I started my professional librarian career as a reference librarian – well, actually I was a Serials/ILL Librarian for the first 2 years, but the place was so small that everyone staffed the reference desk. After 5 years as a reference librarian, I moved into a systems position. For the next 5 years I worked with the library’s catalog. When I had worked in reference, I was a believer in information literacy and the library’s role in education. I was not really concerned too much with cataloging. When I worked in Systems, I was stuck between the need for technical services to quickly and efficiently process items and the reference librarians trying to find those items. It was clear that neither side understood the issues facing the other.

Now I follow the discussion and debate around the future of cataloging and I get concerned that neither side understands what the other is saying. When I had just started working in systems, some of the reference librarians came to me to complain about this or that in the catalog (why can’t we browse publishers? why do I get these results for that search? etc.). I tried to explain it, but the reality was they weren’t interested – they just wanted it fixed. The problem was of course, that nothing was broken. Choices had been made and these were just the consequences. To “fix” it, different choices would need to be made – with their own consequences.

One complaint I had from a reference librarian was that she had difficulty finding journals in Chinese for a student who was looking for something to use to practice reading the language. I considered the many pitfalls that could have caused her difficulty. 1) The language codes are sometimes not applied consistently in the records, and when they are, there are still some problems with how the catalog indexes them. 2) The code for serials was also problematic and inconsistently applied. 3) Maybe it was corruption in the database, or more likely the index – it was temperamental. Wow, our catalog does suck!

So I tried to recreate the problem. I typed “periodicals” in as a subject term and “chi” in as a language code (yeah “chi”, live with cataloging long enough and you’ll be surprised what you absorb). I got 117 results. When I asked the librarian if that is what she saw, her response was “how did you get that?” I described what I did. She had no idea that there were ways to search by language. In fact, there was an option to limit by language, so she wouldn’t have needed to know the cryptic code “chi”. In addition to not knowing about the options to search languages, the librarian hadn’t thought to use the subject term “periodicals” – apparently she was trying to search for a Romanization of the Chinese word for journal.

I thought about this example when I was reading Thomas Mann’s essay “The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries“. I thought about the level of service that he demonstrates in his example in the essay and I wondered if the rest of us are getting the most out of the tools that we have. For our catalogs, are we making the data the best it can be, or are we just waiting for computers to fix it – or at least be able to decipher it? Do we know how to use our catalogs to find the things that we, and our users, are looking for? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. And I think that too often, not always but too often, the answer is no.

Our catalogs have a lot of room for improvement, but the value that is added by libraries is in the role played by people that making our stuff available for the library’s users. For the catalog, a large part of the value is added by the catalogers who describe the library’s stuff. The better we describe our stuff and the more useful (and usable) that description is, the more value that is added. On the other end, reference librarians add value by assisting in the retrieval of the stuff. Ideally, the reference librarians have worked with the catalogers to leverage the data in the catalog and create a reasonably intuitive interface. And ultimately, the reference librarians will serve as the user’s guide to finding what they are looking for. When the reference librarians don’t understand the catalog, the catalogers are limited in ways they can leverage the data, and the catalog suffers.

For the 5 years that I was supporting the library’s catalog, there was increasing energy behind the “OPAC sucks” crowd. And more and more energy given over to adding tagging, reviews, faceted browsing (“guided searching”), etc. to the catalog. I wholeheartedly support the experimentation with these features, but I think we could have made more improvement to our catalog by giving our reference librarians a better understanding of how cataloging (and by extension the catalog) works and by giving our catalogers a better understanding of how the reference librarians (and by extension the faculty and students) were using the catalog.

SunRocket, the second largest VOIP phone service provider behind Vonage, recently, and suddenly, went belly-up. I was one of the 200K plus victims of phone service that was there one day and gone the next. I talked to my parents on Sunday night (7/15). Monday night (7/16) I noticed that the usually green light on my SunRocket “gizmo” (their name for their analog telephone adapter, or ATA) was red. On Tuesday, when I logged into WordPress, their highlighted post was about how SunRocket was dead and gone. There was no word from SunRocket and I was left to figure out for myself what was next; should I go with the local phone service provider, should I jump on one of the offers from SunRocket’s competitors, or wait for SunRocket to tell me where I should go next. I ended up sticking with VOIP and going with a competitor that had been one of my early choices.

