Reasons to Change

In an essay published last year — Technological Change, Universal Access, and the End of the Library — I argued that before considering any sweeping or radical changes, librarians should take a teleological approach to change and know what end they aim at before changing. This sounds commonsensical or perhaps just trite as long as you don’ t think librarians ever make significant changes in response to crises or anxiety, to give two possible causes of change.

Libraries can of course make changes merely in response to a crisis, or because of anxiety, or because powerful people order the change. I’m certainly not disputing that. I just want to briefly consider how to persuade people to make changes willingly, assuming that the change is rationale and has a coherent end in view.

Let’s consider a common change called for in today’s libraries: learning (or at least learning about) new technologies. Why might people keep up with the latests gadgets and tools?

1) They like change. Some people just get bored with their regular routines. I like ritual and routine, but I’m also incapable of looking at a system or process or tool without considering the flaws and how it might be changed for the better. I don’t always bother to make the change if the opportunity cost is too high, but I still see the problem. But I don’t think most people like change, at least not change that effects their daily lives and isn’t obviously an improvement. It could be that a lot of people just don’t like to change even when it would be an improvement.

2) They like learn about new stuff. This might seem the same as number one, but I can imagine people who like to play with new tools without liking other kinds of change, and I know there are a lot of people who just like to play with the new gadgets for no useful reason. I like to learn and play around with new tools simply for the sake of learning, just like I read books and articles on various subjects for the sake of learning about them. I’m naturally curious and also adapt quickly. I like the opportunities my job gives me to learn new things. However, I wouldn’t want to come into the library every week to find a new office or a new reporting structure or to find they’d moved the restrooms around. For a lot of people, myself included, to enjoy change, the change has to come in the midst of a lot of routine. We need the safety of central order to enjoy novelty and eccentricity.

3) Change is good for the library users. In an ideal world, this would be a persuasive reason for librarians to change, if in fact a particular change was good for the library users. Ultimately, libraries are there to serve users, even if your concept of the library user includes, like mine does, library users not yet born. As a common ideological point among librarians, it should serve as a basis of agreement that can then lead to an argument for change. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and a lot of librarians don’t care about library users, or at least not enough to overcome a natural resistance to change.

4) Change is good for the librarians. Now we have, I think, struck upon a persuasive reason. I like change when change is good for me. I’m the self-interested rational person that economists dream of, or at least sometimes I am. Changing for the library users is great, but if the change is going to hurt the librarians, most librarians are not going to change unless forced, and forced change creates so many problems and grievances that it rarely seems a good idea.

Forced change is itself a way to hurt people. To treat people with respect and decency, you can’t force them. You have to persuade them. Often to persuade them you have to show them how a change benefits them, not just how it benefits others. (The corollary to this is that to treat people with respect and decency, one must be willing to listen to them and accept when they’re right. Refusing to do something just because you can refuse isn’t any more ethical than forcing people to change for no good reason.)

Sometimes this can’t be done, and the argument that a change is good for the library users will have to suffice. I think that’s okay, because properly defined and defended, that should be a decisive point in most arguments for library change. But showing that change is also good for the librarians helps to build more consensus for possible changes.

In this post, I’ve merely put forward some theoretical reflections on change. In my next post, I’m going to consider how librarians can be persuaded to keep up with some technological changes relevant to librarianship.