Repositioning Campus Information Units for the Era of Digital Libraries

Richard M. Dougherty and Lisa McClure

Today’s chief academic officer (CAO) faces an array of daunt ing challenges, not the least of which is to ensure that the campus information system effectively supports the needs of the academic community in the twenty-first century. With technology rapidly transforming the academic workplace, cognizant administrators are seeking ways to restructure library–computing center relationships with a balance of technological and financial effectiveness. They assume the payoffs will be worth the cost. There seems to be a growing consensus that colleges and universities which are the most successful at incorporating technology to create a new campus information infrastructure will be well positioned to compete in the higher education market. Numerous academic administrators are now considering, if not pursuing, this challenge, albeit with differing levels of commitment and creativity.

Reorganization of the library with the computing center involves a complex set of challenges. First, these units do not fit easily into standard academic organizational models. Second, although both units offer support services, each possesses a distinctly different organizational culture. Third, there is a broad range of possible institutional arrangements for libraries and computing centers to work together more effectively, from simple shared-administrative structures to complete mergers with integrated staffs, convergent operations, and blended cultures.

With all the rhetoric surrounding new information technology and the so-called digital library, it may be difficult for a CAO to separate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy. This paper addresses organizational issues of campus computing relationships from a variety of perspectives. Its intended audience includes library and computing center directors facing the prospect of working together, and CAOs considering a partial or complete merger of units that provide either information services or support for the creation of new information products (e.g., multimedia classroom software).

Field of Dreams

Computer magazines and the popular press tend to suggest that capitalizing on the latest technology to create completely new information delivery systems is a relatively straightforward process. For example, a 1995 “Focus on Technology” report in Newsweek cited the then-planned California State University-Monterey campus as a prime example of a vision of technological change.1 Barry Munitz, chancellor of the twenty-two-campus system, asserted, “You simply don’t have to build a traditional library these days.” The report interpreted Munitz’s attitude to be, Why bother wasting all that money on bricks and mortar and expensive tomes when it could be better spent on technology for getting information via computer?

The message is simple: As technology advances, we simply create new systems and move on to new technological visions. The Newsweek article implied that the new campus in Monterey would not bother having a traditional library. However, when the Monterey campus opened its gates, a recognizable library was there with printed journals and monographs—as well as plenty of technology for networked access to information. Chancellor Munitz should be commended for his willingness to pursue a visionary future, but such visionary rhetoric alone is plainly unrealistic for the foreseeable future and could, if left unchallenged, create the impression in the minds of academic administrators that libraries are passé. On the contrary, a campus without a balanced library of print and electronic resources shortchanges its faculty and students as they seek research and information sources.

The new Levy Library at the University of Southern California shows how traditional library services, new information technologies, and campus computing units can be merged effectively into one building. The recently remodeled undergraduate library at Stanford University is another prime example of print-age strengths allied with electronic-era capabilities. (Both cases are drawn, not from press reports but, rather, from site visits which found certain functional and spatial synergies.)

Creating the Future

Most information professionals would agree that technological advances generate even greater opportunities for further innovation. Yet, in practically any exciting vision, reality inevitably intrudes. Technology has enabled many rudimentary changes, but it has not yet transformed library and information organizational structures. For example, although the array of scholarly resources available through the Internet is vast and growing at remarkable rates, such resources are often poorly organized and difficult to locate. Moreover, most core journals and monographs will not be easily available online until copyright issues are resolved. Many campuses cannot yet afford to invest in or update new systems as quickly as they appear. One group of experts, the Task Force on a National Strategy for Managing Scientific and Technological Information, recently concluded that electronic formats will not soon dominate science and technology publishing, even though the traditional, paper-based model is becoming both unaffordable and unresponsive to new scientific communication. 2

Chief academic officers, faced with increasingly tight budgets, are naturally on the lookout for opportunities to eliminate redundant operations and develop more cost-effective services. Although libraries and computing centers are logical candidates for reorganization and possible merger, these units have very different organizational structures and professional cultures, with staffs who may intensely resist convergence despite outward similarities. The central position of the CAO in the restructuring process is another consideration. Given the inexorable demand for the new resources throughout the academic institution, CAOs tend to spend more time explaining to colleagues how resource constraints limit what can be done than they do serving as catalysts for innovation. (Perhaps this becoming the proverbial no! person is part of the reason for the high turnover rate among CAOs. ) Centrality of position makes it particularly important that a CAO make choices carefully. Because most CAOs are neither librarians nor technologists, they rely on being well advised when it comes to planning new campus information infrastructures.


