IT services to support libraries

Today at the VALA 2008 conference, I have had conversations with vendors and librarians from every sector representing every state in Australia. The common thread I have heard is frustration with shared services models for ICT support, which block or restrict services that libraries need to function and provide services to their clients.

Twelve months ago I came to my current position with the belief that this frustration wasn’t necessary, that with enough good will and communication (and some plain old common sense), ICT and Library could co-exist in such a way as to enhance the ability to provide ICT based services to the clients. Ever the optimist, I still believe this should be possible. I’m just running out of ideas and energy to try and make it happen that way. And the conversations I have had today lead me to believe that I am not alone.

I am in the government sector, but I hear that many public libraries find the same problems in dealing with local council ICT departments. I also heard from a vendor who said that one corporate library couldn’t

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VALA – day 1

Today I attended day 1 of the VALA conference in Melbourne. There were some very interesting papers, and in particular Andy Powellgave me a lot to think about, as we move to significantly upgrade our digital repository and the volume of material we preserve in a digital format. His arguments that we need to move to thinking about moving material to the web and optimising it for search engines, instead of focusing on how to lock it up in our repositories, really struck a cord. We now have at least 7 terrabytes of data in our repository that can’t be easily located via a search engine. Sure, we are in the preservation business, but what is the point of preserving something that can’t be located and accessed? This must now be our focus, as we move onto the next stage.

Also of interest to me was the presentation from Joann Ransom on Kete Horwhenua , which is described as “a knowledge basket of images, audio, video and documents which are collected and catalogued by the community”. I am so interested in this open source software which enables a truly community engagement with their own information, that I will be downloading and attempting to set up a sampler to show to the staff in my library when I get back – so I hope it is as easy as Joann says it is!

As usual it has been great to catch up with old friends, and make new ones, during the breaks and refreshment periods (and the food has been great I might add). Many of the conversations have revolved around the problems caused by IT services which simply don’t understand or recognise what libraries need from their IT environment. As a consequence I have decided that it is time to write up some of the work we have done to try and redress this situation in our own library. Some research is needed, and I will work out how to start when I get home.I wonder if this is only an Australian problem.  I will begin discussing what may be required in a new post.

ITIL and libraries

The worst thing about ITIL and libraries is trying to find what anyone has written about the topic, because ITIL has the word ‘library’ as part of its title. Any search results in thousands of hits about ITIL, and it is very difficult trying to find something relevant to libraries. So if anyone has any great references, I’d be delighted to know about them. This isn’t intended to be a defence of ITIL (not that it needs one), but rather my reflections about the value of the ITIL processes for libraries. I’m not going to try to explain what ITIL is about here either, because others have done it so well. If you want to know more, have a look at the wikipedia entry, which I think covers the topic well (today anyway)

When I first heard about ITIL and how it was the foundation for service management standards, I couldn’t help wondering how it might be relevant in library service management. As I found out more, I realised that many of the processes are completely relevant because ITIL isn’t specifically about IT, it is about service management. If you read or hear about ITIL with a librarian’s language filter on and translate on the fly, you will soon see why many of our quaint little practices need a serious overhaul.

The main principle of ITIL requires that the IT organisation must be aligned with the purpose/mission of the parent organisation it serves. Let’s think about that in the library context. Suppose the library in question is an academic library, serving a university community. Now let’s take a simplistic view of the university’s mission and say that it is teaching and research. Following the ITIL principle, it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to say that the mission of the university’s IT section should simply be to enable and support teaching and research (sometimes oversimplifying can be enlightening). How is that different to the library’s mission? We might make it all fancy with big words and adding in other bits to keep politicians and administrators happy, but isn’t it fundamentally to enable and support teaching and research?  I’m not trying to undervalue the librarians’ professional responsibilities in the area of preservation and cultural development,  but if the library loses sight of its core role in relation to its parent organisation, they might lose sight of the funding to keep its doors open. So the core ITIL principle applies to libraries as well, in most cases. 

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Soul food – culture and IT meets Library

This post takes a meandering wander through my mind and ends up again with the IT/Library relationship.

Last night I went to the City Muster, and my thirsty soul was fed a little (hmmm – mixed metaphors here….oh well, never mind, I’m sure you get my drift). I gave the tickets to my son (J, the one with AS ) for Christmas, because somehow, despite being born and growing up in cities, he has a love of country things – actually my daughter (P) does too – she loves the red dirt nearly as much as I do. My father calls them throwbacks.

The music was fantastic, and I’m so glad I went. Adam Brand  entertained with his usual brilliance, and Lee Kernaghan was just sooooo good, I could have listened to him all night. I was also really impressed by Troy Cassadaly. I hadn’t heard his music before, and he was fantastic.

There was a beaut ute competition, and whip cracking as well. P would have enjoyed that – she has a leather whip especially made for her by my father, which she can crack quite well (for a city girl).

