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A lay librarian’s thought on “Nothing is Future”

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, a Princeton librarian and the blogger of Academic Librarian, wrote a post “Nothing is the Future” a few days ago, which resulted in many comments including the very excellent one from Tim Spalding at LibraryThing.  In his comment in Thingology, Tim Spalding warns about a potential misreading of Bivens-Tatum’s post suggesting that people should use his essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.” Bivens-Tatum also posted a response, “Preaching and Persuading,” making it clear that that his target of criticism is not the adoption of any new technology in libraries per se but the manner in which new technologies have been adopted so far in libraries.

Here are some of the thoughts that came to my mind while reading these blog posts, which have gotten surprisingly long.

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In his article, “Academic Digital Libraries of the Future: An Environmental Scan,” Derek Law writes:

“We have reached a point where entrenched and traditional organizational settings give rise to organizational clashes, as new issues and content emerge which do not fit historical patterns. The bundling of functions has imperceptibly changed, but we have become so busy and adept at keeping the library efficient and well manage  that we have lacked the space to step back and observe it from a higher level. …… Libraries have fallen into the trap of substituting means for ends and have not considered what is in the interest of their parent universities. It is, then, the purpose of this paper to review and scan the landscape facing university libraries and to attempt to identify the key competencies or core areas of work that the profession needs to grasp as its key to the future.”

His statement is targeted for academic librareis, but the diagnosis may well resonate with any rank and file librarian at differnet types of libraries. The problem seems to be that overall our library world appears lost on what a library should be in the future.

I realize that it is hard to articulate this impression of mine, particularly when there is so much conversation about new technologies and trends that libraries have to consider and adapt thier services for. What I am trying to get at is that most of the conversation is about what’s new and how to catch up. The numerous things get swiftly classified under the “Have To” category from this conversation. But they don’t always seem to have a clear relevance to “Why” and “For what” let alone “How To.”

Today’s library world, which resembles almost the Warring States period of China a long long time ago, unnerves me sometimes because everything seems to be geared towards catching up with the latest trends. Yesterday wiki and blog, today Facebook and Twitter, tomorrow mobile websites, content, and devices. Libraries and librarians have been working hard and frantically.

But, now that we have done so, are we significantly better off? Have our efforts significantly changed the way our users and our parent institutions perceive us? Why this nagging suspicion that we all seem to share and worry about, i.e. libraries are still ill-prepared for whatever the future will bring about? Why doesn’t this doubt cease that we are running in parallel with our users and parent institutions rather than running together as a team?

Staying up-to-date for the future is of course great. But what are we staying up-to-date for? There is no shortage of what libraries may become in the future: a digital repository, a learning commons, a place for innovative user experience, an information hub, what have you. But how do we get there where these visions are from here and now? Where are our blueprints, not another list of to-dos seemingly dislocated from the vision?

This brings back a question I often think about.  What kind of an agent a library is in its parent organization as a whole? Is it a dynamic, creative, competent, and energetic enough agent that can lead a change it desires through its parent organization?  If libraries are not currently such agents, how do we begin to become so?  Changes at these two different levels -internal and external- seem to be intertwined.  If we can at least begin to form some answers about these issues, maybe we will finally be able to spend more time on working towards making actual changes to the future of libraries rather than talking about it. Just a thought of a lay librarian.

Praise for Librarians?

I was reading this book review by ricklibrarian today morning.  The review was about Marilyn Johnson’s new book, This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.  In the book review, it was stated “most librarians knock themselves out serving their clients regardless of pay, institutional support, or appreciation from society at large.”

And is this supposed to be praises for librarians?  No librarian would argue against the fact that librarians tend to be more than 100 percent service-oriented.  Yes, librarians are eager to help, librarians are willing to do almost any kind of work that may contribute to library users’ better understanding and use of library resources, librarians are friendly, librarians are polite, and librarians protect the public’s freedom and privacy.

But I don’t think librarians are to be praised for knocking themselves out serving their clients regardless of pay, institutional support, or appreciation from society at large.  That is just crazy, isn’t it?  Not because there is something wrong with librarians being devoted to their work but because librarians’ services rendered in such a way may well make them almost meaningless.

There are obvious and clear limitations to ‘individual’ librarians’ devoted services that is unsupported by proper pay, institutional support, and appreciation from society at large.  No matter how excellent their services are, without the proper recognition and support from society and institutions that govern and fund libraries, the value of libraries and librarians’ services will go unnoticed or taken for granted.

I wonder how many people are even aware of the fact that librarians are required to finish a graduate school to be a librarian and also have to invest additional years as a library assistant for experience enduring a surprisingly low salary for their education and previous experience.  Probably not that many.  I wonder how many academic faculty members at a college/university know that at their institution, librarians may also be faculty just like them (although it may not be tenure-track)?

Some may question why what makes someone qualify as a librarian should be common knowledge.  Why not?  After all, everyone knows that what doctors, lawyers, journalists should do to become qualified in their professions.  The point is not bragging that it is not easy to become a librarian nor claiming that librarians are intelligent, knowledgeable, and talented people (although both of them may be quite accurate a description for librarians in general).

