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Provocative to Whom?

Lordy, the Taiga Forum is back with more of their so-called “provocative statements,” which usually provoke nothing more than a discussion about why the Taiga Forum worries its pretty little head about this stuff.

The Taiga Forum bills itself as “a community of AULs and ADs challenging the traditional boundaries in libraries.“ For those unfamiliar with the structure of large academic libraries, AULs and ADs are the middle managers between the library deans or directors and the people who do most of the work in the library.

If there’s any novelty to the Taiga Forum, it’s that a group of middle managers would even be trying to challenge any boundaries. In my experience, impetus for change comes from below, with middle managers only reluctantly going along. This makes sense, because they get blamed for any failure, but not necessarily given the credit for success. That, after all, is what middle managers are for.

The TF goes out of its way not to be taken seriously. They want to challenge traditional boundaries and make provocative statements about the future of libraries, but they hem and haw so much they undermine the statements. Each statement is prefaced by “within five years,” but “the statements are intended to provoke conversation rather than attempt to predict the future.”

Thus, they want to be provocative and push boundaries, but if anyone pushes back and questions their predictions, they claim they weren’t predictions at all, just conversation starters.

They also say that “participants write these statements in recognition of the value of considering potential medium-term futures in planning and decision making.” So they’re not predictions about the future, just conversation starters, except that they are predictions about the future, or at least potential medium-term futures. Wouldn’t making a claim about a potential future be called a prediction?

Calling a spade a firm soil excavation tool…that’s something managers are good at!

It’s been five years since the first set of nonpredictive predictions. At the time I seem to recall the buzz being about statements like “traditional library organizational structures will no longer be functional,” and “Reference and catalog librarians as we know them today will no longer exist,” and “there will be no more librarians as we know them.” The statements were silly, and almost certain to be wrong, which of course they turned out to be.

On the other hand, this one wasn’t too bad a prediction: “all information discovery will begin at Google, including discovery of library resources. The continuing disaggregation of content from its original container will cause a revolution in resource discovery.” I suspect that’s because it was already starting to happen.

This one wasn’t too bad, either: “ebooks and ebook readers will be ubiquitous. Standards will have magically made this possible. Hand helds will be ubiquitous and library resources will need to be accessible to these devices to meet user needs.” Unfortunately, magic hasn’t done anything about standards.

The latest statements will probably produce the same number of hits and misses. Some are so current, I don’t know why they bothered. For example, “oversupply of MLSs: Within five years, library programs will have overproduced MLSs at a rate greater even than humanities PhDs and glutted a permanently diminished market.”

Within five years? MLSs have been oversupplied for years in response to the mythical librarian shortage. I guess the Taiga Forum participants missed that because they’ve been busy provoking each other.

Or “books as decor.” “Within five years, graduate students and faculty will fill all their information needs online, never coming into the library, yet they will continue to idealize the library as a sacred place to commune with books. Libraries will respond by flipping their stacks into designer reading rooms that use books as decor.”

In engineering, for example, this has been true for years, except for the “books as decor,” so it’s hardly a prediction. But in the humanities? Doubtful. But even if it does happen, so what? What’s provocative about this at all?

And what’s provocative or predictive about this: “Within five years, academic libraries will either choose collaborative space partners or have them chosen for them.” Libraries already do this.

The Taiga provocateurs have become significantly less provocative over the years. Back in 2006, we got this: “All library staff will need the technical skills equivalent to today’s systems and web services personnel. The ever increasing technology curve will precipitate a high turnover among traditional librarians; the average age of library staff will have dropped to 28.”

Now that was provocative! It was totally misguided, and seemed like the reaction of a bunch of technologically left behind, middle aged managers to the techie stuff all these kids today seem to know about, but still provocative.

But this: “Within five years, all library collections, systems, and services will be driven into the cloud. This will enable more ‘above campus’ collaboration for libraries.” That’s hardly provocative, and is happening right now with all sorts of collections and services. Most of the journal content has been in the cloud for years. There are competing wikis and research guides and other tools already in the cloud.

Probably the most provocative is this one: “Within five years, campus administrators will expect research libraries to significantly reduce library budgets by engaging in radical cooperation among competing universities: jointly-owned collections, deep outsourcing, shared staffing, and shared services.”

And it isn’t that provocative, despite the “radical” and “deep” intensifiers. For journals, libraries already participate in various consortia to negotiate licenses. That’s easy to see as “jointly-owned collections,” except that libraries don’t really own them. The same might happen for ebooks. Many libraries share services through QuestionPoint. If anything, it will just be a forced extension of a current practice.

Stuff like this leads me to the question, just who are these statements supposed to provoke? Is this this kind of stuff the participants find provoking for themselves, or do they think others will be provoked? The only thing they provoke in me is puzzlement over why anyone would worry about most of this at all. If it happens, we’ll deal with it.

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Comments

  1. Walt Lessun says:

    Within five years, library hierarchies will flatten so as to eliminate AULs and ADs. Corollary prediction: no one will notice their absence.

  2. Spencer says:

    within 5 years a vast majority of young, hopeful librarians will be giving up and moving to a different profession- allowing libraries to age and die at the same rate as their staff.

  3. Why anyone pays attention to the TF is beyond me. And yet, “celebrity” librarians left and right reply to them like Pavlovian dogs.

    As for Spencer there, that prediction actually happened here. Our director, Boss with a Fist, so harrased, harried, and overwhelmed one of those young hopeful librarians we recently hired that not only did she leave for another job, she left the profession altogether.

  4. KathyS says:

    They seem to have provoked you!

  5. Fat Guy says:

    @KathyS: It’s not all that hard to provoke the AL! ;^)

  6. Ella says:

    “Calling a spade a firm soil excavation tool…that’s something managers are good at!” — Too true! I was a cataloguer – now I am a metadata specialist. What do they think metadata is? It’s what cataloguers have always done.

  7. Scare says:

    Point 4. of Tagia – books as decor – has already happenned. My library has a staircase with books as the walls. Not provocative- simply depressing.

  8. Amy says:

    The Taiga statements would be funny except that clueless administrators who think they are, well, provoking are out in the real world doing a lot of actual damage.

    The problem is, the ugly Taiga nonsense is written by people who hold positions with the authority to make policy. So when they envision a future with no buildings, no collections, no services and no librarians they can take action to assure this comes to pass.

    While it may be true that impetus from change comes from below, administrators still have the power to enable or block those ideas and clueless middle managers who have been infected with Taiga-type ideas seem far more likely to shut their ears to good ideas that come along.

    It’s truly alarming to see what contempt these administrators hold for the organizations they are supposed to lead and the staff whom they are supposed to enable. It’s a tragedy to watch once vital organizations being eaten away from the inside by overpaid, self-aggrandizing administrators who seem to think it’s hip to spout a scorched-earth vision for the future of libraries but who don’t appear to have any productive ideas.