The Win, Win Machine
Dennis Robison Reflects on VIVA, Undergraduate Libraries, and Library Instruction
by Jim Gwin
In the last decade of the twentieth century, no program had a greater impact on the higher education library community in Virginia than the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA). This consortium of more than seventy state and independent academic libraries dramatically changed the way these libraries cooperated and shared their resources.
The Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA) was officially born in 1994, when the state higher education coordinating body, the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV), helped secure more than five million dollars from the Virginia legislature for resource sharing, collection development, and technology training for the state’s colleges, universities, and community colleges. This incredible allocation was possible in part because of the highly successful experiment conducted three years earlier (1991). From this initial effort, an impressive track record of electronic document delivery among three Virginia academic libraries—James Madison University (JMU), Virginia Tech (VT), and the University of Virginia (UVA)—demonstrated that through collaboration and resource sharing, all institutions of higher education could be better served. This project, under the leadership of Dennis Robison from JMU, helped to provide a major foundation for VIVA’s formal creation.
Dennis Robison, then Dean of Learning Resources at JMU, was the leader among the state’s smaller universities’ library directors in pushing for a strong, flexible system to share resources. Dennis, with the help of his staff, convinced his somewhat hesitant colleagues from VT and UVA to assist JMU in the sharing of the three libraries’ considerable journal resources virtually, by using the new and fast-developing telefacsimile (fax) technology for interlibrary loan. Within a few months of setting up this initial program, journal articles were being sent via fax to libraries in the three institutions with a turnaround time on average of twenty-four hours. This was a remarkable accomplishment at the time and offered tangible proof to many in the Virginia higher education community of what cooperation could potentially yield in the emerging virtual world.“…you could see that library resources weren’t keeping pace with the needs of the institution’s users.”
Robison, who retired from JMU in 1997, now lives in Edenton, North Carolina. Anyone who knows Robison will know instantly that part of his success lies in his effervescent personality and wonderful sense of humor—still very much in evidence when he spoke this spring about the early beginnings of VIVA and other library matters from a career that spanned more than thirty-seven years in academic libraries.
VL: Why did JMU and other Virginia academic libraries want or need a consortium network like VIVA in the 1990s?
DR: Resource sharing! I think that was the biggest need in the state at the time. Whether you worked in a large state university, college, or community college, you could see that library resources weren’t keeping pace with the needs of the institution’s users. The State Council for Higher Education’s proposed formula for funding libraries in higher education never came close to the one hundred percent level intended. Deficits in the Virginia state budgets had led to drastic state budget cuts in the early 1990s, especially in higher education, and academic libraries were especially hit hard. Yet the demands for new programs and degrees in the state’s colleges and universities continued to grow. The state’s academic libraries were already underfunded, and they were forced to make substantial cuts, especially in their journal collections. It was clear to me that JMU needed to cooperate more and possibly enhance its limited resources through some form of collective with the state’s other academic libraries. The budget climate in the state was right for this kind of cooperation and so was the developing technology for sharing resources.“The large, central staffing models would not fly with the state legislature’s funding charge.”
The idea behind the use of fax technology for interlibrary loan really came out of a conference presentation in California that some members of the JMU library staff had attended. The JMU librarians came back excited about the possibility for Virginia. And among the California network of academic libraries, the fax program had been a real success. The program had proven to be relatively inexpensive and easy to implement; it was a cost-effective way to share library resources. But Virginia had no state academic network of libraries on which to build a formal program. The semi-autonomous nature of Virginia higher education would be a challenge. Still, always the optimist, Dennis and his staff created an initial proposal for interlibrary loan cooperation and presented it to Paul Gherman and his staff at VT and Ray Franz and his staff at the UVA libraries.
VL: What was the main obstacle facing the academic libraries in the formation of VIVA?
DR: There were actually many issues concerning the establishment of VIVA. In the beginning, each institution had to give up something and be willing to contribute to the collective group. Remember, VIVA began about the time that the Internet and the World Wide Web were starting up. There was an early recognition that the resources would be shared and linked among the libraries using this new digital technology network. But there would be some loss of control, such as no more centralized computing. The potential of the new Internet technology was great, but the performance was often erratic and undependable. In the 1990s, there was a lot of downtime with the network in the beginning, lots of browser and protocol issues and challenges; and there was no state standard for a library system. The national Z39.50 library system protocol standard did not always work as it was supposed to with the myriad of library systems in Virginia’s colleges and universities.
