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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2002

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[Board accepted]

Bridging the Two Cultures: A Collaborative Approach to Managing Electronic Resources

John Dupuis
Science & Electronic Resources Librarian

Patti Ryan
Political Science & Electronic Resources Librarian

York University Libraries
York University
Toronto, Ontario


This article highlights an example of cross-discipline collaboration in an academic library, and describes a collaborative approach to managing electronic resources that is used at York University Libraries. In this model, a science librarian and a humanities/social sciences librarian work together to co-ordinate and carry out the various tasks associated with managing electronic resources. Both the benefits and challenges of cross-discipline collaboration are considered, with particular attention to the usefulness of collaboration in managing electronic resources.

In the spring of 1959, the British author and physicist C.P. Snow sparked a storm of controversy in academic circles by publicly acknowledging an ancient but unspoken truth: artists and scientists just don't understand each other. Coining his now famous "two cultures" theory, he argued that scientists and artists form distinctive cultures that are incompatible and even hostile towards each other, and that these distinctions prevent true understanding and fruitful collaboration. While Snow believed that the problem was socially constructed, Rhonda Roland Shearer and Stephen Jay Gould (1999) argue that the problem is rooted in human nature itself. They note that the "largely arbitrary nature of discipline boundaries has been reinforced -- and even made to seem "natural" by our drive to construct dichotomies -- with science versus art perhaps the most widely accepted of all."

Snow could have been thinking about academic librarians when he spoke of the two cultures. Indeed, academic librarians are particularly susceptible to this problem because of the organizational culture of their institutions. Most academic libraries are organized to some extent by discipline -- both physically and psychologically. Collections and services are usually built on the subject specialist model, and this serves to reinforce the differences rather than the commonalities among disciplines. As a result, a science librarian is likely to be more comfortable working closely with another science librarian, since there is an assumption of shared values and interests. Similarly, apart from the perfunctory participation on library-wide committees, librarians may be adverse to the idea of close collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines. However, the changing nature of work in academic libraries and in particular, the growing importance of electronic resources, has prompted a need for libraries to re-think the two cultures model, and has highlighted the importance of forging new types of partnerships among staff with different skill sets, organizational roles, and subject expertise.

This article highlights a successful example of cross-discipline collaboration in an academic library, and describes a collaborative approach to managing electronic resources that we have been developing at York University Libraries. In this model, a science librarian and a humanities/social sciences librarian work together to co-ordinate and carry out a number of electronic resources tasks, including product selection and evaluation, promotion, user education, training and day-to-day troubleshooting. In this article, the benefits and challenges of cross-discipline collaboration are considered, with particular attention to the usefulness of collaboration in managing electronic resources.

Current Literature on Collaboration

The importance of collaboration has been well documented in the literature on electronic resource management. However, much of it focuses on the need for increased collaboration and integration between traditionally autonomous functional units such as public and technical services. Far less attention has been given to the idea of collaboration among librarians with different subject expertise.

A central theme in the literature is the notion that the increasing reliance on electronic resources has resulted in a paradigm shift in academic libraries -- a move from a model of collecting information to one of knowledge management (Branin 1994). In the new paradigm, the emphasis has moved from physical collections and ownership to access and delivery. As a result of this shift, librarians have been forced to acquire new skill sets and knowledge. As early as 1993, Corbin identified a large list of competencies essential to the provision of electronic information services, and this list has continued to grow. In this sense, collaboration allows librarians to benefit from a wider range of competencies and skills, and reduces the pressure to "know it all."

Collaboration has also been identified in the literature as an effective means of dealing with changes in workflow, introduced by the rapid integration of electronic resources into library collections. Miller (2000) identifies organizational change as one of the major consequences of an increasing reliance on electronic resources, and notes that the "interconnectedness of library activities, which appears to have significantly increased with the use of electronic resources, reinforces the need to reorganize library functions." The traditional subject and functional divisions that exist in most academic libraries are becoming less relevant in the new paradigm, and new models need to be tested.

Gerhard (1998) also emphasizes the need for libraries to adopt new and creative models for managing the workflow associated with electronic resource management. She notes that the ethereality of electronic resources make them more difficult to accommodate with existing workflows related to acquisitions, check-in, cataloguing, and provision of access. She insists on the importance of a flexible, changing model, since "the unpredictability of [electronic resources] also prevents us from writing a simple, one-size-fits-all procedure for handling them."

Similarly, Pinfield (2001) argues that libraries must adjust the traditional model of subject librarianship to satisfy the demands of the hybrid library -- one that combines access to traditional and electronic resources. He notes that one of the ways in which the role of the subject librarian can be usefully extended into the electronic library environment is through participation on multi-disciplinary teams, and notes definitively that "the days of the autonomous subject librarian are over."

At York, the collaborative model was developed in part, as a response to these changes in academic libraries. What follows is a description of our model, and an overall assessment of how well it is working for managing electronic resources.