Suddenly I was one of 200,000 people scouring the web for for any hint of what was going on. Reading posts from laid-off employees. Obsessively following the news, trying to figure out what I should do next. For VOIP providers, 200K new customers were suddenly ripe for the picking (assuming that they didn’t feel so burned by SunRocket that they went running to Ma Bell or Verizon – or whichever monopoly is your local provider). There were press releases picked up as news stories about how this or that provider was going to “save” SunRocket’s abandoned customers.

Some of the offers seemed too good to be true. After all, I had chosen SunRocket for how cheap it was and paid for a year’s service (actually 15 months with my 3 months of free service for signing up! I really should have gotten the free phone instead). I looked up reviews to see who had a go reputation – although clearly financial information would have been a better basis for a decision. I looked at 3 websites that allow users to post their reviews of VOIP providers. Reading the reviews, something was clearly wrong. The reviews varied wildly for any one provider.  One reviewer would describe the service as “the best they’ve had” and the next would tell a horror story of hidden fees. And if you read long enough you would eventually come across reviews for one company accusing another company of padding their own reviews or sabotaging their competitors.

How was I to interpret these reviews? How was I supposed to choose a VOIP provider (if you are considering VOIP for your phone service I would recommend getting any financial data you can and see if you can get information on their strategy for acquiring new subscribers)? What I needed was someone to tell me who I could believe.

This made me think about recent focus groups we had conducted in order to redesign the website at MPOW. In those focus groups it was evident that the only reason that some of the students used the library’s website at all was because of the library brand. They were told by their instructors that they needed to use “academically valid” websites and the easiest way to accomplish that was to use websites with the libraries imprimatur. I really could have used someone who would have told me where to look for good information about VOIP providers.

When I was in library school, we were taught that users rely on the library to sort out the quality stuff from the chaff. These days it seems that this is a forgotten role of libraries, at least in the discussions.  For books, at academic libraries the approval plan dictates much of what the library buys, assuming there is money in the budget to buy books.  For journals, “the big deal” drives the library’s purchasing decisions.  For everything else, users – including librarians – turn to the web, where both need to evaluate the resource on a case by case basis.

This is my frustration, I want one place to go that has good information about VOIP providers.  Consumer Reports is a source for good information, but thre is too much lag in the information available there (the last review of VOIP providers appears to be in the January ’06 issue).  I see this as somewhere the library can still intervene.  That we can still collect good information, so people (me, myself and I) don’t have to cross their finger and hope what they are reading is reliable.

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”Isaiah Berlin, based on a Greek parable.

In the supplemental material to Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, called, Good to Great in the Social Sectors, he suggests that the social sectors adopt not the language of business, as some people have done, but the language of greatness. One of the concepts employed by Collins is the Hedgehog Concept. The Hedgehog Concept is about attaining the best long-term results and having the discipline to stick to it.

The Hedgehog concept defines three key parts: finding what you are passionate about, finding what you are best at, and finding a way to pay for that. The idea is similar to Conceptual Integrity. In libraries, we are passionate about information – organizing it and connecting people with it (well, at least I hope we are). What we are best at may be a little more challenging – and will vary from library to library, but for sake of discussion let’s say that we are best at evaluating and organizing information while preserving it for future generations. Collins says that we need to tie our “resource engine” to those two answers. All three of these things need to be tied together and reinforce one another.

Finding the resource engine is the tricky part. Collins says, “the wide variation in economic structures in the social sectors increases the importance of the hedgehog principle–the inherent complexity requires deeper, more penetrating insight and rigorous clarity than in your average business entity.” Most libraries rely on their parent institutions (universities, cities, businesses, etc.) for their primary source of funding. In turn, those institutions have to have a resource engine: business revenues, tuition, taxes, etc. or some combination.

