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No. WP-97-05

Organizational Aspects of the Virtual/Digital Library:

A Survey of Academic Libraries

Bob Travica
April 1997

Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405


The virtual or digital library (V/DL) is presently being investigated across disciplines. Technology-related topics capture most of attention, while organizational issues are little studied. Rather than looking at V/DL as a specific technology, the present study takes an organizational approach. It places V/DL in the content of the academic library, focusing on relevant opinions of the library heads. The study's findings suggest that the library heads typically understand V/DL as digital materials, are mainly supportive of V/DL understood in this way, and demonstrate the tension between old and new orientations.

1. Introduction

The topic of V/DL has attracted the attention of software engineers, system researchers and library scholars in recent years. Six major national research projects on V/DL (Digital Library Initiative) and other research efforts are underway. The thrust of technology is one of dominant characteristics of the current research, while organizational issues have received little attention. Although it is possible to contemplate a radical deconstruction of the notion of the library, one that can even eliminate the existing library institution, it seems plausible that the current institution will be housing technology for V/DL for the foreseeable future. Organizational changes in the libraries are necessary, and they should be studied along with technology aspects. What work organizations, structures, cultures and political milieus suit V/DL? What inter-organizational arrangements? How can the performance of V/DL be evaluated? What costs does V/DL bear? All these are important questions. The present study was conducted with the intention of beginning to answer some of them. It was limited to academic libraries and their top administrators, whose opinions on the issues surrounding V/DL were surveyed. Approaching the V/DL issues from the perspective of administrators’ attitudes was inspired by the assumption that no effective materialization of V/Dl technology or organizational changes will be possible without the administrators’ direct support – a lesson learned from the traditions of organizational change and system implementation.

2. Research Problem

Academic libraries have been facing compelling environmental pressures in the 1990s, the most conspicuous being instantiated in budget decreases, increasing costs of periodicals, new information-communication technologies, changing user needs, and internal political pressures toward flattening the managerial hierarchy (cf. ARL, 1996). Each of these has taken its toll on library management, which has found itself in the midst of the flow of relentless demands for change. Changes have followed indeed, affecting the organization of work, organizational structures, technology, professional skills, the distribution of power, and cultural values. If academic libraries had previously resembled a still landscape, today they conjure up an image of a tornado-struck area. This constitutes a context that is as challenging for organizational researchers as it is for library management.

The changes in academic libraries parallel trends in the wider organizational world -- reorganizing of work, restructuring, cultural changes, etc. (cf. Hammer & Champy, 1993; Peters, 1993; Handy, 1994; Drucker, 1995; Hammer, 1996). Elements of traditional organizational models are becoming obviated, giving rise to new ones that have a blueprint in the organic model of Burns and Stalker (1961) (cf. Travica, 1995). Some of these are adhocracy (Mintzberg, 1979), the information-based organization (Drucker, 1987), the shamrock organization (Handy, 1989), the network organization (Myles and Snow, 198; Rockart and Short, 1991), the infinitely flat organization (Quinn, 1992), the spider web organization (Morgan, 1993), the virtual organization (Davidow and Malone, 1992; Nohria and Berkley, 1994), and the non-traditional organization (Travica, 1995a). These models typically negate the bureaucratic, command-and-control organization, and suggest changes in organizational structure (e.g., a reduction in hierarchy, centralization and formalization) and the organization of work (e.g., an increase in teamwork, self-organizing and collaboration among professionals) along with complex implications that these can bring to bear on organizational politics, culture and so on. A certain support of these models is provided by empirical research within the sector of intellectual services -- broadcasting, commercial banks, software production, public accounting, real estate, training units within larger companies, etc. (Mintzberg and McHugh, 1985; Eccles and Crane, 1987; Handy, 1989; Olson & Bly, 1991; Peters, 1992; Quinn, 1992; Baker, 1992; Travica, 1995).

Some leads in the library literature, particularly that pertaining to V/DL, hint at analogies between the changes in the broader organizational world and those in academic libraries (e.g., Saunders, 1993; Giesecke, 1994; Saunders, 1996). However, relationships between libraries change and the new organizational models and concepts of V/DL are not clear. Specifically, what elements of the new models are/can be part of the library organization? Do the changes in libraries pave the way to V/DL? Can V/DL indeed evolve around the new organizational models? These are complex questions, demanding long-range, systematic investigations. On the other hand, they serve as useful guidelines for formulating more specific questions for studying V/DL from an organizational perspective. For example, What is supposed to be the structure of V/DL , such as the methods for grouping jobs and tasks, and the patterns and extent of centralization? What culture would suit V/DL – the values incorporated in library mission statements, the assumptions regarding the relationship between the library and its users, the home organization, the information industry? How should power be distributed across library units (old, and newly emerging ones)? What should be maintained and what changed in the technical and user-related skills librarians possess? Which management systems and economic models are appropriate for V/DL? Which kinds of inter-organizational arrangements? And certainly, the technology question needs to be asked, but in relation to these other organizational issues rather than in isolation. The approach applied in the present study shares certain assumption with the social informatics approach advocated by Kling (1997) and demonstrated by Bishop and Star (1996), although the latter places V/DL in even a broader framework.

The present study sets out to explore some of the questions listed above. More specifically, the study= s research problem refers to the relationship between organization of academic libraries and organizational requirements for V/DL. The problem is operationalized in terms of opinions of top administrators in academic libraries that are relevant both to managing and prospects of V/DL. The rationale behind this operationaliztion is that V/DL can involve significant organizational changes, which are unlikely to happen without the active lead and facilitation of high ranking management. It should be noted that the idea of limiting the study to academic libraries was influenced by (a) substantive reasons (e.g., these libraries could be more likely to adopt elements of V/DL than public libraries); and (b) opportunity reasons (although corporate special libraries are also serious contenders for "virtualization", the exploratory character of the study allowed for the narrower focus). Another limitation of the study concerns the type of data collected -- subjective viewpoints and tentative quantitative estimates.

3. Previous research

This section discusses the state-of-the art in the organization of academic libraries, the concepts of V/DL, and models for studying V/DL.

