Dangerous Misconceptions about Organizational Development of Virtual Libraries

Herbert S. White

Academic library leaders have generally taken the term
virtual library to mean a concept in which as much information as possible is transferred directly to the offices of faculty members, usually through their computer terminals. Some of this information may come through the library, some may bypass the library entirely, but, in any case, it is suggested that this will reduce the need for faculty members to depend on the library for specific answers or general help. The conventional wisdom is that this new concept is considered attractive by faculty members, that it is favored by university administrators because they perceive it as a reduction in cost, and that it will also benefit academic librarians by increasing our status to the role of information advisors or consultants—but, in any case, by transferring costs from the library to the budget of the faculty member’s department. This chapter suggests that all of these assumptions—of the virtual library’s benefits for faculty members, benefits for university administrators, and benefits for academic librarians—are totally erroneous.

The phrase
virtual library is sufficiently vague to allow anyone to apply his or her own definition, much as we can make almost anything we like of the “information superhighway,” including a growing repertoire of bad jokes about traffic jams, speed traps, potholes, road repairs, and traffic police. The dictionary definition of
virtual leads us to an approximation of the almost ideal library. However, what is that library, and what makes us think we are approaching it? Furthermore, whose ideal are we talking about? Ours, those of academic administrators, or those of our users? Finally, which users—undergraduate students; graduate students; teaching faculty, who care very little about research; research faculty, who care very little about teaching; tenured faculty who may care very little about either teaching or research; or university administrators, who no longer resemble faculty at all (even though they came from the academic disciples) but whose information needs are now a cross between those of public officials and corporate executives? Or, do we think that all of these communities have the same information needs, something we can subsume under the term
reference, which, if it is designed to serve anyone, is designed to serve the directional information needs of undergraduates (or at least anything else that can be answered in two minutes or less)? Perhaps we believe, even hope, that the virtual library will absolve us of the responsibility—and the cost—of providing reference service at all, as an expensive nuisance.

If there is anything we certainly do understand, it is that technology has made significant changes in the way information can be announced bibliographically and in the way it can be delivered physically. We also seem to understand that technology has broadened the definition of what we mean by “information,” at least in the setting of the library. We used to define information in the context of what we, and perhaps others, considered worthy of indexing and announcing. In general, libraries limited such indexing and announcing to books and were usually willing to make the end user wait until we were ready to state that an item was completed. Journal articles were included in the worthy category if some group, usually a professional society, took the trouble to analyze them. But if this did happen, it was done in separate retrieval systems with various indexing systems that allowed for both gaps (the things nobody wanted to analyze) and duplications (the things everyone analyzed but differently). Other nonbook materials, defined not by value but by format (simplistically what could not stand up on the shelf unaided), were largely ignored.

Technology, which looks at information far more impersonally than we do, has some of the same faulty biases of announcement validity but, with its great speed of sorting and the storage capacity of machines, announces far more things than we were ever willing or able to consider. Moreover, the databases that sprang up more prolifically than weeds (because for weeds there are weed killers to get rid of the noxious ones and here there are none) “announced” things to end users whether libraries had analyzed them or not. This has created certain problems for us, insofar as requests for service can be described as problems. People now want more and more documents from us, and these are more likely to be materials we are not prepared for them to request (at least unprepared in that we have not yet rung the symbolic bell to indicate that people could come and get it).

There is, at the same time, an “out” for us. The organizations that are happy to announce documents directly to end users are also often willing to supply them directly, and more rapidly, than the workings of our own creaking interlibrary loan systems (which are based on the tenuous premise that the owner is just dying to drop everything to supply a copy to the nonowner). Document delivery services and interlibrary loan systems both cost a good deal of money, but cost is irrelevant to the provision of a service or a product that is considered essential. We should understand this (though we frequently do not) because management writers such as Peter Drucker have told us often enough that there is no safety in appearing to be inexpensive. There is only safety in being essential.

