February 17, 2018

A Prediction-Free Symposium on the Future | From the Bell Tower

On 11/11/11, what some claimed was a good day for turning a new leaf, Library Journal held its second Future of the Academic Library Symposium, at Temple University. Attendees heard not a single presentation with the word “future” in the title. No predictions were made. No speaker warned the audience about the impending obsolescence of academic libraries—and the words “obituary,” “doom,” or “crisis” were not uttered. Then what did the proceedings have to do with the future of academic libraries? Just everything.

Today’s action shapes the future
Instead of offering up predictions or speculation about the decline of academic libraries, this symposium turned its attention to the importance of relationship building, both those between staff members and with community user members. That’s where the “Bridging the Gap” theme came in. It refers to all those ways in which we, as academic librarians, fail to acknowledge and embrace those ways we differ from our colleagues and users. You have daily routines to follow; your colleague just wings it. Your colleague wants to pay attention to every detail; you have a “let’s just do it” approach. You think you know what the users want, but you’ve never observed them in action. The users tell you what they want, and you agonize over why they fail to notice that service is already offered.

Practically every organization on the planet suffers from these gaps between the staff—or the staff and those they serve. The challenge we face is twofold: overcoming the differences so we can work together to create some that is bigger than ourselves; and realizing that our differences—those things that make each of us unique—can be our greatest strength in creating the best possible future of library experiences for the user community.

Needed now: information and trust
In her keynote, Kristin Antelman, associate director for digital libraries at North Carolina State University Libraries, focused on how organizational culture can contribute to or eliminate gaps. Too often, said Antelman, our cultures are characterized by an “Everyone vs. ___________” (you can fill in the blank) quality that keeps our libraries from fulfilling their potential.

The challenge is overcoming the preconceptions we bring to our libraries. Two things can help us avoid these dysfunctions: information and trust. Too often administrators fail to share information that would help staff feel as if they are connected to the mission of the library. When staff feel disconnected and disengaged they have little trust.

Shared beliefs build trust
Antelman shared research that identifies a significant gap in academic library organizations. We typically have traditional hierarchies. What staff desire, whether front line librarians or AULs (associate university librarians) are adhocracies—organizations that encourage flexibility, creativity, innovation, sharing, and staff empowerment. It’s no surprise that these structures encourage information flow and trust building.

Antelman’s talk brought to mind a Simon Sinek video presentation that deals with the topic of trust, “If You Don’t Undertand People You Don’t Understand Business” (substitute “libraries” for “business”). Sinek talks about the importance of building trust in organizations by achieving a shared culture and values—or, as he puts it, a system of beliefs. When we believe in the same things we develop a trust system. Sinek says that the things we say and the actions we take are the symbols our co-workers pick up on to determine if we share beliefs. That’s why authenticity is so critical in our communications. We create mistrust when we misinform, withhold information, or say one thing and do another.

Tackling the gaps
Four other panels gave speakers and attendees an opportunity to discuss some other areas where we hear about these gaps—and, boy, did we hear about a bunch of them. Gaps between those who want to change and those who want to maintain the status quo. Gaps between faculty and librarians or librarians and support staff, and the challenge of resolving the differences in our status on campus. Gaps between how we think our students and faculty are using the academic library, and what they really have to say about what matters to them.

I was certainly surprised by the student who said “If you gave us a room with no Internet access and complete quiet, it would be the most popular room in the library” because it certainly challenged our perceptions of the 24/7 connected student. If anyone asks why we still need library buildings, the answer might be because it’s the one space on campus where students can possibly escape the daily distractions that make it impossible for them to achieve serious study and learning.

I enjoyed the conversations, but felt that we had only touched the tip of the iceberg on many of the issues, especially those related to finding a way to balance the gap between control and innovation in our libraries. If we fail to make innovation and risk taking an integral, seamless part of our organizational culture while maintaining our core services until we have good reason to change them we will be challenged to shape our desired future.

Not your usual futures symposium
At the end of the day I applauded the attendees for engaging in these conversations. We know what we need to do to bridge the gaps in our library organizations. The challenge is working together to accomplish the difficult task of structuring organizations where information flows freely. The hard work of building trust is a responsibility shared by all. I was especially pleased by the diversity reflected in the program, evidenced by speakers that featured front line librarians and top administrators, those new to the profession and seasoned veterans, and panels and an audience that reflected Temple University, one of the nation’s most diverse higher education institutions. My only regret is that the event fell short in perhaps the most important way—having an impact beyond the program itself.

What we accomplished is valuable, but it leaves the question of how can we use those accomplishments to spark broader change in academic librarianship. How do we expand and build on these conversations? I look at this Symposium as an experiment. Ventures into unknown territory often raise more questions then they answer. I hope that our colleagues at Library Journal will give that some thought as they think about what comes next in their Future of the Academic Library Symposium series.

Let’s take away from “Bridging the Gap” an understanding that symposiums on the future of our profession can be about more than hailing the next generation of gee-whiz technologies, prognostications from library pundits, or warnings from the-sky-is-falling fatalists. The only thing we know for sure about the future of academic libraries is that it depends on people working together to make sure it’s the one we prefer.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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