Human Resources Management in the Development of Information Commons in Academic Libraries
The implementation of an information commons in an academic library has a significant impact on human resource concerns in the organization. The success of the project relies on the application of change management strategies. The abilities and roles of staff members must be assessed and reshaped to create the integrated service model. Resistance to change is common, but its causes can be identified and alleviated through communication and training. Values of cooperation and adaptability should be fostered within the organization.
Technologically-driven change has had a significant impact on the field of library and information science during the past two decades. Strategies for responding to general shifts in information use have been reflected in all types of library settings. Academic libraries, for example, have developed a variety of new services alongside their users’ changing ways of interacting with information. The rise of “information commons,” sometimes also called “teaching and learning centers,” in many academic libraries is directly related to shifting perspectives on the nature of information service in relation to technology. Information commons began to appear in the mid-1990s, but they continue to be widely created, refined, and evaluated.
The implementation of an information commons has many implications for the general management of the library. The new entity has to fit within both the existing internal and external environments of the library. Such concerns as budgets, arrangement of space, marketing, and equipment acquisition are often handled in conjunction with other university departments involved in the project, but one internal managerial concern is at the very heart of the library itself: human resources. The information profession is a service industry, and it cannot function without staff to manage information and serve the consumers of that information. Therefore, a successful information commons is dependent on the staff that implements and carries out the service. The creation of an information commons, then, requires a variety of decisions in the management of human resources.
A central feature of an information commons is the presence of numerous computer workstations and related equipment for patrons’ use. However, an effective information commons is much more than simply a computer lab; the goal is for it to be a “value-added” service (MacWhinnie, 2003). A number of library services are often physically present in information commons, especially those pertaining to reference, research, multimedia applications, instruction, and general information desks (Bailey & Tierney, 2002). In addition to library units, services such as writing centers, tutoring, academic and career advising, and technical support are sometimes housed within the same space. Finally, information commons are designed to provide space for individual study and collaborative work for students and faculty.
Thus, information commons can be broadly defined as “integrated centers for research, teaching, and learning, with a strong digital focus and often housed in or at least inclusive of a library” (Bailey & Tierney, 2002). The most pertinent operating word in this definition is “integrated.” The ideal of seamlessness is quite prevalent in current library parlance, and many scholars have emphasized the importance of a “continuum” of service in which library users can locate, process, and use information in a single setting (Bailey & Tierney, 2002; Beagle, 1999; MacWhinnie, 2003). Most clients who enter a library do not differentiate among, for example, the functions of circulation, reference, and information desks. Further, they increasingly do not expect to be sent to another campus building if they need to use a particular type of software to complete their information inquiry. All activities involved in the process of gathering and using information are ideally collocated in the information commons.
Libraries have employed a variety of staffing arrangements to enable the ideal of seamless service to take place in the information commons. For example, Beagle (1999) describes two primary methods for providing integrated reference services in the information commons. In the first approach, a single staff member walks the patron through the entire process of finding, processing, and using information. This approach can be satisfying for both the staff member and the client, but it requires a significant amount of expertise in a variety of areas on the part of the staff member. Such an arrangement is often impractical, because in most cases, there is simply not enough highly-trained staff to cover the information commons’ long hours of operation. In the second approach, staff members at a central information desk make the first point of contact with library users and then offer an “informed referral” to appropriate staff with the required expertise (Bailey & Tierney, 2002). This arrangement is often more practical, but it undermines the seamlessness of service if clients are still required to go from one department to another to fulfill their information needs. An additional concern is that this approach prevents one individual from taking responsibility for the interaction, which can negatively affect the quality of service provided.
Sometimes an information commons is staffed entirely with library personnel (e.g., Colorado State University, cited in MacWhinnie, 2003), but more often, the staff includes individuals from the library, information technology departments, and academic offices. Often, it is cost prohibitive to “double staff” the information commons with library and IT professionals, so a range of approaches to achieving balanced staffing have been employed. In her study of information commons in the United States and Canada, MacWhinnie (2003) found that information commons staffs can consist of combinations of reference librarians, library school students, reassigned IT technicians, paraprofessional staff, university students (graduate or undergraduate), and librarians who act as managers of the information commons.
Regardless of the exact model used, information commons staff requires certain skills to effectively carry out an acceptable level of seamless service. Naturally, reference skills are significant. The integrated resource environment requires librarians to have strong abilities in all types of print and electronic information retrieval. Reference librarians are in their element when engaged in this type of work, but other staff, such as IT workers or student assistants, often do not have past reference training. Likewise, librarians and library technicians should have a certain level of skill with the software applications that are available in the information commons. While computer skills are requisite for library work in general, information commons staff must have a high enough level of knowledge to troubleshoot and otherwise assist clients in all areas of processing information. In situations where staff members do not have the necessary expertise to answer a particular query, it is imperative that they have training that will allow them to make an informed referral to the appropriate person who can meet the user’s needs. Finally, information commons staff must be able to give instruction to the students and faculty members who employ their services. Indeed, the core purpose of the information commons is to provide a central location in which teaching and learning take place, and thus the willingness to teach must be a fundamental ethic shared by information commons staff.
