What Pizarro and the Inca can Teach Librarians: Why Libraries Should Not Be Part of IT – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson 3

Legend has it that In 1532, Pizarro overthrew the Inca Empire with 168 men. Librarians have much to learn from history.

I have been working my way through Charles Manns’ eye opening and complex book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Mann challenges us to rethink what we know about Native American culture demonstrating that pre-Columbian American culture was just as “advanced” as European culture.

Mann also shows that the conquest of native society was made possible by many factors, especially the impact of disease. As you may have guessed, Pizarro did not overthrow the Inca Empire with 168 men. The Inca fell largely due to civil war. Mann shows a pattern in the Americas of native factions partnering with Europeans for short-term gains aiding in their long term demise. This happened many times including in the fall of the Aztecs and, notably, in the tolerance of the Pilgrims at Plymouth.  Continually, fringe groups of natives, usually those outcast by the dominant party, used the Europeans to upset the balance. In most cases, especially early on, this allowed meager, poorly- supplied bands of Europeans to gain a foothold and reinforce their numbers pushing existing native residents further and further west. Nearly 200 years after Pizarro, the Iroquois joined the British while the Algonquin joined the French in the French and Indian War.

I don’t mean to trivialize one of the tragedies of history that some people consider a genocide, but I also can’t help but think about libraries as I am reading such an engaging text as Mann’s 1491. Libraries should note the strategy and failings that Mann highlights: short-term gain, long term failure.

This hit me as I read Kevin Kiley’s article in Inside HigherEd “Integrated Solutions” (September, 23, 2011) that explored the merger of academic libraries and IT departments. This is a trend that has been discussed for many years, but one that I have about more often. To some, this really makes sense.

Kiley quotes Bob Johnson at Rhodes College as saying  “It’s increasingly difficult to see where the demarcations are between IT and library functions…Customers get better service when there aren’t artificial divisions, and you reduce the amount of internal competition and get better at providing services.”

To be frank, I don’t get it.

It’s not just that libraries and IT are different. Libraries and IT philosophically interface with the goals of colleges and universities in different ways. Libraries are more than just a support service. If libraries are successfully serving their communities, they must connect with their users at a content level, which in higher education means at a curricular and research level. They are not providing a content neutral infrastructure. They must make decisions about content. More importantly, they must recognize and be present at the points where knowledge creation occurs. They have to be a participant in that ultimately human, magic moment of discovery and creation. Libraries and librarians, when at their best, are not simply support services. They are active participants in the synergistic crossroads of knowledge.

From an organizational view, which is what this is all about, libraries live and operate on the academic side of the house. They must be present in discussions of curriculum. They must be a voice in the research agenda of the organization. They are not just database providers and book buyers. They are in classrooms. They are partners to researchers.

Librarians teach.

Anyone who has sat in budget meetings and battled for organizational support knows that technology is sexy and administrators love to throw money to IT. I can understand why library directors may want to report into IT to get a cut of the action. My fear is that librarians and the management of libraries are pulled away from the academic mission that decades from now libraries will be just seen as database providers and book buyers.

Remember Pizarro and the Inca 1532.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.



Kevin Kiley  “Integrated Solutions” Inside HigherEd http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/09/23/liberal_arts_colleges_merge_it_and_libraries_to_save_money_and_deliver_better_service

3 thoughts on “What Pizarro and the Inca can Teach Librarians: Why Libraries Should Not Be Part of IT – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

  • Brad Czerniak

    This post is insulting to IT. The implication being that IT is “just a support service,” or that people in IT don’t teach (whether under a formally academic guise or not).

    Seems to me, as a librarian in an IT department, that librarians provide both infrastructure and customer service. How those two things are structured or regarded doesn’t change that such facets exist. It just so happens that those are two things IT departments tend to provide as well. It seems arbitrary to me that because librarians’ customer service is called reference, or instruction, or synergistic participation at the crossroads of knowledge, or crossing the curricular blood-brain barrier, that fulfilling a person’s information need is somehow sacrosanct as a librarian but monkey-work as IT staff.

    Also, since I’m just an IT person, you’ll have to be more direct with your analogy. Who’s Pizarro and who’s the Inca here? Why?

  • Troy Swanson

    Of course, there is infrastructure and of course there is service, and I would also concede that all campus personnel have a teaching to mission to greater and lesser degrees.

    With that being said, there is a matter of connecting content with organizational decision making that concerns me. I worry that there are short term benefits to reporting to IT, but that disconnecting from academics is in the long term detriment to libraries.

    In addition to this organizational concern, I also think that librarians work in classrooms in ways that most IT professionals do not. This is not intended to demean IT, but librarians are in classrooms at all levels working with students to build a range of skills and, hopefully, to build learning. Libraries have an information literacy mission that is different from an information technology mission.

    I don’t really consider the relationship between a faculty member and student to be a customer service relationship. I also wouldn’t consider the library’s relationship to students work in this way. I understand that this runs the risk of a debate over the meaning of “customer service,” but I do think that this is another distinction.

  • cwood@westdeptford.lib.nj.us

    Information Technologies can sustain continuity when many library systems are in flux.

    “but I do think that this is another distinction.” – What is the distinction, exactly?

    How would IT disconnect academics?

    – unless you’re having trouble getting folks to put those smartphones down.

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