Shaping Consensus: Structured Cooperation in the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries

Sue O. Medina and William C. Highfill

Higher education in Alabama evolved within a framework that stresses local autonomy and individualism. Absence of a history for united statewide efforts forced leaders of academic institutions to operate in a highly politicized arena, depending more on effective lobbying with the state legislature than on academic programs or state needs to effect progress for their institutions. Few incentives encouraged them to work together as long as the Alabama legislature rewarded political acumen over state need.

In the fragmented higher education environment that characterized Alabama, academic librarians were relatively isolated. Few cooperative programs had been initiated among institutions or libraries. Use of interlibrary lending, the most traditional form for sharing resources, was minimal. Librarians from different institutions seldom met except through participation in state library association activities. There was little, if any, communication between librarians at privately supported schools and those at publicly supported institutions. No mechanism existed for discussing issues of mutual concern, much less for planning coordinated responses to issues affecting their libraries.

By the late 1970s, Alabama’s low per capita income, regressive tax structure, and absence of home rule for raising local taxes had contributed to very low funding for services administered by local, regional, and state levels of government. Deficiencies in critical revenue supporting traditional government services led to discussions of such topics as the large number of academic institutions, the quality of education, unnecessary replication of academic programs, and the need for the state to utilize limited financial resources more effectively.

To respond to such issues, the state’s coordinating and planning agency for higher education, the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE), invited an advisory Council of Librarians to review the status of Alabama’s academic libraries. The report of its work, Cooperative Library Resource Sharing among Universities Supporting Graduate Study in Alabama, found that the state’s libraries lagged far behind their peers elsewhere in book and serial collections, staffing, facilities, use of technology, and access to external resources.1 The report pointedly stated that Alabama’s academic libraries lacked sufficient resources to support graduate education and research. Further, it stressed that institutions offering graduate education could not continue to maintain the illusion that high-quality education could be provided within the existing paucity of library resources.

It was apparent that adequate financial resources would never be available for individual institutions to correct the deficiencies highlighted by the study. Consequently, the report recommended the establishment of a statewide network to implement ways in which the academic institutions might coordinate activities that would result in sharing library resources among all institutions. Support for this recommendation by university presidents and ACHE resulted in the creation of the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries (NAAL) in 1983. For the first time among Alabama’s academic institutions, a formal organizational structure fostered cooperation.

General members of NAAL include both publicly and privately supported colleges and universities offering graduate education. Each general academic institution and ACHE name a voting representative to the network’s governing body. General members are assessed an initial membership fee; there are no annual membership dues. A nonvoting cooperative membership category has been established for libraries not affiliated with educational institutions but which hold research-level resources or are state-level agencies responsible for coordinating library services within the state. Cooperative members do not receive network funds except as part of special projects or as reimbursement for services rendered to general members. Program funds are appropriated by the state legislature to ACHE, which serves as fiscal agent and houses the NAAL office.

Defining the Organizational Role of NAAL

The term role has been used to define the part played by an actor in a performance. In social science disciplines, the term describes the behavior of individuals who occupy positions in the social structure. The concept generally characterizes the behavior of an individual in a position or setting with reference to the expectations of others for that position or setting. Most definitions of role assume the existence of consensus regarding expectations. Divergence in expectations for individuals, however, may result in conflict because of the pressure created by incongruent or countervailing forces.

Organizational theory, unlike role theory, lacks well-defined concepts of role. Research on role has been concerned primarily with intraorganizational issues, the role of the individual within the organization. There is little empirical research on how an organization’s role is defined; yet, the term is used frequently in an effort to describe image, goal setting, and performance of an organization vis-à-vis the other organizations in its environment. As in the case of roles of individuals, conflict can result from incongruent expectations placed on the organization.

The organizational role played by NAAL emerged from the expectations of others. Responsibilities of the new network had to be carefully delineated with regard to the state’s colleges and universities. The initial charge grew from Cooperative Library Resource Sharing: “to establish a network through which sharing of academic library resources would be coordinated to strengthen academic research and graduate study.” Acceptance of this charge presupposed a change in the status quo. Responsibility for library quality had always been the exclusive domain of the individual institutions. How would the institutional representatives to NAAL define the consortium’s role relative to those of the parent institutions?

