Posts tagged ‘change’
I don’t do resolutions – they seem like a set-up for failure, and who needs that? But I do love to take some time around the end of one year and the beginning of the next and reflect, evaluate, and set goals for the future. One of the things I’m thinking about for this year is being mindful of my “inputs.” I’ve really seen in recent years how the things I consume (food, books, tv, etc) affect me in both positive and negative ways.
I think I noticed this especially last year because it was an election year. It’s important to me to stay informed, and during election season I generally ramp up the amount of political reading I do, but I found I had to be very careful as it’s so easy (especially with politics) to tip towards the negative and cynical and that’s not who I want to be. And I did very little blogging last year because I didn’t have time to keep up with the reading that helps me post things that are positive and thoughtful, and it was too tempting to use my blog as just a place to vent my frustrations. Garbage in, garbage out, right?
As I said, I’m not going to make any rules or resolutions about this. I know that as soon as I decide I will stop eating fried food, say, or watching junk TV, that’s all I will want to do. So as I move forward into 2013 one of my goals is t0 actively seek out things that are good, things that feed my mind, body and soul in the best ways. Sure, I’ll still enjoy my junk food and escapist TV, but if I can minimize that by pursuing things of higher quality more often, then so much the better.
In that spirit, here’s something that inspired me today:
If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins. If you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this little rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine.
When nothing new can get in, that’s death. When oxygen can’t find a way in, you die. But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing–we had this all figured out, and now we don’t.
New is life.
– Anne Lamott, from Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers
I like to be comfortable – it’s my nature. But interestingly, most of the best things that have happened in my life happened when I stepped outside of my comfort zone and took a big risk. You would think by now the lesson would have sunk in, but I still have to remind myself of that on a regular basis. So, I’m giving myself a reminder with this quote today, and looking forward to stepping out into some new areas this year.
So, what can we do? How are we going to keep libraries vital and viable in the years to come? I’ll tell you right off the bat that I don’t think there’s a “magic bullet” that’s going to save us. I think we’ll have to approach library relevance from a number of different points, and on an ongoing basis.
I’m old enough to remember very well the days before cell phones. I always managed just fine. But when I got a cell phone I was amazed at how quickly it became part of my day-to-day life. Later I got an iPhone, and now I wonder how I ever got by without it! It’s so convenient and combines so many functions into one device. I rely on it heavily. I think the best chance for libraries to maintain long-term viability is to become so entwined in the lives of our community, so useful, so fun, that they can’t imagine getting by without us. And I think the best way to do that is a multi-pronged approach. I love my iPhone because it’s more than just a phone. It lets me do so many things without being tethered to a computer. I use it for work, for entertainment, to keep in touch with family and friends. And that’s what libraries need to focus on. Rather than counting on people who use us for one purpose only, we need to make “true fans” who love everything we do.
I’m not saying we need to start from scratch. Do you have popular kids programs? Great! Keep doing them. Are they as good as they could be? Maybe not. And that’s an area of opportunity. In fact, I think children’s services have some of the most exciting potential for the future of libraries. This has long been an area of strength for us, and I think it’s a great place to experiment and play with new ideas.
The July 10th issue of Newsweek contained a fascinating article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman called “The Creativity Crisis.” They explore the declining creativity scores of American children and show how our schools are, for the most part, contributing to the decline. What a perfect place for libraries to step in! I think we are uniquely positioned to help foster creativity – we are great at disseminating knowledge, but by virtue of our collections and knowledgeable staff, we are also great at creating serendipity. Helping children find what they don’t even know they’re looking for and then take seemingly disparate ideas and synthesize them to create something new…that should be right in our wheelhouse. How can we foster this?
Around the same time, The New Yorker published “State of Play” by Rebecca Mead. She takes a look at the history of playgrounds and children’s play spaces:
Over the past century, the thinking about playgrounds has evolved from figuring out how play can instill youngsters with discipline to figuring out how play can build brains by fostering creativity and independent thinking.
Mead mentions a new type of playground that uses “loose parts” – large, lightweight foam blocks and noodles in a variety of shapes and sizes that kids can move around and re-configure at will. I’m not saying we should turn our libraries into playgrounds, but I love the idea of flexible spaces and flexible furniture – easily moveable building blocks that let people design their own library space, so to speak. Why try to guess what people are going to want? Why not just give them the opportunity to set things up for themselves?
That doesn’t apply just to children, and it doesn’t have to involve remodeling your whole building. We have one of these multi-purpose tables in our teen center. It can be used as a side table next to a comfortable chair, or can be turned another way and become a laptop table. It’s lightweight and has a handle so it can be easily moved. I want to buy a bunch of these for our library and just scatter them around. Put some near the entrance and the top of the stairs so people can grab one on their way in. Let people sit where they want and not be stuck in a specific area of the library because they need a desk for their laptop. If we take time and look around, there are tons of opportunities right in front of us. We’re also looking into providing charging stations because we’ve noticed cords stretched across aisles and walkways while people try to charge their phones while studying or working on our computers.
