A few days after I sent in the deposit to secure my daughter's spot at a "small New England liberal arts college," she received a letter from the school notifying her of her student email address, password for accessing student information from the college website and all the required server laptop specs. The letter was from the director of library and information services.
At first I was a bit befuddled. From what department did this letter originate? Was it IT or was it the library? Turns out, it's both. But the title didn't entirely throw me for a loop. Just days before, I was debriefed by two of our reporters about their recent visit to Bryant University. One of the many compelling points of interest about Bryant is that its CIO, too, has the university's library under his purview.
What's this? IT in charge of the college library?
Look, I'm a big fan of libraries and a big fan of IT, and I have immense respect for both professions. But this reporting structure seems a bit twisted. No doubt there are cost-conscious college presidents who think this is a brilliant business decision. After all, libraries are tightly integrated with technology; and who would argue that the Internet isn't the core of a student's research.
As perplexed as I am about this CIO-turned-librarian way of streamlining departments, I'm not surprised. For years, I fought for the expansion of our small town's library and battled opponents who were convinced libraries were passé. They're still arguing it. The thought being: Anything you can get in a book, you can get on the Internet. So let's level the library and put up a municipal parking lot.
But libraries are so much more than the technology that now drives them. Anyone who has ever had an experience with a really good book knows this.
One summer back in 1972, I was a bored 12-year-old who happened to wander into a branch of our public library. As I walked through the stacks aimlessly, a librarian approached me and asked if there was something special I was looking for. I said nothing, just shrugged my shoulders. Maybe I didn't even look up. The librarian said there was a wonderful new book I might like: Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume. The book changed my life and turned me into a reader forever.
Now, I'm not saying technology hasn't changed my life. I do, after all, make my living as an online business editor. I've been known on occasion to bring a dozen donuts to the guys in IT out of gratitude for retrieving a document I worked on for hours and then lost. And I will be forever indebted to Tim for getting me connected while half a world away from the office when I was only minutes away from meeting a deadline. These guys are geniuses. I've even gone on the record more than once exclaiming that IT should run the world. But I don't think it should run the library.
Maybe some will do a fine job at keeping the integrity of the library intact. But I bet most won't. It boils down to this: A librarian is academic. A CIO is business. Unless the CIO comes from academic ranks and has the breadth of knowledge to understand and operate with scholastic purpose, it won't work. Turning a library into a business proposition sets a precedent that threatens the existence of libraries -- public and academic.
The good news is the idea of putting the CIO in charge of the library will eventually peter out, at least according to the experts I spoke to. It's a knee-jerk reaction to bigger issues, such as budget cuts and unprecedented demands on technology. In addition, the ranks of librarians entering the workforce today are expected to be versed equally in library science and information technology. It's now a combined discipline. The likely scenario is that the librarian and CIO will work side by side, but each report to a different side of the house.
On Saturday, I'll find out more. It's Accepted Students Day at the college, and parents have the opportunity to meet professors, administrators and department heads. I intend to ask a few questions about this setup (it's one of the perks $47,000 a year in tuition and board will buy you). Who knows, perhaps I'll find out that it's actually the library director who is now in charge of IT. If that's the case, I'll have to think about that one.
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