Actions required for the formal establishment of NAAL, negotiation of the details of its governance and its relationships to ACHE and its several advisory councils (such as the Council of Presidents), and development of governing documents (bylaws, agreements) were exercises necessitating individual institutional change to support the goals of the new network organization.2 Once network organizational issues had been resolved, the next impact of NAAL on the organizational identity and structure of its individual members occurred through the application of technology to library functions. Until the formation of the consortium, the majority of the academic libraries did not participate in OCLC. Network planners agreed that a machine-readable online database would be essential if NAAL were to initiate specific collaborative activities. Consequently, requisites for NAAL participation included membership in OCLC (for most members, this took place in summer 1994) and an enduring commitment to contribute current cataloging records to the OCLC database.

Acceptance of these requirements enabled all members to participate in the highly structured training program offered by the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET), a regional OCLC broker; over time, this greatly facilitated the cooperative efforts of NAAL. Changes introduced by online cataloging were made as painless as possible by experienced SOLINET staff. Member librarians managed the process of changing to online cataloging without precipitating radical upheaval in their libraries. Acceptance of OCLC cataloging standards also meant that NAAL did not need to negotiate agreement on standards for Alabama contributions to the online database. For NAAL, this gentle initiation into the world of library automation opened doors of opportunity for members and lowered resistance to the introduction of technology for other library functions. It also demonstrated that member institutions would change their practices to ensure participation in, and commitment to, a statewide program.

The first project initiated by NAAL, creating a statewide online database for the holdings of all members, did not infringe markedly upon organizational responsibilities of individual members. Network funds were awarded to institutions to support retrospective conversion of bibliographic records for circulating monographs. Librarians in each institution planned their retrospective conversion project to fit existing workloads and patterns. Although the resultant machine-readable database advanced NAAL’s goals, it also contributed to each library’s efforts toward automation. Thus, members recognized that a mandate of an external organization did not necessarily conflict with the needs or priorities of local institutions but, rather, facilitated meeting those needs and priorities.

The significance of the retrospective conversion project lay not only in converting cataloging records into machine-readable format but also in the substantial commitment demonstrated by member institutions to the success of the network. Because state funding was not sufficient to permit completion of the machine-readable database within the five years considered essential for the inception of additional cooperative projects, each institution redirected a portion of its own funds to meet this deadline. These were institutional funds new to the library, not taken from other library programs. Once again, the members demonstrated a willingness to modify their individual programs to meet goals established for the statewide program.

Retrospective conversion was accorded highest priority for NAAL because the statewide online database would form the foundation for future cooperation. Successful completion of this project, the first NAAL effort requiring organizational cooperation, did not necessarily guarantee the success of other endeavors. It did, however, provide a touchstone that augured well for future prospects.

NAAL representatives knew that the retrospective conversion project had a finite completion schedule. At the end of that time, other cooperative programs had to be in place if the network were to continue forging its role as a cohesive agent. These had the potential of creating conflict between statewide goals and those of an individual institution. Areas of conflict could emerge from efforts to identify particularly weak collections, reduce unnecessary duplication among collections, and share library materials statewide.

Achieving Behaviors Contributing to Cooperation

Traditionally, librarians have been rewarded for their contributions to the institution in which they are employed. In academia, promotion and tenure recognize an individual’s contributions toward meeting university goals. Participation in NAAL, however, required support of the goals of an external organization. Moreover, these might appear at times to conflict with university goals.

After the creation of the statewide database (forecast for completion by 1990), NAAL ranked cooperative collection development and the physical sharing of materials as its major emphases. NAAL representatives began discussing the implementation of a cooperative collection development program, even though they knew several years might transpire before such activities were actually begun. Librarians would be required to forego the traditional focus on a single collection housed in one place and embrace a newer construct of statewide resources accessible to any student, faculty member, or researcher, regardless of the location of the user or the material. Concepts from organizational theory were used to effect change in the behaviors of the NAAL participants. Instances of their use are described below.

