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Subject departments: summary of a debate

Tibor Horvath

This article, penned at the end of the Seventies, was prompted by a debate among librarians. It is now published by the Editorial Board, seeing that the subject has caught the attention of a wider public. The author, while still holding the views expressed, asks the reader, however, not to look upon this paper as a treatise, but rather as a contribution to the on-going professional debate, made with a view to stimulating further discussion among his colleagues.

Problematic Aspects of Subject Departmentalisation

It is a natural concomitant of our libraries' development that every 15 to 20 years the principles governing future progress should need redefining. Society changes, people's expectations vary, institutions become modified, professional knowledge accumulates, and. our perceptions alter. So, once again, our large public libraries face a crucial juncture: we must elaborate the concept of the library of the future so that its basic principles might be incorporated. even in present-day library projects

In choosing a favoured direction for the future, many people have gone for "subject departmentalisation", or, to be exact, the subject departmentalisation of the larger public libraries. By that they do not mean the setting up of independent units of organisation within a library, say, to look after documents requiring special treatment, or to discharge duties beyond the librarian's normal call, but envisage the establishment in each library of four to six new organisational structures, each representing a wide sector of knowledge, and influencing the library's total development. We are, therefore, talking of an organisational concept determining the life of the library as a whole. Within the library, subject departments would. enjoy a fair measure of autonomy: they would coordinate their holdings, would., in the extreme view, adopt their own catalogues (although a "common" system of cataloguing would be permitted), they would be allowed - because of overlapping in their departmental subject matter - to hold. duplicates, and possess other characteristic features of their own. These envisaged subject departments would. be kept together by a rather ill-defined "general" department, in addition to their having a common directorate, administration, etc. m e advocates of the scheme cite examples from abroad where subject departments have been in existence now for several decades. Let one thing be clear however: subject departmentalisation is not synonymous with putting subject specialists in charge of collections, and generally, has very little to do with the, incidentally, crucial question of how the expertise required by the specialised collections is to be integrated in the library. Now, whereas this question of the integration of expertise is of fundamental import, that of the subject departments themselves remains an organisational matter, irrespective of whether such expertise is present or not.

According to Istvan Papp, subject departmentalisation might well provide the means for the establishment of the "omni-functional" library, first elaborated in the Sixties. The professional consensus is - and that is indisputable - that this would constitute a more advance version of the open-shelf library. Here the discussion can become both awkward and. heated because the advocates of subject departmentalisation argue from hard-won, politically and professionally unobjectionable premisses. Who wouldn't subscribe to the ideal of a more skilful and competent library, of an all-purpose public institution capable of satisfying even the most exacting demands of scholarship? The introduction and spread of the open-shelf system, though originally an innovation of the American public library system, marked the demise of our reactionary library traditions and the triumph of a democratic library policy. The real question, however, remains: does subject departmentalisation genuinely represent the embodiment of the above. jealously guarded principles of librarianship, or wouldn't a different concept do better ? What is more, the question even arises as to whether departmentalisation might not work in the opposite way, i.e. whether it might not actually curtail and impede the ability of libraries to respond to a variety of exacting demands ? The question might well be unanswerable; however, in trying to clarify the tasks, our discussion might just isolate the principles that will sharpen our perceptions of the problem.

None of the various pronouncements on the subject here at home has still made it any clearer why departmentalisation is really necessary. Is it that because of larger holdings our libraries have outgrown their physical limits ? Or is it because they wish to devote more attention to providing specialised scientific information ? Or both ? Are there perhaps other factors involved ? It is really hard. to accept a concept for which no case has been made out, at least not in a proper analytical manner, and which confines itself simply to prescribing a new organisational solution. Organisation should always be the hand-maiden of problems, tasks, and activities. To start out with an organisational framework and try and fill it with content inevitably conjures up the spectre of formalism. What needs to be considered first and foremost is the welter of tasks the public libraries of the future will confront. Only thereafter can organisational solutions be addressed.

