The libraries at Oxford University are the heart of one of the oldest organizations in the world. Oxford's centuries of immutable traditions aren't just old musty rituals that get in the way: they're the reason Oxford has persisted even as so many other institutions have perished. But what if change is essential or even critical? At the J. Boye Philadelphia 2009 conference, the OULS, or Oxford University Library System, gave a presentation on how they'd managed to unite forty separate libraries under a shared portal. However did they do it?

Time for a Change

The case was clear. Oxford Libraries needed change. The Bodleian was Oxford's main library, with some six million items and more than a hundred miles of shelving. But there were some forty other libraries in Oxford, all of which used their own online tools and websites.

None of these systems co-operated, and the geographical nature of Oxford -- the university is the town of Oxford itself, not some separate "campus" -- meant that many collections were tucked away in hard-to-find places that stymied researchers. Users weren't getting what they needed, and the libraries themselves weren't working well together, with duplicated collections and mutually incomprehensible practices.

But how was change to be accomplished, given that many of these libraries had enjoyed three or four hundred years of self-determination?

Developing a Web Strategy

To begin with, the Web strategy group tasked with making the change obtained the MySource Matrix CMS, designed a web template, wrote a lot of new content, and began to adopt a more user-friendly terminology. Training began on the new system, and eventually a new unified portal was rolled out in 2005. There were usage guidelines, but they were not voluntary.

Here's the interesting part: complaints started pouring in...but this was a sign of success. Librarians were beginning to take ownership of their content and to think about the ways they presented information to their patrons.

Slyly, the strategy group allowed individual libraries to change their templates and rewrite whatever they wanted...but only if they followed the guidelines. Many made the choice, and slowly the other libraries followed suit.

As the initiative picked up steam, many libraries decided to abandon their individual presences and join forces with similar collections: instead of separate college library pages, for instance, the colleges created a joint Modern Languages page that showcased their complementary holdings, and invited other libraries to contribute.

Metrics and analytics were introduced, allowing libraries to understand the ways in which their collections were being used, and to respond accordingly online.

Achieving Success

Eventually, the project was widely recognized as a success. Library users were given a unified interface, which made it easier for them to navigate complex collections. More importantly, they no longer had to learn a set of idiosyncratic rules for each collection.

Inside the firewall, library staff felt empowered in ways they hadn't before. Oxford librarians are among the best-trained in the world; they didn't want to feel "replaced" or obsolete. The new system freed them up to do what they did best, and to think of ways to do better.

Having a single interface saved money on training, and also allowed staff to move from library to library much more easily. This increased the flow of innovations and ideas within the library system -- in a positive and non-disruptive way. The result was increased staff morale and efficiencies over and above what had been anticipated.

Finally, the project created a "center of competence" within Oxford as a whole. The core team's lessons-learned, as well as their hard-won experience, became an invaluable resource for other departments struggling with technical issues, another benefit that had not been anticipated. 

All in all, the project proved that it's possible to bring needed change and preserve vital tradition at the same time.