[Access article in PDF]
"The More Things Change. . ."
Charles B. Lowry
Do you need to read another column about change in academic libraries? Can one be written that is not a hackneyed cliché-ridden rehash? You are forewarned that the answer to both questions is a resounding "maybe!" I want to establish a premise that reverses an old aphorism, arguing that "the more things change, the less they are the same" for our libraries. When I began studies at the School of Information and Library Science in Chapel Hill nearly three decades ago, the kind of library organization I prepared to work in was fundamentally different from the one I find myself in today. This is because the external environment has stimulated change, not because we have actively sought it--the change has been largely reactive. The primary forces of change are easy to recognize and they are not of our making--shifts in pedagogy and research; the transformational impact of networked information technology; a revolution in scholarly information and in the intellectual property regime; and the ever-present restraint of budget, both inputs and outputs.
I do not lament the fact that we are principally reactive and not proactive in our response, because I do not think it can be otherwise, although I do believe we can be a bit more anticipatory in responding. Institutions under challenge, as I believe all libraries are, must find ways to mobilize to respond. To take an example, the U.S. Department of Defense is an organization whose core mission is, by definition, challenge. It is more fortunate than libraries in one respect--it must only decide whether to fight one or two major wars at a time. It does not even need to know who the enemy might be. Libraries are not so lucky--we do not know what our wars may be nor whom we shall fight until we face them. Thus, our strategy must be to organize to respond rapidly to whatever war might occur. Not to stretch this metaphor to the breaking point, another way to put it is that we must mobilize continuously to face the external challenges. However, I think one thing remains unchanged--our core mission--delivering access to the world of scholarly information to support learning in the classroom and the discovery of new knowledge and invention. That is the foundation on which we should build organizational strategy. This is easy to say but hard to do. [End Page 7]
When organizations lose sight of their purpose, they lose their way completely. However, failure can arise from less dramatic causes than forgetting what we are about. In Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal suggest several other dynamics that cause organizational failure. When organizations lose touch with their customers needs, they lose market position. 1
No less so libraries that fail to stay close to the needs of their faculty and students. Historically, libraries have used many methods to plumb faculty and student opinion to assess effectiveness. Recently we have begun exploiting the advanced tools of social science research with projects like LibQual+. 2
When organizations lose touch with their employees, they lose the opportunity to meet and to solve challenges. It is this notion around which much modern organizational development theory is developed. Finally, when managers "do not know what to do, they do more of what they know." 3
These last two failure points are closely allied, because an effective manager realizes that no one individual can have the ideas, strategies, and insights to make an organization successful, and turns to others to enrich decisions.
What does this suggest about what must be done? To return to the earlier metaphor--it calls for total mobilization. The management literature to which we so often look for guidance fundamentally emphasizes the role of managers and leadership. As important as I think these are, I also believe the external challenges to academic libraries are so great that to achieve great success in meeting them means the...