Planning Information Systems at the University at Albany: False Starts, Promising Collaborations, Evolving Opportunities

Meredith A. Butler and Stephen E. DeLong

If, according to Flannery O’Conner, all that rises must converge, do we necessarily diverge as we descend? Administrators of research libraries and academic computer centers are struggling to find answers to this question as they, and the research universities they serve, respond to the fundamental and transformative changes in today’s higher educational environment. The factors that are driving these changes are well known: economic decline; erosion of enrollments; an economy that produces many fewer employment opportunities; the public’s disenchantment with higher education; the rising costs but stagnant productivity of human resources; and new technological developments affecting nearly every aspect of the processes of teaching, scholarship, research, and publication. What is not well known, however, is how libraries and computing centers are changing their organizational structures, functions, work processes, services, and staffing as they plan for and cope with the networked distributed world in which they now operate. This case study attempts to provide some insight on these topics.

Although there is no doubt that information and communication networks have had a profound impact on higher education and are transforming the culture of academic libraries and computing centers, this change has been accompanied by overheated claims of even greater technological advances. Such claims have generated a lot of “rise” (some would say hot air) on our campuses and in our information organizations. We have seen our profiles and workloads, if not our paychecks or budgets, rise as our expertise and facility in managing electronic information are acknowledged by faculty and students. We have also seen our users’ expectations rise in response to new technologies and services that have made information access easier and faster. And, of course, we have seen our costs increase as we have added electronic and network resources and services to our traditional, labor-intensive organizations. Although the claims of the transformative power of technology may be overheated, there is no doubt that the convergence of computing and telecommunications technologies has caused us to rethink our information organizations—their mission, structure, roles, services, and staff responsibilities. We are looking at these issues from the point of view of the wants and needs of our users, not only those who come into our organizations for information and assistance but also those users distributed throughout the academic systems and networks in which we operate.

In this decade of austerity for higher education, we have witnessed a significant decline of our research libraries and our campus computing centers—declines caused in part by the drop in purchasing power of the dollar, the rapidly rising costs of information products and services, and the need for reinvestment in expensive and sometimes transient technology. In response, we have built local campus and regional networks, integrated them with national and global networks, and facilitated the distribution of computing devices and networked information resources to the desktop. Yet, an overriding question remains: Are these transformative trends making our information organizations more cohesive, or are they fragmenting our organizations at the very time that we need to be more entrepreneurial and productive, more collaborative and cost-efficient? Given the need for strong leadership to integrate new technologies into research and curricular programs, are we focusing on new ways to integrate our experience and expertise on campus and within the profession at large? In short, are we restructuring our libraries and computing centers as cohesive units, or are we continuing to foster traditionally parallel structures that may cooperate on projects without having developed a collective and comprehensive understanding of their interdependent roles and shared responsibilities in the networked environment?

National Trends in Library–Computing Center Relations

Following a period of distant and strained relationships between libraries and computing centers in the 1960s and 1970s, there emerged in the early 1980s a recognition that economic and technical changes required universities to look at their information organizations as having shared goals and interests. During the 1980s, discussion centered on libraries and computing centers converging or even merging. Merged library–computing organizations were actually created on some campuses. Such consolidated organizations had varying models of leadership: Some were administered by the library director (the Columbia model), others by the director of computing (the Carnegie Mellon model), and still others by shared leadership (the Stanford model).1 The early literature (particularly by Patricia Battin, Richard Dougherty, David Weber, Anne Woodsworth, and James Williams) made large claims for the value of integrating library and computing operations into a single unit. The assumption was that administrative control would either remain with the library director or be shared by a triumvirate of the chief information officer, library director, and computing director.2 Brave pioneers in this first wave of restructuring included: Columbia, Vanderbilt, Rutgers, and, to a degree, Stanford, among large research universities; Oregon State, Virginia Commonwealth, Rice, and Carnegie Mellon, among medium-size universities; and some colleges and community colleges.3 Although those early efforts met with varying degrees of success and may have served as models for other universities planning organizational redesigns, at least some of them seem to have been based more on expediency than on any careful organizational analysis or planning. Certainly, the common focus on issues of administrative control and hierarchy left broader issues of organizational development and cultural integration largely unaddressed.

