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4.3 Centralized or decentralized service?

Centralization vs decentralization in university library administration: some reflections

Paul W.T. Poon

Sub-Librarian, New Asia College Library, the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Dichotomy seems to be prevalent in academic library structure. Vertically and by function, academic libraries have traditionally been divided into technical and public services. Horizontally and by organization, they are composed of main (or, sometimes referred to as general) and branch libraries.

Branch libraries cover a wide variety of library units ranging from not more than one hundred volumes deposited in a laboratory to almost a million volumes stocked in the law library at Harvard University.1 Therefore, it seems, as Lawrence Thompson points out, that "no one definition [for branch libraries] can adequately cover the widely variant situations in the different institutions."2 However, based upon the aims and nature of branch libraries, perhaps we can safely define branch libraries as a generic name to describe those library collections which are not integrated with the general book stocks in the main library, either housed within the main library premises or without, and either administered centrally or separately.

There are several "species" of branch libraries, as Robert Walsh terms it.3 The first is a collection-oriented pattern based on the kinds and format of the materials. Examples of this type of branch library are map collections, rare books collections, government documents, audio-visual materials, non-Western languages collections, etc. The second is a user oriented pattern which exists to serve different categories of clientele. A notable example is the undergraduate library. Thirdly, there is a subject-oriented pattern which encompasses collections of different subject matter. Based on this pattern, a fairly large variety of subject departmental libraries exist on many campuses. Examples of this type which have often been quoted are departmental libraries in the professional schools such as law and medicine. These three patterns of branch libraries have also, by and large, been accepted by the library community. For instance, Library literature lists branch libraries under three separate sections: "Departmental and Divisional Libraries", "Special Collections", and "Undergraduate Libraries". Of these three "species", this paper will attempt to focus on the departmental libraries only, looking at their history, and their advantages and disadvantages, and will try to work out the best possible mode of departmental libraries for the academic libraries of the present day to adopt.

The formation of departmental libraries has often been attributed to the influence of the German seminar, or what some people would call "institute" libraries.4 The beginning of the seminar teaching method in the universities may be traced back to eighteenth century Germany. As Lawrence Thompson points out, "the first seminar of practical significance was that of August Bockh, a pupil of F.A. Wolf and a protege of the great Prussian minister of education, Karl Altenstein,"5 although there had been people experimenting with seminar methods before Bockh. In order to satisfy the peculiar requirements of seminar instruction, most essential books had to be made immediately available. At the beginning, the books so used were from the professors' private libraries. But, it was not long before the university libraries began to receive requests for books from the seminars. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the seminar and the seminar library were well-established in the German universities, and assumed a definite form. The German seminar libraries constantly grew over the years. By the nineties, many of them were dignified with the name of Institutsbibliotheken.6 Because of the convenience of accessibility to the books, many professors and students did their research in these libraries without using the university libraries at all. Even today, these libraries are not only housed separately from the main library, but are also administered as separate units. They have their own budget which collectively is sometimes larger than the one allocated to the main libraries. One source discloses, when discussing library budgets in the German university libraries, that "the ratio of the share of the institute libraries to that of the university library can range from 1:1 to 4: 1, so that institute libraries as a whole can receive four times as much as the university library."7

The seminar method of teaching and the seminar libraries which originated in the German universities were introduced in other countries, including the U.S.A. Part of the reason was that scholars who later became influential educational leaders in various countries were trained in nineteenth century German universities. No doubt, they all brought their German educational experience back to their home countries. The concept of seminar libraries was so deep-rooted in America that when Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1867, there was no main library but a series of independent departmental libraries, and sixteen years later essentially the same pattern was adopted at the University of Chicago.8 While perhaps there are other factors which may have contributed to mould the departmental libraries in American universities and it may be difficult to conclude that American departmental libraries owe their origins exclusively to the early seminar libraries, it would be safe to say, as Lawrence Thompson suggested, that "the German seminar library had considerable influence in this country [U.S.A.]."9

Having briefly described the origin and history of the departmental libraries, we should now examine the advantages and disadvantages of having these libraries on campus.