The weakest point in subject departmentalisation is the premise that individual public libraries must carry out their information tasks all on their own. Autonomy - is that the idea? When subject departments first emerged abroad, that was indeed the prevailing practice. In consequence, and amid a quite different set of circumstances, subject departmentalisation represented a proper solution to a specific problem. By now the number of such autonomous libraries has shrunk and in future they will cease to exist altogether. Libraries feeling utterly abandoned to their own devices still exist over here, with genuine inter-library co-operation so far remaining a pipe-dream chiefly because of our technologically underdeveloped state. But the technological shortcomings of today must not be extrapolated into the future and tomorrow's relations between libraries must not be taken to be necessarily on the present level. The development of the autonomous library led to subject departmentalisation Even the work that goes into the question of subject departmentalisation in Hungary most thoroughly - Gábor Mándy's compilation Some Problems of Departmentalisation: Principles, Lessons, Alternatives - notwithstanding all its thoroughness, is flawed by the assumption that the features characterising present-day libraries - and not just those relating to information transmission, data processing and interlibrary relations - will all stay unchanged in the future, the sole exception being the subject departmental set-up. Inevitably, and without the author admitting it, there emerges a picture of the libraries as restricted entities devoid of outside contacts. By way of illustration, let us examine some specific issues:

As regards the actual data carriers, library holdings of the future will substantially differ from those of today. Special documentation, steadily gaining in importance already, will attain parity with periodicals and books. Microforms will become indispensable. Many publications have already become accessible only in this mode. Audio recordings will not stay confined to music. Film, video recording and other visual documentation will be commonplace. User equipment for these technologies will somehow have to be accommodated on library premises. How can microfilm and cassettes be filed on open shelves? If libraries want to keep in touch with scientific and cultural life, they, too, will have to follow the prevailing trends in information techniques. The contents of documents can equally be expected to undergo modification: the over-quoted interdisciplinary publications are just one instance. Human knowledge is being restructured. in the light of the new sciences that have sprung up in the last 20 to 30 years. m e attitude underlying the proposals for subject departmentalisation being essentially rooted in the crude notions of 19th century scientific methodology, is calculated to create an anachronism in the libraries. Is there not a likelihood of ever-growing tension developing between the complex demands of library users on the one hand., and. the philosophy at the bottom of the subject department idea and. thus the future of the library system, on the other ?

When it comes to information retrieval, one's misgivings multiply. One suspects that whenever the proposals talk about the subject departments' catalogues, they refer to catalogues in the accepted present-day sense. now, the current cataloguing systems - and with the matter having now been long and noisily debated, this has become a commonplace in the profession are just about capable of rendering a minimum service where information retrieval is concerned. Present cataloguing methods are simply miles removed from an optimised retrieval system, created by metriculous research and development. How can the various functions of the library be expected to be perfected unless we include more effective processing methods in our plans ? Isn't it there that, before our very eyes, the greatest changes are taking place ? Nowadays effective information retrieval is universally seen as being a matter of international co-operation via technologically advanced data transmission networks whose organisational framework already exists. Why should a large public library wish to exclude itself from the benefits and services - even to its own holding - of an efficient processing system, when it can easily obtain them, as it were, ready-made ? Effective processing methods will mean the retrieval of documentation deeply buried in individual sources of information. Why is it necessary to cast information back into the bowels of thematically divided. disciplines ? A library, linked to information networks by up-to-date visual display units and computer terminals, will have at its disposal bibliographic research facilities which the proposed departmental set-up would. only slow down to walking pace. Besides, it is problematical whether retrieval equipment using modern procedures can be properly married to a subject department's open-shelf holding. Particularly when it comes to documentation of a non-traditional kind.. In this respect it would be no use adding and adding to the insertions in the reference catalogues if they cannot provide individual source data. Masses of cross-references cannot be a satisfactory solution. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that the more discerning the library user, the more unlikely will he be to resort for information to a catalogue. Much rather will he seek the wanted literature in bibliographies, indexes, periodicals, individual reference works, and official publications, thereafter looking for specific titles in his library, which will either have it in stock or will get it for him. Generally speaking, the problem boils down to this: what connection should there be between library research equipment and. the subject department's collection. In markedly polarised professional discussions, such a situation was dubbed as one where information has been torn from the documentary base. Even Gesner no longer treated of "a collection" but of "literature", from which he arrived at the concept of bibliography. Just as from a point of view of library policy one is bound to disapprove of some people's proposal, made on the strength of such arguments, to organise information without documentation, so one must equally deplore the opposite idea, i.e. of a set-up where the connection between library holdings and information equipment has been unduly loosened. through poor stock control and imprecise classification of documents. A good library will be capable of producing both information and source material, it being quite immaterial to the user whether it manages to do so purely from its own resources or by drawing on somebody else's.