As the day turned into evening, and the sticky heat cooled to a pleasant evening under the stars, I had plenty of time to ponder. As I was listening to the great music, I was taken back to my roots in the red dirt country.  I started thinking about roots, and what they mean to us. I know that when I have been touch with this part of myself, I stand a little taller, feel more centred, much more comfortable about taking risks, and have a little more self-belief. And I wonder if this is true for all of us, and I thought about all those in our society that have no sense of their roots.

That started me thinking about confidence, and a true ‘knowing’ of ourselves. And I came to realise that when I am more confident and my self-belief is higher, I am much more open to differences in others, and much more accepting of them.

That lead me to think about a conversation I had with a colleague at work who I met for the first time last week. She is a bright, enthusiastic women, who has travelled and lived in many places in Australia.  But she stopped me in my tracks when she spoke in a very derogatory way about a town in Northern Queensland where she lived for some time, and while I can’t remember her exact words, ‘rednecks’ was one of them. The way the comments came across was that the whole town was full of people who, because they didn’t live in the ‘civilised’ environment in Melbourne or other capitals were somehow not worth considering as individuals, and their way of life was somehow ‘less’ than her culture. I’m sure that wasn’t how she meant the comment, and I didn’t take it up with her, but I was stunned. As a country girl, it wouldn’t take me two minutes to find plenty of reasons why country life is more ‘civilised’ than city life.

So while I was thinking about this, my mind wandered on to thinking about acceptance of others of different culture, and why this is often such a difficult thing to do for many people. I have recently read Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”, and while I am not informed enough about the environment to make a judgement about his main argument, I did find interesting his storyline about the media’s involvement in creating a state of fear. I then started wondering how much the media reporting of race riots and the way it is done contributes to fear about people from another culture.

Or is it related to our reluctance to take risks, and therefore open ourselves to experiences outside our comfort zone? And if so, does that link back to a lack of self-confidence?

And then finally, my thoughts turned full circle, and I started thinking about the IT/Library relationship. Is this also a question of cultural differences, and can we look at some of the same tools to resolve differences in this context as well? It the solution based on being open about our culture, and sharing with each other so that we understand and therefore can be more accepting of the differences? If the key is communication, how should that communication be facilitated? How can both cultures become more aware and informed rather than relying on the ‘translator” (otherwise known as the systems librarian) to form the bridge?

Models for managing IT in libraries – part 2

As I indicated in an earlier post, the model which most interests me is one where the support for library IT is shared in some way.

 The reasons it interests me is that if it is done properly, it can be the most efficient and most effective. And it seems so often it is a cause of distress, distrust and complaint.

Let’s face it, almost all libraries are part of some bigger organisation – a university, a city council, a school, a business, a jail, a hospital, a government body etc. And why wouldn’t they be? A library exists in most cases to provide services to some group of clients, and the clients are usually defined by the parent organisation who pays for the library to exist. And in 2007, almost all those larger organisations need IT for their businesses to function too.

Some of the parent organisation’s IT needs are the same as the library’s.  It is often called corporate IT. For a library of any size, these needs probably consist of (at a minimum):

  • network
  • desktop
  • email and other communication tools
  • file sharing and printing support of some description
  • authentication/authorisation

Depending on the business, there may be others. For example in a teaching organisation, both library and parent organisation may use some form of Learning Management System, as the core business of both involves teaching.

It just doesn’t make financial or organisational sense for these areas to be created, maintained and supported in isolation by the library – unless the parent organisation can’t or won’t provide this support in a way that meets the library’s perceived needs. So for example, if the library can’t get support for desktop machines in a timely fashion, there will be a temptation to provide the support in house, duplicating much of the work and ultimately costing the organisation more than is necessary.

There are significant gains to be made by economies of scale here. Machines purchased or leased in large amounts are generally cheaper, tools for creating common images only need to be purchased once, network support and deployment tools can be implemented, a larger support base allows for more  skilled staff to be employed.

At least this level of centralised support seems a real no-brainer. So why is it often ignored by libraries that can afford to ignore it? And why does it cause so much pain?

My suggestion is that it can be because of lack of trust, lack of confidence and above all the desire for control.

If you work with the parent organisation IT support body, the library may have to compromise for the greater good. And often for some key individuals or organisations, the need for control is so great that the good reasons for taking this path are ignored in favour of the more expensive options – it can get just too hard to work through the tricky paths to effective compromise.

As I mentioned before in my previous post, the key to making this work is good communication, and having good processes and the right people in the right roles so the communication works well.

I had always had a good working relationship with many of my IT colleagues – although not all and not always. But I think I found the turning point in understanding how this communication needs to work when the Director of IT Services at MPPOW (someone I admire greatly) suggested some of the library staff attend an ITIL training course that he was holding for his IT managers. We took the opportunity and went.

