Libraries and IT Share Very Similar Challenges

Today I was reading the summary of a recent Ithaka S+R library survey about “strategy and leadership issues from the perspective of academic library deans and directors.”  What really struck me was the similarity between those issues and ones I know I and my CIO colleagues face in higher education IT.  In most cases, it’s just a question of language choices or content focus that define these problems and library instead of IT challenges.

Because I don’t want to lose any context, I’m going to quote each recommendation in full and then comment on it after.

Library directors anticipate increased resource allocation towards services and predict the most growth for positions related to teaching and research support. Nearly half of respondents indicated that their library is increasing the share of staffing and budget devoted to developing and improving services that support teaching, learning, and research. The positions for which respondents anticipate the most growth in the next five years include those related to instruction, instructional design, information literacy, and specialized faculty research support.

Here replacing “library directors” with “CIO” and “library” with “IT” yields a statement that could just as easily have come from an EDUCAUSE top ten issues article.  As both libraries and IT move from a “utility” provider (and here I’m going to blasphemously pile physical collections and journal/database access in with network connectivity and desktop computers as a utility service) to a strategic partner, both need to find a way to think of the services they need to provide to make faculty successful rather than just the access they provide.

Library directors are deeply committed to supporting student success, yet many find it difficult to articulate these contributions. Approximately eight in ten respondents indicated that the most important priority for their library is supporting student success, although only about half of respondents reported that their library has clearly articulated how it contributes towards student success. While roughly eight in ten library directors agreed that librarians at their institutions contribute significantly to student learning in a variety of ways, only about half of faculty members from the Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey 2015 recognized these contributions.

This ones a little trickier, and I think in this case the librarians are ahead of the IT folks.  My higher ed background is in Student Affairs, so I know I think constantly about student success.  I’m also at an institution that serves underprepared and underserved students, so student success is baked into our mission.  But if I look generally my sense is student success isn’t always at the forefront for the “average” CIO, and I’d be hesitant to bet we could match that 80% mark the librarians hit.  There is something in here that will ring true for almost every CIO though, the idea that we haven’t clearly articulated how we contribute towards student success.  When IT is seen as a utility service, it’s like trying to argue that having power and water on campus contribute to student success.  Sure, it’s probably true, but almost everyone is going to roll their eyes at you when you suggest it.  So perhaps that shift from utility provider to strategic partner is the bridge that would make this articulation easier.

Collections have been digitally transformed, and directors are interested in expanding their collecting to include more non-textual materials. Library leaders continue to report increased spending on e-resources, accompanied by decreased spending on print resources, and expect spending to continue in this direction. There is also evidence that dependence on these e-resources has potentially peaked, as respondents are already highly reliant on these formats of resources. Meanwhile, although library directors have predicted little change for the share of the library’s material budget devoted to items outside of journals, databases, and books, a large majority of respondents agreed that libraries must shift their collecting to include new material types.

OK, you knew there would be one that was library specific enough that an IT counterpart would be hard.  My temptation here is to equate this with cloud computing, but I think it fits better with the next one.  So let’s pass on this noting that libraries are in the unique position of having to think about infrastructure and content, something most IT operations don’t have to do.

Library directors are increasingly recognizing that discovery does not and should not always happen in the library. Compared to the 2013 survey results, fewer library directors believe that it is important that the library is seen by its users as the first place that they go to discover content, and fewer believe that the library is always the best place for researchers at their institution to start their research. The share of respondents who agree that it is important that the library guide users to a preferred version of a given source continues to decrease.

I want to highlight what I think is the key phrase here, “discovery does not and should not always happen in the library.” There are many ways to find, curate, and interact with information outside the sphere if the library, and, according to the survey, many library directors are starting to see that.  Perhaps the librarian role moves from one of pre-curation to one of expert advisor on how to vet and understand sources of material.  This is the same struggle CIOs have with the explosion of cloud computing.  When a service is a credit card away from deployment, what role does IT play when infrastructure does not and should not always happen in IT?  Do we move from being the arbiters of the possible to a guide on the side helping departments understand the process of contract negotiation and data security?  For both groups, these transformations seem to me all but certain.

Library directors are pursuing strategic directions with a decreasing sense of support from their institutions. There is evidence across the survey that library directors feel increasingly less valued by, involved with, and aligned strategically with their supervisors and other senior academic leadership. Compared with the previous survey cycle in 2013, fewer library directors perceive that they are a part of their institution’s senior academic leadership and that they share the same vision for the library with their direct supervisor. Only about 20% of respondents agreed that the budget allocations they receive from their institution demonstrates recognition of the value of the library.

I can understand why library directors would feel this way, and I’m confident many CIOs feel this pain as well.  As I review my latest devastating budget cut, I definitely share the sense that the budget allocations from my institution don’t demonstrate a recognition of the value of IT.  If you are a utility, you are a cost center; if you are a cost center, then the goal is to lower costs – period.  Again, the shift from utility provider to strategic partner is a hard one, but it’s probably the best path to resolving this issue for both libraries and IT.

As you can see, libraries and IT share some of the same issues, even if they are couched in different language.  Even in institutions that don’t have shared library/IT organizations, perhaps there are opportunities to reach out to each other and see if there are ways we can work to solve our challenges together.

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“Best Friends – Bodrum, Turkey” flickr photo by virtualwayfarer shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

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