The need to rehearse these arguments does not stem from the general tasks of the public libraries, but from the subject departments' hightened interest in specialised professional information. In essence, it was considerations like these that led M.V. Rovelstadt - author of one of the best studies on the subject - to consider this type of library procedure, though satisfactory for the general reader and undergraduate student, to be inadequate for a higher level of readership. Of course, the arguments advanced must be correctly interpreted.: they do not mean that subject departments as such are unnecessary, only that they do not help to meet professional and scholarly requirements, and are in some respects even a hindrance to them.

Similarly, it could be shown that the postulates of subject departments envisage the library services essentially to remain on a present level, i.e. confined. to lending and. local use. How narrow a vision! It needs no elaborate explanation to perceive that even this matter cannot be properly planned with today's means, partly because the use of special documentation requires different treatment - just remember our experiences with audio collections' - and partly because photo copying and facsimile transmission techniques are creating a new situation. This again is something to be considered not so much in the context of the public library's general tasks - lending and reading room will always be important functions - as in that of subject departmentalisation.

The provision of specialised professional information is not among the primary concerns of public libraries, this problem being tackled on another level. However, the network of institutions supplying users with such professional and specialist information also includes the public libraries, the large public libraries in fact representing important constituents thereof. This information system, planned with new technologies in mind, processing technical literature with novel techniques, also places interlibrary co-operation on a new footing, one that embraces modern information and data transmission equipment, facsimile facilities, etc. m e national network maintains many links with its opposite numbers abroad. In the national network every library takes on the character of a transmission agency. This is the proper context in which public libraries must be seen to operate, and which imposes the conditions whence the libraries' tasks and organisation derive. To advocate, in isolation from all this, a new, sterile organisation seems at this juncture to be mistaken, to say the least. The outlines of the emergent professional information systems are probably still too vague to permit the planning of the public libraries of the future. Yet completely to ignore them must cast grave doubts upon the seriousness of any proposals.

In the developed. countries, the large Public Libraries rank as equal partners in the community of libraries and. information agencies, maintaining close, multilateral contacts with each other - closer relations, in fact, than those envisaged over here between subject departments in one and the same library. These contacts are not just notions, but a physical reality made up of cable lines, computer terminals, visual display units, etc. If a public library must function within such a system, it will be a matter of relatively minor importance what its internal organisation is and whether or not it has any subject departments. However, this internal structure is bound. to be influenced by the library's membership of the larger unit. It is, therefore, not a matter of whether subject departments are really necessary, but one of which internal set-up is the most appropriate to a public library, given the circumstances described. Possibly, subject departmentalisation will indeed turn out to be the most suitable - though this seems unlikely - but this must first be properly justified by genuine function analysis. The whole point of a library system based on co-operation is that the individual libraries' autonomy becomes absorbed in the whole, that every library becomes equally engaged in the retrieval and transmission of information, and in directing and regulating its flow. Like the little demon in Maxwell's noted analogy in physics, regulating the flow of molecules between gas-filled flasks by opening and shutting tiny imaginary gates, so each library becomes a gatekeeper, controlling the stream of information.

