Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Outsourcing Technical Services: Some Thoughts on Columbia and Cornell

Last week, while libraryland discussed important issues, like the death of Aaron Swartz, and somewhat less important ones, like rockstars and egos and feelings, something very interesting happened that didn't get enough attention: Columbia and Cornell Universities are going to merge their Technical Services departments, expanding on a partnership, called 2CUL, formed in 2009.

The impetus from the initial collaboration was borne out of, in no small part, preexisting budget cuts. I worry, however, that in this latest move cause and effect have changed places. In 2009, Cornell University Librarian Anne Kenney said the partnership “will ameliorate the impact of  budget cuts while building our libraries' ability to innovate” (LJ, 2009). It was, and is, a clever solution to a series of problems concerning funding, non-English cataloging, data management, and digital preservation, among other topics, which has proved fruitful based on recent reports, quoted from a press release below, from 2CUL.
  • “Allowing Columbia and Cornell faculty, students and staff to borrow materials from either library on-site and expedite access through intercampus loan delivery; 
  • Building joint collections and sharing librarians and language expertise to expand access to more global resources in Asia, Latin America and Russia/Eastern Europe; 
  • Uncovering issues for long-term preservation and access to e-journal literature; and 
  • Creating programs to give tailored support for Ph.D. students in the humanities.” (Press Release)
Both Cornell and Columbia staff are taking great pains to note that this recent, upgraded relationship was not a merger, and a press release, again quoted below, favors the word "integration" instead, but make no mistake, this is going to cost some jobs and save some money. Job losses are, at the least, a positive externality for the two schools, in which Technical Services staff make up approximately twenty percent of library employees, if not part of the plan.
“This partnership goes far beyond avoiding costs. It extends to changing the way we think about staffing, task and expertise distribution and workflow design.” (Press Release)
It also begs the question that if two universities a four-hour drive away from each other can integrate some library departments, can it be done between schools, or libraries, that are a four-hour plane ride apart? What about a twelve-hour flight? Can Technical Services for Slavic-language materials be performed in a Slavic-speaking country? Might it be cheaper? Might some vendor capitalize on this idea and license it out to libraries? At what point does distance become a barrier?

For example, there are already digital preservation firms located in border states that take materials to Mexico where digital preservation and reproduction is significantly cheaper than it is in the United States. Is that the future of Technical Services as well?

Additionally, while partnerships, such as consortia, are formed by groups of libraries to benefit member institutions, there is a "feed the beast" mentality that often appears. 2CUL was formed to serve Columbia and Cornell, but it may not be long before Columbia and Cornell serve 2CUL in some way.

Regardless, kudos to Columbia and Cornell for truly thinking outside the box. If the merger costs jobs, as I suspect it will, I hope the losses are minimized to the extent possible. I also hope it doesn't give too many vendors too many ideas.

(Full disclosure: the author worked the circulation desk at Columbia University's Butler Library in 1999 and 2000.)
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  1. "...if two universities a four-hour drive away from each other can integrate some library departments, can it be done between schools, or libraries, that are a four-hour plane ride apart?"

    A similar situation is what we were afraid of in DC during the Harvard Library Reorg, which is weird because we already share *some* tech services with them over that distance -- e.g, they benefit from our foreign language catalogers and we benefit from their ILS tech support. We just don't call it integration or merger.

    (And Harvard Libraries DID see a reduction in staff, but nearly as many we had feared)

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