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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Margaret Otto and the Public Service Vision

William S. Moran

In the past twenty-five years the world of academic libraries has changed dramatically, moving from card catalogs and paper-based circulation, acquisitions, cataloging, and reference activities to operations based on and carried out by computers and other sophisticated electronic gadgetry. Our language has changed: Many will now call reference service 'information delivery.' Our need to 'upgrade' our machines and our skills in using them becomes a constant of working life. High tech is now so thoroughly pervasive in so many areas of contemporary life that one could easily lose sight of the fact that the advent of any particular change in established practice has been, and continues to be, fraught with challenges and with consequences not always foreseeable. When Margaret Otto arrived at Dartmouth in the summer of 1979 the landscape had already begun to change toward an emphasis on electronic technologies, but it is unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the specific shape of things today, especially that the newly-opened Baker/Berry Library would physically represent the change from centering the library around books to centering it around the needs of users in an electronic environment. [1] If indeed the experience of using library resources has changed dramatically, what were the changes exactly, and how did staff and users come to adopt new ways of doing the Library's business? If all libraries have been undergoing these changes, what was Margaret Otto's role in their unfolding history at Dartmouth? The following, drawing on published and unpublished documents and personal observation, will outline some of the aspects of these changes and their impact on Library public services, the activities that are aimed directly at helping Library users take fullest advantage of our material and intellectual resources.

A library is often seen by even its most intense users as a fairly straightforward operation. It generally occupies a sizable, frequently distinctive building. It houses books (and now other media) organized in some reasonable fashion; there are friendly people who will help you find what you want; and nowadays there are a lot of computers, at least some of which seem easy to use. But behind the scenes lies the complexity of any large organization. Just a budget of $14 million, ten physical sites, and a staff of 150 would qualify the Dartmouth College Library as a 'complex organization' by any understanding of the term, and given that it operates in the center of an academic enterprise and information universe undergoing enormously rapid change, one can appreciate that such a library cannot really be thought of in any way as a simple institution. Managing that complexity is one of the foremost tasks of library administration. It is a task that demands, among many other abilities, great skill in organizing people to work toward a common goal. Leadership that provides a vision of the goal to be attained is mostly likely to be successful. The view taken here is that the success of Library public services in the past twenty years has been based on the constant examination of our practices in light of an overall vision that keeps service to users as the highest priority. This, in turn, has been effected by a manner of implementing those practices that draws upon all individuals in the Library to be responsible for their own part of the achievement and at the same time provides them with the incentive and authority to achieve that goal. As Margaret Otto held up the vision of service to users and fostered the management environment in which individuals willingly aspired to such service, she rightly is to be credited with the esteem the Library enjoys today.

Two ways to implement the vision can be traced-the official pronouncements and the day-to-day management that explicitly encouraged people to find for themselves and their colleagues the most effective ways, traditional or innovative, to meet the needs of the Dartmouth community. Margaret Otto tended to shy away from issuing very many official pronouncements. When we did make them they were almost always collaborative efforts with a great deal of input from the staff in all Library areas. A typical statement regarding users is this one created by the User Services Committee, under the leadership of Phyllis Jaynes, then Director of User Services, in 1995:

The public services mission of the Dartmouth College Library is to meet the information needs of Dartmouth College faculty, students and administrators in their academic and research pursuits. This mission is accomplished in three ways: by providing access to information held within the library collection; by managing gateways to information in other institutions; and by educating library users in identifying and managing information. A secondary aspect of this mission is to assist in meeting the information needs of the greater scholarly community. In accomplishing this mission, User Services works in close and active cooperation with Collection Services, Information Systems, and Library Administration as well as the primary constituencies served by the Library.

The organizational structure of libraries typically consists of the visible public service departments, such as circulation and reference services, and the behind-the-scenes areas such as acquisitions, cataloging, and computer support. But note that the mission statement includes these latter operations as being in 'close and active cooperation,' with an essential role in public services. While many libraries have traditionally kept a firm demarcation between these functions, Margaret Otto's consistent vision that they must work together can be seen here and in another (but, again, rare) official pronouncement, made to the committee charged with carrying out a study of our public services:

For the purposes of this study, public services includes all those units within the Library system that provide library services or resources to students, faculty and others. Since the technical services departments' goals and performance have an impact on public services' effectiveness, these factors should be taken into account during the study. [2] <

The Public Services Self-Study was designed at roughly the ten-year mark of her administration to check on our progress so far and to project our future directions. As its name indicates, the study was framed with the idea that public service is the mission of the library.