There has been a substantial amount of literature written on the merits and demerits of departmental libraries, or what is generally referred to as the issue of centralization versus decentralization. However, there does not seem to have been an overwhelming victory on either side. Keyes Metcalf has remarked: "As long as there are universities with large libraries, the question of centralization or decentralization will be a live topic for discussion; and, if I am not mistaken, the question will never be settled permanently one way or the other."10 The following is therefore a synthesis of arguments on both sides, and then, based on these arguments and bearing in mind the present situation in the academic world, an attempt to offer some solutions for the whole involved issue.

To begin with, we may have to examine why departmental libraries exist, or alternatively, what the advantages offered by these libraries are.

(I) Accessibility

The first and foremost argument which has been put forward in favour of a departmental library is the convenience of accessibility. Books are acquired and processed for the ultimate means of having them available to the readers. Libraries and books will be of benefit to nobody if they remain unused. To encourage usage of books, easy accessibility is a great incentive. This is essentially why seminar libraries in the nineteenth century German universities were preferred to the main library by professors and students.

In the universities, or, as some people may call them, "multiversities" of modern days, the campus is usually huge, and spread out, resulting in the geographic remoteness of individual units from the main library. This "renders use of the main university library comparatively difficult."11 A great deal of time is wasted if professors and students have to travel to the main library to consult or to borrow a book. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that faculty members, for this and other reasons which will be detailed later on, usually support the establishment of departmental libraries. A report reveals that "in the small ones [universities and colleges] the teachers questioned were two to one... in favor of maintaining departmental or faculty collections in addition to the main university or college library. In the larger ones they were nearly six to one in favor... They gave a variety of reasons for their preference, but one that was often mentioned was the distance of their department from the central library."12

Departmental libraries save time directly, and money indirectly. If a scientist has to travel, say, two miles to obtain information for his experiment from a laboratory manual stocked in the main library, the experiment is then held up. Therefore, toing and froing between the department and the main library does incur a great loss to teaching and research work.

Therefore, even those who may not favour the idea of departmental libraries, would concede that the geographic spread of the campus makes it justifiable. As Frederick Wagman comments: "the only possible justification is remoteness of campus units from the main university library building."13

(II) Ease of use

A small collection consisting of books and periodicals in the same subject field is easier to use than a gigantic library. Parenthetically, this is the major reason for the establishment of undergraduate libraries where undergraduates will not be daunted by a massive and complex collection.

In a general library, due to the classification scheme used, many facets of a discipline will be separated and books on these facets scattered. This creates great difficulty for the user. For example, according to the Library of Congress Classification, "Journalism" is located under PN4700-5650. Faculty members and students of journalism would like related subjects such as communication, radio broadcasting, television, advertising, etc also to be placed at this point in the schedules, but they are astonished, and sometimes frustrated, to find that communication is located at P90, radio broadcasting at TK6570 B7, television at HE8690-8699, and advertising at HF5801-6191.

In a departmental library, however, a custom-built classification scheme is frequently devised and used and this scheme would almost certainly be oriented to the way the researchers and students use their special collection.

(III) Special services

A departmental library is like a special library in which readers benefit from special services. In a departmental library, librarians frequently have a fair amount of relevant subject knowledge. For example, librarians working in a medical library may have a degree in a science subject which helps them understand the special terminology used, and how the medical literature is organized.

Being familiar with the collection, special librarians are in a better position to select and acquire materials. They are more responsive to the research and instructional needs of the faculty and students, and are therefore able to develop the collection most satisfactorily. Moreover, they are well acquainted with the publishers and book-sellers in their particular subject field, which very often helps in speeding up the acquisition of materials.

