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Talking with Doyle Friskney About How Mobility is Challenging Academic Libraries

Lisa Layton, Elsevier | Nov 01, 2009

During the 2009 SLA Annual Conference, Doyle Friskney, the associate vice president of information technology and the chief technology officer at the University of Kentucky, gave the talk "Commons, Chaos and Clouds in My CIs: Implications for Higher Education” about smartphones and cloud computing and ramifications in universities. Here, Doyle follows up on that talk and gives additional thoughts about how mobile access is changing the role of academic libraries.


How is mobility impacting university libraries?

Mobility is bringing academic libraries enormous challenges. Today’s typical mobile device has enough storage to hold the equivalent of an entire library collection. Imagine carrying your personal library along with your games and music collection. Also, consumerization of technology is transforming computing everywhere, from the largest public universities to the smallest rural libraries. At one time, an organization could pick and choose the technologies to support and when to introduce them to customers. No longer, thanks to the decreasing costs of flat screen TVs, netbooks and smartphones. The public wants library and university content delivered the same way as entertainment. And Google has forever changed how we find information. Questions once reserved for the local librarian are now answered by the Google search box, often with amazing success. Google’s efforts to digitize the great university libraries will bring unimaginable resources to the most remote areas through the use of smartphones. Cloud computing is furthering this transformation to digital access.

What exactly is cloud computing?

From a university perspective, the simplest definition is information technology resources located off campus and supported by third parties. Google apps and Microsoft’s Live services are good examples of cloud computing. In the academic world, you have Google Scholar, Google Books and management applications used by registrars’ offices. A promising project underway is the OCLC Web-Scale Management Services. A final area is innovative faculty work to use social-networking sites to enhance the classroom experience.

How does cloud computing tie into the issue of mobility?

Gartner and others agree that there are 42.8 million mobile cloud computing subscribers today and there will be over 998 million by 2014. In the next 5 years, cloud computing subscribers will increase from 1% of all mobile subscribers to over 19%, using notebook computers, netbooks, music players, electronic books and smartphones, all more robust than mainframes of the past. Thanks to the power of cloud computing, Google is challenging Microsoft, Apple has changed the playing field forever with the iPod and iPhone, and Amazon’s Kindle has excited interest in eBook readers. We’re living in a transformational era of personal portable libraries in the hands of people rather than organizations.

Are mobility and cloud computing affecting the relationship between IT and libraries?

Yes. Academic libraries and information technology departments must build a transparent system that just works. The day of IT and libraries living in self-contained worlds is unacceptable. Faculty and students want to use mobile technologies to meet the demands of university life. A student expects campus systems to always be available; this includes accessing library resources from an iPhone. The rationale is if you can easily find content in iTunes, Facebook or Wikipedia from your smart phone or netbook, you should be able to access library systems, sign up for classes or use a course management system. Also, universities can’t afford duplicate staffing and computer resources. Demands from faculty and students will force libraries and IT departments to move past the service and support systems of yesterday.

“We’re living in a transformational era of personal portable libraries in the hands of people rather than organizations.”

Might mobile access and cloud computing contribute to further consolidation of IT and libraries at universities?

I wouldn’t use the term “consolidation,” but I would use the phrase “creating a new customer support infrastructure.” Today the library at the University of Kentucky reports to the provost; prior to that the library was a part of Information Technology for a decade. Organizational alignment can happen in both locations; I happen to favor the library being located within the academic organization. What needs to change is the library and campus IT understanding their strengths and weaknesses in meeting the needs of faculty and students. Universities tend to have a great degree of duplication in organizational units, which often only confuses and frustrates users. At many universities today, the libraries and information technology organizations want to provide service and run enterprise systems. The end result is that faculty and students are asked to maneuver between organizational units. I doubt information technology will ever have the professional staff found in libraries, and I am confident that academic libraries will not be able to provide the enterprise support infrastructure found in campus IT departments. The support that faculty and students experience with cloud systems will be expected at the university and will require the university to rethink how to offer services. This will result in libraries and IT organizations putting the needs of the customer first, and the desire to do things as we have in the past will become a distant second.

"Past practices of following traditional organizational guidelines are no longer acceptable to the patron."

Is it true that you’ve said that, in 10 years, universities won’t need their IT departments?

In a moment of passion, a man will say almost anything. I did say IT would diminish in relevance, and I do believe the IT organization of the future will be quite different. The greatest impact will be made by the emerging technologies available in the cloud computing world and the consumerization of IT.

What will university IT departments look like in 10 years?

As I look to the future, I see the IT organization being responsible for optimizing business practices and serving as a change agent connecting users to resources. Further, I see IT having the responsibility to establish a large data repository that will meet the reporting requirements of many university communities. I also see IT departments establishing state-of-the-art networking infrastructures to support the growth of emerging technologies, many located in the cloud. The other areas of IT will likely diminish over time. I see the customer support of IT migrating to the library or college departments. Wherever they are, faculty and students will want support on their mobile devices, and often the library is closer to the community than is the IT department. The IT help desk that is centralized and staffed with entry-level positions encourages a disconnect with the user communities. As a side note, from my perspective, over the past 10 years, the library has been able to maintain the trust of the user community, whereas the IT department has often been accused of not being sensitive.

Is mobility affecting the academic library as an organization?

Yes. Past practices of following traditional organizational guidelines are no longer acceptable to the patron. The practice of asking students and faculty to follow too many rules is being challenged, and demands to access information by using devices of choice are becoming commonplace. The academic library is undergoing demanding challenges to its organizational ethos and its staff.

How can academic libraries become better prepared to deal with mobility?

The library has recognized the need for change and has introduced information commons to support students, but must modify further its own organizational structure to meet users’ evolving needs. A partnership between the library and IT will be productive. A blend of information commons and student labs make sense, but only one organization – whether it’s the library or IT – should be the first touch. The student should not have to understand what each organization provides and to move between labs and commons to accomplish different tasks. Further, as students expect support from wherever they are conducting research, library staff must become comfortable with social networking and collaboration tools. Handouts and email are no longer best practice in the minds of students.

What must the academic library do to be successful in this mobile era?

Recognize that the building will need to continue to meet evolving needs. As information specialists worldwide recognize, the building increasingly is not the destination but instead the entry point for access to information, located anywhere, from any device. Also, be sensitive to demands for digital information and consider vast shared library collections. This will not be a change quickly adopted by traditional librarians, or vendors who sell in traditional channels. Also, green computing is pressuring libraries to limit investments in print resources and encourage investments in digital resources. So demand library vendors offer new choices on everything from college textbooks to today’s newspaper.

What does all this mean to the academic library today?

Mobility, search and social networks have changed how the university accesses information. If you feel comfortable in a controlled environment and like in-person, one-on-one visits with patrons, your era of comfort is coming to an end. Today’s society favors a quick online answer over a visit to the local library. The result is today’s academic library needs to change to ensure it remains a relevant resource. Companies that have used change to gain visibility and acceptance include Apple. On the other hand, today’s newspaper industry has been unwilling to transform to meet the demands of a mobile society. The library is at a crossroads of choices to make in responding to the same mobile society.