Ending the Turf War

Merging library and IT responsibilities can save time and money and eliminate redundancy.

Today’s university library science professionals hardly resemble the librarians of decades ago—individuals who maintained card catalog drawers and checked out books behind a circulation desk. Now, virtually every aspect of the job touches technology, whether it’s managing digital collections, providing audiovisual (AV) expertise or navigating vast library databases.

But as libraries creep into the digital age, they’re also crossing into a gray area where library technology meets the IT department’s domain and vice versa—often with unwelcome results.

Kathleen Price, associate dean, Library and Technology, and a professor of law at the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law in Gainesville, Fla., remembers the philosophical divide between her library staff and the IT department at her former job as director of the law library at an East Coast university.

At that university, IT, media and library functions were managed by three different departments. “It was impossible to ever have priority,” says Price. “It was an IT staff that kept its doors locked, didn’t want to respond to student questions, and was in constant conflict with the reference staff over simple things such as who should maintain printers and copiers or keep paper.”

What’s more, IT wanted to take over areas, such as an online cataloging system, in which they had no expertise, says Price.

Likewise, librarians can’t go it alone. “Librarians need to take notice of the fact that if they’re not involved in technology, they risk having the library become isolated in the school,” she adds.

Price’s experience isn’t unique. “People are protective of their technology,” points out Rebecca Petersen-Leary, director of the academic technology division at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. As part of the IT department, Petersen-Leary serves as the liaison between IT and the library, faculty and staff. If universities want to create a seamless technology offering for their students and faculty, she adds, then “collaboration between IT departments and the library is essential.”

A number of university professionals say these turf wars can be eliminated with a few organizational and philosophical changes that will yield a solid return on investment (ROI): saving time and money and eliminating redundancy.

COMBINE STAFF

The intertwined roles of the IT, library sciences, Web and media branches can be simplified by creating a high-level position that encompasses the needs of all the groups.

The University of Florida’s College of Law recently created the position of associate director of technology services to manage these entities, work with Price’s library branch and report directly to Price. This has become a vital role, says Andy Adkins, who was appointed to the job. Since the law school equips each classroom with overhead computer projectors, desktop workstations, DVD players and VCRs, someone must show faculty how to incorporate technology into their courses

Together Price and Adkins hired an electronic services librarian to help faculty develop interactive classroom presentations. They agreed the position would become part of the library because that group had the budget for it. Adkins also consolidated the computer and AV branches so that faculty could request AV or computer materials from one location.

University of Florida ROI

By combining functions, the law library and IT staff have reduced the number of people needed to perform these functions. For instance, two professional librarians once performed such media functions as videotaping classes. “That was not a productive use of personnel,” Price recalls.

Today, two media technicians do the same task, and the librarians have been reassigned. The library netted about $50,000 a year from this change, Price says, and the reorganization of positions allowed the hiring of two IT techs and the electronic services librarian.

UNDERSTAND ANOTHER’S VIEWPOINT

At the State University of New York Morrisville College, the challenge comes down to “differences in service attitude,” says Bill Drew, president of the SUNY Librarians Association, made up of 200 librarians representing more than 75 libraries on 64 campuses.

“Librarians deal directly with the students and faculty,” says Drew. “If our computer systems don’t work, we’re out of business.” While the library’s main server is housed off campus, many services are maintained locally, like the proxy servers that allow students to use library databases from off campus, as well as the library’s Web pages. “When something goes down, we need it fixed yesterday,” Drew says.

Meanwhile SUNY Morrisville’s IT department sees problems as systemwide and “has too much to do and not enough people,” he adds. “They’ve got other departments to deal with other than the library.”

“Personal contacts are the biggest thing,” says Drew, who knows many IT staffers personally. “Because these contacts have a better understanding of where I’m coming from, I also understand what their priorities are and act as a buffer to the library.”

SUNY Morrisville ROI

By making IT aware of his priorities, Drew was able to hand off software and antivirus updates on the library’s public computers to IT, which can perform maintenance over the network. “It’s also kept more current than I could have done on my own,” Drew adds.

VALUE AREAS OF EXPERTISE

This fall, Lesley University rolled out a full-scale version of its myLesley academic portal. The one-stop gateway links the 12,000 full-time and part-time undergraduate and graduate students in 21 states to the registrar’s office, coursework database and all library services.

“Those people are very dependent on us delivering our services electronically,” says Petersen-Leary, who points out that close collaboration with IT staff is required. But the library still manages the technology that falls squarely in its area of expertise, such as its consortium-based online card catalog.

“All [library] content is specifically managed by the library,” she says. “The infrastructure is managed by IT, and they are the owners of that content. They determine what the design is, what the content should be and how people get there.

“When we get into authentication issues and password protection, then we get into deeper conversations on how those things work and how they’re hosted.”

Before myLesley, users had to log in separately to the library’s Web site to access databases and other online tools. MyLesley has streamlined authentication by giving students a single point of access to multiple services—such as the library, registrar and e-mail—when logging in at one URL. “More information will be accessible to students who can log in without having to go through so many clicks,” Petersen-Leary says.

Lesley University ROI

Though the portal is new, Petersen-Leary already sees an emerging return on investment. “Many groups offering services to students and faculty were used to developing solutions on their own, including the library and IT, which is not unusual in universities,” she says. “We have found by collaborating we can strengthen the suite of tools available to our learners and also ensure we are not duplicating efforts while maximizing our use and investment in the technologies we have available. This also strengthens our approach to planning for the future and scalability of our solutions.”

The myLesley project has also helped IT and library staff better understand database licensing and full-time equivalent pricing models, which will lead to more consolidation and savings in the future.

Says Petersen-Leary, “There does not have to be friction between IT and library sciences, as we have found when we collaborate on a common goal: serving our students and faculty effectively.”

$50,000
The amount University of Florida College of Law netted from combining IT and library functions.

Stacy Collett is a Chicago-based writer.

Oct 31 2006

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