A central issue that emerged from these early experiments with mergers was the need to redirect attention from organizational structures to organizational cultures and particularly to explore reasons for “clashing cultures” and “barriers to cooperation” between librarians and computing professionals.4 The more recent literature has emphasized broad differences; in professional training, role, and status (including remuneration); technological expertise; and service values and orientations.5 One institution that created a collaborative model to address such cultural differences is Indiana University. The work of its Inforum group has served as a catalyst for other universities seeking to create collaborative structures and cultures on campus. Building strong collaborative organizational cultures has also been a focus of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and its Working Group on Management and Professional Development. Inspired by Indiana University’s Inforum, as well as by workshops sponsored by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) of the Big Ten university consortium, CNI invited teams of senior library and computing center administrators to participate in a 1994 workshop on building collaborative partnerships. This workshop reflected a key goal of CNI: “to integrate efforts to support the overall information resources and services mission for the entire academic institution [by providing administrative teams an] opportunity to work together in a common enterprise directed toward a shared future.” 6 It was judged quite successful by participants and has served as a model for continuing work by a number of groups.

Sheila D. Creth and others strongly support this shift from talk about consolidated or merged organizations with clashing cultures and competing values to a concerted focus on collaboration to create a virtual information environment with value-added services for users.7 Of course, as Michael Schrage points out, collaboration must go beyond simply working together to accomplish specific projects to become an “act of shared creation and/or shared discovery.”8 Schrage sees this synergism as occurring between equals who engage in a process of creating value. Such collaborations are marked by “people who realize that they can’t do it all by themselves. They need insights, comments, questions, and ideas from others. They accept and respect the fact that other perspectives can add value to their own.” 9 For such people, there are no one-person organizational problems anymore.

The literature on library and computing center partnerships, however insightful over the years, offers insufficient guidance on many issues of library–computing center relations in the latter half of the 1990s. Such issues center on the need to help our academic institutions facilitate a restructuring of the teaching and learning process; the need to plan for a distributed information environment in which the principles of affordable, equitable, and open access to information resources are preserved for our users; and the need for cost-effectiveness in all these endeavors. As we grapple with such issues, it is worthwhile to look back on our recent past—at our successes and failures fostering collaborative relationships—to determine what lessons we can learn, what mistakes should not be repeated, and what strengths we can build upon. What follows is a case study of organizational developments at the University at Albany, SUNY, over the past decade. It describes some near successes, real achievements, and remaining challenges for the year 2000. Although library and computing operations at Albany are too small to be on the cutting edge of technological change, they have been steadily moving forward and may be representative of the great middle range in higher education—those moderately sized, fairly progressive academic institutions faced with economic austerity, and unprecedented challenge and opportunity.

Libraries and Computing at Albany as Parallel Organizations, 1980–1990

The University at Albany initiated an organizational framework to enable centralized planning of information technology in the early 1980s with the creation of the position of associate vice president for academic affairs (AVP), to whom the directors of libraries, of computing, and of education communications (audiovisual and other media services) reported. The AVP reported, in turn, to the vice president for academic affairs, as did the director of libraries, who retained a dual reporting relationship (unlike the director of computing, who reported only to the AVP).

Before 1990, there was little reason for the university library and the computing center to plan for a common future. The library had been operating its automated services (integrated circulation, reserve, online catalog, fund accounting, serials control) successfully on a turn-key, in-house minicomputer since 1984 with its own systems staff of three professionals. An early pioneer in computerized search services, the library offered a full array of databases, as well as some datafiles through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR). Library systems staff consulted computing center staff as needed, but there were few collaborative projects.

In those years, Albany’s computing center had a traditional mainframe orientation, whereas its modest staff in user services provided assistance in an increasingly PC-based environment. In spite of frequent changes in leadership and the burden of running several different mainframe systems, computing center management and staff began to plan actively for the expansion of the campus network and prepared the way for the integration of networking technologies into the mainframe environment. No attempt was made, however, to reassess organizational and managerial structures.

Early Collaboration, 1990–1994

During the latter half of the 1980s, the University at Albany developed a comprehensive planning process that tied together program development, budget preparation, and resource allocation. With the appointment of a new dean and director of libraries in 1989, the library’s planning process became more integrated with that of the university. Every dean or director on campus was involved in library planning, as were faculty and students. Although the strategic plan completed in 1990 focused on the libraries, it was also shaped by the goals and plans of the computing center and it addressed the role of the library as a “gateway” to networked resources. At that point, there was no comprehensive planning process for computing or for information technology in general. Two projects, however, eventually led to library–computing center collaboration: installing a new library automation system, and planning for a new library building.

