Research Brief 2

Relationships Between Libraries and Computer Centers at Liberal Arts Colleges

In the 1980s, observers predicted that the roles of libraries and computer centers on the nation’s campuses, large and small, would increasingly converge. Patterns of collaboration and cooperation did evolve, but despite the predictions-and some prominent examples of merger-by the early 1990s the two entities still remained separate at most liberal arts institutions.

Even as many universities have created the position of chief information officer (CIO), to which the directors of both the library and the computing center report, developments at colleges have been far from uniform. Consider, for example, these roughly contemporaneous events in the early 1990s: St. John’s (in Minnesota) ended the practice of having academic computing report to the director of libraries, while Gettysburg College merged computing services with the library to form a new academic unit called the Division of Strategic Information Resources (in 1997, the librarian at Gettysburg announced that the two units would soon be separate once again). In the mid 1990s, several small colleges, such as Berea, Bucknell, Carthage, Coe, Connecticut, Eckerd, Kalamazoo, Lake Forest, Macalester, Mount Holyoke, and Wellesley, created structures within which the computer center staff report to the library director. More recently, other colleges have signaled their intent to alter the relationship between their libraries and their computer centers. But there are no governing models to which they can look with full confidence, including models that have evolved in the quite different environment of universities.

In 1994, Larry Hardesty, then the Director of Library Services at Eckerd College, approached the Council on Library Resources with the idea of undertaking a survey of the attitudes of library directors and computer center directors at liberal arts colleges toward relationships between their respective enterprises. Hardesty eventually gathered information at 51 selective liberal arts colleges (most, but not all, belonged to the Oberlin Group). He visited campuses in late 1994 and early 1995 to interview library directors and computer center directors, and he supplemented these interviews through phone conversations with four additional library directors in 1995 and 1996. Hardesty employed “a moderately or semi-structured interview guide.” A series of 14 common questions, which could be modified for specific situations, formed the core of the interviews. The questions followed “a funnelling sequence,” broad and open-ended initially, and then progressively more restricted. In all, Hardesty interviewed 91 individuals before writing his final report in 1997. (The views they expressed to him do not necessarily represent those of the colleges’ administrations.)

The findings of Hardesty’s survey are particularly interesting for what they reveal about the attitudes of individuals who will have to manage the changes that libraries and computer centers at liberal arts colleges will undergo in the years ahead. In this Research Brief we include seven of the questions Hardesty asked, summarize responses to them, and then present Hardesty’s own conclusions and recommendations.


1. What do you view as the different responsibilities of computer centers and libraries at small colleges?

Library directors responded to this question by referring typically to their responsibilities for collecting information resources and helping users find and make use of information. They often employed the expression “content versus conduit” to describe differences between the responsibilities of the library and the computer center. Many computer center administrators were willing to accept the description; others thought the term “too simplistic.”

One computer center director observed, “My gut instinct is that the techniques for handling information electronically have developed in the computer centers and a sensitivity to the uses and substance of the information has developed in the libraries.” Said another: “We are seeing more and more overlap. The problem with libraries and computer centers is that librarians are trying to be ‘techies’ and computer center people are trying to be librarians.”

A third computer center director offered the following summary of a difference in philosophy between the two units: “I see us wanting to say ‘yes’ and the librarians wanting to say ‘no.’ They would like to see things settled and tied up and permanent and regulated before they will allow anyone to have access to them. I want to be able to provide access if people want access.” Librarians, of course, believe that access is precisely what they provide.

2. Do you see sources of tension, potential or actual, between computer centers and libraries at liberal arts colleges?

Administrators from both units often mentioned demands on their time as a major source of tension. Several computer center directors referred to the heavy workload borne by the computer center. Librarians were not unaware of the demands on the computer center-and on the library-and some considered the computer center even more understaffed than the library. In the words of one librarian, “The only difficulties arise from the fact that we are all overwhelmed.”

Issues of turf came up occasionally as a source of tension: “It is not easy to avoid the turf question because there is a fuzziness about who is responsible for what.” Administrators from both units cited tensions over salary and status less frequently, in part because few in one unit at these private colleges seemed to have any idea about salaries in the other.

In fact, directors from both units tended to focus on ways to resolve tensions-especially through frequent meetings of members of the separate staffs. One library director observed that problems are resolved between the two units “just by talking them over. I do not see any other way.”

3. Do you see competition on your campus between the library and the computer center for funds, equipment, technical staff, the management of electronic information, etc.?

Computer center directors and library directors seldom seemed to compete head to head, or to believe that resources for one unit came directly at the expense of the other. At most of the colleges Hardesty visited, the budgets of both the computer center and the library go through the chief academic officer, and many directors-of both units-expressed strong confidence in the process at their institutions.

There appear to be other-bigger-competitors for finite resources on these campuses. One senior college administrator responsible for both the computer center and the library commented, “What is eating our lunch budgetarily is financial aid. That is the opponent of the library. That is the opponent of computer services.”

The library director who seemed to Hardesty to articulate the most sensible approach to forestalling competition said the following: “The only way to avoid unhealthy competition is to make sure that the working relationship is strong and that it is open and honest. That is why the advantage of reporting to an academic dean is so significant. The more people we get pulling from the academic side the better. We protect each other.”

4. Have the computer center and the library engaged in long range and/or strategic planning together?

Almost universally, the directors responded, “Not formally.” But many also said, “We plan to,” or “We are beginning the process now,” or “I think there really should be a strategic plan.”