The first representatives to NAAL came from different levels in the academic hierarchy: university presidents, academic deans, a vice president for financial affairs, and librarians. These individuals had little experience working in groups in which membership was so diverse. This composition, the upper-level administrative responsibilities of a number of the representatives, and the size of NAAL made frequent or lengthy meetings difficult. Still, as the network program evolved, members needed to develop and support local institutional policies or procedures that would contribute to the statewide purposes of NAAL. Voting representatives would have to make informed decisions, yet meetings of the plenary body did not allow enough time to address complex issues and relationships underpinning each action. Two strategies were adopted to manage this problem: an annual planning retreat for NAAL representatives, and the appointment of standing committees to formulate recommendations considered for adoption.

Annual Planning Retreat

Because NAAL members were dispersed over a large geographical area, representatives had few opportunities to work together. Among Alabama academic institutions, rivalries for financial resources, students, faculty, and institutional recognition, including intense athletic competition, were legendary and long-standing. These adversarial stances, though not actually menacing, had to be confronted in order for NAAL to achieve a common vision and coordinate shared action. A desired outcome in establishing NAAL was the development of a unity of purpose to support actions necessary to accomplish behavioral changes. To achieve this unity, individual representatives to the consortium had to learn to recognize the abilities of other members to contribute meaningfully to efforts of the group, to trust others to behave ethically, and to rely on the commitment of their colleagues to meet obligations made to NAAL.

An important organizational development tool in changing role perceptions and individual behaviors is an activity commonly called a retreat. NAAL adopted this tool to ensure that every representative would participate in formulating network policies and programs. Careful preparation of the agenda and format for the annual retreat has promoted the cohesiveness essential for an effective organization. From the initial retreat in April 1988, the agenda has been designed to build a sense of common intent, to assess the network’s efforts to meet its purpose, and to explore new approaches for statewide cooperation.

The retreat is held at a Gulf of Mexico resort that offers the advantages of pleasant weather and off-season rates along with adequate meeting facilities and support services. Because the site is some distance from any participant’s library, workaday distractions are minimized. The retreat and related social activities encourage positive interpersonal relationships necessary for effective collaboration. For new representatives, it affords a comfortable introduction to the group.

Most agenda items derive from the work of NAAL standing committees. Status reports for the various programs are reviewed, and recommendations for continuing projects or proposals for new activities are explored. Representatives are encouraged to contribute ideas about programs and to suggest new ideas. Possible solutions are discussed thoroughly. If additional research is needed, appropriate committees are asked to continue working on the topic under review. Time set aside for small groups allows participants to continue to examine those topics that especially engage their interest.

By design, votes are not taken during the retreat; those occur later at the annual business meeting. Absence of formal action encourages spirited discussion and stimulates consideration of various scenarios. Alternatives may sometimes appear impractical but frequently provide a basis for new solutions. Because no formal votes are taken, adversarial debate does not occur. No one needs to persuade others to support a particular position. All ideas are received without judgment, opening the way for hidden, but strongly held, positions to surface and allowing modification and judicious compromise, if needed.

Representatives are informed about issues underlying a recommendation before they are asked to vote on implementation. Retreats typically offer individuals an environment in which to respond to change. For NAAL, this meeting is also the source of change. It promotes a unifying and cooperative spirit for contemplation of issues on the basis of statewide need and solutions. Possible points of conflict between a given institutional priority and a NAAL program can be analyzed before the program is pursued formally for adoption. Informal, but structured, engagement of representatives in conceptualizing and crafting the consortium program helps minimize conflict as change occurs.

Standing Committees

NAAL established standing committees to explore issues and prepare recommendations for consideration and approval. The work of the Collection Development Committee served as the model for other standing committees, such as those for resource sharing and electronic access. Membership of the Collection Development Committee was drawn from institutional representatives and librarians with expertise in collection management. It was charged with identifying or creating an appropriate model for statewide coordinated collection development. Committee members knew that several years could be allowed for this program to emerge; consequently, early meetings were given to philosophical reflections about the nature of Alabama’s libraries and the need for support for graduate education and research, especially as these related to the state’s economic development. The committee also identified emerging cooperative collection development projects throughout the nation and evaluated their utility for application in Alabama.