The need for a new library automation system at the turn of the 1990s induced a convergence of library and computing interests. Early on, however, this project had some missed opportunities for collaborative planning and it also experienced frustrating financial delays. For example, when systems evaluations and functional specifications were being determined (a difficult process in the best of circumstances), representation from the computing center (due to the press of other demands) was only sporadically available. Later, we all realized that more extensive collaborative planning in the beginning would have made the subsequent stages of system procurement, system migration, and system implementation much easier.

Space shortage on the campus had become increasingly acute during the 1980s and nowhere was it felt more acutely than in the library. Campus planning for additional library space was initiated at about the time that the more comprehensive 1990 strategic plan was being drafted. At first, a third library facility—of rather traditional style and function—was envisioned to house the science collections, special collections, and archives. Even before the ink was dry on the architect’s drawings, however, a fiscal crisis in the state froze all capital construction. That delay proved quite fortuitous because it allowed those who had a growing awareness and understanding of telecommunications and networking developments to rethink the original building and to redefine it as an “electronic library”—one in which library and computing functions would be integrated.

The revised plan for a merger of the library and the computing center called for a new kind of information resource that would expand and enrich the traditional role of the library:

By bringing all our information specialists together in a single building, and fully integrating library, computing, and telecommunications expertise, we have an opportunity to create the national model for a network-oriented, regional information tool. [Such a] merger will create models for generation, capture, and delivery of information with the aim of making this precious resource accessible to schools, government, business, and every citizen. Our challenge is to forge these disparate elements [library, computing, telecommunications] into a unified tool, one which defines how they can best be used, and harnesses their explosively changing capabilities.10

This plan defined the environment of the new facility as a “research laboratory where faculty and students explore ways to teach, to learn, to discover.” With its vision of a convergence of libraries and computing centers, the plan assumed a single, merged facility, rather than questioning that assumption at a time when the trend was toward distributed access in the networked university. As the year progressed, however, it became clear that the library and the computing center were coping with a flux of both confluent and diverging developments that would make their operations too complex for any quick merger.

In 1992, a large steering committee of administrators and faculty began to develop plans for the new building in which library and computing services would reside in some yet-unspecified relationship. Nonetheless, the vision had shifted away from a singular emphasis on a new facility as a physical object, to a concern for how the facility would serve the changing information needs of its users. The mission statement for the revamped project saw the electronic library as a “comprehensive information resource that draws on the expertise of all the institution’s information specialists, including those from the library, computing, and communications.” Goals for the electronic library included its becoming a regional resource for research and development projects, such as distance learning; promoting information literacy and information management skills; fostering collaboration among librarians, computing professionals, and teaching faculty; promoting interactive teaching and learning; and serving as a catalyst for information research and electronic publishing. With this foundation of mission and goals, a collaborative and integrated planning process was launched to develop a whole new facility that would reshape the information environment of the university. (Eventually, renewed state funding reinstated the construction program.)

During the planning process just described, we experienced difficulties not uncommon to complex academic organizations. Notably, we had not set up an integrated planning process to engage library and computing directors, other administrators, staff, faculty, and students in the articulation of a comprehensive scheme for information systems and services for the networked university. Certain difficulties we encountered could be attributed to insufficient resources of staff, time, and money. Other difficulties reflected the newness of such technological development then. And, of course, problems always arise from inertia, from an unwillingness of some staff (at all levels) to change work habits. Despite such difficulties, however, the trends and pressures of technological change drew library and computing administrators and staff together in shared decision making to manage increasingly convergent operations (e.g., user assistance and instruction in new technology) and to solve common problems (e.g., expanding Internet resources, increasing user demands, decreasing staff resources). Such collaboration, in turn, enabled librarians and computing professionals to seize new opportunities to serve their users.

Fundamental Reorganization since 1994

With the implementation of the new library system in 1994, the cornerstone of the “electronic library” was laid. The library and computing center evolved from having been parallel organizations engaged in complementary processes, to converging units in those areas of information systems and services where they shared common interests and expertise. The process of collaboration gained momentum during the planning of the campuswide information system and was strengthened in the design of the new library building to include computing laboratories and user facilities and several university research centers. The success of early collaborative projects was, in part, due to certain planning necessities: clear institutional priorities and concomitant budget allocations. But we believe that they succeeded for a subtler reason as well. For all their individual complexity, each of these projects focused on a discrete problem: Buy a server and bring up a system; plan a building; design and craft a collection of Web gateways. Those are problems that may have appeared new to some of the staff, but they could be handled by thinking through the needs of users and clients in largely known ways.

