Libraries and Computing on Liberal Arts College Campuses:
Summary in early November

Hugh Blackmer

In his first meeting with the professional staff of the Library, President Burish asked what we thought of the possibility of merging Computing and the Library into a single organization, hastening to add that he had presided over a de-merging at Vanderbilt, and had no preconceptions about the appropriateness of such a reorganization for W&L. In a subsequent conversation about my sabbatical agenda, he asked me to keep an eye open as I traveled to various campuses for how other institutions were handling the process of redefining the roles and responsibilities of the many actors in the information arena. Below I will report what I now can of the issues, choices, and processes I have observed on the various campuses.

In the last two months I have visited most of the colleges on my original list, several of them more than once. In the next few weeks I will return to several campuses and go to a few that I haven't visited yet. Because my original plan was so multifaceted, I have not made any effort to be systematic by asking the same questions on each campus --rather, I have followed my own (varied and evolving) interests and been further guided by the specific and local concerns of my informants. This is fieldwork in the anthropological sense, not structured inquiry, and it proceeds by encouraging people to talk about their own circumstances and perceptions. The fieldworker is a listener, not an interrogator. The advantage of the 'method' is that you hear all sorts of things that lead you to rethink what you thought you knew; one of the disadvantages is that summary of what you have heard is more art than science.

The central questions I address in considering the possible futures of information services at W&L are: how can we create the conditions for a substantial advance in effective use of information in teaching and learning? How can we best set about leveraging our substantial investments in hardware and software and staff skills and knowledge, so that they are truly producing the multiplicative returns they promise?

The impetus for these questions is the profound change in the information landscape wrought by the Internet and the World Wide Web. Nobody doubts that there is a digital revolution underway, but as educators we must ask: what has really changed, such that we need to think differently about what we do and how we do it? My current favorite writers in this realm are Douglas Engelbart (among other things, inventor of the mouse, an early developer of hypertext, and now principal mouthpiece of The Bootstrap Alliance --see his keynote address to the 2002 World Library Summit "Improving our ability to improve: a call for investment in a new future"), John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (authors of The Social Life of Information and the chapter "Universities in the Digital Age" from The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the 21st Century [1998]), and Lawrence Lessig (Stanford Law School professor and author of The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World [2001]). These writers focus on the social consequences of quantitative and qualitative changes in the variety and availability of information, and all reiterate the point that information in and of itself is not useful: it is the context and the interlinkage that creates value.

Context and interlinkage are the intellectual specialties of liberal arts institutions, and they are now challenged to an evolutionary leap by burgeoning digital content. How can this apparent spate be measured? The Associate College Librarian at Dartmouth told me that 25% of the collections budget is now going to digital resources; Bowdoin has seen a sudden jump in the use of electronic reserves; many other examples reflect unprecedented changes in availability and use of digital material.

IF there is burgeoning digital content THEN there is a necessity to teach sagacious and responsible use of it; IF anyone can create and distribute digital content THEN there will be a growing demand for support and development. Whose responsibility is it to create digital content? Many would say it is the faculty, but it is more likely that digitization projects will fall to libraries or IT. Who will build the resource discovery tools, who will provide the teaching and support for digital media, and whose responsibility is it to manage the realized and potential digital assets of an organization? Library and computing personnel are the obvious candidates, but they must collaborate closely with each other and with disciplinary faculty, and all must develop new skills. José Marie Griffiths (CIO, University of Michigan) suggests the scope of realignment of library responsibilities in a chapter in The Mirage of Continuity ("Why the Web is not a library"):

Librarians will... evolve from collection builders to knowledge prospectors... evolve from classifiers, catalogers and indexers to metadata developers and publishers ...evolve from information retrieval specialists to knowledge navigators and 'expedition guides' ...from reference librarians to information analysts/knowledge interpreters ...need to become effective collaborators as well as teachers... (237-240, passim)
The last few years have seen parallel developments in the IT arms of computing organizations, as new applications appeared and as professors and students experimented with a broader range of media. At the very least, libraries and computing services are finding that they often need to link what they do, and that each sometimes needs the skills of the other.