The Collection Development Committee set a high standard. Its deliberations were marked by discussion supported by research and logic, a focus on statewide issues and needs, and an absence of parochial agendas. This professionalism was demonstrated by the network’s success in changing from a highly politicized model which had not rewarded cooperation to one that stressed collaboration. Availability of network staff to record and distribute detailed minutes helped ensure that members (all volunteers with full-time positions in their own libraries) could use meeting time productively.

As the complexities of NAAL programs have increased, standing committees have spawned subcommittees to facilitate completion of their assignments. For example, a subcommittee of the Collection Development Committee focuses on the role of the network in serials coordination, especially as budget constraints force cuts in subscriptions and electronic formats become more readily available. The committee structure has proved to be an important organizational development tool in advancing NAAL.

Building a Collaborative Model for Collection Development

A primary responsibility envisioned for NAAL was to optimize academic library resources by implementing a statewide program to eliminate or markedly reduce quantitative and qualitative collection deficiencies in resources supporting graduate education and research. At the time this responsibility was being translated into program activities, no suitable model for cooperative collection development could be found in which participants included publicly and privately supported institutions or institutions ranging in size from comprehensive universities granting doctoral degrees to a small, single graduate program school.

Concern for cooperative collection development in Alabama coincided with the emergence of the same issue nationwide. In the 1980s, librarians began to engage in extensive discussions about cooperative collection development to facilitate a new focus on sharing resources. Nationally, a plethora of workshops addressed training needs. Articles mushroomed in professional literature, often concentrating on defining this new specialty.

Collection Development Committee members worked to forge an effective statewide policy. Thorough discussions in their frequent meetings assured familiarity with the issues, problems, and benefits of alternative policy recommendations. Because the committee began working several years before funds became available for cooperative collection development, there was no pressure to rush a policy to adoption. Distribution of background papers for comment by all NAAL members along with consideration of proposed cooperative collection development policy at the annual planning retreat helped provide voting representatives with information necessary for informed analysis and later action. As a result of this unhurried pace of deliberation, areas of potential conflict could be managed. Network members, as active participants in program design, were able to adapt their institutional structure to accommodate NAAL goals and program priorities.

Managing Conflict

The process of building a collaborative model for collection development opened several possible avenues for disagreement. Potential existed for NAAL to create or magnify conflict between statewide goals and institutional purposes, between library faculty responsible for collections and teaching faculty relying on the collection for instruction and research, and between librarians responsible for working with the NAAL program and other librarians struggling to maintain the daily institutional workload.

To ensure that dissension did not arise, NAAL worked deliberately and carefully on its collection development policy. By engaging librarians from every member institution in discussing various options, NAAL was able to explore in depth those areas where future difficulties might lie. Success in meeting the statewide goals of NAAL required library faculty and staff in all NAAL institutions to realize that they were not working in isolation, that academic institutions within the state shared a common future, and that all were buffeted by the same educational, political, and economic forces. Also, they needed to believe that the program they were helping to create would improve the quality of resources and services available to their own library’s users. Only through this recognition could librarians concur on a common vision and propose collaborative means to achieve it.

One threatening source of conflict in the cooperative collection development program was the necessity of identifying deficiencies in collections. Although librarians might sense intuitively the gaps and shortcomings of their collections, it was discomforting to them to consider that NAAL would reveal these deficiencies publicly. Awareness of specific deficiencies in individual collections was critical because deficiencies anywhere within the state negatively affected the total information resources available. Although all institutions had suffered the same historical funding insufficiencies and weaknesses in individual collections had taken years to develop or resulted from hastily implemented new academic programs, any acknowledgment of deficiencies might, by inference, be viewed as a criticism of current librarians and their stewardship of resources.