3.1 Changes in Academic Libraries

Budget decreases coupled with increasing cost of materials, new information-communication technologies, movement toward a flattening hierarchy, and changes in information availability and communication flows have brought a number of changes to academic libraries in the 1990s. In larger academic libraries, structural changes are the most apparent; for example, eliminating mid-level management (e.g., Neal and Steele, 1993), integration of some departments (ARL Kit 215, 1996), and establishment of new units enabled by technology and in cooperation with non-library units of the home organization (Day--; ARL Kit 215, 1996). Near 50% of research libraries have been engaged in either organization-wide or unit-level transformations (ARL Kit 215, 1996). The state of other structural properties, such the spatial dispersion at the individual level, is not, however, clear; hence, the present study touched on this question. In addition, implications of structural changes for the organization of work are scarcely covered in the literature. For example, the orientation toward team work was identified in some research libraries (ARL, 1992), but it is not clear whether it will continue.

At the task level, V/DL is likely to organize work around new information sources, for example, by retrieving the Internet and evaluating the information retrieved. This is recognized in the professional press. However, the implications of these changes for management are little studied, and there is disparity between the textbook literature on library management which still glorifies unity of command and the scalar chain of command among other bureaucratic principles and practitionars’ views (e.g., Euster, 1990). The power issues are closely related to the structural and work organizations issues. Changes in the managerial hierarchy have been advocated and implemented, for example, in the form of pushing authority down to the campus branch libraries. This reallocation of power may have created a need for more intensive coordination between branch library heads, who now need to resolve many issues by themselves rather than relying on the hierarchy to do this. Evidence of this possibility is, however, lacking. Also, it is not clear if the inflation of power at lower management levels is intended to stay, or whether coordination problems may compel libraries to resort to old hierarchical principles.

Cultural values in academic libraries, and their relationship with the notion of V/DL, also demand more investigation. It appears that the need for limited cultural change has been recognized by some administrators. In relation to this, the value of facing the uncertainty brought about by the flow of structural and technological changes obtained legitimacy (cf. ARL Kit, 1996). If true, this brings academic libraries closer to other organizations that typically rank lower on uncertainty avoidance. But other values also need investigation, and one way to study them is by investigating the missions and longer-term goals the library heads support. It would, for example, be interesting to see to what extent the culture of the library profession influences these missions and goals. Specifically, Birdsall (1994) contends that the culture of the library profession is rooted in the notion of the public library, which implies such values as (a) the core resource should be a collection of predominantly print material, (b) the library organization should be structurally autonomous, (c) the library’s social role is to organize knowledge, (d) the library has to provide this knowledge at no cost, and so on. Arguments in favor of these values can be found in the literature. For example, Crawford and Gorman (1995) dramatize the difference between information and knowledge, and stress that libraries should primarily be about the preservation, dissemination and use of knowledge in any format. The implications of these values for the notion of V/DL represent an important question. Electronic information, the increasing capabilities of its transfer, changes in user information needs and behaviors, decreasing budgets and like forces, can derail the significance of print, of clear organizational boundaries, of old metaphors, such as that of the library being a "knowledge warehouse", etc. Apparently, these issues deserve more research, empirical research particularly.

Librarians’ skills and their improvement are placed in the professional press under vague heading of training for new IT and the Internet. More specific arguments could be found in the literature of special libraries. For example, Rotman et al. (1994) provide evidence of organizational changes in corporate information centers, and suggest that obtaining computer-related skills, such as systems analysis and design and programming, can be critical to survival of the centers. To prove its raison d’etre, a corporate library has to comply to performance standards similar to those driving the home organization. This, then opens up the question of assessing library performance. Instrumental in this regard can be Cronin and Davenport’s (1987) proposal for using a value-chain framework -- a value added to other university functions and library users becomes the measure for library performance. Applied to V/DL, one can bring into relation the library user’s performance in study/research and the user support provided by the library; the support can then be assessed in terms of, for example, timeliness (e.g., how quickly the library identifies and makes available access to new Internet based-sources of information) and the source quality (what is the value of the information residing in these new sources). Time savings and the quality of work output on the user side become, therefore, the measures of the value added by the library. Research ought to address these issues.

3.2 Virtual/Digital Library

The literature of V/DL is a product of the 1990s; the very term "virtual library" was first used in 1990 in the context of the Coalition for Networked Information (Saunders and Mitchell, 1996). One characteristic of this literature is technological thrust. This may come at no surprise, since the 1980s created a merger of information and communication technologies that induced a revolution in the information professions. The rapid development of information-communication technology (IT) is instantiated in local and wide area computer networks, the accelerating speed of data transfer, the mushrooming of hypertext and hypermedia environments, and the increasing availability of databases stored on CD-ROMs. But probably the most remarkable changes are tied to the Internet technologies: in only a few years, the technology for remote access/delivery migrated from telnet to gopher and then to the World Wide Web (Web); frantic transformations, when compared with almost any period of an equivalent length in history. Atop of these developments comes the Digital Library Initiative (six federal funded projects in partnerships with five universities), as well as other software industry efforts (e.g., IBM with its digital library product, whose users include the Vatican Library). Technological thrust is prevalent in these developments and research efforts, with rare exceptions of treating V/DL from a broader perspective (for example, see Bishop, 1995; Elliott, 1995; Covi and Kling, 1996).

Another characteristic found in the V/DL literature are terminological-conceptual disagreements. Several terms and concepts are typically used -- virtual library, digital library, electronic library, wall-less library. The virtual library is defined by Gapen (1993) as:

The concept of remote access to the contents and services of libraries and other information resources, combining on-site collection of current and heavily used material in both print and electronic form, with an electronic network which provides access to, and delivery from, external worldwide library and commercial information and knowledge sources. In essence, the user is provided the effect of a library which is a synergy created by bringing together technologically the resources of many, many libraries and information services.
The electronic library, however, is somewhat a different notion:
The electronic library will be realized as an aggregation of catalogs, lists, and indexes of documents of every imaginable type, organized according to myriad schemes of classification, and linked and cross-indexed for search, so that they come to behave as a single database in which the lines between individual collections and catalogs are blurred. (Nunberg, 1993)
The digital library is typically associated with particular technologies, such as the well-known gopher Rotman et al., 1995) or currently emerging technologies being produced either by research centers (cf. ACM, 1995) or software vendors (Rogers, 1995). Aberrations, however, exist; for example, in an analytical review of the relevant literature, Drabensott and Burman (1994) use the term "digital library" to refer to a broader organizational-technological concept, in spite of the fact that most of definitions they analyzed used the term "virtual library".

