From Library Babel Fish, April 19, 2011

I’ve been mulling over a couple of documents that have generated a lot of chatter in my online circles in the past couple of weeks. First, Ithaka surveyed library directors and found that only about a third of them agree with the statement “my library has a well-developed strategy to meet changing user needs and research habits.” Two thirds don’t. That’s kind of scary. A majority of library directors think ideally their community members’ research should start at the library, yet we know that’s just not what happens, and it happens less all the time (and you know what? That’s okay!) Also, library director’s priorities don’t jibe very well with what faculty think libraries are for. Library directors overwhelmingly think teaching and learning is what libraries are about. Overwhelmingly, faculty believe the library’s most important function is opening its wallet and paying for access to publications.

Given how differently library directors and the faculty they serve interpret what libraries are for, I suspect one reason library directors don’t feel they have a clear sense of where they are headed is that where they think they should go is in direct conflict with what faculty want. But do faculty understand how unsustainable the current system is? Though a wide majority of directors think the library should be actively educating their communities about open access, only a third of directors think faculty are aware of the cost of materials. (I’m guessing this might be the third that has a plan for the future.) Half of the survey respondents couldn’t even venture a guess as to whether faculty were aware or not, which either means libraries are doing a poor job of communicating the issues or faculty aren’t listening.

In short, library directors by and large don’t have a strategy and faculty don’t have a clue. This is not good.

The other document was a controversial talk given by a Canadian library director who was invited to speak at Penn State. He was asked to be provocative, so he spit on his palms, tapped his bat on the plate, and hit provocative right out of the park. Jeffrey Trzeciak of McMasters University is ready to take the future by the horns. He has done away with the reference desk, eliminated a third of the library’s staff, fired several senior librarians, and recommends face-to-face teaching by librarians be replaced by more efficient and engaging online tutorials. But the statement in his talk that got the most attention was that he doesn’t plan to hire librarians in future, but rather bring on board IT professionals and post docs. Many librarians took that as a vote of no confidence in their profession, its values, and its knowledge base.

Mita Williams, who blogs at New Jack Librarian, had an interesting gender twist on the issue: men with radical ideas are golden boys; women are at best Cassandras. (And apparently librarians are neither; they are shrewish women who are angrily shushing people or bun-wearing seniors holding on to outmoded technology.) Williams connects these transformations of libraries that include radical librarianectomies with the outsourcing of collections to corporations.

Amen, sister. You are onto something.

I tend to think that the problems in many library organizations is that the 19th century management structures they operate under simply don’t encourage the kind of invention and creativity that libraries need, that librarians need. When change is imposed from above, it can be brutal; when change agents have to seek permission from their superiors, it can be stifled. We don’t have to do it this way.

What reminded me of these two documents was something that happened at a department meeting late last week. We weren’t happy with our reference desk. An intern had done some research and showed us some alternatives, none of them exactly what we want. We decided to go out to the reference desk and take a look. We ended up fetching tools and dismantling it. We dragged over other furniture and tried various combinations. What we ended up with is a temporary fix, but it puts us side by side with the students we’re helping and while it’s hardly perfect, it’s a worthwhile experiment. We decided to do it on the spur of the moment at the busiest time of the semester because it’s busy. What better way to find out if it will work? By the end of the semester we’ll know what our new reference desk should look like.

This didn’t take a visionary leader. It took a moment of inspiration and a joint willingness to try something new on the fly. It also helped that we didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. We just acted.That’s how we roll.

One of my favorite articles from College & Research Libraries in recent years points to four models for organizational leadership. The one that librarians ready to engage in transforming libraries tend to favor is not traditionally hierarchical, market-based, or run by consensus. Rather it’s “adhocracy” – an environment that allows for creativity, innovation, and outward-looking transformation.

I’m fond of the word “adhocracy” but I tend to think there’s another, less trendy phrase we could use, one that’s been in use in universities for a long, long time. It’s “shared governance.” And when it works, there’s really nothing that works better.


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