Designing a Statewide Program

Before committing funds to strengthening the aggregate of information resources by acquiring specific titles, NAAL required factual data on which to base decisions. Documentation of inadequacies in library resources was essential as justification for continued state funding through NAAL. To select an appropriate methodology for this documentation, Collection Development Committee members reviewed extant and emerging collection assessment methodologies. No single model could be adopted intact for Alabama’s purposes. Eventually, NAAL utilized components of the RLG Conspectus, especially a concept of enlightened self-interest and descriptions of collection levels.3 Of paramount importance to NAAL, though, was the value placed by RLG Conspectus methodology on the judgment of the librarian completing an assessment. By stressing that librarians in each institution would compile and review raw data and interpret the meaning and value of those data to substantiate strengths or weakness, NAAL was able to overcome objections to sharing the results of collection evaluations. Availability of funds for acquisitions to correct deficiencies also served as a powerful incentive in overcoming librarian reticence to evaluate collections and share findings.

Early deliberations focused on procedures for selecting subjects and libraries to receive NAAL funding for improving statewide information resources. Although some proposed a central decision to select as few as five subjects linked to statewide economic development initiatives, the committee agreed that the network should underwrite some collection enhancement activities at each institution. NAAL adopted the idea of “enlightened self-interest” as the basis for selecting subjects for network funding for acquisitions. This acknowledged that librarians in each institution could best identify areas needing to be strengthened. This would reinforce an essential principle of cooperation: All partners must benefit from cooperative activities.

As a consequence of the application of enlightened self-interest, each institution now identifies the academic program area, or areas, it will stress during its participation in the Cooperative Collection Development Program. Diversity among collections receiving financial support occurs without NAAL’s requiring each institution to identify a unique subject. When more than one school has selected the same or a very similar program for its NAAL collection development effort, institutional plans have reflected different facets of the programs. For example, projects to enhance resources for teacher education have emphasized educational administration, learning disabilities, or early childhood education. The plans have also varied by acquiring related source materials such as American literature rather than pedagogical materials. Thus, diversity occurs without the imposition by NAAL of restrictions on selection.

The collection development program is not, however, without some selection limitations. For example, NAAL funds cannot be used for acquisitions supporting academic programs that have been approved for less than five years or supporting an area for which a new degree is planned (e.g., a Ph.D. where previously only a master’s degree was offered). Approval for new programs requires institutions to furnish adequate information resources and services. Ensuring these for newly approved or proposed academic programs remains strictly an institutional responsibility.

Lack of an external mandate for choosing subjects in which to acquire materials with network funds, and the resulting freedom of choice afforded to institutions, helped build trust in network goals. By funding an institution’s proposal, rather than dictating choice of a subject, NAAL underscored the value it placed on members’ judgment.

In its collection development program, NAAL did conspectus-type checklists to assess member collections’ strengths and weaknesses. Two problems became apparent: Few libraries assigned individuals or teams any coordinating responsibility for collection development, and few librarians felt comfortable with such responsibility. NAAL libraries had to adapt and overcome these problems.

Adapting Member Structures to Accommodate Network Goals

NAAL’s delineation of collection development activities included traditional functions such as selection, acquisition, assessment, gifts and exchange, conservation, preservation, and weeding. Further, the statewide program encompassed cooperative activities, such as creating union lists, which served as an adjunct to strengthening local collections. Recognition that each institution needed to codify its collection development functions had a major impact on the organizational structure of member libraries.

Few NAAL libraries had written collection development policies. Only one library had consolidated traditional functions into the coordination responsibility of a collection development librarian; others had vested this oversight with the director. Most had apportioned traditional responsibilities to several librarians, and some institutions relied on teaching faculty for most or all selection decisions. Formulas for allocating funds to academic departments for acquisitions frequently handicapped librarians trying to acquire materials on the basis of student needs or use, especially in emerging or multidisciplinary fields of study.

Availability of network funds for acquisitions supporting a closely coordinated and well-managed statewide program required changes within NAAL libraries. Because the Cooperative Collection Development Program followed an annual planning cycle requiring proposals for funding, end-of-year reports, and continual project management, each library had to designate a collection development librarian as its NAAL liaison.