None of the terms above is perfect. For example, the concept of the digital and electronic library can easily be divorced from their organizational aspects. Also, both "digital" and "electronic" are exclusive, since they (a) pre-empt space for other technologies (e.g., print; "digital" even eliminates "analog", which, in the form of telephone lines, still is an important format for electronic data transfer), and (b) conjure up contestable political connotations (e.g., the bringing of print and digital into competition). The term "virtual library" might be more capable of capturing both technological and organizational aspects. As Saunders and Mitchell (1996) argue, the term " virtual" incorporates two computing concepts (the logical connection between two computer networks and a model of computer memory management), as well as " networked library" (local and remote resources in all formats). Still, "virtual" can also trigger the idea of " virtual reality", yet another technological concept which might introduce ambiguity rather than clarification (this is true for the present moment; in the future, virtual reality technology might become part of, say, user interface). From the organizational perspective, " virtual" can be associated with " virtual corporation" or "virtual organization" (Malone and Davidov, 1993; Nithin and Nohria, 1994), which indeed can establish a useful association – the virtual library could, then, be considered a special case of the virtual organization. However, a certain drawback cannot be avoided here either – the notion of "virtual organization" is controversial in itself (Travica, 1997).

One issue that surfaces in the V/DL literature concerns the format of collection. Collection has traditionally been the "work matter" for libraries, and the systematic management of collections is what essentially defines a library as a social institution. The collection-centered concepts of V/DL typically touch on just one aspect of technology (that of storage) and neglect organizational issues. For example, Powell (1994) identifies two electronic collection-bound groups of definitions of V/DL: (1) a library that heavily draws on electronic sources and hence has little or no printed material and support staff; and (2) a more traditional library, that has a significant portion of the collection transformed into the electronic form. The lack of an organizational perspective in the collection-bound concepts has been overcome in part of the literature of V/DL. For example, Powell (1994) cites a third group of definitions that view V/DL as a " nexus of selected information management activities" within an organization and has its staff, resources and systems decentralized. Bauwens’s (1994) modeling of V/DL follows the suit. He, specifically, juxtaposes a decentralized model with a centralized one (augmented by a " virtual" decentralization). Librarians can be either strategically dispersed throughout the home organization, or they may not need to relocate physically closer to library users because they can be "virtually present" anywhere through computer-mediated communication and electronic delivery of holdings.

Researchers look at other organizational issues as well. For example, Saunders (1995) tresses the importance of inter-organizational relationships, while suggesting that V/DL is just "a metaphor for the networked library", which entails both local and remote digital resources. Gapen (1993) takes the concept a step further, suggesting that V/DL is indeed "an effect" on the user's side, which is created by " bringing together technologically the resources of many, many libraries and information services." Similarly, Kibby and Evans (1989) talk about " a range of services and collections made accessible through networks that reach beyond individual campus or research laboratories." Similar conceptualization have been proposed by Landoni et al. (1993), Eagle (1992), Murr and Williams (1987), Beiser (1992), Dougherty and Hughes (1991), and Von Wahlde and Schillet (1993). Common to all these concepts is the assumption that collaboration between libraries is what makes it possible to expand access to, and delivery of, library information and materials beyond the traditional limitations of space, time, efficiency and effectiveness. And there is yet another way of looking at libraries in even the broader context of the information industry. For example, university libraries may reach out into the domain of publishing, so that the university becomes an information center serving various clients and selling scholarly publications (Dougerthy and Hughes 1993; Billings, 1993; Hawkins, 1993; Nunberg, 1993).

3.3 Macro Models for Studying V/DL

The discussion above establishes the basis for proposing several macro models for studying V/DL. The term "macro" implies that each of the models could be instantiated in a number of special models. The possible macro models are:

1. Subsystem Model: V/DL could be thought of as a new subsystem in existing libraries, built around appropriate technologies which are couched in appropriate organizational arrangements. The model mirrors the prevalent thinking today, which is focused on technology (cf. Powell, 1994; Comm. ACM, 1995). A V/DL subsystem can cross boundaries of library departments (functions, "branches", etc.), campus units and other organizations. An instance of a special model could be a library application of the Web that allows access to materials in various campus libraries and other universities.

2. System Model: V/DL can be envisioned as a new organizational design, centered around notions of more effective access to, and delivery of, holdings, closer support to users' work, etc. (e.g., Gapen, 1993; Bauwens, 1994). This model can exhibit elements of the new organizational designs discussed above; that is, a novel design of work, structure, culture, power distribution, etc. Special models include, for example, the federated organization (Handy, 1996) and adhocracy (Mintzberg, 1979).

3. Inter-Organizational Model: V/DL can build on inter-organizational relationships in order to share bibliographic information and materials, leverage purchasing power, etc. (cf. Saunders, 1995). In organization theory, this V/DL goes under the heading of the network(ed) organization (cf. Aldrich, 1981; Myles & Snow, 1986) and is considered yet another new organizational design. In certain respects, libraries have been pioneers into this kind of organizing, and the developed network basis can be a solid basis for expanding into the direction of V/DL.

4. Disintermediation Model: The library we know is part of the author-publisher-jobber-bookstore-library-commercial information provider-user chain. Disintermediation, in terms of reducing the chain between the author and user, can develop, affecting the library in various ways (cf. Dougerthy and Hughes, 1991; Billings, 1993). Different special models, then, can depict the formats of reduction. For example, publishers may be bypassed so that academic libraries can take over the publishing role in collaboration with some other university units. It is also possible that the urge for fast transfer of research information could eliminate all the chain-links, including the library; strictly speaking, this special model is outside a study that approaches libraries from an institutional perspective.

These macro and corresponding special models can serve as analytical and research devices. Certain combinations of models are more likely to be corroborated rather than any of them exclusively and in a pure form. In fact, the present study uses a combination of the System and Inter-Organizational Model, because these two place V/DL in the organizational perspective that is lacking in current research.

4. Methodology

The present study was guided by these research questions:

1) How do academic library heads understand V/DL?

2) What are the opinions of academic library heads concerning V/DL?

3) What is the state of academic library heads’ preparedness for organizational goals and practices that support V/DL?

The study's research model is depicted in Figure 1 (Appendix). It builds on the system and inter-organizational models discussed above, and depicts relevant organizational dimensions brought into symmetric relationships. The model is rather anticipatory, which means that just some of the presumptions regarding library mission, structure, technology, and management systems are investigated in the present study; further research should address other dimensions and relationships.