It might seem that the discussion of the problematic aspects of subject departmentalisation is focusing far too much on the libraries' organisation technologies and. techniques of the distant future. True, but then the proposed wholesale introduction of subject departments is equally remote in time.

Finally, I wish to emphasise that airing the problems does not imply rejection of subject departmentalisation as such. It merely serves to clarify two schools of thought: The first cannot conceive of a library development proceeding simultaneously along two, independent and totally unconnected paths. It takes full account not only of developments in the library and information system, but also includes in its calculations the library scene as a whole, not forgetting progress in the level of services, technology, procedures, and relations between institutions. The second view represents a development of an internal, inward-looking library organisation which is characterised by departmentalisation a disregard of the other side, of its own environment and connections, and a refusal to accept modern practices.

It is imperative that subject departmentalisation should not turn into a kind of dogma, one deriving its principles from library set-ups the operating under the totally different social conditions of the last turn of the century, and liable - decades later and. in vastly different domestic circumstances to stifle development, seeing how easily what was once "progress" can become a hothouse of conservatism.

Maybe subject departmentalisation will become the chosen way forward. for our large public libraries. But if it does, it will be on the strength of an entirely different set of arguments.

Subject departments in public libraries: a proposal

[In the following issues of the journal there appeared several further articles about subject organization of libraries, and a vigorous debate took place on the advantages and disadvantages of this pattern. In this reader we do not have space to include all the material that was written on this subject, but we give below the summary of the opinions of one of the more prolific contributors to the debate, Gábor Mándy].

In the public library, for an organizational unit to be considered as a subject department, it must have the following characteristics:

  1. its collections comprise material which forms a well-defined subject field;
  2. the material is properly organized according to the internal logic of the subject by specialist staff with a knowledge of that subject;
  3. these subject specialists provide bibliographical and factual information about that subject to users;
  4. both circulating and reference materials are usually housed in the same area;
  5. different types of library materials on the same subject (such as microforms, periodicals, gramophone records, pictures) are brought together.

Depending on how many of these features are present, we can label the subject department either "initial" or "advanced". Sometimes the staff may be full subject specialists, responsible for both the collections and the reference services, or they may be responsible only for organizing materials on the shelves, handling reservations, etc.

The elements cited above could also exist independently. So one could imagine a system of "departmental services", where a specialized subject department provided specialized information to people in all parts of the country. Such specialists could be contacted by telephone, and would perhaps have direct access to international bibliographic databases.

These specialists could also provide information about collection development to other librarians. They could compile lists of core material in the subject, lists of obsolete material to be withdrawn, lists of out-of-print material available on microfiche and so on.

The holdings in a particular subject field can be rationalized between large and medium-size public libraries (type "A" and type "B" in Hungarian terminology), and books, periodicals, and other media, both circulating and reference, can be brought together. As far as money allows, literature on the borders of two subjects, and handbooks covering several subjects should be purchased in duplicate. (Though at first, a policy of no duplication would still be acceptable, as it would not be any worse than the traditional arrangements).

Depending again on the amount of -money available, the library with subject specialists departments should seek to employ sufficient numbers of specialist staff, or failing that, of general librarians who are deeply interested in the given subject. In the large libraries specialist staff should certainly be employed: in the medium-sized libraries the staff would be in charge of the specialist collections but may not have expert knowledge.

A national and more or less uniform system should be developed for the main subject fields: social sciences, natural sciences and applications, literature and language, music and arts and local history. Each library would also have its "popular department", with a general reference service. A uniform system would make it easier to train the subject specialists, and professional direction and supervision would be simpler. Local interests could be met by the establishment of sub-departments in fields such as education, management, politics, agriculture, do-it-yourself activities, etc. Neither the main subject departments nor the sub-departments need to be of a uniform size; they would differ according to the needs of their users. They would be professionally supervised by their respective national specialist library. They would also establish links with special libraries in their field, with information agencies, with other agencies and even with private experts.