York University Libraries

Situated on the northern edge of Toronto, York University is the third largest university in Canada, with a current enrollment of approximately 40,000 full-time equivalent students. It is a young, dynamic, and growing institution offering a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate programs, with a strong emphasis on the arts, humanities and social sciences. It is home to the highly regarded Schulich School of Business and the Osgoode Hall Law School. In addition, York has a set of small but actively growing programs in the sciences, and houses a variety of research centers such as The Centre for Vision Research.

The library system at York is comprised of several libraries located on two campuses, with the bulk of the collection housed in the Scott Library, covering the social sciences and humanities. The collection provides strong support for all of York's programs, but the libraries are quite understaffed. With only 40 professional librarians on staff, the librarian-to-student ratio is among the lowest of the ARL libraries (Association of Research Libraries 2000). The electronic collection has grown rapidly over the last few years, due in large part to the library's commitment to purchasing electronic resources in place of print whenever feasible. At the time of writing this article, the electronic resources collection, maintained in an Oracle database, included over 120 research databases and approximately 11,200 electronic journals.

Prior to November 2000, the role of Electronic Resources Coordinator was a half-time position filled by a member of the Reference Department at Scott Library. This job involved troubleshooting the technical problems arising from a diverse stable of electronic products, organizing and collecting feedback for new product trials, setting up training sessions for staff and users, liaising between the various departments that are involved in managing electronic resources, and most importantly, communicating with staff about new products and/or changes in the electronic collection. This was done through frequent e-mails, and regular reports at staff meetings.

Roots of Collaboration

In the fall of 2000, the position of electronic resources coordinator became vacant. At the time, it was somewhat unclear how the various tasks associated with the half-time electronic resources position would be handled during her absence. The remaining subject librarians were already juggling heavy workloads and it was not reasonable to expect any one librarian to take on the responsibilities of a half-time position, even temporarily. It became clear that the only way to deal with the absence without hiring someone new was to share the job, and thus, our collaboration was born.

The idea of sharing the role of electronic resources coordinator was presented to us, and after some discussion, we decided to give it a try. As the two newest librarians on staff at the time (we had only been working at York for three months), we reasoned that it would be a good opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge about the organization and the collection. We were also intrigued by the idea of working closely with a colleague with vastly different interests and expertise. Although both of our jobs include providing reference service and information literacy training, our collections and subject backgrounds are quite different. One of us is the political science librarian in the humanities/social science library, has an undergraduate degree in history and political science, and worked in a public library for several years before coming to York. The other is a science librarian in the Steacie Science Library and has the liaison role for several science subjects, including a new engineering program. His undergraduate degree is in computer science and he worked for more than ten years as a software developer before coming to York.

It was envisioned that we would each spend one-quarter of our time in the electronic resources role, but there were no specific guidelines or expectations as to how the role would be shared. Consequently, we were free to make our own decisions about how best to divide up the tasks, and we were given a unique opportunity to develop a collaborative model that would not only accomplish the necessary tasks, but would incorporate our individual interests.

This partnership was unique in the sense that it required two subject specialists with vastly different interests and expertise to work together on selection and access decisions that would affect the whole organization. As subject librarians accustomed to thinking about and supporting the needs of faculty in our own disciplines, this was a new and challenging experience. Our model was also unique to York Libraries in that it deviated from the prevailing centre vs. branch model, and offered a practical example of successful cross-unit collaboration.

Developing the Model

We were immediately presented with a number of challenges. Our first challenge was to work out an appropriate and equitable way to share the tasks associated with managing electronic resources. There were two apparent choices: to split the tasks according to discipline (science vs. non-science products) or devise a schedule for trading off responsibilities for all products on a regular basis. After some experimentation, we settled on a compromise. We now alternate the troubleshooting and routine communications duties each week but divide the liaison and evaluation duties by discipline. We divide communications tasks as evenly as possible, and deal with other responsibilities as they arise. To enhance and streamline our communication tasks, we now produce a regular web-based staff newsletter that highlights news about the electronic collection, and have implemented a Listserv mailing list.


We have been experimenting with this collaborative model for over 16 months, and this has provided adequate time to assess how well it is working. We have found that while there are both benefits and challenges associated with this model, it has proved to be a useful one for managing electronic resources. While some of our observations may be more relevant to our own institution, there are others that can usefully be applied to any academic library.

We will start with the good news. Our cross-discipline collaboration has been a very positive experience, and has yielded important benefits for both the organization and ourselves. So, what are some of the benefits of having a science librarian and a humanities/social science librarian collaborate to manage electronic resources?

Expanded Skill Sets

Holistic librarians with a broad range of competencies and skills are an emerging prerequisite in academic libraries, especially in technology-oriented roles. Functional job definitions, teamwork, and collegiality are replacing traditional departmental definitions in the new, more fluid environment. Increasingly, subject librarians are becoming team players that serve multidisciplinary fields (Pinfield 2001). The synergies we create through collaboration and the sharing of skills and expertise on electronic resources tasks leaves us well prepared to embrace and adapt to the changing environment in academic libraries.

