Web Magazine for Information Professionals


Gordon Brewer re-examines the "convergence of services" issue.

In the long running debate on the merits of convergence of library and other support services, particularly computing, in higher and further education institutions, there are two intriguing features which continue to surprise. First the issue is sometimes discussed without adequate definition, and as though convergence and non-convergence are alternatives. The implication is that current practice represents a polarity rather than a spectrum of different approaches, so the whole question is over-simplified. Second, the terms of reference have narrowed as information technology has become the dominant factor in the equation. Consequently, the debate has become increasingly concerned with the connection between the library and the computing service, rather than the broader context of teaching and learning strategy within which much of the rationale for convergence has been based.

The problem starts with a lack of clarity in identifying what convergence actually means. The simplest and most frequently used definition requires only the creation of a shared management structure, with overall responsibility for traditionally separate services resting with one individual. This implies nothing about the extent to which traditional functional distinctions are modified by this managerial scenario, and may lead to minimum change on the ground. Is there any physical integration of work areas and service points? Is there one single budget, and are there flexible arrangements for virement? Is there a genuinely integrated staff structure, and how are different specialisms deployed within it? Is the service perceived by its users as an integrated whole? Is there a recognisable common culture? To categorise services as converged or not merely on the basis of their line management is almost meaningless without reference to the operational practicalities for staff and users. The findings of the eLib IMPEL 2 project confirm this, for in almost 50% (11 out of 24) of institutions studied, libraries and computing centres had to some extent converged, but in only three was convergence fully operational. It was also noted that within both converged and non-converged structures there were widely varying models and degrees of convergence. This is probably no more than a snapshot of the current position in the context of a long term trend, but given the continuing lack of consensus on the issue after quite lengthy debate it might equally suggest that there is no universal optimal solution.

To make sense of current experience there is a need for rigorous analysis of the significant features of convergence as represented by the different models, including those involving support units other than computing and libraries, and the rationale that underpins them. That is, where there is a serious rationale and not merely an opportunistic response to particular local problems or a matter of individual whim. Meanwhile the overlapping interests and the level of collaboration needed between library and computing services in the electronic information environment are now such that it is becoming hard to conceive an institution without some form of operational convergence. Are not all academic libraries hybrid? Are we not all in some sense forced to converge in practice to provide adequate technical support for the systems on which our services depend, even if our managerial structures do not strictly conform to the usual definition of the term? The alternative is a duplication of skilled specialist personnel which few institutions can afford. Given the variety of solutions, the measure of agreement on the rationale for convergence is remarkable, though the weight given to different factors has altered significantly in recent years. The current phase of the debate, since convergence became a hot topic amongst practitioners in the university sector about 10 years ago, has been dominated by the concept of the digital library and the huge impact of IT on teaching, learning, research and patterns of scholarly communication. Prior to this much discussion through the 1970’s and 1980’s, in particular in the schools and colleges, was more concerned with the role of media, with resource based learning and the evolution of libraries into resource centres. It was thus closely related to ideas on so-called progressive teaching methods, including student centred learning and project and group work, which are also evident in the teaching to learning shift now under way in many HE institutions. What is significant about this earlier stage in the debate is the emphasis on pedagogy, and also the associated educational development issues. Educational Development Units, under various names and sometimes hidden within Media Services, were often constituent elements in converged structures. Arguably, given the place of teaching and learning as part of the rationale for convergence, they could be seen as the most crucial element, providing a mechanism for the staff development necessary to drive forward changes in teaching and learning strategy. In many more recently converged situations pedagogic issues are no longer so much cited in the justification for convergence. Given the current political correctness of a back-to-basics, anti-progressive approach in education, though not (yet?) evident in HE, perhaps this is just as well.

Whatever the arguments presented for convergence, the range of different models and the varied operational arrangements within them suggest that local pragmatism plays a large part in what has now become an established national trend. While acknowledging the relevance of the technological and pedagogic factors underlying this trend, in practice convergence is essentially about the best strategy for managing resources in each institution. The optimum model in each case depends on the individuals actually providing the library and related services, and their willingness and ability to work together. The effective deployment of staff with different specialist skills at the operational level is what matters most in terms of delivering quality service. This functional integration is what really matters, and it is achievable in various ways. Convergence through common line management may be needed when people cannot or will not collaborate, but it is doubtful that this will necessarily and of itself bring about a well integrated, seamless service.

Author details

Gordon Brewer