Liberal arts colleges are in the very early stages of realizing that they must realign personnel and resources to prepare students for the challenges of an increasingly digital future. The learning that takes place in libraries, classrooms, laboratories, offices and dormitories draws upon a much wider palette of materials than was the case a decade ago, and the technological infrastructure which supports that learning has grown dramatically. Every constituency on a campus has had to learn new skills and balance tradition and innovation, but much of this activity has been reactive: no single blueprint has guided development. The future promises more of the same, unabated: new media, new hardware and software opportunities, new challenges to existing fabric and resources. Because there are so few roadmaps for the terrain ahead, libraries and computing organizations must emphasize flexibility, local resources must be allocated to experimentation, and communication among peer institutions must be fostered.

The committee has been asked "to take a look at the relationships between the library and computing organizations" and to explore "various organizational models" for these relationships which have been developed at other institutions. Libraries and computing organizations are the focus of attention because they seem to deal in the same basic commodity --information-- and to possess specialized skills that other sectors need. The degree of overlap or complementarity of skills is debated, as is the feasibility of improving service (or perhaps reducing costs) by making closer links between organizations. Are they close enough in needs and capabilities that merger is a sensible option? Are there advantages to maintaining separate organizations? Is sharing, cohabitation, or marriage the appropriate model for an alliance?

In my campus visits I have seen merged, merging and resolutely separate organizations; flat structures and hierarchical structures; outward- and inward-looking leaders and subordinates; cooperation and Byzantine plotting; exhuberance and dissatisfaction. Three themes have been clear at each institution:

  1. In every case, what does or doesn't work is first and foremost a matter of personal chemistry, not a consequence of structural arrangement.
  2. A solution that works in one setting is not transportable to another: local solutions evolve with the participation of the dramatis personae who must make them work.
  3. The fundamental requirement for success is effective communication among the participants in any process of reorganization.

There is no simple means to gauge whether 'library' and 'computing' are working well together on a campus: the complexities of the organizations and the multiplicity of responsibilities offer too many permutations of persons and circumstances, and generally one hears either about what isn't "working well" or about poster children for collaborative success, and not about the process of working out effective cooperation across administrative units. Organizational charts, titles and job descriptions are handy places to start in comparing institutions, but in face-to-face organizations (which liberal arts colleges quintessentially are) they can reveal little about what actually happens from day to day, and still less about longer-run relationships.

As a general rule, the worlds of libraries and computing are minimally connected. Each realm has established agendas and responsibilities, their practitioners recognize few common objectives, but they are not so much hostile as mutually uncomprehending and incurious about each other's realms and issues. There are some stunning counterexamples, in which collaborations have been fomented and supported by putting together project-focused teams from multiple constituencies and including students. Important among those is the Mellon-funded Talking Toward Technopedagogy initiative ( --see specifically under the PUBLICATION tab "Liberal Arts Education in the New Millennium: Beyond Information Literacy and Instructional Technology" [Elliott Shore] and "Reimagining Professional Identities: A Reflection on Collaboration and Techno-Pedagogy" [Jonathan T. Church], items that ought to be in whatever discourse is developing about the possible/proper relationships among library, computing, and teaching faculty).

The main limitations I see in the Mellon projects are that they are course centered (revising a professor's course "through or with technology") and engage librarians and IT people for their existing specializations rather than explicitly encouraging them to develop new skills --they produce useful examples of collaboration, but do not address systemic change in what libraries or computing organizations do. I have encountered very few library/computing or library/computing/faculty collaborations that address the issues of creating and managing new digital content, though great interest has been expressed in the examples I have been able to show of W&L's collaborative prototyping with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), art images, and digital library projects. Only at Dartmouth have I seen a large-scale digital library project uniting multiple constituencies (the electronic journal Linguistic Discovery is being published by the library, as a part of their digital library initiative, and a Latino Studies project is soon to be released). Projects like the budding W&L/ACS Digital South, involving collaborative building of consortial resources, seem to be beyond the horizon for most liberal arts colleges.

An example of changing responsibilities for management of resources and content is in the realm of statistics and database management, areas of pronounced growth in many disciplines. Librarians have long been responsible for access to data, but generally what users did with data was their own problem. Computing was responsible for hardware and software, but generally not for support of substantive use in application development and interpretation. Some institutions offer statistical consulting services, though W&L does not. Once online statistical information becomes a common need, and is distributed via the Web in standard formats, whose responsibility is it to help users retrieve and convert and manipulate data? How should a collaboration be assembled and defined to provide the necessary skills and advice? Clearly an alliance of library and computing skills is required, and the responsibilities for the additional services will be added on to other duties. The case is similarly clear in the emerging need to provide support for GIS and relational database development: the range of skills and knowledge required generally does not exist in a single staff person, and so must be assembled by a collaboration that crosses administrative units, unless the institution is willing to hire a specialist.

