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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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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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.