Among the primary reasons that libraries change organizational structure are to balance workload, coordinate similar functions, improve efficiency, and upgrade services. Designating a collection development liaison addressed most of these organizational needs as well. For example, because participation in the network program increased workload, activities were reallocated to achieve balance. Similar functions, defined as part of the statewide Cooperative Collection Development Program, could be coordinated more effectively if one person had responsibility for them. One result of applying NAAL’s assessment methodology was a more efficient match between acquisitions and instructional programs. Enriching individual collections by the infusion of new funding for acquisitions strengthened the quality of information available to researchers throughout the state. Ideally, changes in local library structure to accommodate the NAAL program would ultimately balance workload, coordinate similar functions, improve efficiency, and upgrade services in the local library.

Improving Expertise and Enhancing Status

NAAL recognized the need for Alabama librarians to learn from the efforts of their colleagues engaged in cooperative efforts throughout the nation. Reports of cooperative projects, notable for experimentation with new ideas and methodologies, often do not appear in professional literature. Therefore, it was vital that Alabama librarians attend conferences and workshops in which they could engage in discussions with their peers who were striving to implement cooperative collection development programs in other consortia. To promote professional interchange, NAAL funded a small grant program, $500 per institution each year, to pay travel and registration fees for participation in out-of-state workshops. Grants could not be used to attend general library conferences but could support participation in programs such as preconferences of annual ALA meetings, Institutes on Collection Development sponsored by the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services, and North American Serials Interest Group meetings. One librarian applied the grant to enroll in library science classes on preservation and archival management. In addition, at an Alabama Library Association annual meeting, NAAL sponsored a keynote address emphasizing the growing importance of cooperation in collection development. It cosponsored a three-day conference on collections management at the University of Alabama Graduate School of Library and Information Science. NAAL also sponsored a number of training programs exclusively for its members. These reviewed collection assessment methodology and its application to further the goals of NAAL.

As NAAL librarians became familiar with cutting-edge collection development practice and theory, and, in fact, helped hone that edge, their expertise elevated their stature on their home campuses. In role theory, accumulating expertise is one of the ways in which individuals attain status, thus enhancing their roles among their peers. Two other elements combined to improve the status of liaison librarians: participation in the Cooperative Collection Development Committee, and development of grant proposals subsequently funded by NAAL.

The Cooperative Collection Development Committee drew its membership from librarians named as liaisons for the Cooperative Collection Development Program. Reading literature and discussing findings related to committee projects also contributed significantly to the skills and knowledge of the newly designated liaison librarians. The NAAL director served as staff to the committee and researched topics as requested, for example, preparing literature reviews for studies of overlap and duplication, bibliographic control and use of microform materials, and for use of periodicals to provide guidance in predicting obsolescence.4

The requirement for collection management information on which to base the committee’s recommendations led to NAAL’s first research project. To respond to the charge that statewide coordination reduces unnecessary duplication among library holdings, the committee supported an analysis of overlap by ascertaining levels of duplication among the education collections of NAAL members. The study found a high rate of uniqueness (51% of the monographic records analyzed represented items held in only one location). Also, a low rate of duplication, an average of 2.6 volumes per title, was found.5 One of the initial concerns leading to the creation of NAAL had been reducing the perceived, but unverified, level of duplication, and this study provided objective data to assure legislators and administrators that duplication was not, in reality, a serious problem. Participating in a major research project linked to the political issues associated with NAAL heightened the collection development librarians’ understanding of the complexity surrounding a statewide cooperative venture.

Methodology of the statewide program required each member to submit an Institutional Plan for Collection Development to NAAL for funding. At first prepared annually, each plan included the findings of a collection assessment and set forth procedures for correcting deficiencies identified as a result of that assessment. Because NAAL funds were allocated as grants to the institutions, collection development librarians were often required to work with an institution’s office for grants and contracts. These librarians learned new skills in writing grants and administering externally funded projects, and enjoyed a status similar to that afforded other teaching faculty who attract grant funds to the institution. NAAL’s ability to award grants to colleges and universities helped reinforce its role in its evolving relationships with these institutions.

Although NAAL representatives had been concerned about the possibility of conflict with teaching faculty who were acknowledged experts in their academic fields, growth in the expertise of librarians deflected any serious problems. In time, even in those institutions in which teaching faculty had carefully protected their prerogative to select titles for the library, librarians were increasingly entrusted with those decisions.