What, then, do we know about the options of new technology, the so-called virtual library? We know that there is more information and that it can be delivered directly to the terminals of our end users, particularly faculty members. Is this a good idea? The organizations responsible for developing databases, for selling hardware and software, and for pushing end-user searching obviously think so; certainly it is a good business for them. Is it, therefore, a good idea for everybody else? We also know that even as this process of increased information access might be crucial for survival in a competitive world (and academia is a fiercely competitive world) and that it might be cost-effective (with more return on investment), it will be more expensive. Strangely, though we certainly know all this, to a large extent university administrators do not—some even think that the virtual library will save money for the overall university budget. Much as they might wish this to happen, we certainly know that it will not save money in aggregate terms.

Why, then, have we not told them the truth, and what is our professional responsibility for telling them even what they might prefer not to hear? I know of library administrators who will acknowledge privately that the virtual library will cost a great deal of money but that the cost will “fortunately” be charged to the budgets of the academic departments, not to the budgets of the library, and that, therefore, this transfer of costs—even if it involves an overall increase over the alternatives—is a “good thing” for us. How does that rank as a political strategy and, quite separately, as an ethical strategy?

It is time to assess the implications of the virtual library as they apply to (1) professional librarians, (2) university management, and (3) our end users, who range from uncaring freshmen to know-it-all professors, with administrators also figured in there somewhere. The order I have used is intentional, because the first and most important question is how all of this affects us. Librarians (but probably only librarians) might be shocked at such selfishness, but we need not worry. It is always possible, and indeed essential, to be able to rationalize that what is best for us also happens to be best for everyone else. This is a process that engineers call
retrofitting—making facts fit conclusions—and, of course, our own researchers working under the time line of grants and dissertation schedules do this all the time. Elected political officials and university presidents do it instinctively or they do not survive. It is what Charles Wilson, president of General Motors, meant when he stated that, “What was good for General Motors was also what was good for the country.” His statement shocked some, but on what other basis can anyone be president of General Motors? Therefore, if academic librarians are not willing to postulate that what is best for them is also what is best for the university and its faculty and students, they might as well cover themselves with ashes and live in a cave. However, reassuringly and comfortingly, the statement is true.

The Impact of the Virtual Library on Us

In the most direct and simplistic scenario, all information moves either directly from the data creator or, through us, to the terminal of the end user, who now functions quite comfortably without ever setting foot in the library or even contacting it. Where does that leave us? Obviously, without a role in information intermediation but perhaps still with a role in document supply for those items that the database providers are unable to supply. However, document supply, whether done well or poorly, is a clerical function, as is the operation of any stockroom or warehouse. What this role, then, presumably does is “rid” us of contacts with faculty members entirely. It frees our budgets of reference costs so that we can devote them more directly to meeting ever-increasing periodical costs. It frees the public areas for students who, at least in my observation, tend to use them for social contacts, except perhaps for the forty-eight hours just before a final exam. When I teach management, I stress that in the area of unionization the only ultimate power of workers is the threat, real or implied, that they will withhold their services. If the virtual library is on “automatic pilot,” will anyone even notice that we are not there?

Some individuals, particularly in special libraries but also in academic libraries, suggest a new and higher-level role for librarians—that of virtual-information advisor or consultant or guru. It is an attractive concept but one that cannot succeed because of two major fallacies. First, one’s acceptance of some individuals as being information experts or consultants is based on a confidence that those individuals really are experts who know what they are talking about. For example, I accept on faith that the service manager in an automotive repair shop used to be a master mechanic. If we are going to get individuals to allow us to teach them how to do their own information work, our credibility must be based on their confidence that we are truly experts who can do such searching better than they could. The fallacy in that argument from the typical view of the typical faculty member should be immediately apparent. Apart from one or two exceptional librarians on a given campus (who are usually explained away by the faculty as aberrations from the librarian norm), librarians have established no real credibility as being experts, more knowledgeable in the handling of their literature than the faculty. I am not saying that we could not do this, or even that there are not librarians who would like to do it. I only note that we have trivialized reference service to common-denominator “quickies” of directional services aimed primarily at undergraduates who want to know how the journals are shelved, when the library will close, or where the rest rooms are. Is it any wonder that our best reference librarians, capable of doing more than this, hate the time they must spend at the reference desk? For proof that all of this makes sense we need look only at the prestige and success of the occasional bibliographic specialist, who is embraced as a colleague by faculty in such diverse fields as history, French literature, and music. Their prestige stems not from their being librarians but, rather, from being seen as acting differently from the way librarians are somehow expected to act. I have on occasion been paid the dubious compliment of being told that I do not act like a “typical” librarian, and I still do not know how to deal with that. Such extensive reference service is probably worth our time and consideration, but do we foresee it in the virtual library—and would our budgets allow it? (I can anticipate the observation that the levels of information service I have suggested are undemocratic, in that they are geared to the importance of the client. That is obviously true, but who ever suggested that a university was a democratic institution?)

