Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Change and Uncertainty in Academic Libraries

Catherine Edwards highlights the impact and issues surrounding organisational change in academic libraries.

Charles Handy, the management guru, tells us: Thirty years ago most people thought that change would mean more of the same, only better. That was incremental change and to be welcomed. Today we know that in many areas of life we cannot guarantee more of the same … [we] cannot even predict with confidence what will be happening in our own lives [1].

The sense of uncertainty engendered by rapid and unpredictable change is as evident in Higher Education (HE) as in politics, the National Health Service, the media, or in business and commerce. Arguably, Library and Information Services (LIS) within HE are the point within academic institutions where the impacts of change, be they political, educational or organisational, are most acutely concentrated, and where information technology is the most potent change agent of all [2].

photograph the author, Catherine Edwards ELib’s IMPEL2 Project, based at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, has been conducting case studies in a range of HE institutions during 1996 and 1997 with a view to gaining greater understanding of the organisational, social and cultural impacts of the growing electronic environment on both providers and users of electronic information systems and sources. Through its qualitative approach, based largely on in-depth, semi-structured interviews, IMPEL2 has a window into the real experience of information workers and users. It provides the opportunity to ask, ‘If change is a cause of uncertainty, what form does that uncertainty take, where is it most keenly felt, who experiences it and what can be done to cope with it?’

It is not the intention to paint a depressing picture of LIS at the present time, because although all the examples given below are genuine expressions of people’s feelings of uncertainty at a point in time, a typical visit to a university library is a more positive and exciting experience than might be imagined. Managers and staff appreciate the significance of the impacts of rapid and profound change on their service and are seeking ways to maximise their strengths and position.

The following observations and verbatim quotations are based on interviews with a total of 80 library and related support staff (also LIS directors and a small number of institutional managers) in a sample of IMPEL2’s case study sites which represents a range of different types of institution.

Feelings of uncertainty were more commonly expressed in institutions where significant organisational changes had or were occurring, although they were not exclusive to those sites. The fundamental source of concern centred on defining the future role of LIS and LIS staff as the impacts on HE, not only of technology, but of the wider political and economic environment, become evident.

I worry about the indiscriminate rush into IT. At the moment we’ve got the government and the Funding Councils being almost evangelist about how IT-based solutions are going to solve all our problems, which I think is a bit optimistic. (University Librarian)

The problems he refers to relate to the UK’s mass HE system, and include the increased and diverse student body, rising costs, increased accountability and competition, reduced funding, and the expansion of franchise and partner agreements. The complexity of balancing such a range of factors along with the additional imperatives of technological development has become extreme. Information technology in teaching and information provision has not yet provided cheap solutions, nor do simple arithmetic calculations for infrastructure and staffing of future IT-based learning environments promise savings. HE managers are faced with such a bewildering set of both external and internal pressures that it becomes increasingly difficult to hold on to a vision and direction with confidence, as one Pro Vice Chancellor frankly admits

I find it very difficult to know what’s going to happen. It’s embarrassing if I don’t have a vision … I’m supposed to be guiding the university’s decision making over the next couple of years … if I don’t, who on earth does?

LIS directors and managers, however, are seeking commitment and direction from the top; they often feel constrained by what they perceive as lack of central initiative which increases their sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. The rapid pace of change, greater influence of government and the exigencies of quality assessment exercises encourage a climate of short-termism which inhibits planning. The hierarchical management and committee structures typical of HE institutions may also blunt their focus and discourage new creative approaches such as Morgan’s ‘inside-out management’.

The leader of the future will not always lead from the front; in times of uncertainty, a significant part of a leader’s role rests in finding ways of unlocking the ideas and energies of others … Management will become much more concerned with empowerment than with close supervision and control [3].

cartoon of a library helpdesk

As this type of business terminology creeps into academic institutions, employees may be forgiven for questioning what the role of HE now is; within that LIS staff and managers question the role and direction of their service. In 1995, Brophy wrote of “the need to define much more clearly which limited range of services we will offer … then to achieve excellence in delivering those services [4].