In the mid-1980s, several librarians and computing professionals noted that, in many respects, the functions of libraries and computing centers were becoming more and more alike. Both units provide access to information resources and services; store, organize, and distribute information; and rely heavily on networking technologies. A few scholars even then came to the view that, as campuses move toward the era of the electronic library, merging these units would make sense. Administrators, for their part, hoped that mergers would generate organizational and budgetary, as well as intellectual, benefits. Raymond K. Neff was the first to describe several technological trends that were leading to a joint library–computing center mission.3 Pat Molholt described the converging paths of the computing center and library, foreseeing a fast, personalized information system based on existing similarities between the two units.4 Many others described visions of a new cooperative future. Expected benefits of this future included:

  • elimination of redundant operations;
  • reduction of costs for shared facilities and equipment;
  • shared expertise on information discovery, access, and processing;
  • innovation of services.

In light of these and similar predictions, it is little wonder that some academic administrators began to envision a grand restructuring of library–computing relationships.

In the late 1980s, a few research institutions, including Columbia University and Carnegie Mellon University, reorganized their computing centers and libraries to fall under the direction of a single vice president. In both cases, however, later organizational reforms reestablished much of the former units’ independence. Detailed assessments as to the eventual success of those cases have not been published. Although case studies on restructuring campus information systems are rare, anecdotal evidence supports the view that such changes are more likely to be successful in smaller academic organizations than in larger, more complex research universities. In 1994, for example, Eugene A. Engeldinger and Edward Meachen reported successful mergers at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and at Carthage College. They cited a common vision, mutual goal setting, and cordial communications as essential ingredients.5

Although many campuses have considered restructuring over the past decade, actual mergers are not yet common. As early as 1989, Pat Molholt raised the question, “What happened to the merger debate?”6 For all the theoretical debates, the promise of quick and easy mergers proved to be illusory. Consequently, the goals of reorganization have generally become more modest. Even a simple streamlining of information units under one person has not always produced financial savings because the creation of new administration often adds yet another layer to the hierarchy.

Why Reorganization Is So Difficult

Too many restructuring projects are undertaken without considering fully the significant differences that exist between libraries and computing centers. Each unit has its own organizational culture encompassing distinct gender ratios, professional values, and personality makeups. Jobs have different academic requirements, statuses, and salaries. For example, technologists tend to command higher salaries than librarians but possess lesser academic credentials. Unfortunately, a lack of mutual respect between these professions is not uncommon. Each one has a unique—to the other, unintelligible—jargon. Academic administrators, for their part, tend to hold stereotypes about each unit: librarians being adverse to risk taking but willing to collaborate; computing professionals being risk takers and innovators more comfortably when working independently.

Although parallels between mergers in the corporate world and those on campus should not be drawn too closely, analysts who study why corporate mergers fail often point to dissimilar organizational cultures. Certainly, an edict that the library and computing center will be brought together under a chief information officer as a prelude to an eventual merger is bound to set off loud alarm bells in both units. An imposed merger will likely trigger efforts to preserve respective organizational turfs through increased jockeying for power. Both units will then compete for scarce resources in an effort to become the dominant provider of information services. Each unit will fear a loss of prestige, as well as power, as traditional services and structures are being reexamined. All these conflicts can only impede a merger.

A new CAO may not be aware of the frictions brewing as professionals from each unit begin to maneuver for their side of the campus operation. Librarians are symbolic of traditional scholarship and enjoy the support of faculty who do not want to see the library transformed. It may well be helpful for the CAO to acknowledge up front the existence of library–computer center organizational distinctions and cultural dissimilarities, while at the same time working to cultivate common ground for interunit collaboration.

