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Letter to the Editor: Librarians and Tech Officials Must Get Along to Meet Future Challenges

This year we’re starting to post occasional letters from Wired Campus readers. Of course, anyone is welcome to comment on any item here, but the letters will allow for longer responses and (we hope) will encourage further discussion. Here’s the first one, which we got just before the holidays:

A recent episode of The Chronicle’s Tech Therapy podcast points to a traditional rift between librarians and IT staff. Supported by comments solicited from both groups, the podcasters suggest that differences in cultures, missions, and experiences create a divide that makes collaboration difficult. Even the chief similarities of the two groups — working in a rapidly changing environment and facing an uncertain future — seem to suggest a mutual need for survival rather than a shared desire for results. The podcasters wonder aloud if one group can live without the other.

Our experience at Indiana University shows that librarians and IT departments cannot only coexist, and do it successfully, but also that we must become assertive partners in order to achieve the results our users now expect. It’s time to move beyond the rift that apparently separates many libraries and IT departments. None of the compelling issues facing academic libraries today can be accomplished without strong support from IT departments. Among them: establishing robust institutional repositories; supporting e-science and data curation services; providing metadata and e-text consultation; growing a virtual reference community; and developing course management systems. The list goes on. And, we should note, none of these initiatives can be advanced successfully by IT departments without the expertise, knowledge management, and relationships that librarians provide. Together we do more.

Today’s realities, however, demand that we also do a better job joining hands across institutions. Creation of the HathiTrust, a bold proposal to create the universal digital library, illustrates such a multi-institutional partnership. The idea grew from a collaboration of the 13 universities of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (the Big Ten Universities, plus the University of Chicago), along with the University of California and University of Virginia, who agreed to archive and share their immense digital collections in a single, jointly funded repository. All HathiTrust partner libraries must answer the same question: How to extend their time-honored mission of preservation to the Internet, and on such a grand scale. IT staff similarly recognize that their contributions of infrastructure and expertise have greater value when linked with the intellectual capital and content librarians have spent decades collecting and organizing.

It seems that collaboration is becoming a standard as well as a necessity. The Association of Research Libraries has long struggled with the metrics it uses to rank libraries. Often ripe for dispute, such rankings nevertheless provide a means to measure libraries relative to their peers; they remain a useful benchmark for librarians, alumni, and provosts alike. In an ongoing effort to ensure these rankings remain relevant, the association will ask its members for an additional metric in 2009: profiles of the libraries’ collections, services, and collaborations. It’s the first time collaborations will be factored equally with the other traditional hallmarks. This, in our view, is the right way to think.

We acknowledge the uncertainty of the future the podcast authors suggest. But we believe this uncertainty holds great promise for libraries and for IT departments because it will force us to become increasingly fluid and responsive. As traditional boundaries of the two groups blur and we act jointly to address common needs of our communities, we must also strengthen our relationships with each other and our institutions. The result will be revealed in bigger and greater actions to the benefit of not only the users on our own campuses, but also the academic and scholarly communities worldwide.

Pat Steele
Ruth Lilly Dean of University Libraries
Indiana University

Brad Wheeler
Vice President for Information Technology & CIO and Professor of Information Systems
Indiana University

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