June 2007


Recently I came across a post from The Other Librarian about institutional reluctance to implement technology initiatives. I think the author has some good points and certainly does a good job of voicing the frustrations of techies. But, I can’t help but think that all the energy he is putting into his frustration with management wouldn’t be better used moving his plans forward. To quote the Brazen Careeerist, “There are no bad bosses, only whiny employees.[If you haven’t read it, Daniel Chudnov had an excellent post on One Big Library about the frustration some techie librarians are feeling. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, even if you aren’t a techie librarian. I think it applies to anyone trying to promote new ideas in their library.]

First, let me commiserate, I have been the person at work trying to get the library to embrace technological change. With regard to those changes, I have had mixed results getting them implemented. Some were never implemented, some were, and some were implemented after I had left. I have even implemented some and lived to regret it. Having gone through the frustrations that Ryan is expressing, I totally agree with much of what he has to say.

Technology is not a threat to librarians. Really it is something we need to be embracing and most librarians are. Public libraries are still the only access to information for a large portion of the population, especially when that information is online.

You don’t need to wait for the perfect solution to start applying technology. Technology is changing rapidly — and more and more rapidly all the time. Choosing a technology and going for it, even when the technology isn’t quite ready can still add value for your users. As Ryan mentions the rapid development of software may solve the problem by the time you are implementing. But even if it doesn’t, the increasing interoperability between systems is making it easier to ditch one system if it doesn’t meet your need and move to another one. And, …

Projects that fail can still be valuable. A lot can be learned from failure for the individual and for the institution. Hopefully, the first lesson that is learned is that the failure of most projects won’t mean the end of the world. Shortly after I had started at a FPOW, we were discussing upgrading the OPAC. Almost everyone at the table expressed a concern about how faculty would receive any changes to the OPAC. Being younger, and less wise, I ranted and raved about “changing it every month until they got used to change” while pounding my shoe on the table Khrushchev-like (well, the shoe stayed on my foot, but the table-pounding happened). I learned later that the previous upgrade to the OPAC had gone poorly and some faculty did, in fact, still harbor a grudge about it. But, even in this case, the only way past those hard feelings is to show those faculty members that you learned from the last time and wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

The main flaw in Ryan’s post is that he says, “Technology has reached a stage that any idea to implement a technology ought to begin with a “yes.”,” but he doesn’t make the case why technology deserves that “yes”. What “stage” is it where you can assume a yes? Wouldn’t we like all of our ideas to receive a “yes”, whether or not they are technology-related? What is different about technology that it should be given a ‘”yes”? Shouldn’t all new ideas start with a “yes”? Don’t the people who want to bring new ideas into reference deserve the benefit of the doubt also? It seems the focus is on technology because that’s where the author works. And for that reason, technology ought to get the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, there are many good reasons to give a “no”. So, it is probably not reasonable to expect a yes. I’m not trying to say that there aren’t bad “nos” out there. I do wish that more managers started from, “Sounds good, what do we need to do to make it happen.” But the reality is that it is safer, quicker, and easier to say “no”. So it is up to us, the techie librarians to make it easier to say “yes”. This is the other problem I have with Ryan’s post, it gives up too much responsibility to management. Instead of taking responsibility for showing how “sexy, in-demand and turning heads” his ideas are and creating a “yes”, he complains that management is “telling us we are fat in our jeans.”

Managers are people too. I think it is easy to forget that managers are people too and are under a lot of the same pressures that you and I are under. This was pointed out to me in one of my first professional jobs out of library school. Many of the younger librarians were frustrated about the management team because it would strike down ideas for what often seemed like arbitrary reasons. We wasted many hours grumbling about the management team. One day, I was grumbling to a friend of mine who was a member of the management team. After listening to me complain about how management won’t do this, but they should because of that, he said to me, “They don’t know that. You need to tell them that.” It was eye-opening. How could they not have known? But of course they didn’t know. They are concerned with completely different issues. I was the expert in that area.

The point is that we can’t expect a “yes” – we can’t even expect that they will understand what we are talking about. Not because it is hard to understand, but because they are not the people who are knowledgeable about this stuff, we are. They are worried about demands from reference, from special collections, from patrons, from faculty, etc. They want to do what’s best, but they don’t have all the background knowledge that you do. If you want to move forward with a project, it is up to you to take responsibility for creating the “yes”. That’s what looks sexy to management.

In addition, because managers are people, they don’t want you to tell them that they are fat in their jeans either. Penelope Trunk from the Brazen Careerist tells the story of when she worked for someone who refused to learn how to use a computer. She even did some of his word processing (‘He once said to me, “You’re such a fast typist!” And I thought, “You’re such a complete idiot!”’). Instead of expressing that thought, she realized that there was a lot she could learn from him and that his shortcomings gave her an opportunity to show her talents.

