I’m an accidental librarian. I say this by way of a disclaimer in case you might otherwise misjudge my credentials. In fact, I started out teaching math and computer science at Coker College in 1991 and, after a series of fortunate events, ended up as administrator of a newly minted “Information Services,” (IS) combining all the great minds on campus: information technology (IT), institutional research (IR), and the library. This chimera (you might reference Mary Shelley if you’re less charitable) was to be housed in a new building designed for the purpose, which is a tale for another time.
IS turns out to be an interesting mix of services and commensurate personalities. For one thing, no one ever calls the help desk to say:
“Sandy, I just downloaded six videos off of Google, and I’ve never seen the network this fast! You guys in IT are doing a great job!”
No, IT is all about handling the complaints you had yesterday and today and, if you have a moment, trying to figure out how to get fewer tomorrow. They’re kind of like the Marine Corps without the buzz cuts.
Librarians, on the surface, are normal people. I soon discovered though, that like Clark Kent, they have a few hidden surprises. My first clue was when the person who keeps the financial records straight in the library told me that the business office hated her. Why? Because she was catching all their mistakes—a few cents’ discrepancy on the phone bill would not by any means be left unresolved. Librarians are like the Air Force without the bombs.
The Institutional Research component was much smaller. In order to create a military “taking over the world” metaphor, I’ll have to stretch. In our case, IR was like the unknown border guard who could have prevented the war if he hadn’t been scribbling equations on the wall instead of watching what was going on.
It’s because of IR, you see, that the whole organization got thrown into the middle of organizing the College’s reaccreditation. And hence the long march to Mordor began, with the Library and IT in the baggage train.
-2- Confronting the Enemy
If you’ve never put together an accreditation report, I congratulate you on your good fortune. I went to the conferences and to the Orientation, which scared the life out of me, as I’m sure it was designed to. One thing became clear—we needed to be able to organize information. LOTS of it.
Here’s a picture of my whiteboard as we approached Mt. Doom.
The accreditation compliance certification, or as my daughter came to call it, the Big Stupid Report (BSR) needed to reference all kinds of documents: meeting minutes, the college charter, plans, syllabi, catalogs, resumes, and a maintenance log for the kitchen sink.
Document management systems are expensive. Worse, the ones I saw were overly complicated. I imagined trying to explain to the Physical Education department how to archive their meeting minutes and broke out into a cold sweat.
My epiphany came as I was signing a budget form:
“Hey! If the librarians are so good at keeping financial records straight, maybe they would be useful for keeping track of a large disparate collection of documents!”
I mulled this idea over while wandering through the stacks, and concluded that it might just work. Between IT and the library, we could build our own institutional repository. The “not costing much” angle was certainly attractive. I had seen money once in a budget meeting (cruelly called ‘zero-based budgeting’), but it had been quickly whisked away by our Vice President for Business Operations.
-3- First Actions
To get things started, we designed a logo. So was born SQUID: Strategic QUality Improvement Documentation. I couldn’t find a good squid on Google, though, so the logo is an octopus.
Between the library and IT we figured out a simple design. It’s just a rule of the universe that people do stupid things, so if you minimize the number of things they can do you’ll have less work. A repository has to be good at doing CRUD. CRUD being “Create”, “Read”, “Update”, and “Delete.”
The expertise of the librarians was essential to create a good design. There’s this thing called “meta-data”, which catalogers know all about. Any document that you plan on locating later should have some bits of information stored along with it:
- What is it? (e.g. electronic document, hyperlink)
- What’s its title?
- Who created it?
- When was it created/updated?
- Who can access it?
- What group does it belong to? (e.g. Earthquake Prevention Committee)
- What type of document is it? (e.g. Minutes, Plans, Syllabus)
- What academic year does it belong to?
- How would you describe it, including keywords?
- Has it been deleted? (I sneakily don’t really delete documents, just hide them. Why? Refer to the rule of the universe cited above.)
We built the archival cephalopod in the summer of 2001, and the librarians then helped populate SQUID with extant documents. The paper documents were a mess. The Holy Box of Curriculum Committee Minutes had been passed from chair to chair for years, but had somehow become misplaced just when we needed it most. In another case, the College charter was eventually found, but didn’t say what we thought it did.
The system, built on Linux with Perl and an Access database, worked wonderfully. We had to scan a lot of documents that were not in electronic format. The Big Stupid Report was itself a mass of web pages, so we were able to dynamically generate links between document references and the SQUID documents. It was very cool. By the time the report went out, we had thousands of electronic documents in SQUID, and hence available to the off-site reviewers of the Big Stupid Report.
Librarians’ expertise was critical in avoiding really bad design choices. For example, they provided the idea that each document ought to have a simple identification, like a call number. When I went to the conferences I saw some attempts to use (shudder) the name of the electronic file as its identification. The users of this method seemed to be having trouble keeping their links working, and no wonder. Would you rather code a reference to “Bd of trustee mnts on 3/14.doc” or to “1234.doc”?
