Restructuring the University of Vermont Libraries: Challenges, Opportunities, and Change

Rebecca R. Martin

Approaching the twenty-first century, higher education is being restructured by fairly recent shifts in strategic planning processes, professional identities and roles, and technological capabilities. Indeed, rapid and transforming—apparently never-ending—change has become a dominant paradigm for information organizations in this era.1 Challenges and opportunities for academic libraries in this transition area include:

  • an increasing emphasis on networked access to information resources, within the broader context of the emerging virtual library;
  • an expanding role for library faculty and staff in teaching users how to identify, select, evaluate, and retrieve information resources relevant to their needs;
  • an enhanced capacity for the library to create, organize, and disseminate select sets of electronic information (e.g., gateways to Internet resources);
  • ongoing development of core collections to support university curricular programs and research needs within the constraints of publication proliferation and price inflation;
  • a growing responsibility, in alliance with the computing center, to provide a network infrastructure to support academic programs;
  • a continuing reassessment of services that may be strengthened or diminished according to changing user needs, or streamlined or consolidated to improve organizational productivity;
  • a flexible faculty and staff, developing new skills throughout their careers.2

Although by no means unique, the University of Vermont (UVM) is a salient example of a library system engaged in such restructuring efforts which may be of interest to others.

UVM: A Propensity for Change

UVM libraries have been at the forefront of technological change over the past decade. Although late to join the movement in the 1970s to the Library of Congress classification scheme, they reclassified collections while simultaneously moving all operations to a fully integrated online system in 1986.3 Library faculty were early leaders in the introduction of computer disc technology to reference services at that time, and also in the creation of Internet gateways in the early 1990s.4–5 Active collaboration with the university’s computing and information technology division has been a critical component of these developments.

UVM is a small research institution with strong liberal arts and professional programs at the undergraduate and master’s levels, an array of doctoral programs in the sciences, and a highly regarded medical school.6 Three libraries form a system that serves a student body of approximately 10,000 students: the Bailey/Howe Library, the Dana Medical Library, and a small chemistry/physics branch library. Media services were added to the administrative responsibilities of the library director in 1987. UVM Libraries have enjoyed strong financial support from the university and, although funding has been decreased over the past decade, the libraries have been protected in significant ways from universitywide budget reductions. The system has collections of more than one million volumes, employs a staff of thirty librarians and seventy paraprofessionals, and serves as the only research library for the state.

Of modest institutional size lending itself to moderate change, and with a library faculty having a record of innovative work in information retrieval, UVM Libraries have been moving cautiously, yet steadily, toward new organizational models. The principles for the libraries’ strategic plan, first drafted in 1993, reflect this propensity for change:

Our organization must be dynamic, proactive, adaptable, and creative in response to our changing clientele, workforce and environment. Technology is constantly changing and is playing a larger role in collections, services and operations of the libraries. . . .7

Such principles and propensities for restructuring in a moderate key are described below in terms of organizational reforms, new professional roles, and planning strategies—all within a framework of seizing “windows of opportunity.”

Organizational Structures

In 1991, UVM Libraries took the first step away from the traditional public services and technical services divide that has characterized academic library organizations for the twentieth century. The Bailey/Howe Library was eventually reorganized into three divisions, each with a public-service component: Information and Instruction, Collection Management Services, and Research Collections.8 That shift had a number of designs: (1) to underscore the importance of a public-service commitment to all aspects of library work; (2) to incorporate the formerly freestanding Media Services; and (3) to enact the concept of collection management as an all-encompassing process, from the point of an item’s identification for acquisition through its life on the shelf.

When these new divisions were established, a conscious decision was made by the library administration not to impose a particular set of conditions or techniques from above but, instead, to allow new approaches to evolve, depending on particular needs of the individual programs and the orientations of their respective heads. Over time, however, there has been a definite movement from hierarchical structures to more flexible patterns of management.

Medical Library

The Dana Medical Library, a semiautonomous unit with a full range of public and technical services, redesigned its organizational structures and functions over a period of several years, experimenting with various methods and techniques. Drawing heavily from trends in the health care sector, the current organization represents a melding of three approaches: matrix management, which centers on function-based teams; total quality management (TQM), which emphasizes user satisfaction through continuous reappraisals of services; and the clinical–academic department model, which places library faculty, as relatively independent individuals, in the roles of teaching, research, and service. Each of these approaches is characterized by a reduction in hierarchy and a concomitant emphasis on collaboration.