Options for Reorganization

A CAO considering a reorganization has a variety of options that largely depend on the initial level of commitment among administrative staff, the realism of the planning framework, and the monetary resources available. The literature focuses primarily on cross-organizational mergers, but a reorganization may take at least three general forms:

  • administrative realignment of reporting and budgetary lines;
  • collaborative realignment to provide greater working-level linkages;
  • blending realignment of the two units into a single, cohesive information services division.

Administrative Realignment

An administrative realignment of reporting and budgetary lines is intended to simplify the hierarchical structure and to save money in the process. The prevailing method is reorganization of the library and the computing center under a single officer, frequently designated the chief information officer, or CIO. The CIO’s control may be over those two units only, or include administrative computing, or extend to units in charge of campus telecommunications and multimedia courseware development. Although designation of a CIO may reduce the number of people reporting to the chief academic officer, this kind of realignment usually adds a new middle layer to the hierarchy as the office of the CIO develops. Not surprisingly, the library director, academic computing head, and other computing administrators—all of whom no longer enjoy direct access to the campus chief academic officer—tend to view the new reporting line as a bureaucratic obstacle. Other patterns of administrative realignment include placing department heads of units over their counterparts in other units, or relegating an entire unit (e.g., the library or the computing center) under another. Although this type of reorganization often begins as a relatively superficial change aimed at more effective staff and budget control, it can be the first step toward future restructurings more extensive in scope and function.

Collaborative Realignment

Collaborative realignment also places academic computing and the library under a CIO. But it goes significantly beyond combined reporting and budgetary lines to make provisions for formal collaboration between the two units. The library and the computing center remain structurally independent but form collaborative links on working levels. Each unit’s professional distinctiveness tends to remain intact. In order to facilitate interunit work, a coordinating mechanism is established to identify areas of overlap and to initiate collaborative efforts. For example, at Rice University the computing center and the library established a combined information services unit which brings together reference librarians and computing center staff to provide user services jointly.7 This kind of middle-range realignment offers distinct advantages for trying new ideas and structural reforms without investing in wholesale reorganization.

Blending Realignment

The most ambitious restructuring involves a complete merger of the library and the computing center into a new organizational and even cultural body. The elements of each unit are evaluated for the purpose of converging their functions, activities, and cultures on a higher level of organizational development. This approach has at once the most dramatic and the riskiest outcomes. It is a great opportunity for innovation but may lead to confusion and anxiety as well. In such ventures, the CAO should move carefully and be particularly sensitive to prospects for interunit cultural clash. Above all, the CAO should avoid any perception that the units are being pushed together willy-nilly.

Choices for the CAO

The basic objectives of the reorganization are the keys to determining which of the three general restructuring options to pursue. Although administrators may be inclined to pursue a total merger, initially trying a more limited reorganization might prove to be more productive in the long run. Either a relatively simple realignment of reporting and budgetary lines, or a reorganization that promotes formal collaboration on working levels, can be quite beneficial in the short term, whereas a full integration requires an extraordinary amount of planning and resources, as well as risks. At the very least, a CAO ought to consider the motives of any plan for an immediate, comprehensive restructuring. If the intent is to reduce expenditures while maintaining control, an administrative realignment under the leadership of a CIO might be all that is necessary. Or, if the goal is to improve specific services, a broader reorganization that includes formal collaboration short of a structural merger might be sufficient. Of course, if necessity or opportunity dictates a wholly different campus information infrastructure with a new culture, then nothing short of full integration of the library and the computing center will do.

Before any reorganization option is undertaken, however, the CAO should assess the institutional climate. First, how much time are administrators willing to invest in studying and planning to restructure? If time is short, the goals of the project ought to reflect that reality. Second, collaborative and blending realignments require particularly strong commitments from the staffs directly involved. Are they willing and able to take on additional responsibilities despite the burden of existing duties? Third, although most administrators hope that restructuring will increase production and cut expenditures, any reorganization is likely to be time-consuming at first and require seed money.

