Insular, Infrastructure... Invisible

John Dupuis comments about a review of This Book is Overdue, saying that libraries' roles in their institutions are not well understood by others in the institution because of inherent insularity in academe - silos, in effect. Drug Monkey basically sees the library as infrastructure. When I say infrastructure, I mean the SL Star (RIP) and Ruhleder (1996) version:

  • Embeddedness. Infrastructure is "sunk" into, inside of, other structures, social arrangements and technologies;
  • Transparency. Infrastructure is transparent to use, in the sense that it does not have to be reinvented each time or assembled for each task, but invisibly supports those tasks;
  • Reach or scope. This may be either spatial or temporal -- infrastructure has reach beyond a single event or one-site practice;
  • Learned as part of membership. The taken-for-grantedness of artifacts and organizational arrangements is a sine qua non of membership in a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1992; Star, in press). Strangers and outsiders encounter infrastructure as a target object to be learned about. New participants acquire a naturalized familiarity with its objects as they become members;
  • Links with conventions of practice. Infrastructure both shapes and is shaped by the conventions of a community of practice, e.g. the ways that cycles of day-night work are affected by and affect electrical power rates and needs. Generations of typists have learned the QWERTY keyboard; its limitations are inherited by the computer keyboard and thence by the design of today's computer furniture (Becker, 1982);
  • Embodiment of standards. Modified by scope and often by conflicting conventions, infrastructure takes on transparency by plugging into other infrastructures and tools in a standardized fashion.
  • Built on an installed base. Infrastructure does not grow de novo; it wrestles with the "inertia of the installed base" and inherits strengths and limitations from that base. Optical fibers run along old railroad lines; new systems are designed for backward-compatibility; and failing to account for these constraints may be fatal or distorting to new development processes (Monteiro, et al., 1994).
  • Becomes visible upon breakdown. The normally invisible quality of working infrastructure becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout. Even when there are back-up mechanisms or procedures, their existence further highlights the now-visible infrastructure. (pages 5-6 of the archived version)

Both of these views are very common and very problematic.

I don't think any researcher can get away with being insular in the current funding environment and this is doubly the case for the library. As I commented on John's blog:

Don't academic libraries go through strategic planning processes in which they get specific and targeted feedback from their customers? They should!

Don't the liaison librarians go to staff meetings and symposia in their departments? Join department listservs? Consult the departments every year with the inevitable cuts?

How could they possibly be insular and do their jobs? Who are they serving?

It's not just the funding environment, though, it's the entire point of our existence, why we take up space, any why we're worth having around. Insularity might be a game that can only be won by losing everything.

With that said, we must constantly negotiate our expertise and our professional status. We use certain jargon, require various academic qualifications, and have our own body of literature. We constantly have to prove our value. This might mean that people don't 100% get what we do - but do they 100% get what someone in another lab does or someone in another school in the university does?  Probably not.  Where is the line between asserting our expertise and transparency?


As for infrastructure - this is deadly. Our CIO, when discussing strategic planning, made a point of explaining how IT as a commodity is the surest way to outsourcing.  IT has to be a valued partner.  (yes, comes out of lots of expensive consulting reports, etc, but there's still a lot of experience backing this up).  If all libraries are good for is contracting for goods, then why not hand this off to the people who order the office supplies or the lab supplies? Surely they have to select among various suppliers - isn't that the same?  What's even worse is when the library isn't even given credit for acquisitions, when things appear free to the user - or even, when things are free as OA becomes the dominant model.

So you begin to see the danger here.

Some rather obvious suggestions to try to get out of this mess - not, of course, that I'm not in the same boat as everyone else. I work very hard at this and have a lot of setbacks.

Become as much a part of the team as possible. Be visible - be physically in their spaces, crash their meetings and attend their symposia. Care about what they do, and try to learn more. Many of them are teachers, ask them to explain about their work. Be proactive in offering assistance. John pointed to a great bunch of suggestions posted by Emma Woods of the University of Westminster(offered in response to her queries on JISC lists).

Don't paint your role as bringer of gifts or gatekeeper to riches. We all fall into that trap. The point is that we're there in support of the scientific or educational enterprise. Our work must support one of these things - not serving to increase our power (as if.). At the same time, do assert your expertise in collection development and do understand the tradeoffs in selecting resources instead of just giving the squeaky wheel the grease.

There are probably more things that I forgot but as always, running out of steam.



Star, S. , & Ruhleder, K. (1996). Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Design and access for large information spaces. Information Systems Research, 7(1), 111-134. DOI: 10.1287/isre.7.1.111 (free pre-print with typos online)


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