Greater Breadth in Decision-Making

Our subject responsibilities have an impact on how we carry out our electronic resources tasks. Our subject knowledge lends greater depth and understanding to the selection and evaluation of new products, as we can better understand the different criteria needed in our various disciplines and can assess how well the product serves its users. As well, our understanding of how electronic resources are used in different disciplines gives us unique insight into how the products should be organized and presented on the library web site (Pinfield 2001). Our different fields of subject expertise have been particularly useful in making difficult decisions about migrating to electronic-only journal subscriptions, since we have an understanding of which disciplines might embrace or resist this type of change.

Enrichment of Subject Responsibilities

We have noted that our subject specialist roles do much to inform our decisions about electronic resources, but the reverse is also true. Our work on managing electronic resources enriches our subject capabilities. When we evaluate course proposals and teach information literacy classes, we are more aware of the full range of resources available to meet our users' increasingly interdisciplinary needs. A good example of this is introducing engineering design students to various business databases because they will find useful information on product innovation and management. Serving as the electronic resource librarians has exposed each of us to a wider range of resources and ideas, and this has been valuable in our reference and instructional work.

Enhanced Evaluation

The most popular way to evaluate the usefulness of electronic journals and databases is through usage statistics (Knight 2001). However, there are many factors to consider in evaluating products that are not reflected in statistics, such as ease of use or journal coverage. Since we are also involved in front-line reference service and information literacy training, we have first-hand experience and insight as to how the products are actually used, and can observe problems and issues that arise for the end user. These types of things cannot be gleaned from usage statistics.

Understanding of Scholars Across Disciplines

We bring to our collaboration an understanding of the scholarly communication patterns in our own fields of interest. For example, one of us is likely to know more about how physicists use e-prints (Brown 2001) while the other has a better understanding of how humanists use electronic texts (Wiberley & Jones 2000). Together, we have a greater understanding of how these patterns of scholarly communication vary across disciplines, and know which groups will more readily accept electronic modes of communication (Tomney & Burton 1998). As a result, we are better equipped to make decisions about electronic products in a variety of subject areas.

Some Caveats

Of course, not everything is sweetness and light, and there are potential pitfalls to this collaborative model. Like most relationships between people or departments, its success depends on goodwill and collegiality. Where these qualities are lacking, this model can be problematic.

Organizing Workload

One potential problem with the collaborative model is that it requires that the participants find equitable ways to organize and distribute the workload. Will it be strictly by discipline or will there be a timesharing element to the division? We have found that our model is very easy to manage eight months of the year, but during very busy times, juggling our various roles can be quite challenging.

Two Cultures Problem

Snow's "Two Cultures" became the "Science Wars" of the post-modern era, with the relationship between the sciences and humanities characterized by distrust, mutual misunderstanding and hostility (Franklin 1995). For this model to function effectively, librarians must be wiling to put any of these sentiments behind them and focus on what they share as librarians, rather than on the differences among their disciplines. In our own experience, we have been pleasantly surprised to find that working together can help to bridge the ever-widening gulf between scientists and humanists. As a result of our collaboration, one of us has even discovered a newfound appreciation for popular science!

Competing Interests

Wearing different hats in an organization is not always easy, particularly when the focus of one role is different than the other. In our collections work, our focus is on the needs of scholars in our disciplines. As electronic resources librarians, we must make decisions that balance the needs of scholars across disciplines, and are consistent with the library's overall collection principles. For example, as subject specialists, we may cringe at the idea of replacing print journals with electronic-only access, but as electronic resources librarians, we understand that the cancellations will free up money to spend on other products.

Potential Deadlock

Sharing this role has definitely forced us to approach our work together in a spirit of compromise and understanding. There is always the potential that departmental turf wars and science/humanities budget bickering will endanger our ability to function effectively. Without a commitment to compromise, we would be constantly in danger of deadlocking on important decisions.

The Bottom Line

Despite the challenges and the extra effort that is required to make collaborative models successful, there is little doubt that the effective management of electronic resources requires new ways of thinking and working. At the very least, the traditional roles and responsibilities of subject specialists need re-examination in the new paradigm. While the model may vary according to the needs and work environments of each library, one thing is certain: the "two cultures" must learn to communicate and explore ways to overcome the differences, both ideological and cultural, which have traditionally hindered fruitful collaboration.

As we have discovered at York University Libraries, the results are well worth the effort. In addition to the day-to-day, practical advantages that have already been discussed, our cross-discipline collaboration has provided critically important opportunities for professional development and growth within and beyond the library. Not only has our collaboration provided training in looking at the "big picture" of the organization, it has also given us a unique opportunity to make important contributions to the work of the libraries, despite our relatively short length of service. Our work together has also led to collaboration on other professional development activities, and has helped us to recognize shared values across the profession that supplant traditional subject divisions. Finally, the model provides a workable example of how cross-discipline collaboration might be used for other library-wide projects and services such as real-time digital reference or information literacy programs.


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Brown, C. 2001. The e-volution of preprints in the scholarly communication of physicists and astronomers. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 52(3): 187-200.

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Snow, C. P. 1965. The Two Cultures : And, A Second Look: An Expanded Version of 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution'. Cambridge: University Press.

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Wiberley, S. E. & Jones, W. G. 2000. Time and Technology: A Decade Long Look at Humanists' Use of Electronic Information Technology. College & Research Libraries 61(5): 421-431.

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