The fact is that it is not about “nay-ers” who want to plan versus “yeah-ers” who see the value. I consider myself a “yeah-er” who wants to plan, because I see the value. I also see using my experience to help plan as somewhere that I can contribute. So the next time that someone makes a point about planning, test them out. See if it is an offer to help with the plan. Draw them in, “Hey, you are right, we do need to consider some issues. You seem to have some real insight, can you help me out?” To be frank, it probably won’t work, but at least they’ll know that you care about their issues and you value their input. Hopefully, at least you will at least gain someone who is on your side.

 

The email lists that I am subscribed to have recently been inundated with discussion that can be characterized as “traditionalists vs. modernists.” The reality is that it has been hard to tell what the discussion is about because too often each side is talking past each other. The basic debate is similar to the debate about user-centered design. One side says the Library needs to be responsive to what the user wants. The other side says the users that users don’t always know what they want. The problem with the debate is that these things are not necessarily at odds with one another. In fact, in most cases they are 2 sides of the same coin.

The library’s responsibility is to its users. So, clearly they need to be responsive to what their users want. The problem comes from a slippery definition of what the word want means. You’ll have to pardon the philosophy major in me, I know semantic arguments are out of vogue, suffering from Bill Clinton’s torturing of the word ‘is.’ In the debate the word ‘want’ is used for everything from “I want to do research to write a paper” to “I want to be able to tag books.” Both of these are perfectly reasonable requests that the library should respond to. However, I would argue that one is central to the mission of the library, while the other is a means to that end.  It is disingenuous to view them as equivalent.

To be fair, many people in the debate believe that the library should respond to all its users wants equally.  If your users want to be able to tag, then you should provide tags. It is appealing customer service model. It looks like it is making people happy. And relieves the library from the having to come up with a plan to serve its users better. The ultimate problem is that it generally doesn’t make people happy.  The more immediate problem is that once your job is simply to respond to user requests, you are no longer a library. You are what your users think you are. As a result, if your users think you aren’t important, then you aren’t. This is how libraries end up being closed by their constituencies.

A successful library will define its contribution to its users. This is particularly important for libraries because they are often not in a position where they can define their value through revenue.  In Alan Cooper’s book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, he talks about “conceptual integrity,” a term originally coined by Frederick Brooks. He puts it this way, “The customers, no matter how well meaning they might be, don’t have the ability to think of your product as a single, conceptual whole.” Cooper is talking about designing software, but demonstrates that it applies to service industries. His example is a consultant, who when he is starting out, is selling his “brains,” people hire him for how smart he is. As he builds his reputation, his clients start to hire him for his experience, his “gray hair.” When he is hired for his experience, he is doing work he has already done and stops learning new things. From there it is just a matter of time before the lack of new and different projects causes the consultant to fall behind the cutting edge, until he is no longer able to get work. Cooper calls this the “death spiral.”

Libraries are just as susceptible to the death spiral. You could argue that libraries are already in the death spiral. Instead of defining what they are, having conceptual integrity, they are scrambling to catch up to users wants. As a result, people are going to Amazon to find books and Google for everything else. Because our users are going to Amazon for books and Google for the rest of their information, libraries think they need to be like Google and Amazon. The reality is that we are not in competition either Amazon or Google, but since we lack conceptual integrity, we don’t even know that. I’m sure most of us have heard of a user who instead of using the library to identify a book, uses Amazon to find the book and comes to the library with an ISBN. It is a sad story about the state of libraries.

The cause of this sad story is a lack of conceptual integrity. Many libraries don’t know or don’t understand their role, what they are trying to accomplish. This brings me back to the modernists vs. traditionalists debate. The debate is fueled because many people on both sides don’t understand the ultimate goal of what the library is trying to accomplish. Unfortunately, this confusion is understandable as librarianship as a profession has not done very good job of communicating what it is all about. This is compounded by libraries that don’t maintain a sense of conceptual integrity, and if the library has one, it isn’t communicated to the staff.  The divide between technical services and public services also prevents librarians from seeing the conceptual whole 9in fact the debate on the lists is often TS vs PS or either of them vs systems.

If librarianship, or the library, had a strong sense of what it is, then the debate would not be about whether it is our job to tell people what they should want or whether we add tags because someone asks for it. The debate would be about how these things relate to our missions. Do tags help users meet their library-related goals? Are there resources that are better than Google at meeting certain user goals? By having conceptual integrity, we could have a conversation where we are all on the same page.

Earlier I said that Amazon and Google were not in competition with libraries, but if our users are going to Amazon instead of coming to the library, then aren’t we in competition. I say we aren’t in competition because we aren’t in the businesses that those two companies are in, but there is overlap. The overlap is actually to our advantage. This, however, is a discussion for another time.

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