Realizing Diffuse Roles for Libraries


Libraries must now turn their attention to defining their missions and activities in relationship to what is transforming them: the information technology revolution in teaching, learning, and research. (Lynch 2000)

The transformation of libraries to fulfill more diffuse roles within the academy reflects a shift in perspective both for the library and for the other stakeholders in this arena. There are significant challenges to be overcome, not the least of which is the pace of technology development. The volatility of technology contrasts with the glacial speed of change within higher education regarding core values and structure. How can libraries claim these new roles when they face pressures both to innovate and to steer a more traditional course?

An additional challenge lies in the conundrum of market strategy. Should a library assess demand for these new roles and secure funding support before it moves in new directions? Or should it forge ahead, create demand, and hope that funding will follow? Both courses of action have risks. Yet evidence suggests the competition both within and outside the university requires that the library lay claim to areas where its core expertise is relevant, lest it be marginalized.

Libraries have thus far evolved fairly predictably in developing a digital presence and digital capabilities, particularly with respect to technology infrastructure and expertise. As Greenstein and Thorin (2002) have noted, there is an initial phase wherein an individual library’s activity is largely project-based. Involvement of others outside the organization is minimal and resource commitments are typically nonrecurring. In this stage, libraries experiment with and exploit distributed technology capabilities. In the next stage, the “adolescent” library has far more interest in its peers. Collaborative activity within the library community emerges, and outreach to others within the campus environment becomes more prevalent. Often in this phase, groundwork is laid for more stable production capabilities for content, access, and services. Libraries add staff and develop new work processes. Resources are reallocated, but often the activities are still viewed as separate from the mainstream.

Nearing a more mature phase of digital capacity, the library organization is better positioned with secure infrastructure and leadership to collaborate with other libraries and other stakeholders. Workflow becomes more integrated, and investment is consistent with mission; i.e., permanent sources of support and organizational structures are put in place. Relationships with other stakeholders are often more “open,” that is, characterized by leveraging each other’s expertise and strengths to the benefit of a programmatic goal.

While it is possible that a large infusion of funds might hasten this developmental cycle (particularly as it relates to building technology infrastructure), the organizational development necessary to integrate complementary expertise and adjust goals is likely to come only with experience and time. Consequently, these evolutionary stages-moving from distributed, to open, to diffuse roles-may be a requirement, a rite of passage.

Do libraries have a choice about future directions? Residential campuses are unlikely to disappear, and instructional and research programs are unlikely to abandon their interests in traditional libraries for the foreseeable future. Yet the evidence of changes in institutional priorities (e.g., with respect to outreach, new markets, and intellectual property) and in individual user behavior (with respect to expectations and needs) suggests that caution will be shortsighted.

The transformations under way in teaching, learning, and research will require a far different conception of the library. At a minimum, structures for the acquisition and description of digital content need to be in place and services developed to respond to a more nomadic and virtual clientele. These minimal requirements, however, merely extrapolate existing roles for collections, access, and user support. Seizing opportunities for more diffuse roles will require investment in both tangible components and in intangible elements such as leadership and organizational development.

Tangible Investments

Certain investments must be made if the library is to emerge as a player in the changing environment. Participation in new learning communities, in new ventures for knowledge management or dissemination, or in service to new markets requires investment in technology infrastructure and expertise in the handling of digital resources and tools.

In developing digital library infrastructure, there is a tendency to assume that each institution must develop a full complement of capabilities. This assumption is attractive because hands-on experience does provide invaluable developmental opportunities for staff. However, it is also becoming clear that institutions may have difficulty in sustaining the ongoing development of the local infrastructure. Further, an isolationist approach may not allow libraries to leverage institutional strengths or the benefits of a high volume of activity. Consequently, collaborative development of tools, services, and capabilities will be far more common in the future. Evidence of these trends already exists, e.g., the Open Source software movement, cooperative reference services, and university-based initiatives to share tools and methods such as publishing resources of the Berkeley Electronic Press (bepress), Michigan’s Digital Library Extension Service, and the Texas TILT program.

Competition has become intense for qualified professionals who can manage and develop new library roles. While many library or information-science graduate programs have revamped their curricula, it is impractical to assume that the needed leadership can come exclusively from newly minted professionals. Investment in professional development and participation in collaborative opportunities that can help advance organizational development are essential. Insights are often born of exposure to new ideas and of the freedom to explore. Consequently, professional development models that include support for experimentation, experiential methods of stimulating creative thinking, and focused interaction with colleagues from other institutions are particularly useful. New contexts for these interinstitutional interactions are also evident in organizations such as the Coalition for Networked Information and the Digital Library Federation, which provide venues for peer-to-peer dialogue and focused attention to common issues.

Technological expertise is in demand, but it is equally important that the profession attract individuals with agility in applying or exploiting new technologies in the service of new roles. It is essential that these individuals have a deep understanding of the communication structures and processes within disciplines. Such capabilities, while informed by technology, reflect development beyond task-specific skills such as cataloging to a contextual knowledge of scholarly processes and user needs. The challenge is to assemble the constellation of technology, subject, and application expertise and to facilitate the necessary collaboration between functional divisions of the library.

A recent survey conducted by the Digital Library Federation (Greenstein and Thorin 2002) captured structural and financial data about university and library development of digital library programs. While offering descriptive information from only a handful of institutions, all of which have more mature programs, the survey results reflect organizational models that are highly collaborative. Partnerships were found with information technology units and, in some cases, schools of library or information science or research institutes. In such models, managing relationships is essential to ensuring program stability. The data also suggest that the library’s assumption of new and expanded roles actually attracted new funding-an affirmation that in some cases action must precede explicit institutional support.

Intangible Investments

Infrastructure, expertise, and tools, while enabling, cannot forge a new agenda for the library. Leadership must be present to leverage the library’s full range of assets. The examples cited throughout this analysis show how the library adds value through its expertise and its resources. Nonetheless, the prevailing forces also create an environment in which the library’s efforts to support virtual collections and services can make the library less visible. An important aspect of leadership in the digital age will be the ability to articulate these new roles in a way that makes the library’s contributions substantive and visible.

Seizing opportunities and articulating the library’s potential, in turn, require organizational agility, i.e., the flexibility of budget and human capital that allows responsiveness and, when needed, redirection of activity.

In the new environment, a culture of collaboration will be essential if the library is to fulfill its potential for providing services and collections. Collaboration will mean not only embarking on successful joint projects, but also managing campus and external relationships to ensure that the library is present at the table for relevant institutional dialogue and decision making.

The development of diffuse libraries will entail an understanding and appreciation of the shifts under way in all sectors of the academy, investment in infrastructure, and an organizational culture that nurtures and catalyzes relationships. Distributed, open, diffuse-these characteristics describe the stages that mark the library’s evolution. Ultimately, the transformed, diffuse library will embody an intimacy of purpose and a full engagement both with institutional goals and with the practical conduct of learning, teaching, and research.