Our college now has a new cultural element. Most civilized staff and faculty now use SQUID routinely to keep track of their important documents. In fact, the word has become a verb:
squid, (v/t) The act of archiving a document. Ralph, have you squidded the report yet?
More subtle perhaps, is a shift in the perception of the role of the library in college affairs. The library continues to be essential for cleaning up lousy data in SQUID. People still do stupid things, and other people still have to find them and fix them.
-4- The Umpires Write Back
Inevitably, there were follow-up reports. The Big Stupid Report had struck deep into the gall bladder of the enemy, but the war wasn’t over yet. No creature born of bureaucracy retreats without leaving a litter of reportlets in its wake. And so we found ourselves responding to a number of items that needed clarification. The most significant was a question about the organization of our Institutional Effectiveness materials.
In case you don’t know what Institutional Effectiveness (IE) is, let me congratulate you on your good fortune. IE is a management process that:
1. identifies goals,
2. assesses whether they are being achieved, and
3. takes action accordingly.
This is all very reasonable. The problems begin when you try to get every unit leader at the institution to actually document that his or her unit is doing the 1-2-3 hokey-pokey. I stupidly assumed that we had already solved this problem now that we had SQUID. My reasoning went like this (feel free to laugh):
1. We have a system that allows people to organize their reports, and
2. They will use it.
Don’t get me wrong—they were perfectly willing to do Institutional Effectiveness reporting it, and some even saw a lot of value in it. But it was just too much work and there were too many degrees of freedom.
The result of that first attempt to collect this information was a horrid miss-mash of formats, like Frankenstein’s tax return. Reading through them was an invitation to a migraine. What we needed was a simple interface to enter the data instead of expecting to get perfectly-formatted documents to SQUID.
-5- RIA Grande
It was back to the drawing board for IS, this time with the experience of building SQUID behind us. This job was harder, though. The goal was still to get Institutional Effectiveness CRUD (Create, Read, Update, and Delete) going, but the meta-data was more complex. The President had to be linked to the Vice-Presidents, who had to be linked to their underlings, and so on. Navigating this hierarchy with “click and refresh” web pages would not be a pleasant experience.
So we took the leap into Rich Internet Applications, a component of what’s being billed now as Web 2.0. We used Macromedia Flash to build the interface and leveraged the data we already had in SQUID to create a tree-like navigation system for IE CRUD. Transactions are nearly instantaneous on the local network, and there are no web page refreshes to slow things down.
This solves the formatting problem—everyone is forced to use the same one. Moreover, we can ‘roll over’ goals and objectives from one year to the next, minimizing the busy work in setting up annual plans.The library still provides operational assistance in keep the IE CRUD running, for example, when the president asked me to get the strategic plan goals and objectives entered (hundreds of them), I thought of a cataloger who was looking for a project. In a broader perspective, I depend on them to help me keep the meta-data straight and organized. It’s just another catalog, after all.
-6- Mopping up
The combination of information technology and library skills is a good one, if the cultural divide can be navigated. We’ve benefited from this union (we actually had a ‘wedding’ ceremony with champagne and everything) with some useful progeny, which have raised the visibility of the whole organization. The impact on the culture and operations of the College are significant.
When I talk to other library directors, I often hear that they have an almost adversarial relationship to IT. One director was trying to do assessment, but was unable to obtain access to database information he needed to proceed. That’s unfortunate, because the library has good data to share too. We recently compared our Faculty Assessment of Core Skills to the number of items a student circulated.
Writing Skills versus Circulation Activity
I assume that librarians have long been a treasure waiting to be discovered by some administrator with a project. The difference now may be the capabilities of the World Wide Web when tied to databases. People with good organizational skills and a clue about meta-data are to be valued. The slick interfaces that Web 2.0 AJAX-type technology makes possible add greatly to the appeal. One thing is for sure: with institutional repositories, student portfolio systems, and institutional effectiveness systems, colleges and universities need to be prepared to organize a LOT of information.
It’s not possible or desirable for every IT unit and library to engage in holy matrimony, but here are some other things you can do:
- Create a liaison with IT (a person, not an event),
- Look out for projects like accreditation, where librarians can have an immediate beneficial impact,
- Nominate or appoint librarians who have an awareness of these opportunities to committees to sell the message,
- Try to get a seat at the table when the discussions of core informational systems take place—things like an institutional repository. Even if the institution outsources the project, it will still need to be customized by people who know the place.
- Libraries have a great professional product to offer—one that can be of use to a whole institution. Of course, once the institution’s leaders learn the value of library expertise, you may find yourself in charge of an accreditation or two. But taking over the world isn’t supposed to be easy, is it?
Resources: For more information about the IE CRUD, download the manual at http://www.coker.edu/assessment. The whole project will soon be released as open-source code. If you’re interested, check my blog http://highered.blogspot.com for updates.