Friday, September 30, 2005

Returning to the Living

We’ve had production problems this week and I’ve not been able to think about the blog during that time, so I stopped posting. While there seem to still be some hiccups, I’m hopeful that we’ve turned the corner on the production issues and that I can therefore indulge my daily reverie into thinking about all things edtech, whether related to our current service issues or not.

This morning some senior staff from the campus IT organizations, including me, had a retreat with their counterparts from the Library. We’ve been doing these retreats on a quarterly basis for about two years. This was the best meeting, either because the participants are finally getting relaxed in having these conversations or because there are enough areas where we are collaborating and where we seem to be making some progress that the reports and ensuing discussion actually have some meat to them.

Here I’d like to talk a little about what we’re not doing and whether we can move into this space in the not too distant future or if that is not in the cards. So let’s focus on the younger high powered researchers, whether in the sciences or the humanities, who are likely to be quite savvy about IT issues and who very well may be pushing the envelop as much or more than we are. My question is whether central IT or the Library can do something significant for these people in terms of supporting their research, or if our entire role is to provide core infrastructure – network with appropriate bandwidth, online journals and databases with appropriate discovery tools – and then get out of their way.

For example, many of these researchers are running their own Web sites with large amounts of data. What are they doing in terms of providing adequate backup and data redundancy, indexing the data for later search and retrieval by other scholars, and managing the data for possible long term storage? These seem like issues that would be common across young scholars. My guess is that in most cases they come up with thoughtful (after all these are inventive people) kludges that fall short of best practice.

Do these people think of turning to the Library or Central IT to help them work through these issues? I don’t really know by experience, but I doubt it. And let me give the following analogy to help confirm this view.

Some years ago (prior to writing this blog) I had an idea to write a novel about higher education and wrote several chapters. (That project is now in hibernation. I may take it up again some time in the future.) I reached the point where I wanted to get some professional criticism on what I had written and since for several years I’ve been a regular member of the Center for Writing Studies oversight committee, I made an appointment with the Writer’s Workshop to have the work reviewed.

The first appointment I had, though I got attention from them, I found excruciating. Most of the people they help are undergrads trying to complete an assignment in the introductory rhetoric course or some other course with a writing requirement. Their consulting was geared around that purpose and it didn’t fit mine at all. So I was uncomfortable with it. I knew the then director (he has since moved on to a tenure track position elsewhere) and I told him about it. He’s an extremely nice guy and because of this and because he was struggling with his dissertation at the time he was looking for some intellectual diversions. He volunteered to provide the consulting himself and I took him up on it. We came up with something that was customized for my needs. It was useful and enjoyable.

I think that we in IT or the Library need to be putting ourselves in the role of this CWS director and do more of that sort of thing but obviously in our areas of information technology and information management. At the moment that’s not the bread and butter so work of that sort looks like it is moonlighting or even goofing off. But let me tie this into something else that came up at the retreat.

Paula Kaufman, our University Librarian, told a story about the Provost, who attended their Library planning meeting held earlier in the week. Not surprisingly, we are striving to be one of the preeminent public universities in the country (Berkeley, U Michigan, and UT Austin were held up as places to compete with). Yet the Provost framed the issue differently. In the next few years, he said, students at Western Illinois University in Macomb will have essentially have the same access to Library information as students here in Urbana-Champaign. When that point has been reached what will differentiate our Library from WIU’s?

This is a somewhat humbling question, especially for those who have been focusing on content as king for all these years and that the primary goal in the Library is to have wonderful collections. So the thought Paula enunciated is that we have to provide services in order to provide value and service provision needs to be our focus. I would go further. As the market increasingly commodifies IT services, our role inside Higher Ed should increasingly move toward an education mission and that should take up an increasing share of what we do.

Taking that point as truth, the real question is whether we in central IT and the Library have sufficient knowledge to put ourselves in this role of teachers or if instead we need to take early retirement and hire a new generation of folks who have that knowledge. I think that is right question for management to be asking. But if I were a staff member in the Library or in the Central IT organization in my early 40s with some young kids and a hefty mortgage, I’d be scared stiff about this issue. That makes it a little harder to raise

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