Most of the campuses I have visited have considered a fundamental re-engineering of their information services, all have engaged in variations on the theme of smaller-scale reorganization and redeployment to try to meet the needs of evolving technologies, and several (Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Middlebury) have carried out merger transformations. Only Mount Holyoke has reached the point of transition to a second Director (successor to the person who led the original process) of a merged organization.

Sentiments and opinions about merged organizations cover the spectrum. The computing director at Amherst characterized merger as "leading to a mismatch" because computing serves a campus-wide constituency with multiple administrative entities, while the library has an academic focus and an external constituency, but he also mentioned that he "works together" with his library counterpart "when overlaps occur". At Williams the library director and the director of computing services sit on each other's governing bodies (both of which also include the Provost). On campuses that have merged library and computing, there is often a sense that merger opens opportunities for truly interesting work ("an opportunity to grow in your job", as Wellesley's Micheline Jedrey expressed it).

It should be obvious that a merger of 'computing' and 'library' involves more than two entities, because each has semi-autonomous subunits with their own agendas and histories and mysteries. These subunits are labeled and defined and partitioned differently on the various campuses, but it is their interactions that become important when their structural relationships are redefined by a reorganization. Thus, the objectives of "instructional technology" and "classroom support" and "reference" and "library instruction" may overlap in areas that demand cooperation with "networking and systems" and "administrative computing" and "academic computing" (really effective implementation of course management software would be a case in point for this particular constellation).

A successful reorganization which is more than a relabelling of existing units with some reshuffling of personnel must rest on a careful analysis of existing structure and function, and should incorporate the participants as fully as possible. Ideally, they should define much of the specific agenda themselves, but in the end it is not a democratic process --and decisions will need to be made which do not please everybody. Staff will have to take on new tasks, learn new skills, and do familiar things differently. Support and appropriate incentives are necessary at each step.

For each institution I have visited, I would like to know much more about the process of developing plans and priorities than I do, but a clear understanding of any campus's history would require much more time than I have. The clearest illustration and documentation I have encountered is the set of pages from Computing/Library: Info Services at Wellesley:

Wellesley College Library Work Redesign Process Outcome: "Across the Library" Organizational Model
Work Redesign Process Timetable
These materials provide an excellent model for a process, and reflect in their elaboration and detail the energy and time that such a process demands.

Merger of library and computing is always spoken of as a lengthy process (one person said of Kenyon that "after five years it was just beginning to make sense") and seems always to rely upon (1) the remarkable and distinctive skills of the person who orchestrates the merger and (2) the rock-solid commitment of Deans, Provosts and Presidents. Susan Perry, Micheline Jedrey, and Barbara Doyle-Wilch are spoken of as remarkable people by their staffs, but in each instance informants also tell stories of people who were or are not happy (most of whom left for other employment), and of conflicts and lengthy learning processes for all concerned.

If there is a single common thread in explanations of success, it is that the leader managed to create an effective communication structure so that staffs saw themselves as vitally involved in process and outcome. At all 3 institutions with merged organizations (Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, and Middlebury) it was seen as highly significant that librarians and computing people participated in defining the problems and identifying structural and other obstacles to effective change --and in the Wellesley example it was volunteers who created the material linked above. The time and energy invested was substantial, but the payoff was certainly a strong sense of inclusion and participation in the process: it was not seen as imposed upon them from above.

It is difficult to judge the importance of the location of collaborative facilities, but many people have noted the importance of physical proximity in encouraging communication and building sympathy. A number of renovations and new constructions have made a strong point of locating complementary services close together: Wellesley's renovation of the library has mixed IT personnel in with librarians, so that they cross paths constantly and are seen to be participants in a single organization; Dartmouth's library renovation moved several sectors of computing (including the Help Desk and Curricular Computing) into space adjacent to the reference area; Mount Holyoke's Curriculum Support and Instructional Technology staff are in the library, and work in close collaboration with subject librarians. A counterexample makes much the same point: at Williams the instructional support staff is in a separate building and except for faculty liaison assignments they seem to have relatively little to do with librarians.

