Conceptual Integrity

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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