Taken together, these approaches have reshaped not only professional and staff roles in the Dana Library but also organizational planning methods. Library functions are arranged in a matrix of processes, with overlapping teams and coordinators assigned to each activity. Decision making and policy formulation rely heavily on user-satisfaction and quality-improvement techniques, with a holistic systems perspective on problem solving. Dana Library faculty serve as subject specialists and liaisons to the one or more departments in the health profession schools and in the medical center.9

The planning process that led to these changes was characterized by active involvement of all library faculty and staff at each stage. The small size of the medical library was an important factor in this approach, for it enabled UVM Libraries to try out new ideas and projects on a limited scale. Eventually, a series of successes there generated a sense of ownership in the process of change for the UVM system as a whole. Although overall staffing has been reduced, new services have been created and certain traditional services have both increased and improved. The redevelopment of services has depended on the packaging of a number of change processes: streamlining operations, restructuring organizational relationships, discontinuing some lesser-used services, and redesigning all programs around TQM techniques.

Collection Management Services

This division was created after a major organizational review and restructuring of the Bailey/Howe Library in 1993. Based on a plan by the five faculty members in the new division, six overlapping teams were created from traditional acquisitions and cataloging departments to form the Collection Services Group. This group set out to learn new technologies for materials processing, to identify interrelated processes of acquisitions and cataloging, to encourage staff development of new skills and roles, and to open up more communication channels across all functional areas in the division. Each of the teams was assigned a coordinator from the library faculty, with most staff serving on multiple teams.

Two technical-service aims overlapped nearly all teams: reducing the number of times materials are handled, and increasing the quality of acquisitions information in the online catalog. After nearly two years in operation, this restructuring process reduced cataloging backlogs by more than half and made the division more flexible for tackling other special-work projects. A steady stream of materials (at levels comparable to those handled under the previous organizational structure) is now being processed by fewer people.

Access Services

In 1995, the interlibrary loan (ILL) office and the circulation department were reformed into a single new unit, Access Services, within the Collection Management Services Division. Those operations were combined to develop greater organizational depth and flexibility for handling an ever-increasing volume of ILL requests. For some years, library user requests for materials at geographically dispersed locations have increased 10 to 20 percent, owing largely to the steady growth of networked bibliographic databases and other electronic information resources. This unit has grown in staff size on the document delivery side. All circulation activities, ranging from student assistant duties to high-level staff assignments, have undergone a kind of cost-benefit analysis, with manual tasks being streamlined, coordinated, or automated. Such measures aim primarily at generating the internal resources necessary to develop and support a more fundamental capability of networked access and delivery services, such as patron-initiated ILL requests that would require less mediation by the library and be more convenient for the user.

Diffusion of Innovation

Changes in the organization of the remaining divisions in the libraries—Research Collections, and Information and Instruction—have been less striking. Both continue to have hierarchical structures. Still, some diffusion of innovations from other divisions has begun to occur. In the Research Collections Division, the government documents department and the special collections department have drawn closer by practicing team-based management and experimenting with cross training and staff sharing. In the Information and Instruction Division, altlhough the old norm of independent professionals within autonomous departments prevails, the reference department has been experimenting with the faculty model of a rotating chair, as well as a more representative team approach to management.

Professional Roles

Although organizational structures have been redeveloped, even more fundamental shifts have begun to occur in professional identities, orientations, and responsibilities. The major role of the libraries, as always, is to provide convenient, broad-ranging access to information and scholarship. However, technological changes in the nature of resources, services, and supporting library operations have actually had concomitant effects on the ways UVM has designed new professional roles.


The focus of reference service throughout the UVM library system has increasingly become one of teaching electronic information retrieval skills and critical evaluation of identified sources. Although the libraries’ on-site collections have remained essential to this endeavor, the burgeoning Internet and proliferation of new databases, especially on Web sites, have rendered the online catalog and the local materials it represents as just one of many information resources available. Library faculty thus have an ever-expanding role in teaching users how to identify, select, evaluate, and retrieve resources relevant to their needs. In addition, library faculty have increasing opportunities to team teach in interdisciplinary programs with faculty in other colleges and schools, particularly in the areas of informatics and information literacy.

An important element of this new reference paradigm has been the decision to place as many electronic resources as feasible directly in the hands of users. To that end, UVM has encouraged library faculty to make substantial professional commitments to the development of information gateways in the online catalog, on the campus network, and through remote access. Such gateways provide transparent access to scores of geographically dispersed databases, multimedia resources, full-text files and data banks, and Web tools. A certain level of systems expertise on the part of library faculty, with assigned responsibilities for the design and maintenance of gateways, has been an essential requirement for this paradigm shift. Collaboration with colleagues in campus computing has proved increasingly important to stay abreast of new network tools.

