Is Library IT on the Margins?

Recently Ithaka S+R published an Issue Brief entitled “Finding a Way from the Margins to the Middle: Library Information Technology, Leadership, and Culture,” by Dale Askey and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe. Their basic premise is that library information technology as an organizational unit has been pushed to the margins, and is not as centrally positioned within the library as other units. It’s a fairly provocative thesis, so I decided to bring together some IT leaders from our partner institutions to discuss it. The people who joined me were:

  • Karen Estlund, Penn State
  • Cheryl Gowing, University of Miami,
  • David Lacy, Temple University
  • Jennifer Vinopal, Ohio State University
  • Evviva Weinraub, Northwestern University

We were also informed by Jennifer’s recent keynote at the OCLC DevConnect Conference (speaker notes and slides available here), as well as a recent blog post by Lauren Magnuson at ACRL TechConnect, “Decentralizing Library IT.”

The panel thought that it is was good that Askey and Hinchliffe had started an important conversation, and we ended with the awareness that our initial conversation is really just the beginning of a process of learning more about the issues and considering ways in which we can each work to improve how we function within our institutions.

Evviva kicked off the discussion by saying that she really wanted to be talking about how to foster collaboration. “The technology work that we’re doing is about public services,” she asserted, “All of us are really in the game of engaging with and supporting public services even if some of the technology that we’re supporting is for back-end services.”

Jennifer also wanted to reframe the discussion along similar lines. “How do we think about IT not as separate from, but as part of, the library organization? How do we behave in ways through our organizational culture, training, and our communication strategies that treats IT like any of the other units in libraries — as a core service and as part of the structure and service environment that we’ve always provided in libraries?” David brought up a point of agreement with the Issue Brief. “The potential for professional growth within the library IT sector is not as well defined as the traditional librarian role,” he stated, “It’s very common to have four or five different levels of librarian, but it’s uncommon to have that kind of progression in library IT.”

In reference to Lauren Magneson’s blog post, Evviva had this to say: “Even if we still have structured IT units, there is a lot of IT work going on in other parts of the organization just naturally and these open up opportunities for more extensive communication and collaboration. This resonates a lot more with me in terms of what I’m seeing in libraries in general and the kinds of opportunities that we have across the organization to use IT innovation and experimentation as an opportunity for further engagement.”

Cheryl didn’t like the term “decentralization,” which makes it sound like you’re “breaking something up”. “Rather, she’s [Magneson] talking about building information technology skills throughout the organization,” Cheryl said, “to make that as a baseline…The core expectations for many of our positions are now changing and people are utilizing technology in their everyday work, and that can be done in collaboration with a more formal IT department…It’s more of a building than a decentralizing.”

The idea of “product owners” was brought up and how that affects the organization. These are staff outside of IT but who collaborate with IT staff on a particular project. The product owner is typically a project’s key stakeholder. Part of the product owner responsibilities is to have a vision of what they want for the tool and how it should work. This is key to successfully starting and maintaining any software project because running and maintaining these services requires regular feedback and conversation. The product owner does this in part through prioritizing features and acting as the lead user of the tool.

Regarding this role, Karen said: “When you actually get public services staff at the table and talking about what they want and need there is a kind of excitement that comes from acknowledging that there’s something really valuable they bring and they don’t need to know how to code to be able to contribute. I think there is something really valuable, empowering, and useful for your organization when you can get people to see how they can contribute to technology without necessarily having to contribute technical skills.” But she also acknowledged that this can take a lot of cultural acclimation work to get people comfortable in such new roles.

“Askey and Hinchliffe are talking about pushing IT to the center of the organization,” Jennifer said, “but I think it’s not IT that should be in the middle of the organization, I think it’s our users and our collections, and other things that we want to serve, or highlight, or preserve. That should really be at the center of our thinking.” She also said that if she were to pick one thing that should be at the center of our thinking it would be user experience, to serve as our over-arching concern.

As you can see, we had a wide-ranging conversation during the hour we shared together virtually, and we agreed that this is just the beginning of a conversation we should have as a community to help us determine how best to integrate our important information technology work within our various organizations. In the end, the question posed in the title of this post is not the right question. It should be something more like “Is Library IT positioned effectively within the organization to address our key concerns — helping our users become as effective and empowered as we can?”

We look forward to additional conversations to answer that question within a wide range of diverse institutional environments.    

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One Comment

  1. Library tech *should* be at the *margins*. Thinking of libtech from an academic library point of view there is the beginning of a trend for it be be subsumed into emerging *learning* and also *research* services platform. From the teaching and learning perspective see the recent Higher Education Library technology (HELibTech) briefing paper published this week. “The new of the library in teaching and learning”. http://helibtech.com/Briefing+Papers

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