Being familiar with the clientele and their individual research areas, the special librarians are well-placed to provide a more effective and personalized service. Features available to the users of special libraries such as current. awareness bulletins and selective dissemination of information can be provided for the faculty and students in that particular discipline.

(IV) Relief for the main library

There are instances where the physical facilities of the main library are strained to such an extent that siphoning off part of its collection and some of its services to a branch becomes necessary. In these circumstances, separating the materials relating to a certain subject, which should ideally be a distinct entity from the main collection, and putting it elsewhere appears to be a sensible thing to do.

In this connection, it is interesting to note what Robert Walsh calls "the pattern of pulsation in academic library growth."14 At one point, before the early twenties, owing to the inadequacy of university library buildings in the United States, the tendency was to divert books away from crowded central libraries.15 Than, following the construction of larger American university library buildings, books could be moved back to the main library. An example quoted by Walsh is that of the construction of the Widener Library at Harvard which permitted a number of collections, including the Business School Library, to be brought together.16 However, as years go by, the main library becomes crowded again and the forces toward decentralization begin to work.

There are other advantages in having departmental libraries, apart from the above-mentioned four points. One is that there is more active participation in, and involvement with, the operation of departmental libraries on the part of faculty members, because they feel that the libraries are their own. The other is that departmental libraries such as an Asia library, fine arts library, etc. can more easily attract donations, either money or books, because donors tend to donate to what they are most interested in.

On the other side of the coin, there are a number of disadvantages in establishing departmental libraries.

(I) Cost

Cost is undoubtedly the greatest disadvantage. As far back as 1901, William Bishop stated that the one unanswerable argument against departmental libraries was the great cost of purchasing duplicates and of maintaining many libraries instead of one.17 Rogers and Weber estimated in 1971 that "at present level of cost, a full-fledged departmental library can easily require [U.S.] $50,000 annually for books, processing, and staff, plus extraordinary costs for creating basic collections and providing suitable space."18 Nine years have gone by, and the cost required has no doubt spiralled. The budget for libraries is usually tight, and if a substantial part of it has to be diverted to building up a departmental library, then the main library which caters to the majority of the university community will suffer.

Duplication of materials is bound to take place. Essential bibliographical and reference tools have to be provided in both the main and departmental libraries. Moreover, teaching has gradually become more and more cross-disciplinary and it is impossible to withdraw books from the main library without depriving members of some departments of their use. Therefore, duplicates have to be purchased. This cost of procuring duplicates can be very considerable. "For example, with the decentralized facilities at Rutgers nearly 35 percent of the total book fund is used to purchase duplicate materials for its various libraries."19 Consequently, the breadth and depth of the main collection suffers at the expense of maintaining departmental libraries.

Further, there is cost for extra staff. In order to provide an equal standard of service for both the main and departmental libraries (although it should be pointed out here that it is difficult to exactly replicate the standard of service in the main library for the departmental library adequate numbers of staff have to be employed. The minimum opening hours for a departmental library are cited by the Standards of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in the U.S.A. as sixty.20

Providing staff to work in the departmental libraries represents a considerable drain on the main library's budget. Frederick Wagman has emarked that "fully 30% of the personnel budget of my library system [at Michigan] is spent in staffing the many branches in less than adequate fashion."21 If acquisition and processing of materials is done separately in the departmental libraries which maintain separate catalogues this means a duplication of effort adding to the costs of the libraries.

In the face of increases in book prices, staff salaries, and in many cases a shrinking budget in recent years, the question of cost should be seriously considered before one sets up departmental libraries.

(II) Handicap to university-wide research

As remarked previously, interdisciplinary studies and research have emerged in recent years to such an extent that there is scarcely any discipline which has no relation to other disciplines. Even back in the thirties, books were rarely written for the exclusive use of a well-defined group of readers. A case is quoted by Lawrence Thompson to the effect that "a book formerly shelved in the old Veterinary Library at Iowa State College has been used in the last twenty years by a bacteriologist, a botanist, a nutritional chemist, a geneticist, several entomologists, and members of nearly all departments in the present Division of Veterinary Medicine."22

Today, the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge is even more pronounced and widespread. For example, we now have such combinations as bio-chemistry, bio-physics, bio-psychology, chemical engineering. The field of business administration must draw heavily on materials in the disciplines of sociology, economics, psychology, mathematics, statistics, English, and other fields.

