Friday, 1st December 2006
By Allan Foster
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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 have emerged.
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 academic leader.
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 <http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue14/view-hill>.
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 <http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERB0602.pdf>.
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 are mixed.
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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