Collection Management Services

As noted above, a central feature of the Collection Management Services Division has been to design operations in terms of the concept of continuum, a resource having a life from the initial point of its identification and acquisition—through cataloging, processing, housing, and use—to the final decision to preserve the item or remove it from the collection. This approach has streamlined operations (e.g., reducing the number of times a given item is handled). All staff involved now make decisions regarding materials and their records with this continuum in mind (rather than in response to a discrete process). Taking greater advantage of technology to expedite processes and being careful not to retain outmoded manual principles and routines in an automated environment have been twin goals.

Financial constraints, along with the need to redeploy limited staff, have stimulated such alternative approaches to collection management services. Staffing levels in this division have been reduced as the libraries’ principal focus has been directed toward reference services associated with electronic resources and gateway systems. Inevitably, local collections have a somewhat peripheral, less-urgent position now than in the past. Creating more comprehensive, as well as accurate, access to materials in an online catalog environment has displaced the production of “perfect” catalog records on two levels: as a professional workaday norm, and as an organizational resource stricture on the budget. In that regard, UVM Libraries have begun to outsource the cataloging and physical processing of materials received through approval plans.

Planning Frameworks

Restructuring UVM Libraries has been an ongoing activity integrated with a broader reorganization of the academic institution as a whole. In 1992, the university president initiated a general strategic planning effort with overarching themes for academic programs.10 The central position of the libraries was not only established then, but library programs were to be exemplars of the kind of excellence which the president’s plan promoted.

In 1993, a planning team (of four library faculty and four staff) was appointed and chaired by the library director to build on the university’s impetus and develop a five-year strategic plan for the libraries. The mission statement was rewritten, statements of new principles and timeless assumptions articulated, and strategic goals established. At each stage, drafts of the components of the plan were widely shared for discussion. The provost, the faculty advisory committee, and campus computing provided important reactions to early drafts. A year later, the basic document had been adopted with some action steps already taken.11 This strategic plan (which has been updated once) has served in some areas as a fairly specific agenda for short-term goals (e.g., the development of a document delivery service) and in other areas as a rather loose framework for long-term change processes (notably, the reorganization of Collection Management Services, which had begun years before and later became an exemplar of change for the university).

Another campuswide planning effort, focused on information technology, began in 1995 with active librarian involvement. Many of the tenets of change already incorporated in the libraries’ operations, principally the increasing shift to electronic information and the growing role of library faculty in teaching information literacies, were incorporated into the university’s strategic plan.12

Decision making with regard to implementation of the strategic plans has actually taken different forms. Some restructuring of resources and services has consisted of collaborative efforts by staff members across different divisions. Examples of such broad participation include the extensive development of information gateways to electronic resources, the growing teaching role of library faculty, and the team-based management structures in collection services and in the medical library. Other decisions—usually bearing on specific work processes, reallocation of staff, and redirection of major operations—have required more administrative and budgetary direction by top administration. In that regard, the inevitable choices necessary to redistribute limited resources in order to undertake new initiatives are necessarily the responsibility of library administration. Inevitably—and despite general agreement on principles and directions—some resource and staffing decisions were resisted at first. In each case, the rationale for the decisions was fully discussed with those affected, but the role of the staff in making the ultimate choices was limited primarily to consultation.

“Windows of Opportunity”

With planning for change being an ongoing feature of library administration at UVM all during the 1990s, various restructuring efforts have been implemented incrementally. The primary approach has been one of articulating a mission or redefining a function, focusing on problems and prospects for change, and then seizing opportunities as they arise. There is no specific blueprint nor firm timetable for reorganization. For example, the impetus for the general reorganization of the divisions of the libraries in 1991 was the resignation of the systems librarian and the retirement of the long-standing assistant director for technical services. Vacancies at all levels are viewed as opportunities to question the status quo and to redeploy resources. Other changes have been initiated by a particular need to reduce a budget line, by an urgency to offer a particular service, by the changing institutional framework to support a new information technology, by an availability of special funding in an area, or by some other “window of opportunity.”