The greater reason that a strategy based on librarians as virtual-information consultants cannot work is the contemporary environment of downsizing—the elimination of jobs considered to be unrelated to the main mission of the parent institution. Corporations have few techniques for downsizing. They occasionally lay off perfectly satisfactory people (usually librarians) and they eliminate middle management slots, but generally they wait for attrition or early retirement and sometimes they force early retirement. They certainly do not add master’s-level individuals to the payroll with job titles such as information consultant or advisor. Although they might contract such skills for a short time, they will not add them to the head count.

Academia, trapped in the tenure system that makes any new action difficult, is even more likely to count on attrition and retirement to trim the payroll (though it will take years to realize any savings from such techniques). It is easiest to eliminate the adjunct and part-time teachers, regardless of the impact on the classroom, and to leave vacated positions unfilled. I know of one university in which half the deanships are now vacant and no search committees have been appointed. A system such as this (in an environment ranging as far as we can see) is not going to invest in virtual-information counselors.

Still, it might invest in librarians who, as information
doers, could make other employees, particularly faculty, more productive as teachers or researchers. That kind of reliance on librarians might make it possible to save money, probably the only justification in which academic administrators are now really interested. However, how are we even going to introduce this subject if we are not willing to tell them that: (1) Adapting to new information technology is a growing requirement for higher education; (2) it will entail a great deal of additional money from the university; and (3) if they agree to put the entire process under the control of librarians, the increased cost outlay could be lessened or at least controlled.

The Impact of the Virtual Library on University Administrators and Budgets

I did not realize until after I had joined academia in an administrative role how well my twenty-five years in corporate and government management had prepared me for what happens in universities, for I came to understand that the management process is substantially the same. However, academic administrators have far less flexibility in decision options than their counterparts in the corporate environment. Part of that difficulty is related to the tenure system, part of it comes from the faculty’s stubborn refusal to concern themselves with whether something can be afforded (if they need it, they can make it an issue of academic freedom), and part of it reflects the faculty’s similar refusal of a hierarchical relationship to administrators. In other words, faculty have a great antipathy toward authority and very little financial responsibility. Academic librarians understand the budget process quite well (because they, like administrators, have a good deal of responsibility with relatively little authority). Students, we understand, occasionally make noise but have virtually no power in academia simply because they are considered transients who will, in a few years, take their pleasantness off campus. Librarians have no power either, in large part because their authority is recognized by neither administrators nor faculty (but, unlike students, we do not even make noise).

Long before I joined academia in 1975, I was given valuable information by my own boss, an IBM official who had spent several decades as a faculty member and administrator of an Ivy League university. When I complained about the negative impact of corporate politics, he told me that corporate politics was nothing when compared to academic politics. I have learned since that Robert Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago, understood this even better when he noted that political battles in academia are waged so ferociously precisely because the stakes are so small! The issue in academia is one of intellectual turf—controlling a unique area of expertise that nobody else dares challenge. Professors with exalted titles or obscure specializations earn control over their turf automatically and, as I saw on many academic committees, everyone readily yields to the expertise of others that they do not understand.