Influence of Technology on Future Cooperation

The ever-changing technological environment mandates modifications in NAAL’s efforts to coordinate resources and share materials. Adoption of “Information Retrieval Service Definition and Protocol Specifications for Library Applications” (Z39.50) by the National Information Standards Organization in 1988 advanced the possibilities for interconnectivity among disparate systems. Principal advantages afforded by this technology are the ability to query online public-access catalogs using the sophisticated search and retrieval software of local library automated systems, to examine other locally developed databases, and to share resources in formats other than print.

After NAAL installed linking software for eight NOTIS sites, interlibrary loan librarians found that using the linked system to verify availability status (e.g., on shelf, in circulation, at bindery) and serial holdings which are maintained in greater detail on local systems than in the Alabama union list on OCLC greatly facilitated interlibrary lending. In addition, greater detail of local holdings records led to discussions of the need to promote use of linked systems for interlibrary loan and to reexamine participation in union listing through OCLC.

The ability to share electronic databases, especially those containing full text, resulted in a major revision of NAAL’s collection development program. In 1996, NAAL initiated a pilot project that uses collection development funds, previously allocated to institutions for acquisitions of print resources, to license online access to a general periodicals index with full-text articles for 650 of the 1,500 journals indexed. As a result of the evaluation of the project, NAAL is developing criteria for choosing and implementing shared databases and new guidelines for cooperative collection development. These criteria will consider the need to maintain print resources even when digital versions are available. An expected outcome of this effort will be a model for making collaborative decisions for serials retention and cancellations.

Other forces having impact on NAAL are the rapid development of distance education opportunities and the requirement to assure off-campus students access to information equal to that of their on-campus peers. Formulas for funding allocations to individual institutions of higher education in Alabama, based on full-time equivalent enrollment, contribute to competition rather than cooperation in providing services. However, the ease with which students can access library catalogs and shared databases calls for a rational statewide approach to providing information services, regardless of institutional affiliation. Finally, technology has promoted changes in user behavior, and NAAL needs to respond by providing electronic messaging so that users can submit information and borrowing requests directly to remote libraries known to hold needed items as well as develop a means to deliver information to sites without traditional libraries.

The vision of a statewide virtual library challenges the traditional identity of academic institutions and raises questions about the responsibility of individual institutions for providing services supporting their students’ information needs. Alabama librarians do not have to grapple alone with these questions; through NAAL, they have forged an effective mechanism for finding solutions.

Physically Sharing Materials Statewide

A fundamental principle of NAAL is that the total academic information resources of Alabama should be available to any student, faculty member, or researcher regardless of the location of the information or the user. Although cooperative collection development added a relatively limited number of new materials to the collective holdings, the willingness and ability to share their total library resources are factors that improved the effectiveness of all members in serving their users. Cooperative collection development without efficient sharing would be of little benefit beyond the holding library.

A major test of the commitment of members to NAAL was their willingness to make the local institutional changes necessary for a strong statewide resource-sharing program. To accomplish this, members waived all fees for interlibrary loans, charging neither their own users nor those of other NAAL members. They now lend all circulating materials to other NAAL members on the same basis as they lend them to their own users. They give priority to each other in handling interlibrary loan requests. To ensure that resource sharing is effective for students, especially those at schools on the quarter system, they expedited delivery. With state and federal funds, members installed telefacsimile equipment for transmitting copied materials; established a ground-based courier service using commercial delivery services; and, as Internet connections grew, began installing ARIEL workstations. New technology enabled local automated systems to be linked into an online interactive network that users could browse remotely. This linked-systems network also made possible the sharing of electronic databases, including those offering full-text documents.6

Changes in traditional interlibrary loan services, especially the ability to deliver requested materials quickly, also changed procedures and volume of activity in most NAAL libraries. Interlibrary loan departments achieved increased recognition as the number of transactions grew by over 600 percent from 1985 to 1995. The departments expanded and accepted new responsibilities for coordinating document delivery, pushing their purview beyond traditional interlibrary loan.

