March 18, 2018

Always Doesn’t Live Here Anymore | Office Hours

Michael StephensSome of the most creative and flexible librarians I know have been working for more than a few years in libraries. Some of the most inspiring and influential professionals in our field have had distinguished careers and still continue to make a mark on our governance and future. I was lucky to learn about collection development, reference service, and weeding during my public library days from professionals who had worked in the system for multiple decades. These are the same folks who did not shy away from the Internet and its affordances in the mid 1990s.

Still always done it this way

That said, I must comment on some threads of conversation I had at the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference in Las Vegas. In 2006, I wrote a post at Tame the Web (TTW) entitled “Five Phrases I Hope I Never Hear in Libraries Again.” It got a lot of traction back then, during the heyday of LIS blogging, and I used a slide of the phrases for many years in presentations. One of the phrases was: We’ve always done it this way.

Back then I wrote, “I think it’s time to red flag any utterance of that phrase in our libraries and make sure it’s not just an excuse to avoid change. It may, however, be the best way to do something.” I urged readers to explore alternatives and new ways of working to make sure efficiencies couldn’t be improved. I cautioned: if librarians are hiding behind that phrase because they’ve had enough new things or just want to keep things the same, it might be time to move on. Is it anxiety that puts up these barriers?

It has been eight years since I wrote that post. But on two separate occasions in Las Vegas, I had colleagues in the field say to me that they are stymied by people who “have always done it that way” and refuse to change. One noted a supervisor who wouldn’t implement a needed and beneficial change in processes because the person responsible for the work had been doing it the same way for 35 years. Another said simply, “People are waiting for her to retire.”

Another phrase appeared as well at ALA and is closely linked with the above: He/she is a roadblock to getting anything done.

I usually heard this one in a whisper from an exasperated librarian who couldn’t seem to get anything done because someone on his/her team or above stopped everything in its tracks. “A proposal has been on her desk for six weeks…we’re all waiting,” said one colleague in hushed tones.

Why we can’t wait

In this climate of rapid change and tight budgets, we can’t take six or 12 months, form a committee, write agendas, meet, transcribe the minutes, make more agendas, have more meetings, and on and on. The best librarians make good, rapid decisions, based on evidence, experience, and a view of the big picture.

I tweeted out the link to the old TTW post while writing this piece. Daniel Cornwall, from the State Library of Alaska, replied, “This 2006 post is all too relevant in 2014. But at least it doesn’t quite seem the dominant point of view anymore. Hope?”

Yes, there is hope. Perhaps these tides have turned, and even though we’re still hearing of a few institutions mired in dysfunction and a lack of forward-­thinking, they are no longer the norm.

Not just individuals

I’d argue, though, that the profession as a whole suffers a bit from this. Do some association committees talk things to death? Why do some vendors we work with use the same old licensing schemes? It’s safe to have endless meetings. It’s safe not to disrupt the way our business works.

How to change the game

How can we get around these issues? Nimble and quick teams, such as Skunk Works, come to mind. They are empowered to push through or around any roadblocks, fast-tracking solutions to get things done. This works best if the administration is on board.

In fact, getting rid of this sentiment is easiest when the person at the top is leading the way. I recently chatted with Sean Casserly from Johnson County, Overland Park, KS. He had this to say:

Understanding your organization’s collective mind-set is a complex problem. If you can understand where you are and you have a general idea of the direction you want to go in and can share that vision with your staff and they believe in that vision, then you need to support them and get out of their way.

If you are currently leading a library, department or team, I’d suggest you do the same.

Finally, if you are leading a library and have said things such as, “We’ve always done it this way,” maybe it’s time to take a long, hard look at why you are saying them. Maybe it’s time to get to the root of the problem: a mind-set focused on the past, not the future.

This article was published in Library Journal's October 15, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Hi Michael, enjoy your columns & speaking programs. But on the flip side of “we’ve always done it this way” is the library that has to try out EVERY new program/idea that comes along. Sometimes past methods are valid and new isn’t always better. Being on the cutting/bleeding edge of change can be very painful, both in terms of morale & monetary cost. Sometimes management does need to slow down a little and determine if the new idea is good, not just change because some new technology is out there.

    • Michael Stephens says:

      I totally agree. I teach mindfulness and strategic decision making concerning tech projects in my classes.