A self-administered mail survey was used for collecting data. Respondents were heads of academic libraries, which was in accordance with the purpose of present study. The questionnaire contained two open-ended questions (one asking about V/DL and the other about five-year plans) and 31 closed-ended questions. The latter questions were based on the literature discussed above, were quantitative in character, and inquired about opinions regarding the library’s mission and its goals, organization and management; note that the questions were not mutually exclusive, nor were they intended to represent latent variables. The questionnaire was pre-tested for semantic clarity and passed through two revision cycles. Of 300 hundred questionnaires mailed, 206 were returned, and 205 were found to be usable. This gave a response rate of 68%, which was considered satisfactory. The surveying was conducted from April through July, 1996.

Respondents were heads of academic libraries who bore various titles, depending upon library size and relationship to the home organization (dean of library, director, etc.). They were randomly selected from the American Library Directory (1996). The intended sample size was arbitrarily set at 300, which represented about 6% of all Academic libraries. The sample included university, college and junior college libraries of different sizes (measured by s the number of staff and the number of collection items).

5. Findings

The main findings concern conceptualization and attitudes toward V/DL as well as opinions on the importance of organizational issues in the proximate future.

5.1 Conceptualizations of the Virtual/Digital Library

An open-ended question attempted to elicit opinions on V/DL without defining it. The intention was to have the respondents comment on V/DL, and perhaps offer their conceptualizations of it.

Table 1 Value Orientations, Attitudes,and Assessments Regarding V/DL

Explicit Definitions/Elements of Def.
Implicit Definitions
No Opinion
Value Orientations
Print vs. Digital
Library Trends
Note: For definitions of categories see Appendix. N=192 for this question, 13 answers missing.

The data that accrued from this question met the expectations. Content analysis was conducted (see Appendix for details), which revealed definitions of V/DL as well as various opinions categorized as value orientations, attitudes and assessments (see Table 1).

Explicit definitions or elements of definitions (e.g., description of functions and goals of V/DL) were provided by more than 10 percent of the respondents. These definitions, for the most part, equated V/DL with materials in digital format and telecommunications access to digital catalogs and collections. Technology focus was, therefore, prevalent, with rare exceptions (one respondent stated, " I feel that too much emphasis is placed on technology in the virtual library concept. Technology is only a tool that has improved information storage and access). Few respondents saw elements of V/DL in organizational institutions (e.g., inter-library loan) or in changes in library competencies and services. Another shared characteristic is an insistence on balancing digital collections (a core of the "virtual library" for nearly all respondents) with print collections (" traditional library" for all). Also was it common that the definitions provided were usually furnished with a rationale or some other comment.

Some of the more interesting explicit definitions along with rationales or other comments include these:

My definition of virtual library: a library connected electronically to other libraries or information sources. I feel that this is a good idea because not every library can afford a large collection. I would particularly like to see older material put into digital format as a precaution against loss by fire, etc. Providing this service allows libraries the opportunity to better fulfill their roles as purveyors of knowledge. I do not think that books will ever be replaced (at least not in my lifetime ). Costs need to be brought down. Copyright considerations need to be looked at. [..] Indexing should, in my estimation, play a vital role in virtual libraries, as well as the data bases accessed. Surfing [electronic resources] is time consuming and counter-productive.

I think the extended library including the local library and the resources available through consortia agreements, on-line services, Internet access, etc. are all very important to providing information resources to our patrons in a timely and accurate manner. The local library should provide resources and access to other sources including equipment necessary and training for users.

Implicit definitions of V/DL were given by nearly three of four respondents. For them, V/DL is a library which rests predominantly, if not exclusively, on digitized materials. An example follows:
At the same time, more and more people are familiar with and regularly use the machinery through which the virtual library can be reached. This convergence of resources and inclination leaves little room for serious librarians to ignore it or delay its implementation. Of course, for some time to come, the virtual library will exist within and for the most part cooperatively with more traditional library services, and the extent to which libraries shed the latter in favor of a completely virtual library will depend on a wide range of factors, few of which librarians control.
5.2 Opinions on the Virtual/Digital Library

The second research question, What are the opinions of academic library heads toward V/DL? can also be answered from the answers to the same open-ended question, which contained a probe for valuing V/DL (Table 1). Nine out of ten respondents expressed affirmativevalue orientations toward V/DL. Note that this category also included the mere recognition of the necessity of V/DL without open opposition or support of it (e.g., " I believe it is the future -- whether we want it or not" ). Explanations of the reasons often supplemented the statements. It is interesting that several affirmative statements directly linked support of V/DL to small size of libraries. For example:

I believe that the virtual library is crucial in our future because it enhances and enriches our collection, services, operations and programs beyond the confines of the campus to a global environment. It allows for great access to information more rapidly and with multiple access points. Electronic full-text access is particularly important for journal articles and magazine articles that we do not hold locally or have had to cancel due to spiraling inflanatory costs. It allows us to provide broad access to unique special collections, including digitized images. [..] It allows us to communicate with a large community of colleges, library users, other educators, etc.

The virtual library is inevitable. It is under construction now, and large components are becoming routinely available. [..] Thus for librarians the real issue is whether or not they will promote virtuality in libraries, with all the innovation necessary and vital to its implementations, or risk becoming irrelevant as virtual libraries grow up outside of their institutions and without their contributions.

A distinctive subset of the affirmative orientations is forged by statements which claim that V/DL or its elements are already in place. To illustrate:
I believe that some aspects of the virtual library are already there -- in our quite small academic institution, we already have 24 hour access to the online catalog, which is shared with five other small academic libraries in a consortium, using telecommunications to make use of one central hardware platform, software, etc. Full text as well as remotely searchable indexes become more popular as does Internet searching. It will help the students who juggle colleges, jobs and families, by freeing them from constrains of "open hours". The available pool of knowledge and accessible materials will grow -- but must be managed by a knowledgeable professional library staff.

It is already here with distance education, which is very active in our institution. Our entire campus is wired, but people still need to go to the library. They need that extra help libraries give.

