Information Technology in Research Libraries #CNI16s

From Invasive to Integrated-  Information Technology and Library Leadership, Structure, and Culture - CNILast week Dale Askey and I led an issue-oriented session at the Spring Meeting of the Coalition of Networked Information (CNI) titled Invasive to Integrated: Information Technology and Library Leadership, Structure, and Culture (includes link to presentation slides).

The session was the result of a discussion on Twitter, prompted by Dale’s observation:

“chronic issue w library org charts: ‘IT’ (however named) shoved into one box. all other work is broken into components.” Dale Askey (@daskey) November 13, 2015

As we chatted over the intervening months, we discovered we share some views on what causes problems with information technology (IT) in research libraries and that we diverge at times. In many cases, our disagreements generated more new ideas than our agreements as another perspective added nuance and depth to our own understandings.

What Dale and I found that we absolutely have in common is the belief that problems will not be addressed if we do not have open and honest conversations in the broader research library community. We need to explore different ideas and possible actions for change. We intentionally selected CNI as the venue for our session because CNI meetings bring together library directors/associate directors and technology leaders.

We started our session with the assertion that, given the number and variety of significant IT projects supported and led by research libraries, one could incorrectly assume that IT has been successfully integrated into our organizations. We observed that, unlike other recent library service program developments (e.g., information literacy and scholarly communications), which also started on the margins of research libraries, IT has not found its way to the “middle” in most of our organizations. We believe that IT workers, not solely but in particular, experience the lingering divide between IT and the library culture as an unproductive chasm. We note that research libraries struggle to develop robust applicants pools for leadership roles such as Associate University Librarian for IT. Something is amiss with information technology in research libraries.

Marty Cagan’s Moving from an IT to a Product Organization provides a succinct statement of the challenge that research libraries are facing:

“Over the past 10 years, virtually all of these companies as well as those from dozens of other industries have realized that they need to use the Internet to engage directly with their customers online … many of these companies are trying to manage this new customer-facing internet software as if it were their internal-facing IT software, and the result is that many of these companies provide terrible online customer experiences, and worse, they don’t have the organization, people or processes in place to improve them.”

Ithaka S&R issued a very relevant Issue Brief the week before the CNI meeting, Library Leadership for the Digital Age, in which Deanna Marcum writes:

“Libraries are in a pivotal moment, and a digital mindset is needed at every level of the organization. The utilization of digital technology in making research and teaching and learning easier and more efficient for those they serve is critical. Libraries’ very survival depends on making the transition from a local institution to a node in a national and international information ecosystem. The skills needed to build a local collection are not sufficient for seeing the challenges and opportunities in a global environment.”

How is this manifest in research libraries? Internally, there are missed opportunities to engage and capitalize on IT talent. Library IT professionals have skills and abilities that libraries struggle to leverage in their operations and services. Libraries are challenged to recruit and retain IT professionals and the demographic profile of library IT is often less diverse than the libraries overall (which is particularly problematic given libraries themselves are not necessarily diverse). Library IT professionals are often organizationally separate from services and collections, reporting as an administrative service like human resources and budget/finance rather than integrated with the library’s strategic priorities.

Externally the missed opportunities are even greater. As Cagan points out, the result is a terrible user experience and lack of mechanisms for improvement. Library leaders in user services, library facilities, and content access/re-use are hampered in achieving effective and efficient experiences for users by limited use of technology. Virtual reference service, for example, remains a separate application on most library websites, not integrated into the workflow of using databases or accessing content. (A notable exception to this was presented at CNI, Transformational Online Reference with a Proactive, Context-sensitive Chat System: Using Triggers to Encourage Patrons to Ask Questionsproviding empirical evidence that failing to leverage technology truncates use of library services.) Ultimately, research libraries are unable to compete with other information services, which have emerged as competitors in the digital information age. (As I’ve written elsewhere, research libraries are increasingly absent from statements of scholarly information access and sharing; however, technology could also be used to assert our substantial and enduring roles.)

Though it is crucial to accurately understand the dimensions and aspects of challenging situations, it is worthwhile to consider analogous situations in order to develop useful insights. Information literacy and scholarly communications are two areas of work that have moved from the margins of research libraries to centrality in strategic plans and initiatives. Information literacy was a contested area of work as recently as the early 1990s when articles questioned whether librarians should be educators. Scholarly communications is a more recently developed service area and, though the parameters are still being defined, it is already codified in library organizational charts and strategic plans.

From these two cases, Dale and I observed three key factors in transforming information literacy and scholarly communications from operational activities into strategic initiatives:

  • Leadership – Library leaders need to have a vision of and commitment to library IT as a strategic asset and not only an operational utility. When hiring library IT leaders, search committees should look for candidates from within traditional IT units but also consider individuals who have leveraged technology in services or collections work.
  • Structure – Library IT is typically treated as a monolithic unit within an organizational chart, with little attention to role differentiation of the staff or alignment with user services or library collections. Having a complementary overlay or matrix structure for how different IT professionals work collaboratively with other units could highlight the variety of roles within IT and how they interact with the variety of professionals elsewhere in the organization.
  • Culture – When the culture of library IT is distinct from (and perhaps even in opposition to) the library culture at large, it is a signal that library IT professionals are, at best, siloed in the organization and, potentially worst, alienated and disaffected. Building a shared culture across the organization that values IT work as equally important is crucial.

Dale and I were hopeful that we would have 15-20 people attend the session. We were gratified to have almost 60 highly engaged participants. In fact, they were so engaged that the discussion took over before we finished presenting … but, honestly, we didn’t mind at all!

The comments and questions came so fast and furiously that it wasn’t possible to take the detailed notes that I had planned. Instead, as soon as the session was over, I took some time to reflect and write down thoughts and impressions. So, with the apology that this is not a comprehensive summary of the discussion, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • Diversity – Though much of the discussion in the session focused on questions of gender (with an intriguing side conversation on what are the appropriate statistics to benchmark against), questions of diversity in library IT need more attention and intentional action. Library IT could be a model for our campuses of what diverse and inclusive IT staffing and organizational culture look like. Are libraries willing to rise to that challenge? To not only meet a benchmark of acceptable performance but to aspire to be a campus model?
  • Professional Development – Too many library IT job ads require applicants to have already done what the person being hired will do. Once in the position, the person is required to be satisfied doing only that because of a lack of career paths. Some libraries seem so fearful of losing their IT professionals that they do not invest in their development and training. Just as we grow leaders for our own (or other) libraries by sending people to the ACRL information literacy immersion programs or ARL scholarly communications programs, research libraries could take the perspective that developing library IT leaders is a community task.
  • Values – Blending a group of professionals (IT) into an organization that is defined by the values and priorities of a different profession (librarians) creates a situation much different than years past when all library professionals had a common training in library science or archives. New hire orientation and training across the organization must focus on articulating the library’s mission and purpose in context of the parent institution and the values and beliefs that guide the development of services and collections. Engaging the multiplicity of values from different professionals can strengthen the library in developing its roles on campus.

I left CNI heartened that leaders in research libraries recognize the need to better integrate IT into our libraries. Our message clearly resonated beyond the research library community as Twitter was abuzz before the session ended with people asking how to bring this conversation to ALA and LITA events in the coming year. I look forward to participating and seeing what our community of practice can achieve!



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