Incidentally, if change scares you, this is a great way to dip your toes in the water. You don’t have to jump into the deep end of the pool (yet) – just find a few problems and solve them. Watch your customers using your library and see if you can think of ways to make their experience easier or better. Customers’ behavior will almost always tell you more than their words, which is how OXO ended up making an angled measuring cup – a solution to a problem people didn’t even know they had.
Solving customer problems is definitely one of the ways to make true fans, but it’s only a start. We have to be able to grab that low-hanging fruit and then use those changes to transition into a broader, bolder long-term strategy, and to do that we’re going to have to free up some resources. This is where it starts to feel like blazing new trails might lead us right off a cliff!
Sorry for the delay in posting this. Like everyone else on the planet I got sucked into Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I’m a librarian, it goes with the territory! I’ll try to post a review at a later date, but now, back to our regularly scheduled program…
Based on my last post, you might think I’m going to tell you it’s time to ditch the Library Bill of Rights, or something. I’m not. I still believe that freedom of access to information is a necessity, and a durable core value. But I do think we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years, and that some of the things we have long associated with libraries may not be as durable as we think they are.
Here’s one example: privacy. This is another core value for libraries, and again, I think it still has merit. But our society is changing drastically on this issue. People are willingly sacrificing their privacy for increased connection to others. I’ve talked about this a bit on this blog, and I suspect it will be an ongoing topic for me. I think libraries still have a duty to protect the privacy of our customers, but what does that look like say, 5 years from now, when customers may not only have the ability to save their reading history in our system, but to share it with others? When some customers choose to make their information public, does that erode our ability to protect the privacy of others? In theory, it shouldn’t, but in practice it might. As the expectations of our customers morph, we may have a different role to play. I can imagine that there may come a time when lives lived fully in public are the norm and people think our protective measures are officious and unnecessary. What then? Do we stand our ground or move with the current of prevailing thought?
Here’s an even bigger shift for libraries: Amazon.com recently reported that ebook sales have outpaced hardback sales for the past three months, and that trend appears to be increasing. That’s HUGE. In a relatively short period of time, ebooks have taken hold and carved out a significant portion of the book market. And Amazon expects ebook sales to outpace paperback sales sometime this year. This has tremendous repercussions for libraries.
Most libraries, whether public, academic or private, are built in large part to store and provide access to physical books and other materials. Our facilities are designed for this purpose. Our Integrated Library System software is designed for this purpose. Our policies and procedures and a good portion of our work are designed to manage and further this purpose. How quickly is that going to change? I don’t know. I know we’ll have some time to transition, that there will be demand for printed books even after ebooks become the dominant format. But this is a much bigger shift than deciding when to stop ordering VHS tapes and focus on DVDs. How are we going to handle it? Are we prepared to make that transition at all? Most librarians I know have a VERY strong attachment to books that is deeper than just sentiment or nostalgia. Will we be able to transition along with our communities, or will we have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away from our beloved print books? (And this is actually an optimistic scenario, assuming that the authors, publishers, retailers and libraries will be able to work out ebook rights that will allow libraries to offer free and easy access to customers. The options we have right now are not great. What if libraries get cut out of the mix entirely and DON’T have a viable way to offer free and easy ebook access to customers?).
And what about our buildings? If you are fortunate enough to be building or remodeling a library right now, and you want that building to be viable for 10-15 years or more, you have to consider now how the building might be used if we shift our collection focus primarily toward electronic formats. Do we want to merely adapt spaces that were meant to store physical materials, or can we envision a flexible space now that allows us to adapt every couple of years to changing needs? I’m concerned that we are too locked in – if we’re all using the same 3 library furniture vendors, where is the innovation going to come from?
This is partly what I meant when I quoted Annie Dillard in my last post. I’ve been walking around my library lately, just trying to picture it without most or all of the book stacks and I’m having a really hard time. I consider myself an “idea person” but this one has me a bit stumped. I think I’m generally very open to change and am a fan of ebooks, so I don’t live in constant terror of the great ebook takeover. But I still have a hard time conceiving a library that’s not built on books. Books are a “bearing wall” in our library, as in most others. They are part of our identity. I’m not sure I’m prepared to kick that wall out!
I know that we have a rough road ahead, and pretty soon we’re going off-road entirely and the ride will get even bumpier. We are working hard just to keep our seats, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for looking ahead and trying to see what’s around the next bend. It’s a good thing, then, that we’ve sent out our scouts…
As we venture away from familiar ground and strike out into the blank areas of the map, we have to face our fears, the possibility that we will not return from the areas marked by warning signs and illustrations of frightening and horrific beasts.
As Clay Shirky said about newspapers:
When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
We don’t know what the future holds, and there are no guarantees. I’d guess that’s a pretty uncomfortable proposition for even the hardiest adventurer, and librarians are no exception. At least to some degree we are in the preservation business. We don’t give up on things easily. We don’t change our models lightly. And we don’t like hearing that what we’ve worked so hard to uphold and protect might disappear.
The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re going to miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model.
If we want to survive and thrive over the long haul, flexibility will be essential. We have to be able to adapt to rapid changes, rapidly. As individuals, organizations, as a profession, we need to be nimble, much more so than we currently are. And we have to be brave. Very brave. We have to be brave enough to continually, honestly, brutally evaluate everything we do, even if it means killing our sacred cows. We have to look at the worst case scenario – what if libraries really are dying? What does that mean for us individually, as a profession, and for our society as a whole?