Some respondents expressed mixed value orientations about V/DL, demonstrating partial support as well as serious doubts. These up and down sides typically do not refer to trade-offs, because the downsides apparently outweigh the upsides. Particularly interesting are several statements that link academic libraries to indispensable social functions, such as providing a place for socializing and study. To illustrate:
I can see the value in putting our books (special collection items) and vertical files on CD-ROM so everyone can have access to them. But I don't see everyone in the U.S. (or even every library) being able to afford the equipment and software necessary for a virtual library. Also, you can't "curl up" with a good "computer" and read yourself to sleep.
Negative value orientations are maintained by less than 10% of the respondents. These discard the idea of V/DL, even though some may concede a certain merit to it. In addition to a categorical negation attached to the idea of V/DL, these statements typically insist on the crucialness of print collections and the superiority of current libraries over any concept of V/DL; for example,
I believe it [virtual library] is not a good idea because libraries are grounded in books and knowledge, not computers and information.

There will be no virtual library except for institutions wanting to do things on the cheap and offering reduced funding for libraries under the guise of "virtual libraries" -- i.e. workstations to supplant the requisite workstations plus printed materials. That's happening now in less progressive institutions and less fiscally sound ones. Fact is electronic resources will continue to demand a larger percentage of dollars, just as "access" is doing over "ownership". But virtual will be neither reality nor virtuous.

The Attitudes category contains two items -- Print vs. Digital and Internet. The print resources were contrasted with the digital by approximately one in ten respondents. Some oppose the very idea of V/DL (e.g., libraries are grounded in books, not computers – see above). Others exhibit a more balanced viewpoint:
I think the virtual library is too vague a concept. If it means limiting resources to online systems, then it is too limiting. If it means adding accessibility, then it is a good idea. Print on paper is still the best way to read something, but the best way to store something is still an open question for the long-term.
The Internet was mentioned by seven respondents in their reflections on V/DL. The attitudes expressed were either:
Interestingly, there was no explicit reference to communication capabilities of the Internet.

The Problems category provides assessments of the difficulties associated with thedevelopment of V/DL. These include

The following represents an emblematic assessment of the problems:
The virtual library offers the opportunity of accessing information residing at remote sites. For this reason, it offers benefits, as much to libraries on small budgets as to those where this is pre-eminent. If it poses problems, it will be because of the expectation on the part of patrons that any library may access anything; cost factors will be a limitation, which, perhaps, may have to devolve upon the patron, thereby altering the established premise of free library service. Access to remote databases open exciting possibilities, but it should not absolve the library from providing a collection adequate for clientele.
The Library Assessments category compares V/DL with the existing library, envisions a new role for librarians, and/or punctuates a time line for V/DL. To illustrate:
The virtual library and the traditional library will coexist for the next 10 years in the same physical structure/budget as the traditional library. The library administrator will be challenged to maintain the print/media library while obtaining resources, personnel and funding for the virtual library. Librarians will serve as consultants, coordinators, instructors, educators for the virtual library usage and coordinators for access to virtual library material.
I believe that the "virtual" library is likely to evolve over a long period of time... Within the next ten years the majority of library journals will be made available to library users online in full-text format.Many users will retrieve these articles via their computers... Full texts of new books will become available routinely within the next twenty years, thus reducing even further the need for users to visit the library.
5.3 Preparations for Virtual/Digital Library

The third research question in the present study inquires about the extent of preparations for organizational practices and changes that are related to support of V/DL. This was determined by asking an exhaustive, closed-ended question. A summary of these data, in the form of rank-ordered means, is displayed in Table 2 (Appendix). The table also specifies the domains of organizational issues (e.g., management, skill, structure) and establishes their character in terms of the traditional/non-traditional dichotomy (the basis for this can be found in the discussion in the beginning of the paper; more non-traditional than traditional items were included due to the study's purpose). The distribution of items over these two categories was determined by comparing pie charts across the items. This resulted in differentiating the items into the categories of low and high importance; the cut-off point was set between items 8 and 9 in Table 2 (See Appendix). This analysis yields a useful finding on the distribution of respondents' orientations toward organizational change. Specifically, respondents are nearly split in supporting vs. opposing the non-traditional items (7 items are in the high and 6 in the low importance category), while they support the traditional items more strongly (4 items are in the high and 2 in the low importance category). Two of the traditional items enjoy very strong support -- the development of the print collection, and the provision of the physical space for patrons' study.

Further analysis shows a balance between the traditional and non-traditional items within the subset of the lowest rated items -- unity of command (each employee has just one supervisor) and scalar chain of command (communication must follow official reporting lines) versus training in computer programming and working at patrons' locations. The data also suggest that conversion of library material into digital format does not enjoy stronger support. Moreover, the two knowledge-related items (access and provision) that traditionally enjoy support among library professionals are rated higher. Also, the distribution of scores is bimodal, which might indicate the known information-vs-knowledge divisions (e.g., one respondent wrote on the questionnaire margin: " We are in the business of providing information, not knowledge, while another objected to the questions on information). The next two traditional items are rated even higher -- the provision of physical space for study (adjacent to the median for the means distribution) and, especially, the development of printed collections (two thirds of the means are ranked below this item). The latter is consistent with the high appreciation the respondents demonstrated for print format in answering the open-ended question about the virtual library (see above).

A number of non-traditional items are rated higher, specifically: regular retrieval of Internet materials and their evaluation, access to digital materials and the development of tools for it, services based on interlibrary cooperation, including the provision of other libraries, print materials. Lastly, the items classified as " sound management (marked with a " -" in Table 2) are generally rated higher -- the development of new services, encouragement of employee innovativeness, etc.

6. Discussion

The findings reveal several characteristics of the present situation and thinking in academic libraries with regard to V/DL. Specifically, top administrators do show support for the idea of V/DL, but they typically understand it in rather a limited, technology-focused manner. The affirmative orientations may be associated with smaller library size. The negative orientations toward V/DL, on the other hand, usually hypostatize values of print collection and delineate it from the notion of V/DL. Moreover, a tension between the old and new pervades the thinking about the present and future. A more detailed discussion follows.

6.1 Muddling Through

Most of the heads of academic libraries surveyed espouse affirmative value orientations toward V/DL. One stipulation to this finding is that the affirmative orientation category is liberally defined to include the acknowledgment of trends leading toward V/DL by a respondent, even though he may not express agreement with them. But even in a more conservative categorization, the large size of the affirmative orientation category would render it stable relative to the negative orientations. If the mere acknowledgment of the V/DL trends represents the low end in the category, then the high end is exemplified in strong convictions, like the following: "The real issue is whether librarians will promote virtuality in libraries, or risk becoming irrelevant as virtual libraries grow up outside of their institutions" .

