Library as IT Organization

Premise for debate:  The contemporary library is an IT organization.

I tend to think that’s true, but I admit I’m not sure what the definition of an “IT organization” is that I’m operating with to think that. And “is” or “should be”?  Or is it not true at all, because too much of the library’s mission isn’t about IT at all?

Discuss. While you discuss, consider:

Strains and Joys Color Mergers Between Libraries and Tech Units

5 thoughts on “Library as IT Organization

  1. I’ve had discussion with our current IT director, who witnessed firsthand a failed Library/IT merger. An IT department tends to be focused on the technology side, not the information side; ours is almost exclusively focused on infrastructure. It seems the meaning of IT would have to be expanded for it to include a typical library’s mission.

    Given the nature of information, and that a typical librarian is primarily focused on the meaningful connections in that information, and providing that to patrons who don’t care about the technology at all, I don’t think librarians will ever blend with the Technology side of IT. They use it, and those of us who code back ends care about ontology, but the service provided is really not about technology or ontology.

    Personally I don’t think you can ever map information onto technology and say it is the same thing; it is now a mapped representation. E.g., I can’t see a map of the Grand Canyon and feel like I’ve seen it. In a sense, then, I see the term ‘Information Technology’ as an oxymoron.

  2. Traditionally, the library is not an IT organization, per se. But, your question is–Is the contemporary library an IT organization? This is a really interesting question.

    A glaring flaw of the otherwise excellent LC working group report is that they redefined “bibliographic control” and the “bibliographic universe”, but neglected to redefine “libraries.” I would argue that we won’t get too far in the work of overhauling bibliographic control until we think a little harder about redefining what it means to be a library in a Web environment.

    A blending of IT and libraries makes sense as our worlds seem to be colliding in chaotic and interesting ways. But (to focus on my niche for a minute) I do think that many in the cataloging community need to open their minds a bit more, otherwise we’ll never move forward with library services on the Web.

  3. Yeah, I’m agnostic on actually merging IT departments and Libraries. I’m sure it makes sense in some circumstances and not others, and I’m not sure what those circumstances are. But I think that’s actually a different but related question to “is the contemporary library an IT organization”. It’s possible the contemporary library is (or should be) “an IT organization” (whatever that means), but should still be seperate from THE IT organization, a library may be a different sort of IT organization, there may be room for two (or more) IT organizations with different focuses within a parent organization.

    But if the library is an IT organization, while it may not require a merger, it would say something about how libraries are managed, how they are staffed, what competencies adminstrators need, what programs and services libraries offer and how they think about them.

    That users dont’ care about the technology seems irrelevant to me. We focus on LOTS of stuff that the users don’t care about–we focus on it so they don’t have to! That’s true of traditional cataloging even before the computer era. It doesn’t mean that libraries aren’t or shouldn’t be metadata-focused organizations because users don’t care about metadata, right? We care about it so they don’t have to. Users supported by traditional standard IT departments care about the tasks they are trying to do more than the technology too!

    But submitted for consideration: IT is integral to every single aspect of a contemporary libraries operation; and to every single service or program that a library provides to it’s users. Is this an exageration? How much? If it is true, does that mean that the library is “an IT organization”? Regardless of what “an IT organization” is, if it is true, what does it mean for staffing, adminsitrative competencies, etc.?

  4. Libraries are highly reliant on IT, and it sure helps to have technically competent staff. But I don’t think managing IT infrastructure (running servers, patching operating systems, doing backups, database admin, maintaining tape archives for big data sets, etc) is a core competency of libraries or librarians. Some libraries do it, and maybe there are even some that do it well. But given my druthers, I’d rather that stuff be handled by competent IT professionals.

    On the other hand, IT departments tend to know very little about library applications and standards. So it makes a lot of sense for the library to manage its catalogue, link resolver, metasearch engine, proxy server, indexing engines etc even if the IT department manages the hardware that the applications run on.

    As for public computing, that’s an interesting one. Libraries may have some specialized public desktop setups, but increasingly public computing is just commodity infrastructure. We use the same technologies for managing our Information Commons pcs as every other computer lab on campus. And increasingly, at our library we’re using central infrastructure whenever its available (eg. print servers).

    So ideally, academic libraries and IT depts will have to develop and maintain close collaborative relationships. But I doubt you have to merge them for that to happen, and in fact I think maintaining the library as a separate entity within the organization will help to ensure that the library’s priorities aren’t shuffled to the bottom of the pile when higher profile IT projects come along … as they do all the time.

  5. I agree with johnd that none of those infrastructure kind of things are core competencies for a library program.

    But what about the ability to provide first-line tech support for users?

    Can a user be expected to know what is a problem that she should get IT support for, and what is a problem that she should get library support for? If your (university supported) computer is configured incorrectly, that’s IT. If you can’t get to licensed content because the provider is down, that’s library. If you can’t get to licensed content because you don’t understand how the interface works, that’s library. If you can’t get to the licensed content because there’s something wrong with the VPN which is supported by central IT (or maybe there’s nothing wrong with it, but you just don’t know how to use it properly)… oops, that’s IT again. You want to know how to use EBSCO, that’s library. You want to know how to use the VPN, that’s IT.

    Is there anyone at this hypothetical library who is even capable of diagnosing the problem enough to figure out whose problem it is? Is there anyone at IT who is familiar enough with library stuff to do so? Or do we expect the users to figure out what we can’t even figure out for them! Do users sometimes get shuffled back and forth? Even if the diagnosers ARE there and have the proper expertise—is it acceptable to tell someone who came to the reference/info desk for help, oh, nevermind, you need to go to IT, we can’t help you. To the user, does it make sense that these domains are seperated, or is it all just “I can’t do what I need to do, help me.”

    Not to mention that if the library _is_ providing first-line tech support, that’s a GREAT point of intervention for reference interview/reference help. Users will come to get IT support way more often then they’ll come to get reference support. Sometimes what they _think_ they need is IT support, but their cause of failure is really something that needs reference intervention to solve (can we expect IT support to do a ‘reference interview’ to discover this?). Other times they are right that it’s an IT problem, but now that they’re talking to us, that’s a GREAT potential opportunity to offer further help in the reference area to people who you’d never see otherwise.

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