April 19, 2018

What Do We Want? Change! When Do We Want It? Yesterday | Peer to Peer Review

An article this week in Inside Higher Ed about a dispute at a private church-related university over the termination of some long-term library staff members kicked off some interesting discussions about leadership, professional development, and the perils of reorganization. I’ve weighed in with my own argument – that library staff are capable of learning new things and, under the right conditions, will rise to the occasion without such abrupt and difficult upheaval – but I also realize a lot of library organizations slide into a long slumber, with its staff doing mostly the same things year after year until a director retires or a new university administration changes the agenda or a new hire sets the agenda on fire and arouses the ire of their somnolent colleagues. People chosen to step into a leadership position in that kind of library are put in an impossible situation. Change is needed, and needed now. But cultures don’t change quickly, and library organizations are micro-cultures.

While thinking about this problem, particularly reflecting on the very smart comments Colleen Harris made in response to my blog post, I started daydreaming about how an administrator might approach this issue in a parallel universe . . .

. . . and if this were an old movie, this is where you’d hear some harp music and things would go a little blurry for a moment until this scene appeared: two people in offices speaking on the telephone.

“Change Agency, Rita Sein speaking.”

“Hi. This is Paul Lightly, the provost at the university. Listen, we need some change, and it’s kind of an emergency.”

“How much change do you need?”

“That’s hard to say. I’m guessing a lot. See, our library director just retired, and he was a great guy, really great, but he wasn’t into technology and . . . I don’t know, we kind of fell behind.”

“How far behind?”

“Well . . . this is a little embarrassing, actually.”

“Don’t feel you have to apologize. You’re hardly alone. At least you’re taking positive steps. I gather you’re several years behind?”

“Like, a decade. Maybe more. Nobody noticed until we hired some hotshot new faculty, and they’re all like ‘what kind of data sets can you get me for my GIS lab?’ and ‘who’s going to help me comply with these new NSF data archiving policies?’ and ‘I need support for our digital humanities courses.’ I was a member of the faculty for twenty years. I have a few books under my belt, but now that I’m a provost-well, I’m in meetings all day long. I don’t have time to keep up with research. The fact is, I have no idea what the heck they’re talking about. But I asked around and apparently other libraries are doing this stuff. So we need a change agent. Can you give me an idea of what that might cost?”

“Let’s back up a minute. We do have agents on staff who could implement these initiatives. Let’s say we send one over for, I don’t know, shall we say five years?”

“Five years?”

“With the right conditions, we may be able to turn things around within that timeframe, provided you’re prepared to support her efforts. Can you do that?”

“Sure. I’m a huge library supporter. I just said to the president the other day, it’s the heart of the campus. If my schedule weren’t so crazy, I would spend hours in the stacks, breathing in the smell of old books. There’s something so contemplative and inspiring about-”

“What I’m getting at is that we can provide an agent, but if you want change, you’ll need to bring in new talent. How many positions are you willing to create?”

“Oh, that’s not an option. We’re under a hiring freeze. No new lines.”

“I see. But you still want change, and you want it quickly.”

“We invested a lot in these new faculty hires, and they’re seriously unhappy with the library situation. If they walk, I’m toast. Yeah, we need to get this done, like now.”

“In that case, you’ll need to be prepared to have our agent’s back when she terminates employees in order to-”

“Wait, what? You mean fire people?”

“Yes, that’s another way to put it.”

“Whoa. That would be really, really difficult. These people have worked there forever, and some of them are married to senior faculty, real power brokers. Can we just . . . I don’t know, buy this archive data digital stuff, whatever it is?”

“You’ll have to make some significant investments, yes, but it also takes people.”

“How about if we give every staff member a stipend to go to a workshop? I could see spending up to two or three hundred dollars per person.”

“Well, that’s a start, but-”

“Terrific. Where do we go from here?”

“I’m afraid I . . . let me recap this conversation so I’m sure I understand. You want to hire a change agent to bring your library organization, which has apparently been using a 19th century organization chart, into the 21st century immediately without new hires and without upsetting anyone?”

“You make it sound so difficult. It’s a library, fer crying out loud. How hard can it be? . . . Hello? Hello? Are you-”

“Yes, I’m here. I was just looking up a number for you. I’m afraid our agency can’t meet your requirements. Do you have something to write with?”

“Uh, yeah. Okay, shoot.”

“Here you go. It’s the number for Dial-a-Prayer.”

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