Why universities should consider merging library and IT departments

Cultural differences and the need for excellent communication mean that such a merger is not easy, but the outcomes can provide tremendous value, says Ravi Ravishanker

Ravi Ravishanker's avatar
Wellesley College
23 Aug 2022
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Merging library and IT services can bring great benefits to university life

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How liberal arts colleges manage their IT and library teams varies widely across the sector. In most cases, IT and library organisations are separate entities, which sometimes report to the same leader but most often do not. 

However, having worked in two small liberal arts colleges for more than three decades, both with separate and merged IT and library departments, I can confidently say that merging these two operational organisations brings out the best of both skill sets, delivers a better service to faculty and students and allows teams to pool their financial and human resources.

The efficiency and collaboration that result from merging the two teams is exactly what liberal arts institutions need as they build and improve their digital services. Wellesley College, where I work, was one of the earliest small liberal arts colleges to merge the two in the early 1990s, to great benefit, and many others have followed

There are, of course, things to consider when establishing a merged model, including overcoming cultural differences, building cohesive communication and learning to understand and play to each team’s strengths. 

Cultural differences between IT and library teams are real and need careful thought. For example, librarians usually believe it is important to show users how to solve their own problems or answer their own questions rather than just doing it so users can move on. Whereas technologists often feel compelled to solve the problem or answer the question without as much thought for explanation.

As a team leader, you should be prepared to invest time in making everyone feel they are part of a shared mission to enhance the services you provide to the academic community. The most feared aspect of a merger is favouritism towards one side by leadership, and it is extremely important that a leader exercises proper balance. There have been a few cases where the merged organisations were unmerged mostly because the cultural differences could not be overcome.

Communication both between the teams and with the academic and student service users is another area that can greatly benefit from such a merger. In general, faculty trust and respect advice and consultations with librarians regarding teaching and pedagogy more than someone from a technology team. This is perhaps because conversations with librarians (most of whom provide instruction as part of their core responsibilities) tend to deal with pedagogy first and technology second. Meanwhile, many conversations with technologists tend to start with the latest and greatest technologies first, meaning many faculty feel lost. 

In merged organisations, how librarians support faculty and students tends to rub off on the technologists in the group and, as a team, they become far more effective in supporting academic initiatives. Similarly, library staff often enjoy and value learning technical and project management skills from their colleagues from the technology side. This cross-pollination ultimately benefits our faculty, students and staff.

We have used a group that we call the “research and instructional support team”, which consists of both librarians and academic technologists, to effect significant changes at the college that would otherwise have been much harder to achieve, such as our early foray into edX or blended learning (controversial in a small residential liberal arts college) or early adoption of makerspace and virtual reality applications. The research and instructional support team’s strong connection to pedagogical needs and innovations led the way and not the technologies. 

It is also extremely important to be realistic and transparent about the merger. Whereas there are many opportunities for combining academic support areas, such as unified service desks, academic technology support and instructional support, there are also many unique functions in each area that cannot be easily merged. The team leader should look constantly for opportunities to avoid duplication of efforts as well as encourage staff from both sides to work together on efficiencies and uncharted territories. Here are a few areas to explore and questions to consider:

  • Navigating the technologies of today’s complex library systems cannot be easily mastered by the lone systems librarian. How can strong collaboration between them and systems administrators, database administrators and integration specialists result in more streamlined processes and enhanced end-user experiences?
  • Can the library’s metadata specialists work with the web developers to help improve the search results for the college website through optimisation of the underlying web pages? 
  • How might collaboration between library staff who are engaged in procurement and financial management and administrative systems specialists improve various purchasing processes?
  • Handling support questions regarding library and technology can be centralised so that a larger pool of staff is able to answer these questions in a timelier manner.
  • Libraries have always been spaces where faculty and students love to spend time. What opportunities are there on your campus to find creative ways the spaces can be used for various academic programming? Or designed with collaboration between pedagogy and technology in mind? 
  • There are clear advantages to financial management and staffing. It is possible to centralise budget development, procurement and creatively use the finances to support academic initiatives. Through the removal of redundant work we have been able to reallocate staff positions to support much-needed new initiatives.

In closing I would like to mention how our merged team did such a tremendous job during the Covid crisis that the Educational Research and Development Committee (ER&D) awarded the Apgar teaching award to us. This is always awarded to a faculty member who excels in teaching, so for the faculty committee to choose an administrative department to win the award award is unprecedented and illustrates how such a merged organisation can provide tremendous value to enhance and support the core academic mission.

Ravi Ravishanker is CIO and associate provost at Wellesley College, US.

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