October 2, 2014

Bad News? Not Hear | Backtalk

Central to the library profession is our role as protectors of the freedom of information. Many of us celebrate Banned Books Week to emphasize the importance of openly accessible, uncensored information. With higher education facing greater scrutiny from regulatory agencies and citizenry in general, we have an important opportunity to affirm the importance of freely accessible information. If we seize this opportunity to protect the public’s right to information, the library will honor its role as an institutional conscience.

When analysis reveals that an institution’s performance is less than stellar in some areas, administrators might be tempted to engage in censorship by not allowing that data to be publicly available. In such situations, the library’s appreciation for protecting information from censorship can help the university administration keep its focus on the public good. Similarly, libraries’ interest in protecting access to institutional information may be particularly challenged when information shows that some of the library’s own processes are ineffective. At times, librarians face the same temptation that university administrators face, if information brings attention to ineffectiveness in libraries’ standard operating procedures. When library administrators face interdepartmental competition for university resources, the attraction of only publishing information that makes the library look efficient and effective may intensify. While recent national scandals have revolved around problems that are more serious than outdated library procedures, they serve as reminders that openly accessible data is essential to institutional success. If it ever has been the case, now certainly is the time for librarians to model the integrity of their profession by not fearing disclosure of information.

We create annual reports and conduct surveys in which usage statistics and other important information about our role, reliability, and vitality is measured (at least in part). Without these reviews, we are much more likely to be ineffective in meeting our mission. Growth and success rarely last without regular evaluation and evolution. If our reviews do not include input from outsiders, then we encourage a metaphorical professional cannibalism. Once this happens, we have become the opposite of that which is honored through celebrating the freedom of information. Similarly, if we discuss the results of self-evaluations internally, but avoid inviting open scrutiny, we violate the trust that has been earned through years of hard fought battles in our efforts to protect ourselves from censorship.

At the same time, the library profession teaches us the necessity of marketing the library’s resources and success stories to ensure our continued existence. Through these efforts, administrators, faculty, staff, students, and other constituents may express their desire to be included in the library’s decision making process. If we are to reap the benefits of self-promotion, information which reveals both our successes and our inadequacies should be openly accessible for those who partner with us. Through this, we secure two essential components of institutional improvement. First, we declare our willingness to exercise our profession in an environment in which all information is used to make decisions. Secondly, we encourage a wide array of experts in non-library fields to contribute their much needed talents in our operational processes. Our peers in other professions will be much more likely to make significant and meaningful contributions to our marketing efforts if they believe that we are not afraid to look in the mirror of peer-reviewed criticism, to celebrate our successes, and learn from our mistakes.  If any institution should be able to appreciate that all valid information is positive, even if it brings attention to our inefficiencies and failures, library professionals should.

As children, many of us learned that hearing constructive criticism can be difficult. Those who failed to learn the importance of such criticism are less likely to excel in their profession. In an age in which higher education must prove the merit of its place in society, libraries have a unique opportunity, one that may not occur again in our lifetime, to be a voice for the freedom of information. A door to a new cultural understanding has been opened through which we should boldly walk. As we enter this new area, our voices will be heard with the greatest clarity if we not only invite others to participate in our evaluative efforts, but if we also regularly make the data that those efforts produce available. For centuries, we have learned to not fear what might be gained from information that is openly accessible. If we turn from that past, our critics might not hear bad news about us, but we will have forfeited our role as guardians of information.

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Daniel Page is Assistant Director, Magale Library, Southern Arkansas University

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