LIS staff and managers are seeking a consensus between institutional management, academic staff and central services as to how the institution’s business should be supported, so that this support may receive top level commitment and financial underpinning. This kind of consensus is extremely elusive. Strong central initiative and funding may enable units such as LIS and Computing Centres to plan more efficient and effective services but more often than not decision-making and spending power are devolved to academic departments which are unwilling to risk their own autonomy by releasing power to the centre. Mismatches occur between institutional objectives as stated in Information Strategies or Corporate Plans and the level to which these objectives are supported on the ground.

Central service staff frequently perceive that a failure of understanding of their departments’ roles within the institution is at the root of these mismatches. Faced with cuts to his service, one LIS Director comments

It’s essentially based on the view that the core business of the university is teaching and learning and research and that we ought to be putting more of our resources into the core business … I don’t actually believe that all the academic staff do is core business and I don’t believe that all the administrative staff do is non-core business. I think the library is actually a clear example of something which directly supports student learning even though it uses non-academic staffing.

There is a general consensus among LIS staff that the clearest impact of the changing LIS environment is a shift in their role towards more instruction and teaching of users

I want to move libraries away from being standard support services into something which is part of the academic process. (Site Librarian)

Just how to fulfil that role is not clear however. Shortage of staff, space, appropriate skills and financial resources all constrain teaching initiatives, but academic staff perceptions of LIS colleagues may also be implicated.

I think one of the problems is that the notion of the traditional library has never quite been overcome and they don’t actually expect us to do anything like promotion and teaching for them … some people would argue that it isn’t the function of a library – but if it isn’t the function of the library, who else is doing it? (Site Librarian)

The perception that LIS are somehow of lower status than academic departments persists, despite the trend towards student-centred, resource-based learning, the growth of electronic information systems and sources, and increased workloads among academics, all of which drive students in the direction of the library. Librarians are fearful for their professional identity as never before.

Their efforts to gain a firm foothold in departments are often frustrated, so that information skills sessions which are embedded in the curriculum are the exception rather than the rule, encouraging a sense that these skills are undervalued. There is a noticeable tendency among librarians to hold their ‘professionalism’ very dear, but this notion may be overtaken

We’ve always been clear that a so-called professional is someone who has a library qualification, but that’s not the case any more. We have a growing number of staff who have IT qualifications, and who are employed on what we have always called a professional grade. (Deputy Librarian)

The ‘profession’ of librarian becomes a less discrete entity through its growing convergence with computing. The role of the subject specialist is more difficult to sustain, a costly luxury in an environment where courses are increasingly modularised and cross-disciplinary and where information sources are complex and diverse. The traditional differentiation between ‘professional’ and ‘non-professional’ staff has the potential to become blurred as technology releases people from routine, time-consuming chores.

Even the most phlegmatic and philosophical librarian must at times view his or her role with uncertainty:

We’ve come to a situation where our traditional library can’t really deal with the way information is going and we don’t know what the new framework needs to be. It’s a paradigm crisis stage. (Assistant Librarian)

Direct support of users by LIS staff is a source of many dilemmas, not least those relating to information handling skills. Recent electronic discussions bear witness to the inadequacy of ‘library tours’, the difficulty of delivering interesting and valuable information skills sessions to sufficient numbers of students at the appropriate time, and whether sessions should aim at an awareness level or go further into the use of individual sources. The provision of basic IT skills, not traditionally within the remit of the library,is also in question. Indeed the boundaries between what are core IT skills and what are information handling skills is unclear. One University Librarian speaks of

… the vacuum next to the library operation - students without IT skills not being picked up by departments or by the Computer Centre.

Students disadvantaged by lack of basic IT skills, either as a result of cuts to central services or failure by the institution or individual departments to address the problem adequately, are likely to turn for help to the library. Here, restricted resources, hardware and accommodation are barriers to providing this help, even if the skills and desire to do so were present.

The dilemma is most acute in the context of the Internet. While many LIS staff are happily creating Web pages and finding suitable sites for their users, many still question their role.