The affirmative orientations toward V/DL are not just declarative. This is indicated in the more or less developed rationales for V/DL that many respondents have provided (e.g., "Virtual library is essential in order to respond to the reality of the marketplace for information; V/DL enriches one's collection, services, and operations beyond the confines of a campus). This finding is important because it could imply that most of the library heads may be going along with the current trends; that V/DL is not just a fad of the constituencies that reside outside the library world. It should be noted, , however, that the concept of V/DL overwhelmingly shared among the respondents is reductionistic, revolving around technology -- digital tools for storage and access, digital collections, a combination of computers and telecommunications, networked computers (e.g., " virtual library is that part of library that is accessible via computers). Exceptions are rare; for example, "I feel that too much emphasis is placed on technology in the virtual library; technology is only a tool that has improved information storage and access." The non-digital library, consequently, is typically labeled with the "print collection and "traditional library" .

This technological determinism fails to account for the already existing seeds of V/DL. For example, inter-library loan, whether supported by electronic transfer (e.g., fax, or transfer of electronic files) or not, represents a V/DL operation which uses print collection. The virtual character here refers to the expansion of material delivery to the extent that an effect of a library emanates on the user's side, which organizationally is possible owing to the work of many local and remote libraries -- the essence of Gapen's (1993) definition of V/DL. Instead, many respondents argue for the advantages and longevity of print as if they fear its ultimate disappearance. Perhaps the word " digital" is partially responsible for seeing the world in such confrontational terms; the attribute " virtual" could then be eye-opening, because it encompasses both digital technology (collections, access, delivery) and other technologies (print, manual, analog transfer, etc.) as well as organizational arrangements -- some of which are already in place -- that facilitate more effective forms of access and delivery. It can furthermore be argued that the demonstrated technological focus conforms to current mainstream thinking about V/DL. But instead of trying to see the bigger picture, which may even be beneficial for them, the library heads appear to be demonstrating what Lindlblom (1959, 1979) calls the " muddling through" model of problem solving. In this model, the problem solver tends to stay away from troubles rather than face them directly, avoids the larger problems (complex organizational implications that V/DL can bring to bear) and concentrates on smaller problems (digital holdings).

An explanation for the potential "muddling through" manner of addressing the V/DL problem can be sought in cognitive factors. One dimension refers to the state of the present social discourse on V/DL which exhibits a technology bias. Another could be that it is not clear what V/DL indeed is or could be. The academic library heads then share this dilemma, which can explain the small number of V/Dl definitions, or elements of definitions, provided (approximately one in eight respondents). Few respondents put it unambiguously, stating that no one really knows what a " new library" will be like. In addition to these cognitive reasons for viewing V/DL in narrow technological terms, it is of course possible to speculate about other reasons, such as the preemptive preoccupation with "mundane" problems (e.g., the budget).

Although they endorse V/DL (in term of the narrow conceptualization which was discussed above), the library heads demonstrate a healthy pragmatism in weighing the costs of, and benefits from, V/DL. The cost side contains items such as the expenses of retrospective conversion and computer software and hardware, the potential loss in the quality of information resulting from the lack of control over on the Internet resources, access restrictions for technologically less capable users, and setbacks caused by technological uncertainty. Another interesting finding refers to an indication that heads of smaller libraries (small print collection and number of staff) appear to be more likely to support V/DL. This could be because of the benefits of drawing on collections (print and electronic) of other libraries, and thus overcoming the daunting problem of small budgets. This indication is contained in qualitative data – the opinions on V/DL. Typically, the respondents would introduce themselves as heads of smaller libraries and then argue about the benefits that the implementation of V/DL concepts can or do bring to their library. Experiences from the broader organizational world support this indication – the last ten years or so have been characterized with the tendency toward downsizing, since smaller companies in some industries were more successful in the market place than larger, established ones. These indications, however, need to be investigated more systematically in further research.

The Internet can support V/DL in various ways, for example, as information source, communication vehicle; in an extreme view, the Internet itself is another sort of library, carrying a bundle of unresolved issues of authority and management (see Harter, 1996). The present study suggests that the Internet has become part of the thinking of the library heads surveyed. They explicitly mentioned the Internet in terms of its information potential and problems, although addressing the Internet was not solicited, but came as a result of the open-ended question on V/DL. The question that did inquire directly about the Internet revealed the task of retrieving the Internet materials and evaluating them on a regular basis enjoys a higher rating. Only a few years ago, however, academic libraries did not even pay attention to the Internet, in spite of the fact that there were heavy users in the neighborhood, among academic departments. The respondents in the present study praise the Internet as an important information source, and also criticize it for a poor quality of information and absence of control vehicles. Perhaps an ideal situation would be if both attitudes become a guide for action, because the Internet’s potential should be used, while its content also needs to be systematically evaluated. In addition, the library heads are not just aware of the Internet, but they also believe that its regular use should be part of library operations. It is, however, interesting that the respondents view the Internet simply as a storage and retrieval medium, thus neglecting its significant and affordable communication capabilities. Many organizations outside the library world have already taken advantage of these capabilities (e.g., using the Internet to connect dispersed parts of an intranet). This neglect may be explained by a focus on the notions of storage and retrieval, rather than on communication in traditional library education and practice. Overall, while the storage/retrieval focus may help improve the quality of the Internet materials for V/DL users, the academic library may be at loss for not deploying communication capabilities of the Internet in a systematic manner.

Negative orientations toward V/DL are maintained by approximately one in nine respondents. It is interesting that one group of respondents insist on the crucialness of print collections. While some respondents argue for the advantages of print technology, others simply postulate its superiority over electronic/digital technology. For these respondents, therefore, the library world today exhibits a dialectal struggle between two principles – print vs. electronic/digital. Demographic and personality variables might account for this position, but the data collected do not reach far enough to allow for this kind of explanation. Another typical denial of V/DL comes from the proponents of libraries as knowledge institutions; some of these also support print. These respondents tend to downgrade information technology and information, while praising knowledge (e.g., "Libraries are grounded in books and knowledge, not computers and information"). It is interesting that this resurrection of the old information vs. knowledge controversy is being carried out in an axiomatic manner -- no pro and contra arguments are provided in order to explain how the library can be a knowledge institution, or why is the information metaphor of a library is opposed to the knowledge metaphor? More discussion about the knowledge vs. information controversy in the following section.