Recent years, however, have witnessed mounting frustrations on campus over unmet needs for more equipment, network connectivity, and user support. We have succeeded in renewing equipment and upgrading the network. But user support and training have continued to be problematic, and they can only get worse because as we upgrade our infrastructure, the number of users will jump from 2,000 to 20,000. Furthermore, although the current users tend to be “early adopter,” and much more likely to be comfortable with technology, each of the next 18,000 will probably need substantially more training and help!

This realization prompted us to put “user support” under a magnifying glass as a distinctly new boundary-spanning, value-added service function. In that framework, user support is not a discrete or familiar problem amenable to traditional bureaucratic structures or norms. It can only be met by bringing together many more support providers than one would ordinarily expect; and, as an organizational responsibility, the “help desk” (for want of a better phrase) must be fluid with layers of functions akin to a group of hyperlinked resources. Of course, if we are able to do user support well, our clients will not even realize any of these difficulties; they will simply get information and solutions.

In the past, information resources and services—print materials, telephone, television, fax, and computing—were each provided and supported separately. They were disjointed from each other, fundamentally unidirectional, and straightforward for user help. The contrast with the integrated networked information environment since the 1990s is remarkable. Library collections, much “print material,” fax and television transmission, and computing cycles are all available from the desktop PC. More important, information has become bidirectional: Consider Web home pages being put up by offices, departments, faculty, and students; each individual can become a publisher, with everyone who is connected able to browse.

The implication of all this multifunctionality is that user support is now very complex because the services are so interrelated, sometimes in ways that make it difficult for the support staff itself to clarify. Certainly, many users would prefer a return to the old intellectual and bureaucratic structures for figuring out where to go for help online. But those no longer apply as this example shows: Imagine yourself as a user trying to connect from Albany to an OPAC in California, but when you hit “Enter,” you do not get the expected result. Whom do you call for help (at least in Albany)? Library staff? Computing staff? You have heard rumors about a new router, so what about Data Communications? Or maybe you have a modem, so what about Telephone Systems? Maybe your hard disk is making funny noises, should you call the staff who do PC maintenance? Or you are on a LAN, and the LAN coordinator is usually very helpful, if hopelessly overworked, so what about calling her or him? Whomever you call, that person must be ready to span the technological boundaries that link your PC to the OPAC in California.

As multifunctional technology has converged to the desktop over the past decade, choices have decentralized. Choice of applications software was the first. For example, although most units (and therefore users) at Albany are using one of two word-processing packages, that is not a formal restriction. (We have allowed a similar choice of operating systems, both desktop and now LAN servers. Most PC users still have Windows 3.1, but there are others with Windows 95 or NT, and a few with OS/2; and of course there are Mac devotees, plus those with various flavors of UNIX. On the server side, we run a mixed shop of Novell and NT.)

Two recent university policies have decentralized technology choices even more. First, rather than buy equipment in bulk and distribute a fixed package to users, we have transferred funds and the responsibility of choice for new or upgraded PCs to the schools and colleges. Although that gave up some economies of scale, it has provided greater satisfaction to the users. Second, all resources for increased staff support must now come from internal reallocations, so that when a dean recognizes the need for more network support of a school or college, the balancing question must be, Which faculty position will we not fill? The two policies, in part, aim to foster a climate in which users will look first for support nearest to “home”—whether a faculty office, a computing center, a library, or a residence. Therefore, we are establishing a structure in which the first line of assistance is the “local” technology coordinators in schools and colleges, administrative units, and residence halls. The chief central role is to provide the second line of assistance (the backup-to-the-backup role) for local coordinators who cannot readily solve geographically distributed problems. But the essential point is that the user should not need to know that all this organizational boundary spanning is going on; he or she simply makes one call to a “local number” and someone with responsibility—and connections—answers.

Although relatively simple on paper, it is a protracted restructuring problem. The biggest obstacles are insufficient local staff resources (or insufficient central ones to reallocate), the natural resistance of users to forgo old reliances on previous intellectual or organizational boundaries, and the need for training different groups of local users to call the help number geared for them (and not the one that a colleague or friend suggested as being particularly helpful). We are optimistic, however, because experiences on other campuses suggest that such a local-and-backup approach works well.11

Evolving Opportunities

If we had written this paper at middecade, we probably would have talked about the difference between content and computing, and perhaps about the need for librarians to become steadily more technically sophisticated but to concentrate on their traditional “information” role, however that content may be delivered. That view now seems naive. The explosive growth of the World Wide Web has put enormous amounts of content at everyone’s fingertips. We would not conclude that all systems programmers should now learn the most elegant search-engine protocols that librarians have to offer. Nor would we suggest that all bibliographers should be learning Java so that they can write their own application scripts. But we are reasonably confident that very soon the proportion of staff in each of the two units that can still get along barely acknowledging that the other group exists will have to shrink severely. This will arise largely because of expectations of users, who will use ever-changing technology to access vast numbers of information sites. Those helping them will have to be intimately familiar with the technology, the information, and the ways in which they are now inextricably linked (or hyperlinked), whereas the professional title or organizational home of those offering the help will matter far less than their appreciation for the blending of the information and the technology.

