Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Life without a Systems Office

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Life without a Systems Office

Article excerpt

Now if there were ever a misleading title for a column, this is the best one yet. I work in a vast campus information ecology, which includes not only a huge library systems office but also central campus computing, shared UNIX services, CalMail, Webfiles, and a host of other technology services. I manage an independent research collection that maintains cordial ties with all of these groups, but I report to a faculty director. This puts me at an administrative distance from central services.

When it comes to trying new things, sometimes I think I'm better off on my own. Here's why.

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We can't always wait for big library systems offices or any other campus units to guide the way with new technologies. The marketplace outpaces central service units, and the staff members have vast service mandates but scarce funds. At large research universities like Berkeley, the library systems budget runs into the millions of dollars, but that just obscures the scope of the challenges facing systems offices. Service mandates include not only the OPAC, but e-mail support, server administration, security, digital library development, and more. They do a pretty good job here. I have great respect for my systems office colleagues.

But in my case, I work in a faculty-intensive environment with doctoral students and staff researchers. This user community is not a generic academic community. It's pretty wellfocused. People are interested in two kinds of deliverables: headline-making research about the workforce and traditional, long-term scholarly research with multiple outcomes. These folks often work in isolation, congregating at colloquia and receptions. It's noteworthy that very few of my users are even reached by the university library here. Mind you, the university library does a great job, ringing up statistics that show outreach to more than 10,000 faculty, students, and staff per year. But like I've said before, this is a big, decentralized place.

Of course, there's a coordination of efforts. Over the past decade, the university has launched multiple initiatives to develop campuswide standards for various technologies. Sometimes they succeed, usually when there's crisis or windfall, like desktop system security incursions that make headlines or an influx of new funding. But initiatives writ large are not on my users' radar screens. They're not paying attention. They depend on our local IT staff for desktop support and on my library for reference, news, and innovations. Other than that, they're on their own.

Are You on Your Own?

So I can't always wait for the campus or university library to unveil new technologies. I need to try them myself. This can be a challenge as I've always been on a tight budget. Indeed, the figure often approaches $0 in lean budgetary years. Ironically, scarce funds have been a tonic for my career development. Having to try everything on my own has earned me some problem-solving skills I might not otherwise have. Also, it's easier to take bold moves when there's not too much to lose.

Nowadays, it's possible to look to the open Web for subscription-based services that allow you to sidestep slowmoving institutions in order to serve your users. More often than not, systems offices will not interfere, as they're heavily involved in triaging their workload. Happily, taking an active stance in learning a new technology before it receives a formal imprimatur can transform you into an expert, which is a nice way to be known. But having a strategy is important. My motto for analyzing whether to try a new technology has always been simple: Ask yourself what your users need.

There's another advantage to operating as a free agent instead of as a part of the establishment. The 21st-century digital library is a collection of both content and services. So taking the initiative with new potential services or applications is a crucial skill with substantial value for the organization. …

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