Overall, the heads of academic libraries surveyed typically define V/DL as digital storage, and express overwhelming support to so defined V/DL. They also show the concern for costs and benefits of V/DL and the Internet. A minority of respondents denies V/DL on the ground of superiority of print of digital materials or knowledge over information.

6.2 Tensions between the Old and the New

What is the state of preparedness for V/DL? A number of findings suggest that a certain preparedness for V/DL is extant. Here specifically belongs the low appreciation of traditional management techniques the library heads have demonstrated (unity of command and scalar chain of command), which may be disappointing for those library writers who persistently teach the opposite. In contrast, these attitudes are supportive of V/DL. Furthermore, the intention of developing new services based on interlibrary cooperation, as well as providing print from others’ collections, may imply further expansion of these well-developed, inter-organizational operations. Although not developed with V/DL in mind, these operations are intrinsic to the notion of V/DL. Increased access to digital materials and the development of access tools are also considered desirable objectives, which could also have facilitating effects on the development of V/DL. Yet another element supporting V/DL refers to the higher valuing of the regular retrieval and evaluation of Internet materials (discussed above).

These findings are, however, counterbalanced by the findings that emphasize the importance of goals and practices that are not in favor to V/DL. Specifically, the lower rating of the working at patrons' premises might signify a lack of preparedness for structural innovations needed for V/DL. Giving a low priority to the idea of measuring the library performance by the value added to library users' work also suggests that the library could remain loosely coupled with its users. If one of the drivers toward V/DL are changing user needs (e.g., patterns of scholarly communication, and customized delivery of materials), then the looser coupling could be a predicament in the process of developing V/DL. In a similar vein, the low rating of the knowledge of computer programming and systems analysis appears to suggest a lack of intention for becoming involved in designing the systems which V/DL uses. Librarians have traditionally been system users and not designers, and the majority of study’s respondents appear to be thinking that this should stay so. Librarians today, however, are already designers of Web applications and even sophisticated applications of V/DL (Fenske, 1996).

No significant conversion of paper into digital format is planned by the respondents; the conversion cost is cited as the main reason for this. Although merit must be credited to this reason, it is likely that, without major conversion endeavors (and perhaps advances in fax technology that can support improved transfer of paper materials), the V/DL’s promise of expanded delivery remains a distant goal. Related to this is the strong orientation on developing the print collection the survey discovered. If the expansion of print collection is coupled with the slow conversion, then this can result in strengthening the ownership-and-warehouse rather than the access-and-delivery paradigm of the library. In addition, while one group of the respondents argue rationally about the benefits of print (e.g., print is still the largest part of collections; frequently used print should be available locally, not all; the print format has certain appealing characteristics), another advocates print simply as an unquestionable value. The latter group resembles what Covi and Kling (1996) call closed-rational systems thinking in the domain of V/DL, a category borrowed from Scott's (1992) systems framework, meaning the systematic and strict adherence to the internally set professional goals. The closed-systems stance undoubtedly hamper the development of V/DL.

Another point of friction with the development of V/DL refers to the strong importance attributed to the goal of providing access to, and provision of, knowledge. It is not apparent from the survey data how the respondents differentiate between knowledge and information; e.g., whether knowledge refers to search instruction and reference advice, or something beyond this, such as a full-fledged teaching process. The first two items capture what libraries have always been doing, the last one is a possibility that could materialize, for example, if the libraries become integrated into the teaching process carried out by academic departments. If, however, "knowledge" is used to mean the item taken from the traditional professional culture of librarianship (see Birdsal (1994) and the discussion in Section 3) than the request for knowledge resembles an anachronism. The notion of knowledge today is not simple. From the perspective of semiotics, or system design, or information resources management, information can be that which produces cognitive change and/or the cognitive change itself, regardless of how large, complex, internally structured is the agency of the change or the change itself. In other words, in other information disciplines, "information" can mean both a small thing (e.g., a fact) and a big one – "knowledge". The frequent use of the term information in these disciplines as well as in concepts of "information age" should not, therefore, be taken as the denial of knowledge. If it is ("Libraries are about books and knowledge, and not computers and information"), a high cost can accrue for the proponents of traditional idiosyncrasies on the library side. A dialog and collaborative building of new idiosyncrasies would perhaps be a safer direction to follow.

The library heads surveyed believe that it will continue to be important to provide the physical space for users' study and socialization. This concern with the issue of facilitating work-related interaction and broader socializing must be well-regarded. From the perspective of V/DL, however, favoring this goal may be detrimental to divorcing V/DL from the concept of unity of the space, library operation and perusal of its services. The resources of V/DL are scattered in space; V/DL manipulates these resources regardless of their location; the user uses V/DL without really knowing where the resources reside or which organizational procedures and when operate in the background to bring him the materials needed. It is also unclear why should the library be more qualified than other university units to provide the study/socializing space.

The study's findings provide certain support to the subsystem macro model of V/DL (discussed in Section 3). V/DL is mainly understood as digital collection, digital tools, a virtual part of the existing library. In other words, V/DL is an organizational subsystem defined mostly by specific technology. The inter-organizational macro model also enjoys support which is expressed in intention of increasing efforts on developing coalitions, consortia and other inter-organizational arrangements for sharing indexes, bibliographic information and holdings. The systems macro model was supported to a very small extent -- one respondent contemplated about " virtual university, which might implicate a radically different library organization, while another supplied a program of library transformation envisioning visible structural and cultural changes. This probably is not surprising, given the radical character of this macro model which implies new organizational forms that only recently began penetrating more dynamic business organizations. Finally, no support was found for the disintermediation macro model, which could be due to limitations of the data collection instrument.

Overall, the tension between the old (the ownership-and-warehouse metaphor, anchoring in print, and unity of space, operation and service) and the new (rejection of bureaucratic management, interlibrary collaboration, expansion of access and the development of access tools, regular retrieval of the Internet) describes the state of the respondents’ preparedness for V/DL. The new is certainly more in function of V/DL than the old, although it could also be deployed in building V/DL, once the appropriate vision and plan are in place. It should finally be noted that the survey discovered that, in spite of the complicated situation characterized by the old-new tension and the "muddling through" approach to V/DL, the library heads demonstrated the support to sound management goals/practices (e.g., development of new services, encouraging employee innovativeness, training for new technologies and techniques, focus on services' quality).