Library staff, whether they work directly within the information commons or not, are affected by the change that the new entity creates in the organization. Departmental structures, procedures for carrying out work, and arrangement of staff are all affected. The atmosphere of change can result in anxiety and resistance from staff at all levels of the organization. Common fears that generate resistance to change include loss of status within the organization, loss of niche of expertise, and anxiety over a lack of ability to perform new job tasks (Evans, Ward, and Rugaas, 2000). In a similar vein, business psychologists suggest that “competing commitments” may produce resistance to change even amongst individuals who are generally flexible and adaptable (Kegan & Lahey, 2001). For example, a staff member may feel very committed to carrying out a new project but will be simultaneously committed to holding his or her current position within the organization and will avoid compromising it. Furthermore, organizational culture and management practices can fuel resistance to change. If staff members lack confidence in managers, if they see problems in the plan itself, or if they are too tied to tradition within the organization, they may be reluctant to support changes (Curzon, 1989; Evans et al., 2000; Whetherly, 1998).
The factors that create resistance to change must be addressed in order for an information commons to be implemented successfully. Bailey and Tierney (2002) identify several “tragedies” that can limit the success of an information commons, and two of these are related to human resources. First, there is the “resistance culture of limited responsibility.” This refers to a tendency amongst library staff simply to send away clients whose questions are not, properly speaking, “library questions.” In the integrated information commons setting, staff should be committed to answer any questions they can and to make referrals where appropriate. Second, there is often a “chauvinistic culture of expertise.” Staff with this viewpoint are reluctant to relinquish their expertise in a given area or to collaborate with other departments who engage in previously unrelated types of work. Moreover, many staff are unhappy when they are required to engage in work that does not make use of their professional skills. For example, reference librarians who primarily answer “tech support” questions may feel they are not fulfilling their professional potential (MacWhinnie, 2003). The ideal of seamless service can be undermined by staff members’ natural anxieties during the transition.
Feelings of stress can also deeply affect employees’ reactions to change. There are a number of causes of workplace stress in libraries, including staff shortages, a lack of adequate training for required tasks (particularly in regard to technology), limitations on the staff’s ability to fulfill their desire to serve all patrons, “problem” customers, inadequacies in supervision, and feelings of lack of respect within the larger organization (Bunge, 1989). These feelings can be further amplified in the information commons setting. Staff who are uncomfortable with new tasks and who do not have adequate support from management may quickly become burned out or resentful toward their work. Physical and mental “technostress” is often present in libraries (Evans et al., 2000), and this can be aggravated in information commons, where most tasks are dependent on computers. Ergonomic workstations and opportunities for varied work tasks can relieve physical stress. Comprehensive training and documentation can provide the confidence that limits mental technostress.
Management literature (e.g., Christopher, 2003; Curzon, 1989; Paton & McCalman, 2000; Whetherly, 1998) strongly emphasizes two essential strategies for managing change from a human resource perspective: training and communication. As described above, information commons staff require a certain amount of training to allow them to have a high level of job confidence and satisfaction, which should ultimately translate to effective customer service. It is important for managers to plan training programs carefully. First, any new job roles must be identified so that staffing needs can be assessed. Second, managers must assess the existing skills of current employees to address the areas in which training is required. Cross-training in a variety of skill areas is especially essential in the information commons environment. It is also important for staff members to gain an awareness of the operations of the other departments or specialties in the library.
Communication is always an essential element of management, but particularly in situations of change, effective communication reduces feelings of stress and anxiety and generally increases the smoothness of the transition. Managers must be forthcoming in communicating with employees about all levels of the change. It is important for staff to understand how changes will affect their jobs on the everyday, “micro” level along with the relevant implications for the organization as a whole. Indeed, staff members are less resistant to change if they understand the reason for the change and how it fits into the organization’s mission on a tangible level (Baker, 1989). More specifically, library employees should understand how exactly the information commons will allow the library to better meet the needs of users and how any rearrangement of the workplace will fulfill that goal. If the plan for change is presented as too vague or incomplete, staff may be skeptical about embracing the change. In addition, any rearrangement of individual workers and departments requires new collaboration and cooperation amongst formerly separate entities (Hudson, 1999). Staff members must be able to communicate amongst themselves as well as with managers, and in order for communication to be effective, all parties involved must be willing to listen to each other and to share their ideas.
To summarize, the creation of an information commons involves a variety of human resources issues. The abilities and roles of staff members must be managed to fit them into the integrated service model. The values of cooperation and adaptability must be fostered amongst staff members. The causes of resistance to change must be carefully considered and alleviated through communication and training. All of these changes are intertwined with the culture of the organization itself (Osborne & Brown, 2005). Even after staff have adapted to the immediate superficial changes presented by the information commons, they will need to internalize any new policies, values, and interpersonal relationships that will have a long-term presence in the organization. Pugh (2000) emphasizes the fact that attitudes, more than skill sets, allow library staffs to adapt to new service models. Information commons are designed to foster learning. It is apropos that the library itself should have the culture of a learning organization, which above all is designed to allow change to take place (Giesecke & McNeil, 2004). The effective implementation of an information commons requires an alignment between the learning ethic of the organization’s culture and the management actions that take place in the realm of human resources.
Copyright, 2013 Library Student Journal | Contact