Being prepared to make decisions against a background of rapid technological changes, institutional plans, and static or declining resources has been key to achieving continuous evolutionary progress for UVM libraries throughout the decade. The importance of readiness for choice opportunities is clearly recognized in the principles of the libraries’ strategic plan:

Budgetary and other environmental constraints force us to set realistic goals and expectations, evaluate new and existing programs against our mission, assign priorities, focus our efforts, become more efficient, work cooperatively within our organization, create or find alternative approaches, and find new sources of funds. Budget constraints should not mean maintaining the status quo; we must continue to move forward and develop in new directions.13

Although the reality of a turbulent environment is readily acknowledged by library faculty and staff, reappraisal of traditional precepts and practices can be difficult. With individual roles and assignments in transition, certain other areas of the restructuring process—notably, organizational communication, staff development, and stress management—take on increasing importance at times.


This case study is essentially a work in progress for a library system still undergoing fundamental change on many fronts. Although the newly developed organizational structures and professional roles have been designed to fit UVM’s environment, the underlying approach to change (rather than specific developments) may well relate to other settings.

Susan A. Lee’s description of cognitive complexity, in which strategic vision provides a compass but not a road map, is a relevant model for vision, flexibility, and risk taking.14 In the context of the strategic planning process, specific short-term strategies and tactics are continually modified in response to changing opportunities and information. Uncertainty is an ever-present component of this approach to change, as it must be, but the resulting adaptability makes creativity and innovation realistic goals.

Somewhat differing organizational models within UVM’s library system have allowed for varying degrees of organizational and staff readiness for change, as well as for flexibility in plans and programs. Experimentation with new approaches has been necessary—some approaches have been discarded. Organizational learning evolved as UVM modified models and techniques found in the management literature to its own environment. Evolutionary restructuring has become an ongoing activity and refining it an almost familiar process.

Although change of this order never becomes easy for those involved, the inevitable stress has come to reflect a rather healthy phenomenon, what Peter M. Senge calls “creative tension,” which arises from the gap between vision and current reality.15 Senge uses the metaphor of a rubber band stretched between those two points, with current reality being either pulled toward the vision or held back by the status quo. Whenever we attempt to restructure resources, services, or roles, current priorities and assignments form our daily reality. In keeping with Senge’s metaphor of a rubber band, we should work to ensure that the creative tension moves current reality toward our vision, rather than giving sway to present pressures that would hold us back. Overall, with this process being one of evolution, it may not be possible to pinpoint where the present ends and this future begins. Still, the outlook is very promising if we can accumulate expertise as we restructure our organizations by seizing “windows of opportunity,” by staying abreast of technological advances, and by strengthening our relationships with the academic institution at large.


  1. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Barry Stein, and Todd Jick, comps., The Challenge of Organizational Change: How Companies Experience It and Leaders Guide It (New York: Free Pr., 1992).
  2. Libraries and Media Services, University of Vermont, Scenario 2000 (1995).
  3. Suzanne Massonneau, “Reclassification and Barcoding: A Unique Opportunity,” Collection Management 13, nos. 1–2 (1990): 15–37.
  4. Nancy L. Eaton and Nancy Crane, “Integrating Electronic Information Systems into the References Services Budget,” Reference Librarian, no.19 (1987): 161–77.
  5. Lyman Ross et al., “The Role of Academic Libraries in the Dissemination of Scholarly Information in the Electronic Environment,” in Computer Networking and Scholarly Communication in the Twenty-First Century University, ed. Teresa M. Harrison and Timothy Stephen (Albany: State Univ. of New York Pr., 1996), 369–82.
  6. The University of Vermont’s Carnegie classification is Research II.
  7. Libraries and Media Services, University of Vermont, Strategic Plan (1994), 9.
  8. These divisions include: Information and Instruction: Reference, Media Resources, Chemistry/Physics Branch, and Outreach; Collection Management Services: Collection Services (acquisitions, collection development, cataloging, circulation, and interlibrary loan); Research Collections: Government Documents & Maps, Special Collections, and University Archives.
  9. Julie Johnson McGowan and Elizabeth H. Dow, “Faculty Status and Academic Librarianship: Transformation to a Clinical Model,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 21 (Sept. 1995): 345–50.
  10. University of Vermont, A Framework for Change: Final Report of the President’s Commission on Critical Choices (1993).
  11. Libraries and Media Services, Strategic Plan.
  12. University of Vermont, Doing IT at UVM: A Strategic Plan for Information Technology at the University of Vermont (1995).
  13. Libraries and Media Services, Strategic Plan, 5.
  14. Susan A. Lee, “Leadership: Revised and Redesigned for the Electronic Age,” Journal of Library Administration 20, no. 2 (1994): 17–28.
  15. Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday, 1990).