The problem is that the subject specialists don’t feel they have the time to wade through the Internet looking for things. They still see that as difficult and as a job they do when they’ve done everything else. (Assistant Librarian)

Responsibility for Internet development and exploitation seems to be split between LIS and Computing Centres, and where a co-ordinated joint approach is not carefully worked out, tensions tend to occur. There is much debate about how Internet access and skills should be incorporated into existing provision, how to promote and evaluate it, and whether to take a subject or a tool-based approach. Some feel that the Internet should not necessarily be associated with library and information services at all.

The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has placed an additional burden on LIS staff and resources. Here again, staff are unsure of how research should be supported in the balance between access and holdings, although policy formulation may become clearer in the wake of the Anderson Report [5]. There are implications for structure, resources and training. In one breath they’re saying we’ve got to increase the research profile, almost every department has to take on a research element. In the next they’re saying “but there’ll be no support for it.” (Subject Team Leader)

Uncertainty associated with organisational change is probably inevitable. Morgan [6] and others [8] advocate flatter structures and team working as more flexible in times of change, more likely to motivate staff and encourage self-development. John Kelleher of the Tavistock Institute states in ARIADNE 7 [9]

What we find time and time again is that technology is the pretext for organisational change.

LIS staff may add suspicion of hidden agendas as well as frank cost-cutting to the reasons they perceive for massive restructuring. The desire to retain the status quo in the form of traditional library hierarchies where staff ‘know their place’ within the structure, remains strong in many academic institutions; ‘dynamic conservatism’ (the tendency to fight to remain the same) as described by McCaskey [10] persists. Certainly the management of such change presents great challenges to managers: poor communications, absence of job descriptions months after restructuring, uncertainty about reporting and line management, and problems of re-training and multiskilling were all found in the IMPEL2 study.

With the plethora of new sources both local and remote, new possibilities for document delivery, non-uniformity of interfaces, ever-changing search engines, and the sheer range of technical skills required in the workplace, LIS staff find difficulty keeping up, which intensifies their sense of vulnerability, if not inadequacy. This sense is not restricted to those working at the sharp end of information provision, as a University Librarian confesses

Information technology is very destabilising of structures of authority because I don’t think there has ever been a period in my professional life when I felt so unconfident about my grasp of some of the most essential technologies that are driving the future of the operation I manage.

Staff are also most concerned about the ultimate implications of end-user access, not only within their building, but also of remote end use.

Are they doing quick and dirty searches, coming away with a poor bunch of references, so that their research ratings are going down? … Then it’s even more important that I get to know thembefore they start picking up bad habits from other people. (Information Specialist)

Typically LIS staff have no way of measuring the amount of remote end use which is occurring and so have no control over it or means of assessing its effectiveness. Concern is expressed about the risk of inequality of access for mature and part-time students and those studying on remote sites such as partner colleges or nursing libraries where even technical support may be uneven. The risk of plagiarism is also a source of concern.

The eLib Programme is already presenting many new opportunities for the electronic library and will continue to do so in the near future. As well as advancing electronic developments, one of its strengths will be in defining the barriers to implementing new initiatives: these include technical barriers such as copyright and publishers’ policies, organisational barriers, funding and political barriers, attitudinal and cultural barriers. Having defined these, the route to overcoming them should become clearer.

The role of management in periods of change and uncertainty becomes the most important tool in the armoury. LIS managers face in several directions at once. They try to accommodate the incongruities and conflicting pressures to create strategies which position the service appropriately within the institution. Good managers seek to bring all of their skills to avoid the service becoming passive, or reactive with piecemeal development which risks rendering it vulnerable and powerless.

Campus-wide Information Strategies are often criticised for being bland wish-lists, but the exercise of rigorously compiling one may be the first step towards an integrated approach to IT in relation to the institution’s overall mission. An Information Strategy is less about technology than the wider issues of communication, teaching and learning. It provides a basis for defining objectives, resourcing, training and staffing issues, teaching and research issues, management of administrative information and also the technological infrastructure. The Information Strategy may be primarily symbolic, but if it symbolises genuine commitment then its value is immense.

