Preaching and Persuading

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.

12 thoughts on “Preaching and Persuading

  1. That’s an interesting point about change not being made from blogs or conference podiums. Most change has to start locally, and blogs and conferences often focus on wider issues.
    But I think they can definitely catalyse change – if you get inpsired by someone via either of those two platforms, or find a positive consensus online for an idea your own institution may be reluctant to embrace, then perhaps you’ll have the confidence to go and try to make change happen at a local level.

  2. Agreed, for the most part. I see blogs and conferences and other media as places for information rather than inspiration. Here is this nifty new tool/software/service model. But then it has to be evaluated for particular libraries. Not everything is appropriate for every library, because every library has local conditions that have to be met.

  3. Yes I see what you are saying – I agree with you that anyone proclaiming THE FUTURE is in effect trying to make one size fit all when that clearly doesn’t work.
    I think that some hyperbole serves a purpose, however. People who try and bang a drum for a certain cause have to do so with fanfare to make their movement widely known – by the time what they’re proposing actually filters through to a local level, it tends to have been watered down into a more manageable proposal (and as such it’s more malleable to a specific library’s specific needs).
    So someone online saying MOBILE LIBRARIES ARE THE FUTURE!!1!1! never actually results in a local-level decision to revolutionise a library and force an iphone app down an unwilling public’s throat, but it may, by the time the message filters through, make a library and its staff aware of emerging technologies and the need to investigate whether their patrons wish to engage with the library in that way…
    And for the record I do find conferences and blogs inspiring, at times. I expect I will eventually be so awesome that that will no longer be the case, but I enjoy it for now. 🙂

  4. Thanks for elaborating on the previous post! I tried to add some of my thoughts but seem to be failing in doing so succinctly. As much as I find unconvincing any “must do this new thing” type of argument, I believe libraries can benefit from taking a broader (rather than narrow) view on what they want to be and how they will succeed in making necessary changes. I posted some thoughts as it has gotten long:

  5. Hi Wayne,
    I greatly appreciate this post, and think it does a much better job of expressing your thoughts and concerns in a clearer, more balanced voice. I find much to agree with, especially your point that, “…the people doing the persuading need to think concretely and strategically.”
    Ironically, as I read your last post I kept thinking that it would have been improved if you had used concrete examples, rather than easily ridiculed nonspecific straw men (i.e “some people”) The post struck me as one written in a state of frustration; an impression formed by what I read as a mocking, paternalistic tone, use of sarcasm, and assignation of negative self-serving motives to those with whom you disagree. I read and re-read your post, and found it hard to hear what you had to say through my own rising anger at the way you said it.
    One example that really struck a nerve:
    You wrote, “But if there are students for whom a library without SMS reference is invisible, they probably aren’t very good students anyway and no amount of reference will help them succeed.” OK, so you’re saying some young freshman whose frontal cortex is about 5 years from being completely formed is just SOL if SMS is their primary form of communication and the library deems that to be not appropriate for reference? (Putting aside that this is one of those previously mentioned straw men–my question is, who are the poor students you are dumping into this nearly non-existent category?)
    It seems you are saying that it is the student’s job to find US, not our job to find, help, and educate the student. But I thought that it was *exactly* our job; to find, help, and educate the students! And if offering them SMS service is the effective first point of contact that connects students to library services –the strategy that brings us into their world– then why not just do it? Why would you choose to judge them as bad students unable to be helped?
    (I know further down you write, “If there’s a new, popular way for librarians to communicate with or reach out to library users, by all means librarians should adopt it, or at least experiment with it.” But the strongly worded judgment in the first quote for me belies, or at least heavily mitigates, the strength of your position in the second quote.)
    From my personal experience, I know that as a 17 year old Freshman, (and pretty smart and academically inclined to boot), who actually grew up loving and using the library, I was pretty lost and confused when I got to college. It was big, I was naïve and overwhelmed. ANYONE or ANY DEPARTMENT that had reached out to me to help would have had my undying appreciation. Wayne, I didn’t even know what reference service was until I became a librarian! And I grew up using my public and school library all the time!! Somehow I got to college not knowing that librarians could or would answer a question for me.
    But I read your comments as, screw me (17 year old me)! and every other college student who can’t manage to figure out the university library system on their own, while they’re also simultaneously trying to figure out being away from home for the first time, becoming an adult, managing their time, their money, their studies, relationships, roommates, hormones, etc. for the first time. But if students don’t find their way to the library, it’s their fault, because “they probably aren’t very good students anyway and no amount of reference will help them succeed.”
    I don’t see that viewpoint as being very helpful to mission, relevance, or long-term health of library services.
    OK, I know that was a bit of a rant, and it was focused on one point of your longer piece. But I chose that point because it illustrates what I read as the persistent tone of the post, which was a barrier for me in actually hearing your main point.
    Again, your followup is greatly appreciated and again, I’d like to reinforce my strong agreement with your point: “the people doing the persuading need to think concretely and strategically.” Part of that strategy, certainly, is for members of our profession to disagree respectfully, without attacking the motives or character of those with whom we disagree.

