The Acquisitions Librarian as Change Agent in the Transition to the Electronic Library

By Atkinson, Ross | Library Resources & Technical Services, July 2004 | Go to article overview

The Acquisitions Librarian as Change Agent in the Transition to the Electronic Library


Atkinson, Ross, Library Resources & Technical Services


All information services, regardless of the format used to convey the information, can be divided into the two fundamental categories of delivery and mediation. Delivery is the less visible but no less critical service responsible for shifting the physical information package among different locations. Delivery will become an increasingly significant--but no less invisible--function after the arrival of routine electronic publishing. Acquisitions administrators--who, along with circulation, interlibrary loan, and preservation officers, have primary responsibility for delivery in the paper-based academic library of today--need to begin planning now to expand their knowledge and responsibilities to respond to the new requirements for information delivery in the rapidly approaching age of networked information. If they can achieve such objectives, acquisitions staff will play a key role in improving the future contributions of the library to the academy.

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   If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the
   age of Revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side and
   admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched
   by fear and by hope; and when the historic glories of the old can be
   compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time,
   like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with
   it.

--Emerson, The American Scholar

Anyone seeking a quick, concentrated glimpse into the current state of the academic library, its self-esteem and its self-depreciation, its hubris and its paranoia, need look no further than the library's acquisitions operation) The place and image of the library in the institution is mirrored in the position and perception of the acquisitions operation in the academic library. In both cases, as Joe Hewitt has implied, (2) we find complex responsibilities seldom understood by those in authority and perceived by most clientele (if indeed they are noticed at all as being primarily clerical and flagrantly bureaucratic). We find, above all, in both the acquisitions operation and the library as a whole, a vague apprehension of a creeping superfluity; a sense of pending obsolesence engendered primarily by advances in information technology so rapid in their development and so complex in their potential as to be barely intelligible to many line librarians.

Discussions of this situation are often complicated by a tendency to confuse functions with administrative units. The function of acquisitions is for the time being not at all in jeopardy, but the acquisitions department might be, and we have indeed seen transformations in such departments in several institutions; in some cases we have even seen parts of the traditional acquisitions responsibility shifted into other functional areas, such as collection development. In the same way, the information services function in the academy now performed by the library can never be eliminated if the institution is to pursue its educational and research mission, but there are prospects that at some institutions the library as an administrative unit will merge with or be relegated to other information service units on campus, such as academic computing.

Regardless of whether such administrative reorganizations enhance or impair the performance of library functions, the fact that such restructuring is even considered presents a clear signal that acquisitions may have failed to convince the library--and that the library may have failed to convince the institution--of its ability to effectively meet the needs of its clientele as we gradually but inexorably enter the new era of online information. The question that immediately presents itself, therefore, is whether adjustments might be introduced into the acquisitions function that would not only lead to an improvement in its role in the library but at the same time improve the effectiveness of the library's contribution to the institution. …

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