Rather, my questions is this.  If the basic qualifications of a librarian is unknown to library users -either faculty and students or the general public, why would they respect, listen to, and work with librarians?  Without such knowledge, there is going to be little appreciation and understanding about what librarians provide and offer to library users.  It seems to me that there is some serious work to be done in libraries’ outreach activities and that it may concern more librarians than library services or resources.

So, librarians, let’s please not knock ourselves out regardless of pay, institutional support, or appreciation from society at large.  Instead, libraries and librarians have to help people understand what kind of places libraries are these days – certainly not just a warehouse of books – and what kind of work librarians perform -certainly not just shelving books.

As the cataloguing librarian describes so vividly in the recent blog post, the general public’s perception and understanding of a librarian is sadly obsolete and dismal.  How did it happen that a used car salesman is so convinced that he knows so much about what a librarian does and laughs at librarianship as a profession?  Although deplorable, I don’t believe that this car salesman is any unique exception.  But in my opinion, it is mostly those outside a library who declare the death of librarianship.  If you are working at a library, you will be so busy that you won’t even have time to worry about the death of a library.

Libraries – Organizational Culture

Libraries often talk about changes. But for an organization that aspires to achieve a significant transformation from a real-time learning and information center, there seems to be not so much discussion about the change of organizational culture. Even at libraries where librarians are appointed as faculty rather than staff, there is often a strict hierarchy of ranks, and this hierarchical culture may hinder open discussions on various issues.

What is quite interesting is that librarians themselves are quite well aware of this issue. In “Views and Dreams: A Delphi Investigation into Library 2.0 Applications,” Jenny Bronstein and Noa Aharony present the survey results to the question of how probable and desirable for all library staff members to collaborate in the development and/or planning of new library services, procedures, or policies. The result showed that while 73 percent thought it was desirable, only 30.5 percent believed it was probable. So while the majority wants something, the same majority also understands that it would probably not happen.

This survey results emphasize the gap between what librarians deem to be desirable for libraries and how present libraries as organizations are likely to respond to various challenges that they are facing.

I think that the gap may be partly the result of libraries’ hierarchical organizational structure and conservative and reserved organizational culture. I often wonder how great it would be if librarians can work at libraries that are more like innovative think-tanks than any run-of-the-mill companies, where staff are encouraged to experiment and to openly discuss issues about library programs and services. But the reality is that we want to make libraries a civilized workplace!

Michael Stephens at Tame the Web has posted a inspiring code of conduct which belongs to the Menasha Public library staff. There are two agreements, one for staff and one for supervisors. The agreement is so simple and commonsensical. After all, one of the items in the agreement is “Everyone will say good morning, please, and thank you to everyone with good will, no matter what their relative position.” Someone may wonder what kind of code this is if it states such an obvious thing. However, kindness and respect begin with small steps and those small steps can have a big impact on the morale of a library staff.

Robert Sutton, a professor in Stanford Business School regards nasty and demeaning behavior as something similar to an infectious disease in his book, The No Asshole Rule. Even without explanation, we understand from experience that our emotions are easily transferred to others and that particularly negative emotions are powerfully infectious.

Now, this is something all supervisors need to keep in mind in my opinion. It is impossible for one to be always happy and cheerful. There are days on which one is down, tired, and grumpy. But if you are a supervisor, you have the obligation to stop those emotions from getting in the way of interacting with your staff. If negative emotions from peers have a negative impact on people’s emotions, how greater the impact would be when those negative emotions come from their bosses?

Like many people, I had the experience of working with a boss who sometimes became cranky and moody. My boss was usually cheerful, but sometimes I could tell that s/he was grumpy. S/he was in many ways a wonderful supervisor, but what I most admired about her/him was that when s/he was having a bad day, s/he rarely failed to tell me so directly. As a result, I was rarely stressed out nor wondered if it was something I did wrong. Of course, theoretically we all should be able to separate our life from work and put aside our personal issues. But when that fails, the best thing one can do is to simply admit it. This will prevent others from assuming that you are mean and nasty. Even Sutton points out that almost all of us turn into temporary assholes from time to time and we can always overcome the asshole inside us by recognizing it.

The fact that emotions are infectious is not a necessarily bad thing. That means that if you are nice to someone, that itself may suffice to make the person happy. Although this seems like such a trivial thing,  it is not. Just by saying “Good Job” or “Thank you”, you may just increase the level of your staff’s job satisfaction by a notch!

Sutton also demonstrates that there is a clear inverse relationship between workplace productivity and efficiency and the nasty and demeaning behavior among workers.  As Kate Sheehan points out in her posting as a TTW guest, while this usually works as a sufficient reason for for-profit organizations to establish and practice no asshole rules as their hiring guidelines while libraries, like most non-profit organizations, deal more in intangibles and don’t look to the balance sheet for guidance.

So in these critical times of rapid changes and numerous challenges, libraries struggle to be a “civilized” workplace. I know that this is a desirable goal and we should all try to adopt and practice such a code of conduct like that of the Menasha Public Library.  Still, I wondered for a minute if we also need to address a more fundamental issue such as whether the current organizational structure and culture of libraries can enable and support the libraries of the future that all of us seem to want – innovative and inspiring information and learning commons.

If the Help Desk thinks your question is stupid,

This is so totally hilarious, it deserves to get its own blog post I think.  Enjoy!!!

Source: http://digg.com/d310et4 ; http://imgur.com/E9ppQ.jpg

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