  6. I appreciate the concern about morale in this article. Too much focus on the technical can tend to lower the interpersonal on the priority scale. Nothing beats a friendly librarian, as opposed to one, as you say, who “storms into” a library or a professor’s classroom with a predetermined agenda.

  7. Peter, You make a great point, and one I should have remembered myself. Rarely do I get worked up like that, but I was writing in reaction to persistent posts on a listserv pushing a specific agenda that seemed more like advertising or self-promotion than useful professional discourse. Reading back, I think the last post was a bit incoherent, with multiple points being made simultaneously. I’m considering a further followup, because I think I’ve finally figured out what’s bothering me: hyperbole and apocalyptic rhetoric.

  8. I appreciate your use of blended librarianship as an example of a more sensible approach to sharing an idea about a new possibility. While it was offered up as a potential solution to the marginalization of the academic librarian, there was never a suggestion that it was the only possible solution or “the future” of academic librarianship.
    When the ideas first started to bubble up I went to Steve Gilbert, President of the TLT Group to seek advice and feedback. He liked the idea and indicated he would support it (which he did by giving us opportunities to promote it through the TLT network), but he asked me an important question. He asked, “Are you doing this because you want to gain recognition for yourself or because you want to give something back to your colleagues that will help them be successful?” I had to think about that for a moment before I answered. As one of my role models, I knew how Steve would have answered that question, and there was only one way I could have answered.
    So John Shank (who deserves equal recognition here and in your post) and I have endeavored to put the ideas and practices ahead of ourselves and focus on building a community for our colleagues. We’ve never claimed BL is for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, that’s fine with us. There are lots of great ideas out there, and we’ll continue to hear from bright librarians who think they have the key to the future of this profession. Before they start sharing their ideas, I think they’d be wise to ask themselves the question Steve Gilbert asked me. But not all of us are lucky enough to have a wise mentor.

  9. Steven, thanks for the clarification on John Shank. I added him to the post. Sorry for the oversight.

  10. Just curious — does anyone have any documented cases of librarians actually claiming that “We are okay as we are?” While there is a wide divergence of opinion about the role of any particular technology in how librarians might best develop their programs & services & organizations, I’m not aware of anybody who thinks that nothing needs to change. I don’t think the “reactionaries” as you define them actually exist.

  11. “does anyone have any documented cases of librarians actually claiming that “We are okay as we are?””
    I have definitely heard librarians say more or less just that, and seen them fight any change at all.
    However, the hyperbolic and apocalyptic approach can make anyone who isn’t as hyperbolic and apocalyptic seem reactionary by comparison. One example would be some librarian’s response to my posts a few months ago where I wrote that while I saw what people got out of Twitter and understood what it can be good for, it didn’t meet any of my needs so I hadn’t joined. Some librarians seemed to imply that I was some sort of reactionary luddite who just didn’t get it and couldn’t adapt to change.

  12. In my mind, at least at MPOW (and this goes way beyond just librarians), one of the biggest problems with emerging technologies adoption is a basic lack of planning and evaluation skills. It sometimes seems to me decisions about technology adoption (as opposed to small-scale experimentation, which I’m all for) are an all-in or nothing kind of thing. It could be viewed as similar to the need for basic information literacy skills for our students.
    If those who drive the decisions about how we interact with and use technology to further user services had a better grasp of technology evaluation, community needs assessment, and project management skills (and I include myself in needing all this), we might not end up seemingly polarized as to the place of emerging technology adoption in libraries.
    Perhaps this is something (if it isn’t already) for the LIS education programs to tackle?

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