To go from good to great the resource engine must be closely tied to what you are best at and what you are passionate about. That is, your resource engine should reflect the overall mission of the organization. The example is a homeless center that specialized in giving people the tools to support themselves. For Collins, it would be inappropriate for the center to rely on government subsidies for their funding. Instead the center gets the bulk of its funding from small donations from individuals who support the mission of the center. Using resource engines that are not closely tied to what you are passionate about and what you are best at, will cause the mission of the library to stray and eventually dicate what the mission is.

This is where I see the similarity to Conceptual Integrity. Employing the Hedgehog Concept or Conceptual Integrity involves staying focussed on your goal and not following resources that don’t support and integrate into your goal. For libraries, this may mean that they turn down offers from campus IT to collaborate on an Information Commons, resources from the Gates Foundation, or E-rate discounts. It could also mean that you don’t buy more copies of the latest Harry Potter even though you know circulation numbers will go up. Of course, it may mean that you do all of those things, the important thing is to be disciplined about evaluating the resources.

Last week I came across a post by Emily Clasper about her life as an overachiever and her realization that not everyone shares her passion to be the best. I really appreciated her enthusiasm and her positvie approach. But, like some others that read her post, I found the tone of some of her comments to be condescending, “The world (and that includes LibraryWorld!) needs people who don’t necessarily want to be the best. In fact, that’s very beneficial to those of us who do.” But more than that, I was struck by how out of step this was with the discussions in the circles that I move. In the blogs I read and on the email lists I subscribe to, the talk is more frequently about letting go of the idea of getting things perfect.

Wikipedia says the Principle of Good Enough “is a rule for software and systems design. It favours quick-and-simple (but potentially extensible) designs over elaborate systems designed by committees.” But the principle can be applied in areas beyond systems design. If something is “good enough” then it serves it purpose, so we need to look at what is gained or lost by going beyond the requirements. Of course, there are many times that we want to excel beyond the requirements; whether it’s to stand out among the competition, because of individual pride, to anticipate future needs, etc. But that needs to be weighed against what is lost:

  • Is the time and effort put into being the best worth the improvement? What’s the Return on Investment (ROI)?
  • Are you alienating your coworkers?
  • Are you missing another opportunity while you are putting your effort into this project?
  • How do you know when you’ve reached the best? Isn’t there always room for improvement?
  • What about projects that fall short of the best? What happens to them?

I recently read a management article (don’t remember where) about applying the POGE, that had excellent example that I’m sure we are all familiar with. We have all had the experience of sending some text to colleagues or supervisors for feedback and having it come back marked up in red ink, highlighting minor errors that are at best grammatical changes, but more frequently, they are style changes. I know because I do it myself. You assume, they asked me to look at it, they must want my opinion. But unless you have something to say that is going to make a significant difference in the outcome of the message, it is always best to let the author know that is it fine. In most cases that’s all they wanted, reassurance.

Emily quotes Seth Godin, the author of The Dip, as saying, “People settle. They settle for less than they are capable of. Organizations settle, too. For good enough instead of best in the world.” However, even Seth Godin admits that sometimes good enough is, in fact, good enough and “a clean towel is a clean towel“.

Lorcan Dempsey’s post today about libraries being run “like a business” struck a chord with me. If you persevered through my earlier post on Bob Sutton’s No Asshole Rule, you know that I don’t subscribe to the idea that libraries should run more like a business. That is why I was excited to hear someone making the case that the idea that libraries should operate “more like a business” is “well-intentioned, but dead wrong” and should be rejected.

At a former place of work, being “more business-like” was a very popular concept. In fact, it was so popular that during strategic planning activities “being more like a business” was listed as the organization’s number one “value“. It was one of the many things that suggested that the library and myself were not a good fit. I alway puzzled over how being “business-like” could be a value. I’m not even sure what holding “being business-like” as a value means. I think the idea came from people who were frustrated with the way decisions were made and thought that being business-like meant streamlining the process. I’m all for streamlining processes, but you can do that and remain “library-like”. In addition, the people calling for the library to be more business-like ignore the fact that businesses can be just as poorly run as libraries. As Jim Collins writes, “Most businesses – like most of anything else in life – fall somewhere between mediocre and good.”