The full development of subject departmental services would take time. However the Hungarian National Council of Libraries could organize plans to put this system into effect. Such plans would influence the design of new, purpose-built library buildings, the adapting of old buildings, the rearrangement of the collections, the modernization of library routines, and the development of central services.

The training of subject specialists should be continuous. By the year 2000, from eight to twelve large public libraries could operate according to the subject-departmental structure described above, and an additional ten to fifteen would have some elements of the system. By that date almost half the library-using population could enjoy the benefits of subject departmental services, and almost all of them would feel the secondary effects: improved collections, subject experts available by "direct dialling" and so on. A key technical condition for developing subject-departmental services is an improvement in the communication facilities available to public libraries: telephones, telex, telefacsimile, computer terminals.


Returning to Some Doubtful Propositions

In the wake of my article - and unintentionally on my part - subject departmentalisation became the centre of a major controversy. Before anything else, I must critically assess my own role in this matter. My language was indeed blunt, maybe fortunately so, because that might have caused my colleagues to be equally frank and outspoken in their rejoinders. In my own defence I can only plead that my original dispute was with but one specific paper, Gábor Mándy's. Subsequently, however, arguments emerged in the debate, and needed answering, which went beyond the confines of the original dialogue. My genuine misgivings were perhaps best expressed by Jenó Kiss, his level-headed study contributing most to clarifying my own ideas. In my present reply I do not intend to cross swords with every contributor to the debate lest I lose myself in detail. I shall rather concentrate on some general issues.

The discussion is complicated by what Miklós Takács called a terminological muddle. This variation in usage, changing from author to author, manifested itself also in the various contributions to the debate. I feel obliged to make it clears, therefore, that subject departmentalisation is not synonymous with'

Though some correspondents may have disputed it, a subject-departmentalised library represents an organisational model for a library as a whole. It arranges its stock thematically, some fervent advocates of the idea even saying not just its stock but also all the facilities for handling and processing it. In the extreme view it means the division into subject departments of all library activities ( such as stock it ion, introduction of information facilities, etc.), in other words, fundamentally the breaking-up of a large library into a number of smaller ones.

Fortunately, the latter view was no longer present in the debate. In this sense then, subject departmentalisation of A-type libraries emerged as a genuine matter of organisation And to me that no longer holds any attraction. Organisation should always follow function: the task comes first, the organisation flows from it. That, to my mind, is where the weakness of the argument lies: we sought a new organisation that would provide the solution, instead of focusing on the analysis of the changes in the tasks from which the solution would then be derived. (István Papp is perhaps least guilty of this charge.) If function analysts-' is excluded from the debate, subject departmentalisation cannot be pronounced to be either a good thing or a bad one - all you can say is that no discussion of it is possible.

Every contribution to the debate states - or implies - that the reason for introducing subject departments is the numerical increase in the stocks of the large public libraries. With these libraries bursting at their seams, it appears that new models for both their functional and organisational framework must be sought. Now, with subject departmentalisation however, the whole point is not the library's size, but the size of the document base upon which the individual subject department can be erected. The stock of a subject department must be representative; it is no use calling any given part of a collection a "subject department" if its stock (and reference resources) is inadequate in size - it simply isn't a subject department. Standard works, essential periodicals, certain facilities cannot be dispensed with. In this respect Ferenc Szita's precise data and the examples of Tatabánya and Miskolc are utterly unconvincing. It would seem that these establishments have not yet attained the dimensions required for a subject department. Of course, it is again a matter of definition - or at least partly one - as to what standards of quality we chose to attach to subject departments. In connection with this attribution of standards to subject departments, I have two points to make:

