Recently, William Denton posted an email on the NGC4Lib list about a talk he is giving at Access 2010. In the description of the talk, he included the following:
Reference librarians are whiny and demanding.
Systems librarians are arrogant and rude.
Users are clueless and uninformed.
I started my library career as a reference librarian, but have spent the last 9 years working in systems. During all that time, I have been an active library user. So I guess that makes me whiny, demanding, arrogant, rude, clueless, and uninformed. I’m sure I could find someone who would call me any of those things. We all probably experience moments where we exhibit those unattractive traits. It does little or no good to classify our colleagues and our users that way. But response to the post makes it clear that those labels resonated with people.
So, why do we feel this way? I’m sure there are many things that contribute to this feeling, but I want to focus on one issue, how our systems department interact with the rest of the library. I currently work in a department called “Library Systems Support“. This sense of support defines how the department interacts with other library staff. While I don’t think about it from day to day, it still shows up in the interactions with staff members and in decisions that are made by management. It makes the library staff view systems as people who work for them. And it makes the systems department view the library staff as a drain on their resources.
I believe that working in partnership between systems and the rest of the library will help us break down the barriers that breed the hard feelings expressed above. Of course, many library system departments do work in partnership with their colleagues and most or all probably do at times, but many libraries do still view their systems department as the “back office” operation which supports the “front office”, reference and special collections, operations. And that dynamic fosters relations where not only is it likely that departments will have problems communicating, but it is often in the departments interest to not communicate.
When systems works as a partner with other departments in the library, both players can focus on the users and on the businesses processes of the library. When systems serves as support for other departments and is not involved in the business of the library, the needs of the users and the definition of business processes becomes a negotiation. The end result is that neither the user or the library is served. Instead, the individual departments are served. The things that the staff think are important are preserved. The things that don’t directly impact the staff are the first to go. Working as a partner changes the game. Instead of starting from either department’s goals, both parties can work from a common goal. Sure, that’s a bit idealistic, but the likelihood that focus is kept on the end result, rather than on who’s going to do the work, increase significantly.
It isn’t all milk and honey. Working as a partner with other library departments is going to make more work for systems. It will probably make more work for the other departments as well. But working together will break down barriers between the departments. So Systems will see Reference as more than whiny and demanding. And Reference will see Systems as something more than arrogant and rude. And we’ll realize that the users aren’t clueless and uniformed, they just need our help.