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Ginny Pannabecker

April, May, June, 1997
Volume 43, Number 2

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The Excitement of Accomplishment

An Interview with Dennis Robison

Dennis E. Robison, Dean, Integrated Learning Resources, at James Madison University, has been one of the Commonwealth’s most innovative and best known librarians for the past two decades. His successes include the development of an exemplary small university library at the University of Richmond, the energizing of the library and creation of a library liaison program at JMU, and the implementation of a state-wide program of resource sharing centered around VIVA, the Virtual Library of Virginia. Nevertheless, Dennis is modest about his accomplishments, asserting that he has "just grown with my profession."

His advice for librarians who want to influence the future is quite direct: "Sometimes opportunities drop in your lap. Have the wisdom to take advantage of them."

Dennis is one of a number of JMU faculty who are taking advantage of a retirement incentive program, so Virginia Libraries asked him to reflect on some issues and events that concern our readers.

VL: Will you tell us how you got involved in the original document delivery experiment involving James Madison, the University of Virginia, and Virginia Tech?

DR: We acquired a number of CD-ROM databases a few years ago and they made our users aware of what we did not have. For instance, we subscribed to PsychLit and found we had only 15% of the journals indexed. I don’t subscribe to the Marie Antoinette theory of librarianship—let them eat the database—so I knew we had to do something when the students began to complain in the campus newspaper.

About that time our president, Ronald Carrier, who at one time used to change places for a day with the winner of a student raffle, was doing a student’s research and came in my office—backpack, blue jeans, and the works—and said, "Why don’t you have what I need in the library?" Later that evening we talked again, and before long he announced a campaign for an information resource center for the twenty-first century with funding for a pilot project.

We came up with a list of five hundred journals we needed, and found that most were either at UVa or Tech. I sent a proposal to fund fax machines and staff to Paul Gherman, then Library Director at Tech, and Ray Frantz, who has since retired, at Virginia. Not everyone was optimistic at first, but we developed the project and found it to be a great collection development tool in addition to substantially improving the delivery of interlibrary loan requests.

Student attitudes changed, we were encouraged, and so we committed funds to develop the best interlibrary loan department in the state. I think our success helped shape the VIVA interlibrary loan agreement and the current flood of resource sharing.

VL: Why do you think the legislature originally funded VIVA in a time of cut-backs in other areas of higher education spending?

DR: I’m not sure I have the whole answer, but I know that when Don Finley (Associate Director of SCHEV) came to the State Council of Higher Education’s Library Advisory Committee in 1993 he suggested we might have a better chance of getting full funding for academic libraries if we came up with a more imaginative way of using the newer technologies for information delivery. Charlene Hurt, who is really the "mother" of VIVA, had been working with the Washington, DC, Metropolitan Academic Library Consortia on resource sharing. She suggested the virtual library approach.

A small committee worked over the summer and developed a five million dollar proposal for collection development, resource sharing, and training, even though we were not exactly sure at the time how it would go together. The idea caught the imagination of state government, and now everybody loves VIVA. Why shouldn’t they? Look at what the community colleges have now that they would not have gotten otherwise. By the way, we received an increase in funds for traditional collections, too.

Now VIVA is maturing into a unique member-operated consortium. All of us who have worked on it have done it in addition to our regular responsibilities, but we love it. Few of us would give it up voluntarily because of the feeling of accomplishment. You never see this level of cooperation in other parts of higher education.

VL: As an outsider from a small private college I have always seen state institutions as reluctant to participate in cooperative situations that required compromises and changes in institutional policies. Why has VIVA worked so well?

DR: Again, the key has been the excitement of accomplishment. For instance, we have been willing to handle purchasing through JMU, and the other institutions have supplied $25,000 in funding to support this. We’re getting a great bargain, and we’re getting the job done.

VIVA is a bottom-up organization, a uniquely Virginian institution with no bureaucratic staff wanted or needed. Everyone has an interest in keeping it that way. Individuals have contributed in extraordinary ways, and I’m thinking of people such as Carol Pfeiffer (UVA), John Duke (VCU) and Kathy Perry (GMU), but it is the mutual ownership that has made VIVA a success. It belongs to everyone.

VL: What accomplishments do you expect for VIVA during the next two years?

DR: We will find a way to support technical personnel needs and to develop project level administration.

We expect to increase savings on periodical acquisitions through cooperative collection development.

We will explore connectivity issues with other statewide efforts but will have to proceed carefully. Vendor negotiations are usually predicated on the size of the user population so we don’t want to jeopardize our contracts. We hope to reach the K–12 educational community and give them access to some of the resources we have acquired. A possible pilot project might include the Governor’s Schools around the state. We want to work with the Library of Virginia, but we cannot change the fact that VIVA is not a statewide library project. It is limited to higher education because that is where the funding is derived.

We want to encourage a statewide telecommunications network that is more responsive and stable.

We want to continue to encourage resource sharing through a strong interlibrary lending system. Funds will be requested to continue subsidization of this effort.

VIVA is a change agent for academic libraries as well. We’re requesting a significant increase in training funds for the next biennium which will be used for workshops and other training events for VIVA member library staff and institutional faculty.

Finally, unique Virginia documents will be digitalized in anticipation of the 400th anniversary celebration in 2007.

VL: Will VIVA still flourish when institutions have to revise their own spending to purchase access to the shared resources?

DR: I don’t think that will pose a problem. If librarians make good cases for purchases, and if cooperative collection development clearly benefits all the institutions.

VIVA has significantly aided the smaller and mid-sized public academic libraries in the state. The benefits to the larger research libraries have been more problematic. However, as VIVA is seen as a true consortium with a goal of sharing resources in the areas of collection development and technology, the benefits for the larger institutions will become more obvious.

VL: What changes do you see for academic libraries as we enter the new century?

DR: At least at JMU, in the next ten years more and more operations within the library need to be turned over to classified staff. They will be the day-to-day supervisors. Professional librarians will need to devote more of their time to outreach and to instruction.

Librarians and the library will serve as a filter, interface, and gateway for both students and faculty to Internet-based resources. We will be doing more classroom instruction, more online instruction, and more skills assessments than we do now. Librarians, if we are to successfully fulfill our role, will combine the best of computer science, the best of traditional research skills, and the best instructional techniques. I see the curriculum of the University of Tennessee masters program as an excellent example of what librarians should be prepared to handle.

VL: What lies ahead for you?

DR: Right now I am heading up a task force at JMU exploring the structure and role of technology on campus. It is called the Task Force on Information Technology/Integrated Learning Resources Reorganization.

I’m also writing part of a book on leadership in academic libraries and working with the VIVA Steering Committee on the 1998/2000 biennial budget request, so you can’t say I’m coasting into early retirement.

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