It may be that organization is more important than location, and that the opportunity for participation in project-based collaborations is an effective incentive. Several of the institutions have team structures to facilitate cross-unit cooperation, on the model of the Technopedagogy workshops. The inclusion of student employees in teams seems to be particularly effective.

Any reorganization process must keep uppermost the question who/what is this for? This is a much more serious problem than it looks, because it is so easily forgotten by participants at every level, especially when cherished aspects of identity or responsibilities seem to be in question. Most of my informants have told me stories of stress (theirs or somebody else's) because of changes in content or compass of assignment, often seen as imposed by a manager who didn't "understand what we do". Beneath the personal dissatisfaction lies disagreement (or a sense of not being consulted or considered) on the broader goals. In many instances the real cui bono?, behind the ideology, is fiduciary, or sometimes the satisfaction of 'the faculty' in a diffuse sense --on several campuses faculty demand for improved service seems to have been the primary motivation for reorganization. In a few cases I heard it explicitly mentioned that the ultimate "who" is the students, and the ideal would be to assess how any plan of action affects the betterment of the education of students. Facilities like Information Commons and well-equipped (and staffed) multimedia labs in renovated library space send a powerful message of commitment and focus.

Administrative backing and extraordinary resources committed to the merger, specifically including substantial investment in physical plant and salaries for new positions, are essential elements in each of the success stories, and the position of the leader within the college's administrative structure seems to be an important component as well: a title like CIO, Dean of Information Services, or Vice President for Information Technology conveys a commitment that is taken seriously by staff and by faculty, and that announces a fundamental change in emphasis.

I have encountered widespread anecdotal evidence of belief in an inevitable and possibly irreducible 'clash of cultures' between libraries and computing organizations, even on campuses with nominally merged organizations. Antipathies and conflicts are never far below the surface between subunits which do understand one another's activities (reference and technical services have different priorities in a library, as do networking and user services in computing), but in a newly-merged organization even the words mean different things, and basic issues of service may conflict. Librarians and IT people both have strong service ethics, but rarely understand one another's relationships with end users. As one informant said, IT people know how to say NO, but "librarians never say NO". It seems to take a long time (several people have told me that a year of close contact is not enough --"not quite enough room for that kind of conversation yet", as one put it) for groups with overlapping concerns to develop understanding and sympathy for each other's problems, and to "make the transition from THEY to US".

On more than one campus I heard the sentiment that librarians are "the problem": they are perceived (sometimes by other librarians) as afraid they're being left behind, or becoming obsolete, or as the least willing to consider changing what they do and how they do it. Librarians are thought to have "great resistance to change of [primary status of] the printed text", and to believe that "the worth is in the physical collection". Some librarians are clearly not in that mode, but at least some are: they see themselves as guardians of paper, of real information, of an important intellectual tradition that new technologies don't respect. For their part, librarians complain of other constituencies that "they don't take us seriously, they don't see what we do..."

To conclude for the moment: it seems to me that the most important insight I have from looking at a variety of campuses is that the discovery process matters: it is vital to include people from across the whole range of affected units in the discussion of questions that can illuminate common problems. Such questions as who are our students (and our faculty)? how are they changing? how do they use information? what are they missing? have different answers from computing, library, faculty and student perspectives, and can be very helpful in pointing the way toward sensible choices among resource allocation alternatives. Opening the process up to the affected constituencies and having them talk with each other may slow things down, but may also contribute to solutions that are more adaptive in the long run.

Links to Web sites for many of the organizations mentioned:

LITS at Mount Holyoke

Library and Information Services at Middlebury

Libraries and Computing at Dartmouth

Technology at Bowdoin (CIS and ETS)

Office for Information Technology and Libraries at Williams

I have not made a systematic search for other Web materials relevant to the questions addressed here, but this one has some interesting features:

NERCOMP Library Special Interest Group SIG Workshop: Library / I T: New Combinations, Collaborations, and Institutional Roles: Challenges and Opportunities (January 14, 2000 at Wesleyan University)
And here's another that looks toothsome: 'Open relationships, de-facto marriages, or shotgun weddings?': the convergence and integration of libraries and computing/information technology services within Australian universities (Richard Sayers in Australian Library Journal)