My last post generated considerably more interest than usual, and I’m not entirely sure why. it’s possible there were some alleged potential reactionaries. The possibility of such is implied in Tim Spalding’s commentary on his blog::
I expect your post will get wide circulation. It says something that hasn’t been said before as well. But if it prompts librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries, it will do great harm. Instead, I hope people use your essay as a way to “kick it up a notch” intellectually, get past the small stuff and confront the very real changes ahead.
What puzzles me was how anything I’ve written could prompt “librarians to dismiss technology’s impact on the future of libraries.” I’m not even sure how anyone could do that. My point was more that no one technology is going to be the future.
My approach and those of the librarians I’ve critiqued might be formulated as one between preaching and persuading. There’s an evangelical tone distinctly present in some of this. It’s always a stark dichotomy. Do what I tell you the future is or libraries will die! It’s so hyperbolic it’s hard to take seriously. I, for the most part, am the converted, and I still find the preaching grates on me.
One contrast would be the way other librarians approach futurizing. For example, I’m thinking of Steven Bell’s and John Shank’s “blended librarians” initiative. I’m not sure I agree with that approach, but what I like about it is that instead of going gaga over whatever trend, he presents serious criticisms and reasons to change in particular ways. He has an understanding of the ways academic librarians could lose relevance and suggestions for ways in which they can create a future where they have more relevance. There’s nothing apocalyptic or hyperbolic, but neither is there any attempt to avoid serious thinking on the problems we face if we don’t make some serious changes.
Preaching just isn’t effective in the workplace, where reasoned analysis and a feeling for workplace politics is necessary. If I started signing my emails with “The Future is X” my colleagues would think I was putting them on. If I went to a meeting and tried to implement a change based on the claim that “this is the future!”, there would be some eye rolling but not much support.
A couple of posts ago I put my approach to change. Changes have to be specific and they need reasons based on a common mission. What are we supposed to be doing and how can we do that better? Will this new tool or organizational change help us accomplish our mission? How? If people are agreed on what the goal should be, and it’s clear how introducing change X will accomplish that goal more effectively without creating havoc, they’ll be more likely to accept it. Politics is about compromise and progress often consists of gradual but constant change.
If you want to lower morale and create chaos, by all means come storming into your workplace with sweeping revolutionary changes that upset everyone and try to implement them because this is the “future.” To discuss contentious issues of change and try to move forward, hype doesn’t help. Hype hurts. Hype alienates as much as reaction.
And then there are the reactionaries. I doubt they’ll find much support in my writing, but I’ll say what I think about them. Andy Woodworth put in a different way one implication of my position. My opposition is to all future hyperbole and all reactionary stances. The radical and the reactionary have very similar mindsets, both uncompromising. Andy phrased the ends of the spectrum as “We are okay as we are” and “We need to change now!” None of our libraries are perfectly okay as they are, and none need to change everything immediately.
I think about my library and its services. One thing I can’t help but notice is that there are some things we do exceptionally well, partly because we have the resources and support we need. There’s a lot of individual and focused research support for the students, for example. It would be difficult to improve this part of our work. As a librarian here, I would resist changes that would take time away from that, especially if the reasoning was based on “we have to change now!” That wouldn’t make me a reactionary. That would just make me sensible.
Other things could definitely be improved. I would like to see us take advantage of newer technology for search and discovery, and I think we’re moving in that direction. Just because of the size of our collections, we have a lot of great resources that are hard to find, or that aren’t findable from one place, such as an OPAC. But information technology is getting to the point where it can help make more of our collection more findable by library users. Regardless of the time, effort, and coordination it would take to implement such changes, they would be worthwhile. If we can improve this without making something else worse, then we will have implemented a useful change that would greatly benefit our users. I would be critical of any attempts to resist a positive change because we’re okay the way we are. I can point to specific problems library users including me have, and what’s more I can point to solutions.
Change isn’t made by a blog or from a conference podium. Changes are made in offices and conference rooms, in whispered hallway conversations and lunchtime banter.People are persuaded less by bold proclamations than by calm conversations and careful evidence. But the people doing the persuading need to think concretely and strategically. The moral support they might get from true believers is useful in its place, but more useful are arguments, evidence, and strategies of persuasion.
And these arguments and evidence must be particular to a given library. Nothing is the future for libraries because libraries are all different. The pressing changes needed in my library are not the same as the ones needed at the public library down the street. Futures have to be envisioned in particular places to solve particular problems and negotiated with particular audiences, but it’s hard to make a big name for yourself with that sort of thinking.