I’m reminded of a passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life:
The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.
Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over. (p. 4)
We can no longer rely on the maps of those who came before us – we have to create our own. This is where the true adventuring begins. This is where our mettle is tested. This is where dragons are slain.
This is the second post in the “Blazing Trails” series. Part 1 is “The Lay of the Land.”
Libraries are not the only institutions struggling to survive in the face of change. There have been a lot of interesting discussions coming out of the field of journalism in recent years, and much of that discussion is relevant to libraries. A little over a year ago, Clay Shirky analyzed the problems of the newspaper industry on his blog. The problem, he said, wasn’t that newspapers were blindsided by the Internet, it was that all their solutions were built on an erroneous assumption:
The curious thing about all the plans hatched in the ‘90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes…was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.
This is one of my great concerns for libraries: are we merely giving ourselves a “digital facelift” rather than facing the hard truth about how technological and societal change is affecting our core services?
The FTC recently posted a working draft of potential policies to “support the reinvention of journalism.” Sounds promising, doesn’t it? Well, don’t get too excited. Jeff Jarvis posted his review of the document, and in essence, what it portrays is an attempt to save the existing models and institutions of journalism without honestly or critically evaluating them. True reinvention is nowhere to be seen. Jarvis says:
If the FTC truly wanted to rethink journalism and its new opportunities and new value in our democracy, it would have written this document from the perspective of the people it is supposed to represent: the citizens, examining how we can benefit from news that is newly opened to the opportunity of collaboration and greater relevance. Instead, the document is written wholly from the perspective of the companies and institutions of the industry.
The unstated but evident premise of the FTC’s approach is that new technology is a threat to be mitigated, not an opportunity to explore or exploit. Fear dominates the thinking and prevents the possibility for insight and innovation. This is valuable insight for libraries. If we are too preoccupied with our survival, we are likely to miss the best chances to ensure it. And I think we have to find ways to approach these possibilities from the perspective of our customers. As Clay Shirky points out:
We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive. – Cognitive Surplus, p. 210
Survival is the goal, but more than that, it’s survival with a minimum of discomfort and change. Sound familiar? As anthropologist Jennifer James says, “You can choose deep change or slow death. Most people prefer slow death.”
We can circle our wagons and survive for a time, but in doing so we stop moving forward. Focusing only on survival is a short-term solution which, ironically, will probably hasten our demise. We have to recognize that we are living in revolutionary times, and act accordingly.
Stay tuned for part 3…
Have you been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution? Chef Jamie Oliver is on a mission to bring healthy food and eating habits to American schools and families. Whether you’re into the food aspect or not, it’s a great show for anyone who’s interested in the process of change.
Watching the show, I was struck by just how monumental a task Oliver set for himself. You can see from his TED talk on the subject that it’s something he’s passionate about, and he’s been able to get a lot of good support, including the TED prize. But we’re talking about two different types of change here: major lifestyle change on a huge scale, as well as massive organizational change. And guess what? Individually those things are HARD. Together, well…it’s a really big task.
For an example of how resistant people are to change, look no further than the lunch ladies that Oliver worked with in Huntington, VA. When one of them (Alice?) asked him for documentation to prove kids in the UK are eating with knives and forks in school, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. It was good reminder to me to look beyond the library world and realize that we don’t have it as bad as we sometimes think.
The show definitely has its gimmicky “made for TV” moments, but motivating and leading people towards real change is incredibly difficult, and kudos to Jamie Oliver for even taking it on.
Plus, gimmick thought it was, I loved the flash mob.
You know those ads for KGB? I avoid tv commercials as much as possible, but even I haven’t been able to miss these (full disclosure: I first noticed them because they feature Sean Gunn of Gilmore Girls fame). But every time I see them I have this little moment of frustration, thinking “This is just text-message reference, for a fee. Libraries do this for free.” Well, some libraries do, anyway, and that’s a problem.
Libraries traditionally have not been very nimble organizations – we don’t have the response speed we need when new technologies are developed, so we are slow to take advantage, even of those things that are right in our wheelhouse. Which means that while libraries are still struggling to get on board with SMS and IM for reference, Aardvark is launching an iPhone app that allows people to ask questions of other users and get responses back within minutes. People are crowdsourcing questions on Twitter instead of calling their local library reference desk. As I pointed out awhile back, it doesn’t matter if we provide “better quality” or more authoritative answers if no one is using our services because there’s something quicker and easier that meets their needs.
Of course there’s a financial dynamic involved – it would be great if libraries could all afford to keep a developer on staff, creating apps and finding ways to adapt new technologies for library use, but that’s just not realistic. But I think the bulk of the problem is in our organizational culture. We are trying to adopt the new without making any sacrifices, and it won’t work. Trying to do everything just results in slow and cumbersome organizations. As leaders and managers, we need to prioritize those things that will keep our organizations relevant and able to serve effectively and efficiently in our communities, and make the tough decisions about what to let go.