Therefore, if books and periodicals of a certain discipline are diverted to a departmental library which might be located one or two miles from the central campus, users from other disciplines will be greatly inconvenienced. The only solution to this problem is to purchase duplicates, but the question of cost often prohibits this practice.

Another factor which might stand in the way of other segments of the university community using the materials in a departmental library is the parochial attitude developed among faculty members and graduate students of that department. They might think that the departmental library is their own and disallow or discourage other people from using it.

(llI)Unsatisfactory standard of service

Although it has been pointed out as one of the advantages of the branch library that special services can be provided, in practice it is not always the case. There does not seem to be a shortage of professional librarians nowadays, yet to employ them to run each and every single departmental library often proves economically impossible. Instead, part-time library assistants and students are employed to man these libraries in some cases. In general, they are incapable of providing a professional service to the clientele.

The hours of service are often shorter than those in the main library, thus hampering the utilization of the library facilities. This can be very frustrating to those in other departments who may have travelled one or two miles, and yet find the library closed.

(IV) Administrative difficulties

Problems of coordination, cooperation, and communication among the main and the many scattered departmental libraries very often arise. It may be difficult for the main library to transmit instructions on, say, revised cataloguing practice, or new circulation procedures to its branches promptly, because of the geographic distance. Further, due to the parochial attitude on the part of departmental libraries, they may sometimes refuse to accept or implement these instructions, thus creating non-uniformity of service in university libraries.

There are other disadvantages, perhaps of a less serious nature than the above-mentioned ones, in having departmental libraries. Students should ideally be exposed to a comprehensive collection and should be told that reliance upon the departmental library will not make them successful researchers or scholars in their later lives. They should also be taught the various techniques of using the main collection in the university library. However, students will not have these benefits if they merely depend on the departmental collections.

Space utilization is less effective in the departmental library than in the main library. Ten separate departmental libraries may need ten lobbies, ten elevators, twenty rest rooms and so on, whereas one main library ten times as large may need only two elevators, one large lobby, etc. Moreover, expansion always poses a great problem to the departmental library. As Robert Walsh comments, "a small library of 20,000 volumes with space for an additional 25 percent is less prepared to accommodate the sudden influx of 7,00 volumes because of a gift or new collection demands than is a library of 200,000 volumes, even if the latter had space for only a 15 percent increase."23

Security is another problem for the departmental library. Probably due to the shortage of staff resulting in less strict supervision, the percentage of missing books in departmental libraries tends to be high.

The foregoing has shown that departmental libraries have both advantages and disadvantages. The focus of the debate is between accessibility on the one hand (it is worth pointing out, though, that the advantage of departmental libraries benefits only a limited number of other sectors of the university community), and economy and efficiency on the other. Both sides have merits and should be taken into consideration before establishing or dismantling a departmental library. Indeed, centralization or decentralization is "one of the most persistent and difficult organizational issues for academic libraries."24

Library administration is essentially based on the principle of compromise. Perhaps, this principle could also be applied to the issue now under examination. On the one hand materials should be placed as close to the users as possible; on the other, less fragmentation of resources (including books, periodicals, and staff) is desirable, and greater central control should be exercised. Consolidating departmental libraries, some of which are sometimes too minutely fragmented, into larger divisional libraries seems to be a good compromise - representing partial centralization and partial decentralization. Examples of such consolidation abound in recent years. During the late 1930s, Brown University combined its science departmental libraries into two large divisions - a biological science library, and a physical science library. Cornell's reorganization was completed in the 1960s with a relocation of all science and technological material into three large divisions with separate facilities: agriculture, engineering, and the physical sciences. In Canada, Dalhousie University has two divisional libraries for its science departments, one covering the physical sciences and the other the biological sciences.