We recently redefined the mission of campus computing services, restructured the organization to distribute user support to the university’s schools and colleges, and refocused the workload of computing professionals involved in technical support. The library has not experienced a redefinition of mission, but it has undergone continuous evolutionary change over the past decade. We now speak of the library systems and network environment, rather than of the OPAC, database services, or online systems. Although the library’s organizational chart is a classic hierarchy, figure 1 is a more accurate picture of its functional design.

University Library Network/Systems Environment

The issues on which we will be working for some time include redefining reference and user assistance services to move them away from the user-at-the-desk paradigm. We also need to reset the balance of user services responsibilities in the library to provide more time to educate users in the effective use of information technology. If we are successful, we will have more knowledgeable, self-sufficient users and thus will reduce the grinding demand for individual ad hoc reference services. Over time, we will reallocate professional lines from traditional reference and collection development services to user education support and network services. None of the changes we have discussed and are engaged in implementing will be successful without a vigorous and sustained commitment to staff training and development. Library and computing staff are our most precious resource, the foundation on which we can restructure our organizations.


  1. Donald J. Waters, “We Have a Computer: Administrative Issues in the Relations between Libraries and Campus Computing Organizations,” Journal of Library Administration 13, no. 1/2 (1990): 121.
  2. Patricia Battin, “The Electronic Library—A Vision for the Future,” EDUCOM Bulletin 19 (summer 1984): 12–17, 34; Richard M. Dougherty, “Libraries and Computing Centers: A Blueprint for Collaboration,” College and Research Libraries 48 (July 1987): 289–96; David C. Weber, “University Libraries and Campus Information Technology Organizations: Who Is in Charge Here?” Journal of Library Administration 9, no. 4 (1988): 5–19; Anne Woodsworth and James F. Williams II, “Computing Centers and Libraries: In Passage toward Partnerships,” Library Administration and Management 2 (Mar. 1988): 85–90; Raymond K. Neff, “Merging Libraries and Computing Centers: Manifest Destiny or Manifestly Deranged?” EDUCOM Bulletin 20 (winter 1985): 8–12, 16.
  3. Patricia Battin, “Stanford Names VP for New ‘Info Resources’ Structure,” Library Journal 112, no. 13 (July 1987): 20; Brian L. Hawkins, “Managing a Revolution—Turning a Paradox into a Paradigm,” in Organizing and Managing Information Resources on Campus, ed. Brian L. Hawkins (McKinney, Tex.: Academic Computing Publications, 1989), 4; Kay Flowers et al., “Collection Development and Acquisitions in a Changing University Environment,” Library Acquisitions: Practice & Theory 19, no. 4 (1995): 463–69; Denise Troll, “Information Technologies at Carnegie Mellon,” Library Administration and Management 6, no. 2 (spring 1992): 91–99; Waters, “We Have a Computer.”
  4. Anne Woodsworth, Patterns and Options for Managing Information Technology on Campus (Chicago: ALA, 1991), 74–75.
  5. Woodsworth and Williams, “Computing Centers and Libraries.” See also Paula T. Kaufman, “Professional Diversity in Libraries,” Library Trends 41 (fall 1992): 214–30; Jack Widner and Andrew Lawlor, “Library Computing Center Relations: A Comprehensive State University View,” Cause/Effect 17 (Sept. 1994): 45–46.
  6. Quoted from a memo from Paul Peters, Executive Director of the Coalition for Networked Information, to task force representatives, July 27, 1994.
  7. Sheila D. Creth, “Creating a Virtual Information Organization: Collaborative Relationships between Libraries and Computing Centers,” in Libraries as User-Centered Organizations: Imperatives for Organizational Change, ed. Meredith A. Butler (New York: Haworth Pr., 1993), 111–32.
  8. Michael Schrage, Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration (New York: Random House, 1990), 6.
  9. Ibid., 39.
  10. “The Digital Library,” unpublished report, University at Albany, SUNY, Dec. 1991.
  11. Brad Stone, “Organizing Support in a Distributed Computing Environment,” CAUSE presentation, Nov. 15, 1992; see also: