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Estelle and Melvin Gelman LibraryEckles Library at the Mount Vernon CampusVirginia Science and Technology Campus Library

The Center of Excellence Model for Information Services: Is it sustainable?

University Librarian and Vice Provost for Libraries Geneva Henry recently completed a research planning study, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that explored models for fostering innovation in libraries and information systems. She served as Principal Investigator on the project, entitled “Centers of Excellence for Information Services.” Faced with the need to provide advanced support using technologies such as data and geospatial visualization, Henry’s team explored ways in which the “center of excellence” model might provide the knowledge needed to meet new needs and ensure that the services libraries offer are adequately addressing patrons’ evolving demands.

A “center of excellence” is defined as a “premier organization providing an exceptional product or service in an assigned sphere of expertise and within a specific field of technology, business, or government.”

“This project grew out of a desire to investigate how specialized knowledge can be shared among libraries,” Henry said. “Academic libraries are inherently interdisciplinary research centers. To us, the question was how to create sustainable models for collaborative, cross-disciplinary work that push boundaries and open up new opportunities. ‘Centers of excellence’ offered a possible approach for our study.”

The team of seven researchers identified numerous institutions that fit the criteria for a “center of excellence” and conducted interviews with 19 center directors and seven funders. The research revealed interesting relationships between libraries and centers supporting humanities scholarship. Models where these groups worked closely revealed a path for advancing scholarly momentum and success. They determined that when this type of interdisciplinary work takes place within libraries, it sends a broader message of institutional cohesion and support for a wide spectrum of research, innovation, and entrepreneurial possibilities.

The desire to create collaborative spaces for research and technology was a common theme found in the study, but the ability to sustain centers long-term emerged as a challenge. While “centers of excellence” help with sharing technology and ideas, the research team concluded that building networks between institutions for sharing knowledge and establishing expertise that becomes part of the organization’s normal structure is a more sustainable approach.

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