A strategy often used as an incentive for organizational change from below is “priming the pump” with seed money. However, such a tactic, which essentially entails a zero-sum game by which funds are drawn from existing unit budgets, runs the risk of creating a series of win-lose situations. Under such conditions, organizational change is made more difficult as units compete to ensure that they are the winners, not the losers, of the sums involved. A generally preferred option is to cut the budget of each unit and recycle the released funds to interunit innovative ventures.

Suggestions and Tasks for Achieving Successful Reorganizations

A CAO is more likely to orchestrate a successful reorganization if the administrators and staffs of the affected units are willing to negotiate working relations among themselves and to devote the time necessary to create, eventually, a shared vision of the future. Prospects improve when the personal chemistry between the librarians and the computing professionals is synergistic, and when their supervisors exercise a certain firmness balanced with tolerance and patience. If a CAO is able to construct a win-win budgetary scenario (by avoiding a zero-sum game) for the merged units, there is a much greater likelihood that long-term incentives for collaborative efforts will fall into place. The shared vision must be one that not only excites the staff but goes far beyond the usual rhetoric to provide a framework for implementation. A visioning/planning process that involves, and accounts for, staff at all levels will have far greater chances for success than just declarations of a merger emanating from the office of the CAO.

Overall, the shared vision should include broad statements of an ideal information future, and it should provide realistic parameters for short-term cooperation and collaboration. The vision should thus be a basis for interunit negotiation and team building. It should allow a good deal of leeway for planners and participants. If a vision does not provide for the evolution of realistic implementation plans from below, there is a strong possibility that the reorganization effort is attempting too much, too quickly, from above.

Once the decision to initiate a reorganization is made, administrators can more accurately gauge its scope and potential for success by carrying out various tasks of discovery. Such tasks include:

  • researching similar efforts at comparable institutions;
  • appointing an advisory team composed of affected individuals;
  • hiring an outside consultant;
  • assessing staff readiness;
  • determining the amount of time and money available;
  • remaining patient.

Researching Similar Efforts

A survey of comparable institutions to learn what restructuring steps they have taken and to distinguish significant from not-so-significant outcomes can be invaluable because so much that has occurred has not been reported in the literature. In that regard, articles announcing restructuring plans should not be taken literally unless the facts are verified. For example, in 1990, it was reported that UCLA’s Business School Library was being merged with the computing center in a new building to provide better access and resources. Bob Bellanti, the library’s director, described the projects’s philosophy:

In years to come, libraries are going to be so electronically based that it’s going to be difficult to tell where the library stops and the computing services start. . . . In the new building, the library and computing services will not only occupy the same facility, but will be intermingled so that they become a true information resource center for students and faculty. 8

By the latter half of the 1990s, however, neither the facility nor the merger had been completed. This story is not told to criticize those involved but simply to illustrate the value of talking with those who have announced restructurings.

Appointing an Advisory Team

The appointment of an overarching advisory team might seem obvious, but it is a crucial step that is often either overlooked or given short shrift. A CAO should make certain that all stakeholder groups are represented and that advisory team members support the institution’s strategic plan. The team should advise but not impede interunit negotiation and team building from below (as often happens in restructurings of academic units).

Hiring an Outside Consultant

There are two types of consultants who provide different types of guidance. First is the expert consultant who strives to provide technical solutions to systems issues. The second is a process consultant who seeks to develop teamwork among participants. Each type of consultant plays a distinctive role. Whether both types are necessary for every restructuring is impossible to say in the abstract.

The expert consultant will assess technical system issues by gathering data and making recommendations—and then will leave the scene. The recommendations may create a framework for future actions and/or help clarify technical directions, but such reports rarely serve as a blueprint for action. Why? The staff who will be directly involved in the reorganization had little or no opportunity at that point to participate in the evaluation, so they would not be inclined to accept the expert’s recommendations wholeheartedly. Because successful reorganizations require staff support and commitment, the change strategy needs to include, as one objective, the gaining and maintaining of support—thus, the importance of the process consultant.

The process consultant can help staff create a shared and realistic vision of the relationship between technical development and organizational development, and help the units develop necessary teamwork skills. It cannot be assumed that teamwork comes naturally to either technologists or librarians, though both are certainly capable of interunit collaboration. Overall, restructuring would benefit from the services of both types of consultants. One is not better that the other, each serves a different purpose.