I haven’t read the book/essay by Jim Collins, Good to great and the social sectors, yet. We don’t have it in our library, but I found it at the local public library and will be checking it out as soon as I can get down there.

There has been a lot hand-wringing and blogging about a recent article in the New York Times, along with an earlier article in the New York Sun. The gist of the complaints is that the articles trivialize librarianship, may be sexist, and ignore the fact that librarians have been “hip” for a long time. If you missed it you can get started here. I think it is much ado about nothing. Around the same time, the American Association of School Librarians blog had a post about Disposable Librarians. The gist of this post is that school librarians are leaving their jobs, to take new jobs or retire, and their positions are not being filled. According to the author of the post, disposable librarians are partially to blame for these positions not being filled, or being filled by people who are not degreed librarians.  The post focuses on issues specific to school libraries, but it isn’t difficult to see similarities in other libraries. In short, these are librarians that are not adding value to their libraries. I’m sure you know them. They enforce rules for joy of enforcing rules. They are afraid to do any assessment, unpleasant truths are best left in the dark. And things worked fine before all this technology, why should they waste their time learning it.

These disposable librarians are a bigger problem for librarianship than an article in the style section of the NYT. Every disposable librarian makes it harder for the rest of us to do our jobs. They perpetuate the stereotype that librarians sit around all day and read. They give librarians a bad name. As a result we end up fighting against perceptions of librarians. If we had confidence in our colleagues, that they weren’t disposable, we wouldn’t feel the need to defend ourselves. Of course, if there weren’t so many disposable librarians, we wouldn’t need to worry about it.

The good news is that people are fighting back against the disposable librarians. For example, Laura Cohen, at Librarian 2.0, has written a Librarian 2.0 Manifesto. The contrast between the disposable librarians and the librarians follow the manifesto is easy to see. One point that stood out to was: “I will validate, through my actions, librarians’ vital and relevant professional role in any type of information culture that evolves.”  It really hits the nail on the head.  This is how we avoid becoming disposable librarians. But I can’t help wondering, is it really a 2.0 phenomena?

The manifesto is a useful tool for librarians to read and think about how they are providing services. Am I putting the library before the users? Am I holding on to practices that are no longer applicable? Am I moving my library forward? But are these things really something new. Shouldn’t librarians have always asked themselves these questions? Haven’t they?  Shouldn’t the manifesto apply to Librarian 1.0, 3.0 or even 0.1. I don’t think you need to be a librarian 2.0 to move your library forward or to show the value of librarians. Is it really that important to get your administrators to blog? (For that matter, are there really people that fear Google?)

On Library Garden, Tyler Rousseau had a post that asked, “Why do we have professional librarians who refuse to keep up with the professional and technological requirements?” Laura’s response lists 3 possible causes: “our culture of optionalities”, “2.0 is a great leap”, and “the speed of change”. I won’t dispute that change is quicker, but I don’t know that if change were slower, people would be any more comfortable with it. Two point oh is a big change. Big enough that sometimes I really don’t get some of it (Twitter? Really?). The biggest change is that for much of the 2.0 stuff to work, you need to have a substantial community of users.  To see an example of what happens without the community, check out this post on fauxonomies.  And, truth be told, if my friends were on Twitter, you could bet I would be too. For that reason, a lot of it may never touch the majority of people. Which is to say, I think this 2.0 stuff looks bigger when you are part of it. And it looks like it came out of the blue, but these things have been creeping up on us for decades. Lack of agreement in our standards is a major problem. But it isn’t the “aspirational standards” that are holding us back, we wouldn’t want everybody moving lockstep in the same direction anyway. It’s baseline standards. What is the minimum level of service a library should achieve? What do we expect as a minimum requirement from out librarians? I started this post talking about disposable librarians. We need to enforce a minimum level of competency, so there is no such thing as a disposable librarian. So that when a librarian is changing jobs or retiring, their administrator begs them to stick around to train their replacement.