Since the document and reference base is often slender, many people hold that the subject departments' thematic boundaries ought to be more widely drawn. So it came about that we find among the examples given "sociology', " natural sciences", or even more comprehensive departments. But can there really be, from a library service point of view, a single "subject" such as " sociology" requiring a stock of tens of thousands of volumes? Such a stock would have to comprise masses of things, just as if it were not a "subject department" at all. In truth, Hindu folklore is as far removed. from constitutional law as it is from sulphuric acid production; optics are as remote from shipbuilding as they are from Finno-Ugrian phonetics. But looked at in the way suggested, Hindu folklore would be as much entitled to be included with sulphuric acid in a common "subject department" as would constitutional law, and optics could. lay a claim to be bracketed with phonetics with as much justification as it could do with shipbuilding. Which merely goes to show that in such cases there is no sense in just tying some label to a subject departments instead of "sociology" or "natural sciences", we might as well name it "Abracadabra Department"! There are exceptions, of course. The examples cited by Jenó Kiss could indeed. be tackled thematically. However, in my opinion, if this were to happen in A-type libraries, the subject departments would be characterised by row upon row of empty shelves for lack of suitable literature - a depressing sight.

The second quality condition might be summed up in the question - put by a number of people - as to what the level of the expected services would be. Who would be the users? The prevailing view seems to suggest that public libraries would forever have to satisfy professional and research demands in some makeshift manner. Behind. this question lie decades of controversy, due to the divergent interpretations of the role public libraries are meant to play. Our most distinguished. forbears always opposed make-do standards - in vain, it would. seem. To avoid tendentious misrepresentation, let me make it clears makeshift expedients have their proper place, nor should their value be underrated. The trouble only arises when such standards are taken as being the ultimate attainable and accepted as such for evermore. In essence this is not a professional issue but a political one. In a democratic society, e-quality of the citizens' rights also extends to an equal entitlement to library services, be the user an academician or a milkmaid, a bishop or woodworker, Cabinet minister or hallporter, town-dweller or countryman, old. person or young. That is how the "everyman's library" - the Public Libraries came into being, i.e. libraries safeguarding equality of treatment and giving access to knowledge and an opportunity for education to all, libraries that did not promote the education of ordinary men and women by offering inferior, depleted stocks, but by aiming for the highest standards of service and ensuring availability of any document and every source of information. In time they came to rival the largest collections, not only in size but also in the range and depth of their stocks and services.(Just think of the great public libraries of Liverpool, Glasgow or Manchester.) And anybody holding the view that ordinary men and women only merit collections that are limited to the "spread of information" is treating ordinary people as inferior citizens.

So much for the political aspect. Whether such an exacting level of services is attainable in actual practice is a professional problem. Fifty years ago the idea of a general-purpose library capable of providing a representative selection of all the major works in the arts and sciences might still have been feasible; today, because of the sheer size of stock involved, this would be a daydream. No such library is possible. How, then, can exacting demands still be met? The answer is' not by the individual library's shouldering the task on its own, but by the entire library system taking on the responsibility, with every member-library becoming an entry point and giving access to the system as a whole. Any public library's subject department would also represent such a point of entry. It is by thinking about these inter-connections and pursuing the idea to its logical conclusion that we shall arrive at the proper concept of an up-to-date public library system.

At present we are still some way off such an approach. This is partly the librarians' own fault, because, considering our circumstances, we could indeed be much farther ahead by now. It happens in many cases that we are unwilling to take certain steps and prefer sticking to the present state of affairs; we then blame "conservatism" (of our own creation) when, in reality, we simply do not want to know about progressive development.

In this case the situation - our own doing - is being made the basis of our excuse. Of course, evidence of some development or other has eventually got to be produced - that is something both paymasters and society expect so eager refuge is taken in some second-rate problems, thus enabling the required tick to be placed in the appropriate "development" column. In my estimation, subject departmentalisation has not yet become a topical issue in Hungarian libraries, though it might do at a later date; if and when it does, I believe it will form only a small portion of a far wider concept. Until that time, let us continue to base our ideas about the foremost institutions of public education on our traditions of progressive librarianship and our best present-day knowledge. It would be tragic if we had already forgotten what these ideas are.


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