Assessing Staff Readiness

A CAO should inventory staff skills and qualifications. Is the necessary chemistry for interunit collaboration present? Do the staffs possess necessary technical and group dynamic skills? Is there a critical mass who are willing to work for change? Are staff generally excited by the prospects? Or, are they more inclined to hunker down and resist? Because the strategy a CAO adopts to bring about change ultimately depends on the staffs involved, overlooking such staff-readiness issues in the planning process would simply court long-term frustrations.

Determining the Amount of Time and Money Available

Because many reorganizations will require reallocations of workloads and budgets already stretched, each unit will need to identify activities that can be streamlined or cut. In particular, reorganization will require a considerable investment of staff time above and beyond expected traditional services. With most staff already stressed, launching a reorganization without a clear assessment of time constraints, monetary resources, and workloads may lead to continual negotiations on the workday level of activities.

Remaining Patient

Patience is important. Although administrators and committed staff tend to like instant results and frequently do not exhibit much tolerance for setbacks, temporary and even longer delays in restructuring a campus information infrastructure are normal. Time must be allowed for staff to work through problems. Quick fixes might simply result in superficial changes that end up costing more and producing less.


The vision of a networked campus information environment will no doubt be achieved in some academic institutions. But there are no guarantees, road maps, or quick fixes. On the one hand, libraries and computing centers are complex organizations with rather distinct infrastructures, philosophies, and cultures. On the other hand, librarians and computing professionals now realize that they are interdependent. Librarians, for their part, have the ability to interpret information needs and conceptualize methods of access; technologists have the expertise to design and construct systems for that access. Sharing knowledge in a consolidated organizational framework should improve operations and services, particularly with regard to networked resources. Nonetheless, fundamental change involving such complex and highly valued campus units is a formidable task.

Administrators should not be put off by pitfalls of restructuring the campus information infrastructure. Although at first glance some costs may eclipse the benefits, the consequences of doing little or nothing will be severe. Networked resources are powerful, and any institution that does not adapt to exploit them will find itself in a technological backwater. Can a college or university realistically compete for faculty and students if its campus has plainly limited information technology capabilities and services?

Overall, a CAO can expect a payoff roughly commensurate with the level of institutional commitment. If the staff is convinced that restructuring is not simply a guise for cost cutting and that the institution is genuinely interested in reconceptualizing campus information systems, no reorganization need unduly disrupt essential services, incite a turf battle, or foster cultural conflict. With adequate preparation of the staff and their participation, any of the three levels of reorganization—administrative, collaborative, or blending—can lead to organizational development.


  1. Katie Hafner, “Wiring the Ivory Tower,” Newsweek (Jan. 30, 1995), 62.
  2. Association of American Universities, Report of the Task Force on a National Strategy for Managing Scientific & Technological Information of the Research Libraries Project (Washington, D.C.: Association of American Universities, submitted to the Steering Committee on April 4, 1994), 62–63.
  3. Raymond K. Neff, “Merging Libraries and Computing Centers: Manifest Destiny or Manifestly Deranged,” EDUCOM Bulletin 20 (winter 1985): 8–12, 16.
  4. Pat Molholt, “On Converging Paths: The Computing Center and the Library,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 11 (Nov. 1985): 284–88.
  5. Eugene A. Engeldinger and Edward Meachen, “Merging Libraries and Computing Centers at Smaller Academic Institutions,” Library Issues 16 (July 1994): 1–4.
  6. Pat Molholt, “What Happened to the Merger Debate?” Libraries and Computing Centers, special issue of Journal of Academic Librarianship 15 (May 1989): 96a–b.
  7. Kevin Brook Long and Beth J. Shapiro, “On Paths That Have Converged: Libraries and Computing Centers,” Library Issues 14 (July 1994): 1–4.
  8. Natalie Hall, “Are Libraries and Computer Centers Converging? A Match Made Online: Two Service Providers at UCLA Plan to Wed Form and Function in the 1990s,” American Libraries 21 (Jan. 1990): 70.