So this is my answer to Tyler’s question: we need to not allow disposable librarians in our institutions. How do we do that? First, we should look at the quality of the graduates of our library and/or information schools. Are schools exchanging a diploma for the cost of the tuition? Next, we need to look at management. Does management treat it’s employees as professionals by both giving them professional responsibilities and expecting professional results? Lastly, we need to look at ourselves and our colleagues. Do we have the support and the training to move the library forward? Do we have the interest and the will? Ultimately, it up to us to keep setting the bar higher so that our colleagues will join us in providing services that users need and want; our management will give us the leeway to do what we think is right and expect that we will get results; and our library and/or information schools will need to produce graduates who can keep up. And no one will need to worry about disposable librarians or how hip the librarians are in Brooklyn again, because our actions will speak for themselves.

I have just finished reading The No Asshole Rule: building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t by Robert Sutton, PhD. Dr. Sutton uses 2 questions to test whether someone fits the description:

  1. After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?
  2. Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

I was surprised to find that when I applied this test to various people I have worked with over the years that they fit the description more than I would had thought. I recognized many former co-workers in the stories that Dr.Sutton shares in the book. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Research shows that assholes are everywhere.

Bad for business

The main point to take away from the book is that assholes are bad for business. Organizations are much more productive when they are not wasting energy dealing with these people. To start with 20-30% of an organization’s workforce is likely to leave the job to get away from the jerk. That doesn’t include the time spent dealing with, recovering from an attack by, or avoiding the person. There is also the opportunity costs that are lost when the employees in an organization spend more time covering their asses than doing their work or coming up with new ideas. In short, organizations can’t afford to hire assholes.

What about me

For the individual, the message of the book is that we all potentially meet Dr. Sutton’s criteria, some of us may temporary assholes, while others are permanent. Sutton’s advice to avoid falling into this category is to “treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way.” It sounds easy, but as Dr. Sutton points out, assholishness is a communicable disease. When you work with assholes, it is easy to start acting like one. If behaving like an insensitive jerk is rewarded, the temptation will be strong to act like one. And if the people around you are acting that way, then it can look normal. It is important to keep on your guard, so that you don’t join their ranks. You can check to see if you are a “Certified Asshole”.


Framing is one technique that Dr. Sutton offers to avoid becoming an asshole. To not catch the disease, Sutton suggests that you resist the urge to frame situations as “I win, you lose”. The book gives examples of how framing a situation in a certain way can influence the outcome. When people are told that they are in a competition, they are more like to act like competitive jerks. Another example that Sutton gives is an experiment where one group was told that they were playing the “Community Game” and the other was told it was playing the “Wall Street Game”. People who were playing the “Community Game” were noticeably more cooperative.

This got me thinking about past jobs and people who were always trying to make the library “run more like a business”. I started to think about how does this frame impact how people work together? Why are these people interested in the re-framing the workplace? Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of business processes that libraries should adopt. And there may even be aspects of running the library that should be framed in business terms. But I think most of “be more business-like” crowd want to bring competition into the workplace. I’m sure that many would not even dispute that. The problem is that we are not in competition, especially not with one another, and, as Dr. Sutton points out, competition in the workplace breeds assholes.

So, why do some people want to frame the library as a business? They could really believe that there is something to be gained by being more business-like. In fact, there could. But as I read The No Asshole Rule I couldn’t help thinking that many of these people were trying to frame the workplace in way that would benefit them. That these people were trying to spread their poison. Maybe I am being too hard on them. Maybe they came from places that were more business-like or just lousy with assholes. But most of these people never have a real plan for bringing business processes to the library. Too often, they seem to want to create a workplace where it is OK to belittle and harangue their co-workers when they don’t get what they want.

The No Asshole Rule

Life is too short to spend it with assholes. Life is also too short to be an asshole. Dr. Sutton’s book is plea to implement a No Asshole Rule, where they are not allowed in the workplace or if they are in the workplace, that they are contained. We can’t control what other people do, but we can enforce the rule by not being one ourselves. We can also work to keep them from being hired. If they are already in the workplace, we can punish their behavior and to isolate them. But if you are dealing with them in your workplace, there may be little you can do beyond trying to not be one yourself.