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Dean's Update: Holistic Planning in a Siloed World

February 14, 2023

Lately, I have been puzzling over the challenges of holistic planning in a siloed world. Why are academic librarians challenged at times to design services and systems as a common good for a community of clients and administrators that may envision their host institution as a chimera? 

Library resources and services are shared and expected to benefit most if not all members of an academic institution—faculty, researchers, staff, and students.  To succeed, librarians often take a holistic perspective to planning how library deliverables will improve the work of others. They believe that their community’s specialized interests in delivering academic work are interconnected around teaching, learning and research, and can be understood only from a perspective of the whole.

However, considering relentless financial demands, this strategy may create tensions. Library directors (similar to other academic leaders) see reduced revenues, diminished staffing, uneven student enrollment and retention. They also see the explosive riches of information, data, and system opportunities to deliver quality support. In times of rapid changes and “pivoted” responses, not everyone sees long-term benefits of developing a common good for their specific, immediate needs. Solutions may seem more achievable with advocacy to support self-sufficient siloed environments.

As Vantrappen and Wirtz raised the chimera metaphor to discuss siloed organizations, they observe that “verticals exist for good reasons: to aggregate expertise, assign accountability, and provide a sense of identity.”[1]

Theses strategists’ advice to “build bridges between verticals” for successful organizations suggest a tip to both preserve the strengths of such specialized interests and to minimize their impact on hindering building collective support across the institution.   

Librarians build bridges, such as valuing “one-company” and collaborative behaviors and following systematic design principles to improve services and operations. They create opportunities for people from different verticals to come together to get to know each other’s capabilities and interests, such as offering joint training programs, encouraging innovative initiatives, and nurturing networks among experts.  

Articles in In Circulation often feature how we try at Drexel Libraries to follow such advice, although we welcome feedback that we are on the right path even when our colleagues focusing on their specialized interests might see otherwise.  At its core, our success will likely come from leveraging our own mix of interests among our talented and diverse staff to build a common good. Focusing on resolving issues of information discovery, access, and assistance for learning and research seems to be one bridge that has promise to bring satisfaction to those on both sides waiting to cross it.

I recognize that I too have multiple “thought verticals”—where different expertise and self-identity flourish. Let me close by bridging two of them, both relating to my interests beyond being a librarian, as they shed light on this month’s puzzlement.  

Working on one of my fabric collages, I see how this is what many librarians do in trying to build a successful library organization.  We take scraps, place them on a canvas with close attention to ways to soften hard edges to blend with adjacent pieces –by attention to color, texture, pattern, and other specialized characteristics.  And here and there we place a piece to stand out and not be blended but preserve its edges and uniqueness. Satisfaction comes when the canvas is completed and the whole is so much more beautiful than the pile of scraps that waited to be connected.

Reflecting with friends on the recently released Cate Blanchette movie, 
Tar, I felt compelled to read several professional film critics’ reviews to bring their expertise and insights to broaden our world view. I was thrilled how one reviewer’s closing comments reaffirmed the power of bridging silos through taking a holistic view in making sense when confronted by the unknown. Xan Brooks, in his elegant review in The Guardian wrote,

Cinemas, like colleges and libraries, should be physical safe spaces, but intellectual and emotional danger zones. Books aren’t mirrors, they’re doors, as the critic Fran Lebowitz likes to say—and the same goes for films. Doors can be scary: we don’t know what’s behind them.  But without opening a door, we all remain in our own silos.  We miss out on a life of adventure and a world of interesting people we haven’t yet met. Some of them will appal [sic] us. Some we might quite like.[2]  

Modern academic libraries should indeed continue to be those safe spacesboth in physical and cyber space—that continue to nurture individuals’ intellectual and emotional self-development. When opened, books—and many other formats of shared information, data, and knowledge that libraries curate and help us discover and utilize—enable us to step out of our silos. Libraries inspire us to face and understand others' ideas, including those we don’t understand or yet are unaware. Libraries guide us with strategies to assess what we encounter before passing judgement on whether we like or not new ideas. Together, as humans we can soften the edges of our silos to build stronger bridges.  

Happy February—and of course Happy Valentine’s Day!

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries


[1] Vantrappen, Herman & Wirtz, Frederic, “Making silos work for your organization,” Harvard Business Review, November 01, 2021. Retrieved online

[2] Brooks, Xan, “Monstrous maestro why is Cate Blanchett’s cancel culture film Tar angering so many people?” The Guardian (January 16, 2023)