VL: The California fax program that you first used so successfully came out of that state’s networking endeavors. What kind of organizational models did the early planners envision for a state academic consortium? A California or OhioNet model?
DR: Not really. We all knew that whatever consortium might be developed, it would have to be uniquely Virginian. The semi-autonomous nature of the state’s colleges and universities were a major factor in the way VIVA would be governed. The large, central staffing models would not fly with the state legislature’s funding charge. Funds for shared library resource collections were the central part in the legislature’s funding support for the project. A decentralized organization with each institution contributing to VIVA’s operation seemed the most likely structure.
I believe that a great deal of the credit for VIVA’s organizational structure should go to Charlene Hurt from George Mason University. Charlene’s previous experience with the Washington, D.C., area academic consortium was invaluable early on in the governance discussions. A lot of credit also goes to Nancy Marshall from William and Mary, Carol Allen from UVA, John Duke from VCU, and Paul Gherman from VT, who worked very hard with their university administrations to garner local support and commitment. The implementation of a new library system helped to bring the state’s community colleges on board and gain additional support from the legislature for funding. John Jaffe from Sweet Briar was very instrumental in getting the independent schools included in the discussions and organizational structure, even with no state funding support for them at that time. To begin with, they would have to pay their own way for resources. We now had a “win, win machine” with support for VIVA coming from all corners of the academic community.
It was amazing how things seemed to come together once the discussions began. Charlene Hurt convinced her administration to provide some salary support for Kathy Perry from GMU to serve as part-time VIVA director. UVA and VT provided their expertise with the newly developing digital technology for training, database acquisition, and implementation. JMU became the central procurement agent for VIVA. A series of committees were established with a rotating VIVA Steering Committee made up of all the various types of institutions to oversee the operations.
The other “great idea from VIVA” was the involvement of lots of librarians and staff in so much of the work of the consortium. Staff volunteered to serve on the various committees and task forces, and got involved in creating training workshops and continuing education programs, sharing expertise, and handling vendor relations and contract negotiations. I saw our staff taking ownership of the new consortium with an enthusiasm that spread to all levels of the -library.
VL: Do you consider your work in helping to establish VIVA as your greatest contribution to the profession?“I tried to spend some of my time … at the reference desk working directly with students and faculty.”
DR: I am certainly proud that I was able to help get the ball rolling to establish VIVA. But after thirty-seven years as a librarian, there are also other things that I am proud of and helped to start. I was fortunate that the majority of my career was spent in undergraduate institutions where I could practice my librarianship firsthand and interact closely with students and faculty. Certainly the ten years I spent as library director at the University of Richmond, where we set up the library instruction and department liaison teams and programs that worked so successfully, were very important to me. I carried these ideas with me to JMU, where they were implemented and expanded exponentially with the institution’s programs. My earlier participation in the leadership program through the Office of Management Studies at the Council on Library Resources had reinforced my belief in a participatory and empowering management style with library staff, faculty, and students. The first thing I did when I went to JMU was organize meetings with every department on campus to discuss their library needs and programs. This had never happened before with the faculty and the library there. I believed that the librarian and his staff needed to be proactive and out among the students and faculty, not hidden away in an office somewhere.
During the early 1960s when I was at the University of South Florida, I was part of a group of “young Turks” within the library profession, including Tom Kirk and Carla Stoffle, among others, who worked nationally to organize the library instruction forum and standards within ALA/ACRL. We believed strongly that librarians needed to be actively involved in teaching students how to use the library. Everywhere I worked during my career, I tried to spend some of my time on a regular basis at the reference desk working directly with students and faculty.
In retirement, I don’t really miss all of the administrative headaches and hassles, but I do miss that direct contact with students and faculty and the impact I could see that the library was having on their education and learning.
Jim Gwin is Head of Collections Development and Special Collections Librarian at the University of Richmond.