Killing Fear part 2: Our reaction to the problem

[Part one is here.]

We’re getting conflicting requests, demands that are seemingly mutually exclusive, and in large part, we’re just reacting to what comes at us. And we’re doing it with some agility and spirit; librarians are awesome crisis managers. It’s actually a core part of what we do best. We help the crying student at the reference desk, the lost researcher who waited too long to get started, the colleague who lost that crucial citation, the faculty member who needs tailored instruction in two hours, and we do it all with thoughtful care. We pride ourselves on solving other people’s problems, and fast. We’re damn good at it.

But that’s all reaction, not action. In a world in which our students and faculty, our two key stakeholder groups in academia, want very different things from us, if we’re just reacting… who are we supposed to react to?

  • The broader world, which is in a moral, economic, and practical crisis at the intersection of publishing, technology, and policy?
  • Students, our largest and most rapidly evolving user group, and the needs identified in the first report I quoted?
  • Or faculty, our most politically and academically valuable allies and partners, whose opinions and expectations, as assessed by Ithaka, are largely not keeping pace with our reality?

We don’t know.

And I would argue that given no clear and open path, we’re reacting rather poorly. Particularly damning is Ithaka’s 2010 study, what I think of as the sister study to the faculty report I quoted in part 1. This one surveyed library directors.

Check out this data.

 [image source]

Pretty straightforward statement, right? Seems like something a library leader ought to be able to say? Like something that’s a basic part of being a senior administrator in a library in higher education?

Yeah. NO. Apparently not.

Call me a radical, but I don’t think that it’s okay that 58% of surveyed directors had no particularly strong feelings about their preparedness in the face of our changing profession.
I think it’s pretty damn awesome that 35% of my peers feel that they have a well-developed strategy for meeting our future head on, but I’m incredibly ashamed of and disappointed in the 65% who aren’t with us.

I mean, seriously. Think about this. 65% of directors participating in the Ithaka survey said they didn’t have a well-developed strategy to meet changing user needs and research habits. 65%. That’s 65% of your libraries. 65% of our professional peer institutions. I could weep.

Perhaps this is a failure of the phrasing of the question, leading to skewed responses.
Perhaps this is a failure of the pool of respondents to be broadly representative.
Perhaps this is a moment in which our obsession with doing things perfectly, doing them right, doing them with fullness and maturity and completeness, is getting in the way of our ability to acknowledge what we have done – so maybe the necessary planning is actually happening, but leaders can’t bring themselves to say that we’ve done “well enough”.

Or, most frighteningly, maybe library leadership is failing us 65% of the time. Anecdotes shared with me by people who say “can you convince my Dean to do X?” or “how did you decide to do Y, and how do I make my boss do the same thing?” or “Can I come work for you?” indicate that this is frighteningly plausible.

In the end, I don’t actually care which answer is correct. What I care about is moving past this, and using whatever it takes to push as much of that 65% as possible into the strongly agree category – not because strategic planning is awesome, or because everyone should share my priorities, or because we should have rockin’ survey data – none of that shit matters. I want to have high numbers of confident strategists because we and our users deserve a better future than what we’ll get if we only react.

And then there’s Taiga. The Taiga Forum is a community of AULs – Assistant University Librarians. I often struggle to talk politely about Taiga, and have been publicly impolite about Taiga. I had to rewrite this next slide more times than is sensible when I was preparing the initial presentation because I want to use ALL CAPS AND BAD WORDS.

Instead, I’ll be slightly more politic and I’ll let Taiga speak for themselves.

[image source]

These are the kinds of phrases Taiga uses in their periodic Provocative Statements. The statements – particularly the 2006 and the 2011 versions – are pretty interesting, and I can’t argue with many of the trends they identify.

But look at that language. Do you read those and feel hopeful? Empowered to act? Interested in change? Like your administrators – your AULs – care about what you do? Or are you made afraid for your job, your values, your profession, and the things you’ve worked for all your career?

These are our AULs, our most prominent up-and-coming leaders, and what they are choosing to propagate is not useful change or helpful visioning, but “provocative statements” that engender fear. As any sci-fi geek will gladly tell you, fear is the mindkiller.

The 2011 list is less fear-based, and more realistic, but it’s also, I think, less provocative. Check ‘em out sometime – when compared with the two previous lists, they seem less edgy to me. More predictable. So for me, that’s the paradox and challenge of Taiga. When they are challenging our preconceptions, they do it in ways I think are counterproductive to producing actual change. In this last year, when their tone was more motivating, they didn’t say much that’s interesting.

So is there a middle ground in library leadership?


  1. I’ve been thinking about your presentation since I saw it in April, and your blog series has stirred my mind again. It makes me think of two things:

    1. Libraries are entities that live within an existing organizational culture. I know large and small libraries who are innovative, forward-thinking, and can plan instead of react because they have an institutional culture that rewards (or at least supports) forward motion and risk-taking. I also know other libraries who live in an institutional culture of entrenchment and protection, or where the senior leadership at the college have bought into the “libraries are dead” rhetoric. While you can have a vibrant and dynamic sub-culture, institutional constraints do exist and can be stifling. Does this mean we give up? No, but it’s taxing on our leaders and we should help them by being proactive.

    2. The TAIGA statements do not help for many reasons. One reason in my view stems from the work of David Cooperrider and the theory of Appreciative Inquiry. He asserts that organizations are “heliotropic in nature,” in that they move towards positive action and direction in the same ways that sunflowers follow the sun. By retaining a “deficit-based” dialogue, organizations can’t have sustainable change; they react to what the “issues” are, not what they should be doing as organizations.

    In my opinion, the strongest library organizations I’ve seen have leaders who have strong relationships with university leadership, have a broad strategic focus, and/or maintain a relentless pursuit of what their library is at its best instead of dwelling on what’s wrong.

    (Citation: Cooperrider, D., and D. Whitney. 2005. A positive revolution in change. In Appreciative inquiry : An emerging direction for organization development., ed. et al Cooperrider, 9. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing.)


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