The study concluded that technology, staff training, and constant, open communication are the keys to success in the operation of what had become an extremely complex organization, yet one attempting to maintain a straightforward and simple, but not simplistic, vision. Typical of Margaret Otto's approach, the study was long on describing the desirable context, environment, and ambiance required of the organization to reach its goals, and brief on prescriptions for specific changes: These were left for individuals and departments to implement. Indeed, in the course of Margaret's tenure, very few management structures were dictated from the top. When they were, the context was always clearly indicated, as when a Library Department Heads Group was formed. Illustrating a point made above, the self-study had pointed out that:

more than ever it is recognized that there is no public service action without a technical service implication, nor any technical service action without a public implication . . . the demands of technological innovation on the training, communication, and management issues we surveyed do indeed transcend the traditional departmental boundaries. We think it is now clearly time to merge the leadership of the traditional spheres into one group that consistently and systematically looks at all issues of system-wide concern, bringing together all the varying public and technical services perspectives that bear upon the issues. We recommend, then, that the Librarian appoint the department heads of all Library units and the Directors of User Services, for Automation, and for Collection Development and Bibliographic Control to a standing committee. [3]

Margaret Otto did appoint the committee, which operates to this day with the same intent to improve library services. Other structural changes included the merging of the bibliographers in Baker's Selection Office with its Reference and Circulation Departments to make explicit that developing and managing the Library's collections are public service activities.

These and other explicit management changes Margaret instituted were almost always the result of lengthy discussion with a wide range of staff and department heads. Pronouncements and edicts were not necessary. Rather, sufficient discretion was given to these parties to encourage changes in response to changing conditions. Regarding the role of technological change, for example, the self-study made explicit the understanding that by the mid-1980s computer-based operations had become a fundamental tool for library users to retrieve information. It provided directions and suggestions for their use, but not prescriptions, because initiatives were to be left to the staff over our eight different libraries to serve best the differing needs of their particular users. For example, users of the business and technical libraries might have different needs and approaches from those of humanities or medicine. On the other hand, there were certain basic commonalities, and over this span of time public services had already been becoming more and more visible: Technology demands that librarians be more visible intermediaries between users and the information they seek. Probably the most obvious case was the switch to the online catalog from the card catalog in the way the users could take advantage of what the Library does in organizing (via 'cataloging') information. Users thought they could use the cards (though librarians knew more in depth); they did not think they could use the online catalog and were willing to get help. (Nowadays again they think they can use the ubiquitous electronic resources, but librarians spend their professional life keeping up with both the form and content of the new information world, their every day spent in scanning for new products, training for their use, understanding their relationships, drawbacks, and virtues in form and content.) The process of introducing the online catalog was itself instructive: It was nearly seven years in the making not only because the technology itself was in the process of being invented, but just as importantly the instruction from the top was that this new tool must be as user-friendly as possible, an assignment many feel has been carried out at Dartmouth as well or better than with any similar publicly available online system. The advent of the World Wide Web has in many ways been simply the next step, though a giant one, in challenging library staff to be the best resource the public can have in navigating an ocean of information.

The opportunity in Margaret Otto's tenure to build new Library spaces has recently provided literally concrete embodiments of the vision that service is the first and foremost mission of the Library. The Rauner Special Collections Library and the Baker/Berry Library illustrate the shift that has made spaces for people central to work, study, and socializing in an overtly intellectual environment, while books and other materials continue to be well cared for in their important but physically peripheral spaces. For public service librarians and staff the motivation to respond to users' needs by providing information and teaching them to find it themselves did not change, but two powerful factors had now boosted their effectiveness: the technology that provided innumerable opportunities to work more closely with users, and the constant reinforcement from the top that their central purpose was precisely this service to library users.

What did change in a dramatic way for librarians and staff was the constantly growing need for training and retraining in the means and methods of information retrieval and for participation in innumerable committees, task forces, and ad hoc groups. Both of these types of activities, in turn, are based on the assumption that communication is the essential ingredient in keeping everyone working in the same direction. Margaret Otto's role in the specific activities required by these changes was to foster and encourage whatever needed to be done at the time, to listen closely to a staff whose judgment she trusted, and somehow to know how to act with both pragmatism and principle. She seemed from the first to know not the future itself, 'But,' in the recent words of one of the world's most successful technology entrepreneurs, 'effective planning and management is not about predicting the future-it's about positioning your enterprise to be able to navigate effectively whatever future it encounters.' [4]

Looking back over the past twenty years, one can see that Margaret Otto's insistence on constant examination of our policies, procedures, and stances on the issues of the day was a kind of navigation by her pole star, the view that library service is an immutable mission. The success of that mission was justly cited in a statement from the recent report, The Dartmouth College Library in the Year 2000:

The Library's reputation as a service organization is well known

at Dartmouth. The Library has been praised in numerous written

reports and has consistently received high marks from faculty

and students for the quality of service provided to the Dartmouth community. [5]

[1]Not that books are abandoned: In 1981 the Dartmouth College Library, with Margaret Otto's strong encouragement, was one of the first major libraries to be seriously involved with preservation activities by undertaking an Association of Research Libraries preservation project (i.e., foreseeing the continued centrality of books, an effort that led to the creation of today's Preservation Services Department.

[2] Margaret A. Otto, Memorandum to the [Public Services Self-Study] Team Members, 4 November 1986.

[3]Dartmouth College Library, Public Services Self-Study, Report to the Librarian (March 1988), 13.

[4]Bill Joy, co-founder and chief scientist for Sun Microsystems, quoted in Bill Clayton, 'Pride and Joy,' Michigan Alumnus 106:3 (Winter 2000).

[5] Dartmouth College Library, Library Department Heads Group, The Dartmouth College Library in the Year 2000, ed. Philip N. Cronenwett and Ann Y. McHugo (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 2000), 2.