With the expanded utilization of electronic formats, especially the addition of databases containing full-text documents, the responsibilities of the collection development, interlibrary loan, reference, and automation librarians are melding. In NAAL’s experience, “specialists” in these areas expect to have a role in choosing electronic materials because that choice affects aspects of the work of each. For example, collection development librarians might choose a particular electronic product to complement gaps in the collection. Interlibrary loan librarians might choose a product to expand the range of available materials and avoid ever more costly fees and copyright royalties. Reference librarians might choose an electronic version because it offers more efficient searching strategies for users. Automation librarians might want only products that can be supported easily by existing infrastructure. None of these librarians chooses alone. Increasingly, organizational structure must accommodate the blurring of lines defining responsibilities to ensure the most effective and efficient services for library users.


An important contribution of NAAL, as is true of any sizable consortium, is developing and sustaining a model for collaborative decision making. Libraries are increasingly interdependent. The isolation of previous decades, which encouraged unilateral decision making, has vanished. The decisions individual librarians make by adding new materials, expanding technology, choosing electronic formats, and, regrettably, cutting budgets affect all consortium partners. In this environment, building a successful model for collaborative decision making is the single most significant contribution of the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries to its member institutions.


  1. Cooperative Library Resource Sharing among Universities Supporting Graduate Study in Alabama (Montgomery, Ala.: Alabama Commission on Higher Education, 1982).
  2. Sue O. Medina and William C. Highfill, “Effective Governance in a State Academic Network: The Experience of the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries,” Library Administration and Management 6 (winter 1992): 15–20.
  3. Paul Mosher, one of the architects of the RLG Conspectus and an early consultant to NAAL, noted that institutions participate in cooperative ventures for the benefits accruing for their users. Not all cooperative ventures can assure immediate tangible benefits for every participant, but institutions subscribing to a concept of enlightened self-interest recognize that cooperative ventures benefiting the group also strengthen individual members.
  4. The committee’s discussion of the place of microforms in the statewide program resulted in the compilation of a union list of major microform sets held by Alabama’s academic and research libraries, Alabama’s Major Microform Collections, enlarged and revised by T. Harmon Straiton Jr. (Montgomery, Ala: Network of Alabama Academic Libraries, Alabama Commission on Higher Education, 1991), 3 volumes. Straiton maintains and updates the union list on the Auburn University Libraries home page ( To facilitate sharing, NAAL pays to add holdings symbols to OCLC for microform set analytics when machine-readable records become available for sets held by a NAAL library. For information about this project, see Sue O. Medina, T. Harmon Straiton Jr., and Cecilia Schmitz, “Major Microform Sets: The Alabama Experience,” in Advances in Collection Development and Resource Management, ed.Thomas W. Leonhardt (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Pr., 1995), 79–100.
  5. Fred Heath, “An Assessment of Education Holdings in Alabama Academic Libraries: A Collection Analysis Project,” in Cooperative Collection Development: Proceedings of the June 1991 ASCLA Multi-LINCS Preconference, comp. Diane Macht Solomon (Chicago: Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, 1992), 37–65. The literature review prepared for the Cooperative Collection Development Committee was subsequently updated and published as Sue O. Medina, “Duplication and Overlap among Library Collections: A Chronological Review of the Literature,” in Advances in Collection Development and Resource Management, ed. Thomas W. Leonhardt (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Pr., 1995), 1–60.
  6. The NAAL Resource Sharing Program is described in Sue O. Medina, “Improving Document Delivery in a Statewide Network,” Journal of Interlibrary Loan & Information Supply 2, no. 3 (1992): 7–14; Sue O. Medina, “The Network of Alabama Academic Libraries: Effective Document Delivery in a Statewide Academic Library Consortium,” College & Research Libraries News 51 (July/Aug. 1990): 640–43; Sue O. Medina and Linda Thornton, “Cannot Supply: An Examination of Interlibrary Loan Requests Which Could Not Be Filled by Members of the Network of Alabama Academic Libraries,” Journal of Interlibrary Loan, Document Delivery & Information Supply 6, no. 4 (1996): 11–33.