven universities down this road. Briefly, these are:
1. Pedagogy and customer orientation
Changes in teaching and learning methods demand new arrangements for
the delivery of support services. Learners (or researchers, come to
that) have no respect for the increasingly artificial barriers
between these services. In tune with the current age, the customer
(student, researcher, member of staff) is rightly king. The strong
customer service orientation of many academic libraries can be a
powerful influence on the unified, mixed professional teams that
2. Strategic and managerial leadership
These services need professional management and can be more
effectively administered collectively. This major collective
activity, usually consuming between 4 and 6 per cent of a
university's total budget, needs to be represented on the
institution's senior management team. This is more easily achieved
through an executive head or a more or less full-time senior
Several universities also have converged because of the actual or
imagined weaknesses in the management of the individual services.
The 'managerial fix' is hardly the best of motives for convergence,
but it can be a practical driver for much needed change. Indeed,
some thought leaders have said that the necessary radical change in
their own institutions couldn't have been brought about without the
engine of convergence. Read more in this interview with Mel Collier,
previous director of the International Institute for Electronic
Library Research at De Montfort University
The University of Kansas proved that the change process involved
with an organisational convergence initiative can be extremely
important in helping the participants identify new approaches to
supporting teaching and research
3. The resource imperative and economics of scale
Linked to the above, integrating services can generate resource
synergies, such as the economies of scale in blending administrative
and secretarial support. The downside is it gives heads of
universities or their finance directors the opportunity to say
things along the lines of, 'Well, your budget is GBP 10 million, so
it will be easy for you to save GBP 150,000!' In some cases
convergence has provided a good opportunity to deskill technical
support, putting more flexible effort into user support, liaison and
training, with commensurate savings in expensive central staffing.
The starting point for many debates about convergence is the trend
for computing services and libraries to be driven together in an
increasingly digital world. The fundamental change for computer
centres (few institutions use this term anymore) over the past 25
years has been from offering centralised, mainframe-based services,
oriented to a small and elite group of researchers, to providing a
much wider range of services to the entire university community.
This wide clientele requires a very different kind of support,
usually PC- and networked-based. Additionally, many universities
have built explicit objectives for the development of information
literacy (technology and content) skills into a common curriculum
for all students and staff.
At another level, the powerful networks that underpin the
institutional IT infrastructure have brought with them an ever-
growing demand for information services. In their turn, libraries
have increasingly embraced electronic sources and delivery services.
Once again, this has brought computing services and libraries into
the same arena.
Clive Field pointed out in his article "Theory and Practice: Reflections on Convergence in United Kingdom Universities" <http://webdoc.gwdg.de/edoc/aw/liber/lq-3-01/10field.pdf> that it's possible to distinguish between 'organisational or formal convergence', in which services are brought together for management purposes, and 'operational or informal convergence' in which the detailed functions or operations of the services are changed or merged.
He says: 'It isn't strictly necessary to have organisational convergence for operational convergence to take place; for instance, heads of services can work collaboratively -- say, on joint strategic planning, end-user training or provision of student PCs -- without any integration of management occurring'. It is also the case that services can be organisationally converged while demonstrating little operational convergence.
The management arrangements for converged services differ greatly. Sometimes a senior academic leader is 'chairman', with the librarian and the director of computing reporting directly. Or there may be an executive director as overall manager, with computing and library services operating separately, probably in different buildings on the main campus. A third possibility is an executive director and some operational convergence, probably in the user services area. The services occupy the same building, but this is unlikely to be purpose-built. Many, perhaps most, services have variants of these models, but the above can be seen as points along a continuum.
Setting aside the strategic planning and management role, what kinds of operational convergence are possible? A number of important areas can be developed, including:
1. Liaison with academic departments, and involvement with programme
design. Many academic libraries have developed responsive
relationships with departments through their subject librarians.
Computer services generally have not followed this approach. Is it
possible for faculty and subject librarians to take over a more
general role, representing the converged information services? A
number have shown that this is possible, albeit with a new breed of
IT-savvy LIS professionals.
2. Inquiry and help desk services. Shared buildings provide great
possibilities for common services. This could be one of the obvious
ways of trying to develop the multi-skilled 'learning support'
professionals, explained further in the M3/93 Fielden Report from
the Higher Education Funding Council for England
<http://www.hefce.ac.uk/Pubs/HEFCE/1994/m3_93.htm>, supported by a
variety of commentators. There is a major issue with the education
and training of staff who can work effectively in such a converged
environment. Where will such staff come from? Are the university
schools of library and information science producing sufficiently
flexible and skilled professionals to occupy such roles? The signs
3. Training in information use and IT skills. Combined training
creates the potential for imaginative programme design, both at an
induction and advanced level. Most universities routinely provide
training for staff and students in the use of networked e-resources
alongside more conventional software packages. This can and should
be a joint and coordinated effort between library and computer
services colleagues. The production of integrated documentation
across a range of software and data products supported by the
converged department also offers opportunities for effective
promotion and dissemination.
4. Development projects and information services. Many projects
require the collaboration of computer and library staff. Obvious
examples include the evaluation, implementation and maintenance of
virtual learning environments (VLEs), of computerised library
management systems, and the set-up and maintenance of the
university's website. The management of some university websites is
a team effort between the marketing/communications people, IT
specialists and professional librarians. They each bring important
and complementary skills to the design and maintenance of the
system, and they can work productively together. There is no doubt
that such projects, and the determination of priorities within and
between them, are more easily managed in a converged environment.
A number of downside factors have restricted the success of converged services or sometimes led to a process of de-convergence.
Few people will rehearse the objections of Fred Ratcliffe and David Hartley, respectively librarian and director of the University Computing Service at Cambridge, in a joint letter to The Times Higher Education Supplement in March 1993. While recognising the growing complementarities of the library and computing services, Ratcliffe and Hartley cautioned against convergence and ended up with the extraordinary statement that 'At the very least the priorities and management needs in two such diverse bodies are incompatible'.
Of course, convergence can never be a simple panacea for universities or any other organisation. The decision to adopt this approach will depend on many local circumstances: institutional culture, organisational politics (and power!), history, geography, managerial structures and, most important of all, personalities.
A number of universities who adopted convergence in the 1980s have since de-converged, including my own university when I left towards the end of 2005. As always, there were situational reasons for this but I was very disappointed when I heard of the decision and still believe that it was a serious mistake. I remain convinced that, for many universities, there is a clear balance of advantage for some kind of converged model. But as Mandy Rice-Davies <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandy_Rice-Davies>, one of the dramatis personae in the Profumo scandal which rocked the UK Government in the early 1960s, famously said 'he would say that, wouldn't he'.
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