Academic librarians control no turf as such. Our job is seen as purchasing material for the collection, the “heart of the university,” but faculty retain a right to say what should be acquired. The job of librarians is to find the money with which to do it. It should be obvious that the faculty, by and large, are in no position to make decisions about priorities for the library because, at best, their knowledge is a balkanized one about a discipline or subdiscipline. Who but librarians can make a decision about the relative merits of spending additional money on the collection in English literature versus organic chemistry? Certainly not the professors in either discipline, and the faculty members in other disciplines are simply not interested.

At any rate, the “turf” that represents library collection development decisions has been abdicated to faculty, whereas budget responsibility remains with librarians. This tends to annoy administrators because pressures to spend more money on library materials follow relentlessly in the wake of both publication proliferation and price inflation—two growth patterns bolstered by publishers’ realization long ago that librarians are often merely purchasing agents for the faculty. The strategy of library administrators in the face of this dilemma remains as predictable as it has proved disastrous. We beg for more money with which to meet rising prices, from both the administration and potential donors. We place all of our other priorities—including resource sharing, technology, adequate reference service, proper salaries, continuing education, and library operational research—on the back burner because the faculty do not see these as their own priority and because the administration is too preoccupied to consider planning much more than faculty pacification.

It is little wonder, then, that in such an environment librarians seem all too willing to cede the process of information intermediation—to abdicate their expertise in analyzing the content and the value of information to the desks and terminals of the faculty through the virtual library—because in such an organization, though costs may indeed be much higher, they will no longer be our responsibility. In that framework, the virtual library may be understandable, but it remains unworkable. Academic libraries will simply underlie what Robert Munn called “bottomless pits” and continue to be a constant source of annoyance to university administrators because there is always pressure to spend more money on research materials without any tangible credit accruing to administrators for authorizing such “necessary” expenditures. Actually, although academic administrators grouse that they are spending a great deal of money—perhaps too much money—on the library, the reality is quite different. They are spending an ever-declining percentage of the university budget on the library, and they are spending it precisely on the materials budget because they and the faculty have been unwilling to control price inflation by presenting a united front to threaten boycott—not as customers but as authors, a far more credible threat.

Librarians have not only transferred funds from all other budgets to the materials budget (at a time when they know that ownership is not nearly as important now as access), but they have abdicated what remained of their turf by allowing administrators and faculty to decide that the funding priority for the library is (in the view of these individuals, not librarians) the purchase of materials. Foisting off electronic materials costs on the end user in the virtual library is the next step in this pattern of planned invisibility.

It is a disastrous strategy for librarians but, perhaps more important, it is a disastrous strategy for university administrators. The growth of electronic access will most certainly increase university costs and, painful as this prospect is, university administrators must face it. However, that rate of growth might at least be alleviated if costs were centralized under the control of librarians, rather than decentralized and scattered among faculty cost centers (ultimately still funded from the same university budget). If university administrators are concerned about costs, they should consider a different approach—improving the productivity of faculty in the spheres of teaching and research. The purpose of information, after all, is to enable the recipient to do something better. Information is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Academic librarians should make a case that less money would be spent if librarians, suitably empowered, were given control over the university’s information-access budget. To reiterate, successful management in any environment does not call for planned invisibility or appearing inexpensive or even frugal. Rather, successful management is to control the process and resources. (Perhaps I understood this instinctively when, as a twenty-five-year-old corporate librarian, I argued that if there was not enough money to allow my library to buy a certain periodical, I wanted assurance that nobody else would be able to buy the same journal with corporate funds.) We should not assume that faculty will object to our becoming the managers of the information-access channels. As the following section will demonstrate, many might even be pleased or relieved, provided that they have confidence in our ability to manage the process in a way that would enable them to know what they need to know in order to accomplish their own research and curricular objectives, for which information is a means and not an end.