5. What are the reporting relationships of the library and the computer center at your institution?

With few exceptions (cases in which the library director reported directly to the president), library directors said that they reported to the chief academic officer of the institution, as did a majority of the computer center directors. (A few of the center directors reported directly to the president, some to the chief financial officer, fewer to a chief information officer.) Directors seemed most satisfied when both library and computer center reported to the chief academic officer. When one-or both-expressed dissatisfaction with a reporting arrangement, it usually involved having the computer center director report to the chief financial officer and the library director report to the chief academic officer. Many computer center directors thought this left them too removed from the academic side of the institution.

6. Many larger institutions have created the position of Chief Information Officer (CIO). Do you foresee such a position at your institution?

Very few of the directors supported the concept of a CIO, and even fewer thought it a good idea for their own institutions. They dismissed the notion as flawed and out of date, and considered the position’s costs too high for small colleges.

[Hardesty observes in his report that, since the time of most of the interviews (late 1994), more small colleges have introduced the position of CIO. The challenge remains to determine those conditions under which the position works, and to weigh its benefits against its costs.]

7. What are the qualifications, characteristics, preparation, and background of individuals needed to lead computer centers and libraries in the future?

Computer center directors tended to respond that their successors will need greater skill in managing people. Said one: “I do not manage a computer center. I do not manage hardware. I manage emotions. That is what I do, day after day.” Among the other qualities they mentioned were flexibility, the capacity to adapt quickly to a changing environment, and “vision.”

After recommending more managerial skills for themselves, computer center directors recommended more technical preparation for library directors. Many library directors agreed with them that training in understanding the technology, not in its details but in its implications for the library would indeed be useful. Library directors also spoke of the need for broad managerial capacities and the ability to articulate a vision. One director commented as follows: “I would say that library schools right now are not doing a very good job of thinking about mission. I have staff who have just come out of library school and they do not see the big picture with regard to information. You have to be politically astute and fairly aggressive and articulate, and library schools tend to attract individuals with the opposite qualities.”

When asked about the preparation of future computer center directors, one library director spoke for many in saying that “the qualities of a good library director are probably the same as those of a good computer center director.” There appears to be emerging a group of computer center directors-often with liberal arts backgrounds and, as a consequence, sympathetic to the needs of liberal arts colleges-who are interested in the management challenges of the computer center and in the technology not for its own sake but for what it makes possible.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Hardesty is careful in his conclusions and recommendations not to claim more for his research than the nature of the evidence warrants. What he gauged were the self-reported attitudes and views of directors of libraries and computer centers-who are clearly not the only figures on campus who will affect the future of libraries and computer centers at small colleges. Some individuals in each group would welcome dramatic change, e.g., mergers and the creation of CIO positions; most are ambivalent about it-or opposed to it. Many see the pressure for such change coming from presidents and boards of trustees, and they have confidence in neither the motives nor the supposed results. In the words of one doubter, “How can you save money by combining the old ‘bottomless pit’ [the library] with the new ‘black hole’ [the computer center]?”

Hardesty believes that boards and presidents and deans are wrestling with the challenges posed by technology. They see its considerable costs and its rapid obsolescence, as they see, often, dissatisfaction with the services provided by the computer center (which fall short of the expectations created by the hype surrounding the technology). They wonder why there are not more positive results from all the money the institution has invested in technology.

Then they consider the library, which appears to be a well-managed unit that also deals with electronic information, databases, networks, and workstations, and which seems, from a distance, to be doing much the same thing as the computer center. So why not create one position to manage the two, or merge the two into a single entity? This view, Hardesty feels, has some merit and validity. However, the results of his study persuade him that it is also simplistic. He admits that mergers and CIO positions can work, but he also notes that they may exacerbate a bad situation, or create one where none existed before.

Among those whom he interviewed, Hardesty found considerable agreement with the proposition that the approach to resolving challenges and difficulties is often situational. Sometimes there is the right mix of personalities for the library and the computer center to function quite well together, but as separate entities. At other times there will be on the campus a computer center director, library director, or other figure who has the talent, vision, and energy to function effectively as a chief information officer. Less frequently, the talents and temperaments of individuals are such that fully integrated mergers will succeed.

Hardesty believes that, in the long run, mergers will not be the answer at most institutions-and certainly not at those unwilling to commit considerable resources, human and financial, to their success by paying salaries to attract individuals with skills and talents that command a premium these days. It seems to him more likely that current difficulties will be resolved, in part, through greater professionalism in the management of computer centers: individuals will become directors of computer centers not because they are interested primarily in technology or data proces-sing but because they are attracted by the management challenges and enjoy providing an important service to the academic community. As such individuals enter the profession, there will be fewer mergers.

Library directors, writes Hardesty, “will continue to run as fast as they can to try to stay abreast of the challenges within the library-often created by technology.” They will need to become more comfortable with change and more technologically astute. And they will need to remain good managers, though of increasingly complex organizations. But they will not have to divert their energies and talents to resolving the challenges of computer centers, with which they are often inadequately prepared to cope. Libraries will work closely with computer centers and become increasingly dependent upon them, as will most other units on campus. “Nevertheless, at most small colleges, libraries and computer centers need not, and will not, become one and the same-at least not in the foreseeable future.”

Research Briefs are occasional papers published by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to describe the outcome, or the current status, of projects undertaken within its programs. CLIR encourages duplication of these papers and requires no permission for their further distribution.