This framework hit a chord with me and the other librarians attending, because it set out a way to bring standards into our customer service framework. And we took a new look at some of our library processes in ITIL terms. I will write more on how I think libraries can gain a lot from considering ITIL processes. For instance – do you have a service catalogue? Do all your processes have process owners?

But more importantly in the long run, it gave me a common language and a way of communicating easily and with common understanding with my IT colleagues. Previously we had been colleagues, and sometimes friends, but after this we became partners as well. I’m not pretending it always works perfectly, or that it still isn’t hard work. But ITIL stresses that the business of IT must be aligned with the business of the parent organisation. And by extending that into the library as well, it lets us take a fresh look at our business and the focus of our IT. In the crudest sense, if the core business of a university is teaching and research, then the core business of IT is nothing more than supporting teaching and research. Simplistic I know, but we do sometimes make this much more complicated than it needs to be. And clearing away some of the clutter and baggage that people sometimes cling to can enable much easier communication.

Next I want to look at servers and applications as part of the shared support model, but I’ll leave that for next time.


Yep – it’s mine today. So rather than do as promised, and continue my essay on IT management, I’m just going to rest up and reflect on birthdays.

 I started my last job the day after my birthday – one of the big ones. I started this new job a week before my birthday – just an ordinary one. Maybe I find birthdays a time for reflection and change.

In MPPOW there were some very distinctive groupings of star signs amongst library staff – lots and lots of Pisceans, and very few of some star signs. Anyone else noticed such groupings in libraries?

 Well the big thing about this birthday is that I am going to get a new computer, good enough so I have to stop using my old computer as an excuse not to get involved in Second Life. Next week. I promise.

Models for managing IT in libraries

Over the years I have seen a number of different models used by libraries of various types and sizes for managing IT.  The models have changed over the years, but also vary enormously, often based on budgets but sometimes based on philosophy.

I can remember sympathising with a lecturer at my PPOW (previous place of work) back in the early 90’s, when he wanted computer science students to be able to dial in to the university’s computers to access programs on the server (probably FORTRAN!) He was told by the network guys that that was far too risky and likely to cause serious hacking (we couldn’t imagine the scale of hacking that we see today back then).

But the odd thing is, with all our tools, and skills and knowledge, we still hear the same type of arguments from IT staff either in or supporting libraries now. I was very taken with the video series from iACPL, as they capture so well the issues we have been living with all the time I have been working in IT in libraries.

MPOW (I’ve only been there a week) has just implemented port security, and it is causing us all sorts of problems with regular dropouts and a mountain of calls to the service desk. Is it necessary? Or is it simply a safety measure implemented to protect those who want to lock everything down, just in case and because it’s ‘their job’ and so they can satisfy those that measure risk? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know I can’t get the answer by myself, I will need to gather data from their side too.

 At MPPOW, I had an experience recently where I was having a conversation with my IT customer services manager about the setup on our library computers. We had just decided to require all users to login, after many years of open access (to try and control the network traffic costs). But we needed to work out a strategy for our walk in users, many of whom are local high school kids, to get a temporary login and password. I warned him that we needed to be prepared for under-age students wanting access. His immediate response was that we would refuse to give them access, as it was too risky and we could be liable if they accessed inappropriate material. Ten minutes later, after I explained to him that the kids were given library membership as part of a recruitment drive by the university, and that if they didn’t have access the whole recruitment strategy would be pointless, we started having a very different conversation. Without that extra information, his approach was the cautious safe easy one. With the information, he started to explore alternatives and think laterally.

 All of which is way off the topic of models of IT management in libraries – but it is the point. The lack of appropriate information and appreciation of the other’s business is one of the difficulties in the model where IT is supported and managed, either in full or partially, by an agency outside the library. That model seems to be increasingly common, as it is difficult to justify the costs associated with running a full blown IT shop inhouse, staffed by staff who report to the library management.

So let’s look at the models. They seem to range from

  • all support provided by a section of the library, reporting to library management. This seems to be still common in large libraries with big budgets. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you get what you want – I know one large rich library that does this, and
    • library staff are frustrated because the IT section is like a black box and they don’t get much say
    • they are very ineffective as decision making goes through many layers of committee
    • it is very costly, as there is not opportunity for economies of scale, ie they can’t share the costs of a eg network admin with some other part of the parent organisation
    • because the IT section is large, there is a risk of inflexibility
  • all support and management provided by an outside body, sometimes under SLA, but not always. The library may need to negotiate or pay extra every time they want something new developed, and it can be very limiting.
  • some mix of in house support and external support.

This last option is the one I am most interested in. It seems to me there are significant advantages, and risk of major problems. I’ve seen both at work. So how do we get the mix right, how do we ensure good communication, how do we develop enough of an understanding of each other’s business to appreciate what is being done and enable the business of the organisation?

 That’s what I am going write about next time.