This was the subject of an exciting and amusing, albeit tongue-in-cheek, debate that rounded off the "50 Years of Information Developments in Higher Education" conference held in Manchester from 16 - 18 June 1998. The motion that "Librarians are Better Equipped to Run Merged Information Services" was proposed by Derek Law, Librarian at Kings College London and opposed by Andy Jordan, Director of Computer Services at Huddersfield. Robin McDonough, Director of Information Services at Manchester University, seconded the motion and Chris Hunt, Librarian at Manchester supported Andy Jordan. The debate was chaired by Clive Field, Director of Information Services at Birmingham.
The arguments, very personal at times, were highly amusing. Law claimed that computer centre managers have no powers of conversation at all but, unfortunately, have not lost the power of speech. He quoted a "survey" that showed that computer managers were losers, wore dirty macs, open shirts, open sandals and tank tops. Computing he saw as a trade, not a profession. He alleged that computer managers cannot count beyond one and the year 2000 problems show that programmers cannot count beyond 99.
Computer centre managers can be regarded much like a new PC. "Shiny and showy till you get them home and, for safety, you always need a backup." Law also criticised the URL system, claiming that it made the Library of Congress classification system look simple. Computing people, living in a fantasy world, reading science fiction and creating MUDs, have no social skills: at library conferences delegates use Tai Chi and listen to poetry and laments during the evening meals but in contrast most delegates at computing conferences cannot remember what happened the previous evening: the tirade continued.
On the subject of management skills Law invited the audience to compare and contrast the MAC initiative and the Follett Report. Converged services are now the norm in the UK : 6 out of 7 are run by librarians. Computer centre managers are more familiar with the technology than with users. Quoting from a computer manual Law found evidence to question their literary skills. "Press any key to stop, any other key to continue".
The response from Andy Jordan was just as well argued. Whilst he saw librarianship as a worthy profession, the rapidly changing nature of information systems meant that specialists in this area are better equipped. From having four computers to serve the nation in the early 50s there are now four in Jordan's house alone. Moving from a large investment in a central system to huge numbers of distributed computers connected by the network meant that computer centre managers were best placed to manage this development and plan for the future. How many Librarians brought the Web and e-mail to their institutions?
Jordan was willing to acknowledge that librarians can cope with change. "After all they successfully dealt with the move from clay tablets to papyrus". But this did not prove that they had the more appropriate skills to deal with the radical and rapid changes occurring in information services and teaching and learning. Whilst librarians seem to be keen to act as mediators between the user and the information they wish to access, computing staff want to remove all intermediaries. In conclusion Jordan commented on the fact that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones had cracked two ribs falling off some steps in a library, but it was impossible to imagine any self-respecting computer centre manager allowing Keith to fall off a PC.
Robin McDonough, arguing the case for librarians, suggested that it was simply an accident of history that the computer was invented after the book. Had a young Bill Caxton invented the book - a small, portable, easy to read alternative to reading information from computer screens - he would have made a large fortune. McDonough also pointed out that librarians have standing in universities: 15 computer centre managers are professors, only one librarian is; the librarians, being highly enough regarded, do not need the title. Stability is also a notion foreign to computer centre managers. They change things constantly (advisory to help desk to service desk to on-line FAQs and help), but librarians come from a background of 500 years of stability.
Chris Hunt, opposing the motion, pointed out that whilst computer centre managers have degrees in real subjects, librarians studied subjects like media studies and sociology. Therefore computing people were more literate the better and numerate and had a greater grasp of reality. As for who makes the the better manager, the final test is money. "Computer centre managers will go for any money going and fight tooth and nail to get it."
The debate, whilst being a little vitriolic at times, was conducted with with good good humour throughout. The result, hopefully not affected by the favourable ratio of librarians to computing staff attending the conference, was a landslide for the librarians - 32 for the motion, 17 against with 1 abstention. The serious business of the conference will be reported by Stephen, of Reading University Computer Centre Services, in the next issue of Ariadne.
Author detailsStephen Gough
Reading University Computer Services Centre