March 16, 2018

Change Rhetoric: Good and Bad | Peer to Peer Review

Even when I was still a student in library school, I noticed that the library literature often included exhortations for libraries and librarians to change. However, too many of them, then and now, do more harm for their cause than good. Rather than analyze any specific calls for change, I want to discuss what I consider the differences between good and bad change rhetoric. The goal of such rhetoric is, presumably, to change people’s opinions. Both good and bad change rhetoric do this, but while good change rhetoric persuades people to consider adopting some change, bad change rhetoric lowers the audience’s opinion of the speaker.

The Bad

First, the bad. There’s a category of rhetorical gestures that are generally ineffective: “Change or die!” For this, you could also substitute “Do it because it’s new!” or any statement about “The Library” or “The Librarian.” Statements like that just don’t mean much. Change or die? The literal meaning (or at least the literal metaphorical meaning, since libraries rarely “die” as such) is that unless libraries or librarians change, they will die, or at least become obsolete and ineffective. Libraries change all the time. To paraphrase Heraclitus, we never step into the same library twice. The problem is directing that change. However, empty, panic-filled statements don’t work, if nothing else because the people whose minds you most want to change are the least likely to find your doomsday scenario frightening.

Besides the lack of meaning, there’s also the vagueness. Calls for change along these lines often don’t specify what should be changed. One is left with the impression that the answer to the question, “What should be changed?” would be, “Everything!” Talking about change in broad and vague terms is a pointless exercise. Statements like this also pretend to apply to all libraries or librarians, even though any change will depend on local circumstances.

Meaninglessness and vagueness are the least effective types of change rhetoric if you want actual change, rather than to just express frustration. I’m not discounting that as a motive, and even a useful one, but it won’t typically lead to whatever change you think you want. Instead, it will just irritate the librarians around you. So, what might be better?

The Good

One way to approach good, and therefore effective, change rhetoric is to begin with the opposite of the bad: be specific and meaningful. Every vague call for change or meaningless claim about libraries that I’ve encountered has made me want to ignore the person making them. In contrast, every change I’ve supported has been very specific and clearly related to a common goal or shared value of the people involved. An effective call for change goes something like this: “I want to implement Change A because it would improve Activity B, which is in accord with Value C that we all share.”

Pick any innovation you want, and this method can work. A decade or so ago, there was some resistance to implementing chat reference services, and yet now every academic library I know of has some form of virtual reference. Chat reference didn’t go from radical to ubiquitous in a span of a few years because librarians said, “Hey, make this change, or we’ll die,” although I’m sure there were librarians saying that. It achieved its popularity because of the librarians saying, “This is another method of communicating with and helping library users using a medium some of them are already using, and offering such communication and help is one of the goals of our library.”

Okay, so there’s the specificity and meaningfulness. However, there’s a further step that adds to the effectiveness. Once you’ve implemented some new service or made some significant change that is in accord with shared library goals, show us that it works and that it does what you claimed it would do. Making the specific and meaningful claim is enough to implement a trial, or beta version, or some such, at least as far as I’m concerned, but it’s not enough to persuade people to implement any sort of sweeping or permanent change. “Change or die!” is bad, but “Make this change permanent without any evidence that it does what I claim it will do!” isn’t a whole lot better.

And that’s where all the “how I done it good” presentations, articles, blog posts, and the like come in handy. The best ones don’t just report “we did this.” They say, “We implemented Change A to improve Activity B in accord with our library Value C, and because of Reasons D and E we think it worked well enough to keep going.”

Again, we can go back to chat reference as an example. If such services had been implemented in libraries and had been disastrous in some way, they probably would have been abandoned. But they haven’t been, because the adjustment in staffing and skills was worth the new ways of reaching a target audience. Changes like that are resisted by librarians because of personal quirks and concerns, but, ultimately, it’s not about the librarians; it’s about how best to serve the library users, and most librarians accept that as a shared value.

If you want to make big changes, avoid vague statements and meaningless claims. State very specifically what change you want to make, show how it should improve the library mission in some way, and, after trying the change, provide evidence that it did indeed improve that mission. Don’t make doomsday statements, because most likely you’re the only one who is panicking. Looked at that way, it’s really quite simple, but apparently it’s difficult in practice, or we wouldn’t see so much of the bad change rhetoric.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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