Looking at Library Information Technology, Leadership, and Culture
New Issue Brief from Dale Askey and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe
Last year, I wrote on the changing organizational structure of academic libraries. Across my interviews with the former and current directors of large research libraries, I found a number of areas where these leaders were taking similar approaches—in redefining the role of the AUL, reallocating the staffing and materials budgets for general collections, and experimenting with new approaches to outreach and engagement roles. Their approach, however, was not as uniform when it came to library technology. And indeed some directors were uncertain how best to manage technology resources strategically or tended to collapse technology-enabled services with information technology.
Perhaps this uncertainty reflects a larger issue within academic libraries. As Dale Askey and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe argue in the issue brief we are publishing today, IT staff—and the IT function itself –are too often confined to the periphery of our academic libraries. In “Finding a Way from the Margins to the Middle: Library Information Technology, Leadership, and Culture,” Dale and Lisa describe the “lingering divide between the culture of the information technology unit and the library culture at large.”
This divide can have serious ramifications on both the ability of libraries to meet their users’ needs and to retain talented staff. Moving IT to “the middle” is imperative if libraries are going to continue to transform in a fast-changing environment. To begin, as Lisa and Dale argue, “Library leaders need to have a vision of and commitment to library information technology as a strategic asset and not only an operational utility.”
I’m thankful that Lisa and Dale chose to further develop their CNI talk on this topic into this publication. I invite you to join in on the conversation with your own comments: how do these observations about the place of IT within the library resonate with your experience?
While the subject matter is truly relevant, I strongly hold that the central issue in this discussion is not technology but systems as a way of thinking. I could not disagree more with the statement that "libraries have zero agency in terms of setting broader societal information technology agendas and trends." In fact, we have been driving library-required information systems development and hence technology for decades. Everyone learns technology and surely the existence and pace of change is a given by now. Libraries should embrace their core values and long-term strategic visions and missions and allow time to heal this perceived rift among allied units on campus. IT has long become another utility, nurtured in many cases by monies taken from our budgets. But it does not make us enemies nor competitors--the partnership is stronger the more we work together. Our organizational models are adaptable and fluid, as noted, and libraries are shining examples of tenacity and determination to survive. It is systems thinking we have in common with provosts and presidents and we need to hire for it, recognize it, and promote from within our ranks to leadership positions.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Ken. Our piece doesn't delve into the nature of the relationships between IT units on a university campus, but there would be ample material there to write any number of analyses. We focused, instead, on the existence of IT functions and services within the library organization.
We will have to agree to disagree about whether libraries have any influence on broader societal technology trends. In the current environment, we are both too small to compete with those who do control the agenda as well as too technically retrograde in some ways to claim any sort of leading edge advantage, except in some narrow areas that pertain mostly only to libraries. It's not to say that libraries are not technically innovative; certainly we could point to any number of projects that would qualify as candidates for that title, but whether those projects have any influence outside of the GLAM world is where I am more circumspect and skeptical.
I think it's important to remember that information technology has taken over almost everything these days, so it is best to find out how to make the most of all the benefits it can provide to the library culture.