The academic library in the organization

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Lorcan Dempsey wrote an interesting piece recently on the place of the academic library in organization structure, he points out that it is common for UK university libraries to be placed in the same department as IT. Lorcan thinks that this is wrong, and states:

It seems to me that it now makes more sense to associate the library with emerging support for e-learning and e-research, creating a set of capacities aligned around academic systems and services, and the management of research and learning data.

While I won’t be commenting on Lorcan’s ideas directly because I can’t really apply them to my library’s specific instance, I’d like to mention one thing: unless I’m much mistaken — and having been actively involved in several e-learning projects, I hope that I’m not — in the real world, “support” for e-learning comprises what I’d term administrative tasks associated with problems specific to distance and digital learning. In fact, aside from teaching — physically or using digital media — most of the tasks performed by “learning/teaching” departments are in fact administrative in nature. That Lorcan is aware of this comes very across in the quoted paragraph, but I’d question is whether or not this kind of focus is the one academic libraries should have. (Note by the way that I’m not talking about e-research here, because I reckon that most research based on resources from an academic library will be characterized by a certain e-ness.)

Back to the plot: I work in a library that has been positioned in the university organization under the Prorector of learning and learning quality. This is fine from the perspective of an academic/research/subject librarian, because we do teach (but this isn’t all they do), and it is fine for the customer services people because our library has a bit of a “learning centre” thing going on, but for all other library staff it is a bit weird. A lot of the staff perform typical library and resource management and infrastructure stuff, some interact directly with the academic communities we serve, while others work with IT and e-service provision. The tasks performed by each individual can cover one or all of these areas and include yet others.

What draws all of these tasks together is the purpose of the academic library; each task from answering questions at the help desk to managing the federated search platform revolves around one core task: providing a service to the academic community. The library exists because of a supply and demand chain initiated by the customers; this service-based approach puts the library in a concrete relation to the rest of the organization, it delimits what we do and why we do it.

Departments associated with learning can also be viewed as service-based, if you accept that administration of learning tasks is a service to students and teachers. Taking a quick look at the position of NTNU Library in the organization reveals that the library is placed alongside departments that provide the following services:

  • User support for IT systems associated with learning and studies
  • Student administration
  • Studies administration
  • Development and tools for practical provision of distance and e-learning courses
  • International students department
  • Student recruitment

The difference is that the library provides services for the whole organization, whereas the different departments under learning and learning quality will typically provide services to students or staff (though again, a broad definition of “service” might state that student recruitment is a service for the organization as a whole, this definition requires that “service” moves from being a “non-material” provided to individual to one provided to an institution, which isn’t exactly what I’m talking about).

It’s probably trendier for a library — given the information literacy/learning centre focus of the past few years — to be a part of a “learning” department, but it ignores the fact that a lot of the stuff we do is unfortunately plain old library work, and has little to do with tangible “learning” or “research”. This kind of conceptual dislocation can have dire organizational consequences, reducing staff morale and providing ever less efficient and lower quality service to library customers. A direct connection with a general “service” concept however provides the all necessary a tangible task that drives people who work in libraries on — the gods know we’re not in it for the money.

Seeing the meaning in what we do is very important, making sure that people know that they do something of value — helping people, providing that service — is key to job satisfaction. Placing libraries organizationally in a department where an understanding of “service for the organization as a whole” is key can never be a bad idea, because this is exactly what we do. Whether or not we have anything else in common with the other members of the department is less important, as long as the service focus is in place.

It’s interesting to note that IT services aren’t necessarily perceived as models of service-mindedness, and perhaps close co-operation with the library can rectify this. Ha ha.

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