The Impact of the Virtual Library on Our Faculty Colleagues

The manner in which faculty members’ work has long been romanticized is understandably their doing, not ours. When the general public thinks of what researchers do, film versions of Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur, Schliemann’s digs at Troy, and the decoding of the Dead Sea Scrolls immediately come to mind. Undoubtedly, there are such people now, and some may even reside in the faculty of research universities. However, they are a small minority; and in institutions oriented toward teaching they may not exist at all. As Herbert Brinberg noted at an International Federation of Documentation conference, whereas basic researchers seek facts, applied researchers, technologists, and practitioners want specific answers to specific questions (rather than tools that “might” contain an answer), and managers need to know the range of their options. All three types exist among the clientele of a university library but, as notable a humanist and librarian scholar as Charles Osburn has observed, we treat all faculty as though they were researchers, even though basic research disappears rapidly under the siege of funded grants and contracts that demand not just an answer but the promised answer within a promised time frame.

As senior vice president for operations for the Institute for Scientific Information during the 1970s, I presided over the preparation of
Who Is Publishing in Science, an annual author–address directory drawn from that year’s
Science Citation Index and various editions of
Current Contents. I once worried about overlap and redundancy in the annual indexes until it was demonstrated to me that half of the authors appear in this collection of scientific and scholarly articles only once, never again. That single article, which may have sprung from their dissertation, is their life’s contribution. And yet we presume in our treatment of faculty that all are basic scholars who must have access to scholarly raw materials.

Producers of databases and online services extend the same presumption to end users as a whole, who are supposed to be fascinated with access to more and more information tools. I can certainly understand why it is to the producers’ advantage to do so. End users search more sloppily and, thus, more expensively than do librarians, and that means greater profits. But does that benefit the university? Is it helpful to the librarians? Is it even to the advantage of the mythical end user?

For many faculty members, the presumed fascination for information self-service in the virtual library does not hold. University libraries that offered end-user training to their faculty have found that the level of interest is small, perhaps as small as five percent. Moreover, many of the faculty who do sign up send surrogates, such as graduate assistants and even secretaries. The business press informs us of the development of a new industry, rather delightfully dubbed the “meatware” profession, because the meatware people are the ones who use the hardware and software on behalf of the reluctant end user. I can only conclude that the market niche for the meatware industry was created by the failure of librarians to fill the gap because of either a reluctance to do so or a failure to persuade a management besieged by budget pressures to allocate the money which will now be spent in even greater quantities. Of course, there are end users who want to do their own searches all of the time, and perhaps more who want to do them some of the time. However, there are many who would be happy to delegate and even abdicate this process,
if they could find someone willing to do it—and
if he or she were someone they could trust.

Summary and Conclusions

The future leads to the possibility of some disasters, as well as some glorious opportunities. In what is bound to be an environment of increasing options, confusions, and costs, there may be several plausible reasons for academic librarians to decline from the process of acquiring and analyzing information, but all of them lead to disaster. One reason might be despair of getting adequate funds with which to do our jobs, particularly with ever-darkening clouds of publisher invoices hanging over our heads. Another reason might be our belief that end users
ought to do such access and analysis themselves (just as we entertain that sort of morality play in our insistence that students learn how to do their own searching). It may be that we really think that end users are better able to fend for themselves than we are. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with any academic library budget that puts a higher premium on buying things than on investing in staff.

We have a problematic future in the current conception of the virtual library because there will not be money to engage us as consultants and advisors, and because many faculty have seen no evidence of our willingness or capability to do the work that we now want to teach them to do. Our future, nevertheless, remains in the process of information intermediation. Furthermore, it is the only alternative that makes economic sense for the institution. Certainly, the waves of information that will be dumped on the terminals of people who are really being paid to do something else creates an economic disaster for the university. If administrators have been slow to figure this out, it is because the software and hardware people are not equipped to tell them and we have not been willing to say so. Our message is very simple: One cannot fritter away money into the budgets of countless and traditionally irresponsible user groups! You need to give us the funding. Unfortunately, the virtual library will entail a great deal of additional money. But if you let us manage and control these funds, the result will be a great deal more palatable for the institution.