To make this system effective, a greater measure of central control should be adopted. All libraries in the university should come under the administration of the director of libraries who, in consultation with a university-wide library committee, would be responsible for their operation.

Central acquisition should be practiced if it is practical, because it can cut down duplication of expensive general reference works such as bibliographies, and avoid too many copies of individual periodical titles being bought. If central acquisition proves impractical, coordination among various units should be put into effect so that every unit knows what is available in the general pool.

A union catalogue of the holdings of all the libraries in a university should be compiled and made available for use by all sectors of the university community. One of the greatest disadvantages of departmental libraries is the lack of information about their holdings. Consequently, many valuable items are unknown and therefore test to other segments of the university community. With the establishment of a union catalogue this deficiency can be remedied.

To help establish and maintain the union catalogue, cataloguing should be carried out in the main library if possible. This can maximize the expertise of the professional staff in the main library. The staff in the departmental libraries, having been relieved of this duty, can devote more time to readers' services.

To conclude, some departmental libraries (especially law and medicine), just like necessary evils, will remain a permanent feature of the academic library scene despite their faults. Other departmental libraries may be consolidated according to their nature into divisional libraries to provide a more economical and yet a more effective service.


1. Bryant, D.W. "Centralization and decentralization at Harvard." In Centralization and decentralization in academic libraries: a symposium. College and research libraries, v. 22, 1961, p. 333.

2. Thompson, L.S. "The historical background of departmental and collegiate libraries." Library quarterly, v. 12, 1942, p.50.

3. Walsh, R. "Branch library planning in universities." Library trends, v. 18, 1969/70, p. 211.

4. This is well documented in the following:

  1. Thompson, L.S. Op. cit., p. 49-74.
  2. Vosper, R. (ed.) "European university libraries: current status and development" Library trends, v. 12,1963/64, p.475-633.
  3. Great Britain. University Grants Committee. Report of the Committee on Libraries. London, HMSO, 1967, p. 93-94.

5. Thompson, L.S. Op. Cit., p. 60.

6. Ibid.,p.61.

7. Great Britain. University Grants Committee. Op. Cit. p. 94.

8. Thompson, L S. Op. Cit., p. 64.

9. Ibid., p. 59.

10. Rutgers University. Graduate School of Library Service. Studies in library administrative problems. New Brunswick, NJ., Graduate School of Library Service, Rutgers University, 1960. p.133.

11. Davinson, D. Academic and legal deposit libraries. London, Clive Bingley, 1969. p. 74.

12. Great Britain. University Grants Committee. Op. Cit.. p. I 01.

13. Quoted by Rush, O. "Central vs departmental libraries.'' Mountain Plains library quarterly, v.7,1962,p.7.

14. Walsh, R. Op. Cit., p. 213.

15. Thompson, L.S. Op. Cit., p. 66.

16. Walsh, R. Op. Cit., p. 213.

17. Bishop, W.W. 'the problem of the departmental system in university libraries." Library journal, v. 26,1901, p. 15.

18. Rogers, R.D. and Weber, D.C. University library administration. New York, H.W. Wilson, 1971. p.76.

19. Bruno, J.M. "Decentralization in academic libraries: Library trends, v. 19, 1970/71, p. 315.'

20. Russell, R.E. "Branch Iibrary policy statement." Library scene, v. 3,1974, p. 28.

21. Quoted by Rush, O. Op. Cit., p. 7.

22. Thompson, L.S. Op. Cit.. p.54.

23. Walsh, R. Op. Cit.. p. 214.

24. American Library Association. Association of College and Research Libraries. "Draft: Guidlines for branch libraries in colleges and universities." College and research library news, Y. 11, 1974, p. 281.


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