V/DL is presently being studied mostly from technological perspective, which crates an impression that V/DL is yet another piece of machinery. The notion of V/DL should, however, be placed in a broader organizational perspective which could help understand the capabilities and limitations of the context into which the new access and delivery technology is to be placed. Part of that context are the attitudes of the top library administrators without whose support the technology and ideas of V/DL cannot materialize. The present study began exploring certain organizational issues pertaining to V/DL, inquiring about the understanding of, opinions on, and preparedness for, V/DL, that characterize heads of academic libraries. These libraries have gone through significant organizational changes in recent years, but the relationship between these changes and V/DL is unclear. Another source of ambiguity is the literature of V/DL, which is not agreeable on fundamental concepts. The present study used a Gapen (1993) concept of V/DL and a research model which emphasizes features of new organizational forms and inter-organizational collaboration. One finding is that the library heads typically view V/DL as digital storage. They overwhelmingly express support to so defined V/DL. This conceptualization resembles the "muddling through" approach to problem solving, because it fails to see that V/DL is more than technology, and that the seeds of V/DL are already in place (e.g., interlibrary-loan). In addition, the tension between the old (strong adherence to print collection, provision of physical space for study, slow conversion of print materials, the lack of support of both the tighter coupling with users and systems development skills) and the new (support to V/DL, weak support to certain principles of bureaucratic management, paying attention to the Internet, planning of increasing inter-library collaboration) describes best the preparedness of the library heads for V/DL.

In conclusion, both the changes in academic libraries and opinions on, and preparedness for, V/DL of heads of these libraries suggest that certain movement toward V/DL does exist in this segment of the library world. It is, with few exceptions, limited in scope, and bears a significant mark the tradition.


I want to thank to the collagues that provided suggestions cencerning data colleciton – Lizzie Davenport, Ralf Shaw, Blaise Cronin, and Tom Nisonger.

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                                Figure 1 Research Model for Virtual/digital Library

Note: All dimensions are inter-related. The model applies both to the intra- and inter-organizational context.

Content Analysis

The following are the categories used for analyzing the qualitative data pertaining to the respondents’ opinions on the Virtual/Digital Library. Two independent coders performed the coding. The coefficient of intercoder agreement (the number of identically coded categories / the total number of mutually non-overlapping categories) is 0.92. Most of the disagreements evolved around the delineating the Affirmative Attitude from the Mixed Attitude category. The superior size of the Affirmative Attitude category (126 instances; the next largest is the Mixed Attitude with 25 cases) makes it robust even against the 8% error in coding reliability.

Coding Categories:

1. (a) Definition: The statements that identify crucial dimensions of V/DL and/or their relationships in a separate sentence that is standing alone or is inserted in a larger sentence.

(b) Elements of Definition: The statements that identify crucial dimensions of V/DL and/or their relationships by providing one or more words pertaining to the idea of V/DL.

2. Affirmative Attitude Toward V/DL: The statements that point out to the need for, and/or value of, and/or possibility of, V/DL. Note that the category is inclusive with regard to the statements that attribute the need for V/DL to others, such as social trends, and not necessarily to the respondent himself.

3. Negative Attitude Toward V/DL: The statements that express overtly the respondent’s opposition to the need for and/or value of and/or possibility of V/DL.

4. Mixed Attitude Toward V/DL: The statements that both point out to the need for and/or value of and/or possibility of V/DL and express overtly the respondent’s opposition to the need for and/or value of and/or possibility of V/DL.

5. Definition of V/DL: The statements that describe key characteristics of V/DL and/or the relationships between the characteristics of V/DL.

6. Library Trend: The statements that provide predictions of the developments in the library world, information industry and a wider social milieu in the next two or more years.

7. Print vs. Digital: The statements that juxtapose print collection and/or information format to digital collection and/or information format.

8. Problems: The statements that list/describe/explain/predict serious difficulties in developing V/DL.

9. Internet: The statements that mention the Internet in the context of V/DL.

Table 2 Rank-Order of Organizational Issues in Next Five Years

Rank    Issue                                           Dom.    T/N     Mean    STD     n
1 Maintenance of unity of command                       Mgt     T       2.49    1.06    177
2  Training librarians in computer programming          Skill   N       2.55    1.17    198
3  Preservation of scalar chain of command              Mgt     T       2.73    1.18    193
4  Working at patrons= locations                        Stru    N       3.32    1.23    190
5  Conversion of library materials into digital format  Tech    N       3.36    1.08    196
6  Expansion of team work                               WO      N       3.78    1.06    187
7  Value-added measurement of library performance       Mgt     N       3.81    0.94    181
8  Training librarians in systems analysis and design   Skill   N       3.88    1.03    190
9  Provision of knowledge as opposed to information     Goal    T       3.92    0.87    177
10 Delegating more authority to workers                 Power   N       3.98    0.95    190
11 Access to knowledge as opposed to information        Goal    T       3.99    0.93    179
12 Evaluation of materials which reside on the Internet Task    N       4.18    0.91    197
13 Provision of a physical space for patrons= study     Goal    T       4.22    0.95    199
14 Development of new services                          Mgt     -       4.24    0.78    198
15 Access to materials in digital format                Goal    N       4.26    0.87    200
16 Services based on inter-library cooperation          OR      N       4.29    0.78    199
17 Retrieving the Internet materials on a regular basis Task    N       4.30    0.76    200
18 Development of the printed collection                Goal    T       4.33    0.66    202
19 Development of electronic delivery tools             Goal    N       4.36    0.85    201     
20 Encouraging employee innovativeness/creativity       Mgt     -       4.42    0.76    198
21 Provision of the print not owned by my library       Goal    N       4.44    0.69    200
22 Provision of materials in any format                 Goal    -       4.49    0.70    200
23 Training in new library methods and techniques       Skills  -       4.58    0.67    200
24 Training patrons in search techniques                Goal    -       4.62    0.62    200
25 Training in new library technologies                 Skill   -       4.65    0.56    198
26 Focus on quality of all services provided            Mgt     -       4.66    0.70    198
Means Distribution Statistics:
Median=4.23     Outliers=2.49, 2.55, 2.73     Skew=-1.28

Note: Dom.=domain, n=the number of respondents, T=traditional, N=non-traditional, 
STD=standard deviation, N=the number of respondents, Mgt=
management, Stru=organizational structure, Tech=technology, WO=work organization, 
OR=inter-organizational relationships, - =a sound management practice indeterminate 
of tradition orientation. The cut-off point between the high- and low-importance 
category is between items 8 and 9.

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