January 16, 2017

Organizing a Growing Organism | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara-Fister-newswireJamie LaRue, an erstwhile public librarian (recently turned consultant) in Colorado who has done some cool things (such as negotiating directly with publishers for ebooks while refusing to pay crazy amounts for popular titles), has thought-provoking things to say about the dynamics of change in libraries. Reflecting on a discussion at the Arizona Library Association where something he said apparently raised eyebrows, LaRue expanded on his remarks in a blog post, taking particular aim at a pattern he sees (and many of us will recognize) in library organizations. A decision is made, a direction taken, and then the sabotage begins, conducted by people who contributed little to the discussion as the decision was being made. He writes:

Librarians are really nice people. But sometimes, nice isn’t what’s needed. The issue isn’t that “we need to act more like businesses.” Ninety percent of businesses fail in the first year.

We need to act like successful enterprises. It’s not about public or private. It means we need to be clear about our goals, and manage ourselves to get there. That means, on occasion, inviting people out!

A discussion that ensued on Twitter made me think about what a statement like this means in different situations.

A healthy library organization is one in which everyone agrees on some fundamental values, can explain the purpose of the library in terms that are fairly consistent, and sees how the work they do contributes to that purpose. This kind of organization is a place where everyone who is affected by a decision is involved in some way in making it. It’s a place where there’s a lot of freedom for individuals to play to their strengths and make the decisions they are best placed to make, without having to ask someone else for permission, but also a place where big decisions are made collectively, so that important perspectives aren’t overlooked. It’s a place where people feel not only comfortable disagreeing but where multiple perspectives are made welcome and, if necessary, coaxed into the open. It’s a place with a healthy respect for individual differences coupled with a common concern for the greater good. It’s a place that doesn’t let “the way we’ve always done it” be the default setting that has to be overcome before something new can be tried. It’s a place where people don’t sit back and expect someone else to make the hard decisions but are willing to step up and play a role in making hard calls.

Does that sound too idealistic? I don’t know. It seems like common sense to me, to focus on the verb (organize!) rather than the noun (an organization that can be represented on a chart). But there are some sticking points.

Those decisions that seem to be made together sometimes aren’t. People in organizations have different amounts of power. Sometimes a powerful person doesn’t recognize that someone with less power feels unable to speak up because they’ve never been given a chance to practice and may fear the consequences. Or maybe they can’t get a word in edgewise. Or they did speak up but weren’t listened to so many times that they got the message their input wasn’t really welcome or wouldn’t make any difference.

In some situations, people feel silenced by their peers who have made it perfectly clear that tall poppies are not welcome and will be lopped off. A silent majority can silence those who have ideas and opinions. Also, too often the “new people” or those who “get that technology stuff” are given all the new work, because the long-timers see no reason to do something that isn’t in the job description that was written many years ago. Taking responsibility for one’s own professional development isn’t optional in a healthy organization. It has to be part of our daily routine, to learn and share new things because we’re working in places that, like Heraclitus’s stream, can’t be stepped in twice. It’s constantly on the move.

And that’s a good thing! But the word change is too often used as a cudgel. How many times have we been told we must “change or die”? This is not a particularly attractive pair of options. In such cases, “change” becomes a desperate, defensive measure in response to a threat (that may have been totally misrepresented in order to drive change through force), not the next intriguing opportunity to learn something new. It also isn’t sustainable. Avoiding death is not how organizations thrive. When change is framed this way, it’s usually a demand to do more with less, as disastrous austerity policies pull the rug out from under public institutions and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs run circles around us effortlessly, or so it seems. (An aside: it’s terribly convenient that powerhouses like Amazon and Twitter can be worth so much without actually generating profits. It’s a kind of magical thinking that makes me wonder if we won’t someday look back on this era as a South Sea Bubble or a technological Tulip Mania.)

Change is not a new thing for libraries; it’s the rule. In fact, it’s one of Ranganathan’s laws of library science: “the library is a growing organism.” Perhaps what he really was saying back in 1931 was “change and live.”

I’m sympathetic to the “come on, let’s go!” impulse to make and carry out ad hoc decisions, and I get frustrated with the profession’s capacity to hold back, spend too much time working through every possible contingency before starting, or even to sabotage quietly initiatives through an acid-drip of skepticism, indifference, and resistance. I also concur with the Guardienne of the Tomes and others that, however painful it may be to say it, “libraries are not in the business of keeping people in jobs.” But jobs are less than the people in them. We need job descriptions that are flexible enough to accommodate change—and that encourages and rewards it. I work with immensely talented people and boxing them into jobs that don’t change would be a waste of their talents—and really boring.

Maybe it’s inevitable that those who work in libraries feel a tug between individuality and collectivity, between the past and the future. Libraries support personal growth but as a cultural institution with a social mission. We preserve the past, but we’re functioning in the present and often pulling our constituencies into a future they find threatening.

But as we work through these contractions, we must remember that libraries are (as Char Booth has put it) an indicator species. We’re fighting for common ground in a world where individuals are supposed to be in competition, where the gap between rich and poor has time-traveled back to the 1890s, where looking out for one another has somehow become unnatural, counter to the market-driven clockwork that supposedly rules the universe.

We need to show the world how our values can thrive in an environment that is increasingly hostile to them, because there is far more than just our libraries at stake.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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