Management activity within LIS, as observed by the IMPEL2 interviewer, is designed to strengthen the position of the service. Activities such as SWOT analyses, Total Quality Management programmes, group planning exercises, training needs analyses, competencies lists, training programmes, and use surveys, all increase staff awareness of both external and internal environments. If documented, much of this activity may be used as ammunition in the fight for resources and recognition, underpinning decision-making and enabling funding opportunities to be seized.

Many libraries are now engaged in activity costing, the formal breakdown of what the service consists and the costing of all elements of that service. In this way, departments may differentiate between standard and tailored services. Activity costing undermines the long-held assumption that the value of libraries and information is somehow ‘incalculable’. This new business approach sets out the LIS stall for scrutiny; the range of goods and services offered coupled with their costs may startle institutional managers and academic departments into giving LIS higher priority in their planning. In theory LIS should be less vulnerable to budget cuts as a result. However, at the root of much uncertainty in the modern HE library is the fear expressed here by a Faculty Librarian.

There’s a simplistic argument that says if you’re providing fewer books, then you need fewer librarians.

Current thinking urges us to take uncertainty on board and turn it to our advantage through creativity, intuition and innovation:

The better approach … is to accept uncertainty, try to understand it, and make it part of our reasoning. Uncertainty today is not just an occasional, temporary deviation from a reasonable predictability; it is a basic structural feature of the environment. 11

Coping with uncertainty is not only a management role. Individuals also have responsibility for self-management in what one senior librarian describes as ‘a crisis of confidence.’ Training and personal development are part of self-management, as are the ability to remain flexible, the sharing of knowledge and expertise, good communications, leadership and team work.

On 1st November 1997, Norma Bruce, Veterinary Medicine Library, Ohio State University wrote:

I was particularly pleased to find Catherine Edwards’ article on Change and Uncertainty because I was looking for something that examined the intellectual process and emotions of library workers who are experiencing change…
“The sense of uncertainty engendered by rapid and unpredictable change is as evident in Higher Education (HE) as in politics, the National Health Service, the media, or in business and commerce. Arguably, Library and Information Services (LIS) within HE are the point within academic institutions where the impacts of change, be they political, educational or organisational, are most acutely concentrated, and where information technology is the most potent change agent of all.”
Thanks for an excellent article.


[1] Handy, C. The Age of Unreason. In: Henry, Jane (ed) Creative Management. Sage Publications 1991, 269-282.

[2] Woodsworth, A., Maylone, T., Sywak, M. The Information Job Family: Results of an Exploratory Study. Library Trends 41 (2) 1992, 250-268.

[3] Morgan G. Emerging waves and challenges. In: Henry, Jane (ed) Creative Management. Sage Publications 1991, 283-293.

[4] Brophy, P. Prisoners of addictions or prisoners of envy. The Journal of the University College and Research Group (Relay) 41 [1995], 18-21.

[5] Joint Funding Councils’ Libraries Review. Report of the Group on a national Regional Strategy for Library Provision for Researchers (Chair: Professor Michael Anderson) 1995.
Also available online at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/other/anderson/

[6] Op. Cit. (3).

[7] Corrall, S. Flat structures: how low can you go? Library Manager 5, March 1995, 9-10.

[8] Von Wahlde, B.V. The impact of the virtual library on library management and organisation. In: A.H.Helal & J.Weiss, eds. Proceedings of 15th International Essen Symposium. Essen 1993, 27-42.

[9]. MacColl, J. A View from the Hill. Ariadne 7 January 1997, 5.
Availavle online at http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue7/view/

[10] McCaskey, M. B. Mapping: creating, maintaining and relinquishing conceptual frameworks. In: Henry, Jane (ed) Creative Management. Sage Publications 1991, 135-152.

[11] Wack, P. Scenarios: uncharted waters ahead. In: Managing Innovation. J. Henry & D. Walker (eds). Sage Publications, 1991, 200-210.