Posts tagged ‘libraries’
A couple of important things came to my attention yesterday, and I’ve been struggling to fit them together. The first is this amazing TED talk by Amanda Palmer, which pretty much exploded all over the Internet:
I was blown away by the radical trust she displays for her fans and the way she manages to connect in such a meaningful way, even as her popularity and celebrity continue to grow. From the point of view of creation and the making of art, and finding a way to make that art financially viable, it was inspiring and beautiful. And I believe it is real and true. That this actually works. That people really are this honest, and generous and caring.
But I also found the level of trust she talks about terrifying, and that crystalized when I read this post from Sarah Houghton. Because as much as I want to live full-time in Amanda Palmer’s world of radical trust and meaningful connection, I can’t quite reconcile that against the unbelievably creepy shit that happens to an intelligent, forward-thinking and dedicated woman who dares to educate and promote important discussion in her profession. The sad truth is, it’s a magnification of the stuff most women have to deal with at some point or other in their lives, but being more visible has made Sarah more of a target. It’s despicable on every level. And this is also real and true. People really are this petty, and mean, and creepy and unstable.
There’s more to this. At about 2:00 this morning I had tied multiple threads together in my head – discussions currently taking place in library land, events that happened months ago that relate even more now, reflections on Seth MacFarlane’s performance at the Oscars…it all made a lot of sense in the wee hours, but feels more muddled now. It’s going to take me some time to untangle all of it.
But for now I’m going to watch Amanda Palmer again, and hold on to that truth and beauty for as long as I can.
Over the years I’ve read a number of books on leadership and/or management. One of my favorites is Max DePree’s Leading without Power. It’s not the best-written book out there, but several of the lessons have stuck with me year after year. Considering how many leadership books are utterly forgettable, that’s an accomplishment! This book is geared towards non-profit organizations, but many of the lessons have wider application.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in the context of libraries, and what I’d like to see in the future. DePree nails it in his first chapter, when he talks about organizations as “places of realized potential.” Here are the characteristics he identifies:
- A place of realized potential opens itself to change, to contrary opinion, to the mystery of potential, to involvement, to unsettling ideas.
- Places of realized potential offer people the opportunity to learn and grow.
- A place of realized potential offers the gift of challenging work.
- A place of realized potential sheds its obsolete baggage.
- A place of realized potential encourages people to decide what needs to be measured and then helps them do the work.
- A place of realized potential heals people with trust and with caring and with forgetfulness.
- People in places of realized potential know that organizations are social environments.
- Last, a place of realized potential celebrates.
I love this concept, and I think it applies really well to libraries, both in our internal dynamics and in the way we serve our customers. Whatever our service models look like (and they are bound to change over time), I think we realize our potential as organizations by helping our customers to realize their potential. We’re in the possibility business!
I just returned last night from the Eureka! Leadership Institute. I was so excited to be invited to serve as a mentor this year. I attended the Institute in 2008 and it proved to be one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my professional life. To return as a mentor was a tremendous gift to me, and I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it. Each year the fellows nominate four of their members to draft a vision for libraries that represents their class. Here is the awesome and inspiring vision from the class of 2010:
We, the Eureka! Fellows of 2010, believe the library is the first and best choice for people to achieve success and happiness in our communities.
Our library is a dynamic force for building strong communities by connecting us to one another and fulfilling our educational, economic, social and creative needs and potential.
- Through our collections and programs, we advance learning, reading in all its different forms and literacy at all stages of life.
- We design adaptable physical and virtual public spaces that bring people together around ideas and experiences.
- We commit to creating a fearless and agile workforce who are motivated and driven to exceed customer expectations.
- We pioneer innovative technology to maximize access to information, ideas and each other.
- We stimulate economic vitality by partnering with local agencies to elevate the standard of life in our communities.
- We facilitate democratic participation by providing platforms for discussion of critical issues to advance society and bridge divides.
Our library is a place to fulfill dreams.
(written by Roz Dones, Anna Hartman, Don Rowe and Jennifer Smith)
It still gives me chills. Wonderful job, class of 2010; I can’t wait to see what you do next!
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!
Following up on the last post a bit…I want to make sure I’ve given proper weight to the possibility of a future library that is not built around print books. Books are a huge part of library identity. To many people, books ARE the library. Have you ever been on a library interview panel? What’s the standard answer to the “Why do you want to work here” question? “Well, I love books…” (aside to interviewers: if you’re applying at a library, that’s pretty much assumed. Tell me something I don’t already know. At this point, I’d almost rather hear someone say “I’ve never liked reading, but…”). Books are so intertwined with libraries, and so many people still think that books=printed books, that I wonder if losing printed books will mean losing our identity completely.
Over the past year or so, I’ve seen some thoughtful and provocative discussions of libraries and identity coming out of library land. Some of them inspired this series. There are brave librarians and leaders already out there, scouting the territory, They are taking a look at the rough terrain we are traversing, and the rougher terrain ahead, and trying to establish a compass by which we can navigate.
Kim Leeder made a good strike forward over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe (and if you aren’t reading that blog yet, you should be), asking “What is the real core of our work?” As it turns out, looking at our job duties doesn’t necessarily provide the answer, but Kim looked past the job descriptions and settled on knowledge as being at the root of what we do:
I see no work in librarianship more real than the collection, protection, and dissemination of Knowledge, and the empowerment of others in means to acquire it….The internet, while making information more widely available, has simultaneously obscured true Knowledge and increased the importance of our real work.
This distinction between information and knowledge is a very important one for librarians, and the beginning of what separates us from other programs, services and industries that might appear to be replacements for us down the road. If we think our jobs are just about information, we are already lost. There are too many alternatives out there, and most of them are easier to use and faster to adapt to changes than libraries. I don’t think we can win on that front. But if you go beyond just connecting people to information, and look at the purpose behind it, then you start to make some progress.
John Blyberg, Kathryn Greenhill and Cindi Trainor tackled this question a little over a year ago, and came up with the Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians, which is a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. To them, our purpose is “preserving the integrity of civilization.” I like the sound of that, even though I have to admit I’m not 100% certain what it means. Well, “preserving” is straightforward enough, but “the integrity of civilization” could mean many things. Sounds like a noble undertaking, though, doesn’t it?
When I had the great good fortune to hear Jennifer James speak at the Eureka! Leadership Institute a couple of years ago, she spoke at length about civilization (and please forgive my paraphrasing if I get anything wrong – I’m working from 2-year-old notes). Signs of civilization, according to James, are access to information, increasing inclusivity, and alternatives to violence/knowledge. She also said “civilization is the long process of learning to be kind.” (Let your brain bend around that for awhile: “civilization is the long process of learning to be kind.” Beautiful!) So, civilization requires access, inclusivity, and knowledge? Hello, libraries! We already do this. We are good at this. This is at the core of our profession. So yes, I think we are uniquely positioned to “preserve the integrity of civilization.”
James posits that there are four basic stages of adaptation: technological shift, where energy is concentrated and definitions are changed; economic shift, which is about using that energy efficiently; demographic shifts, which lead to increasing inclusivity; and cultural shift, which is where we bog down. Cultural changes happen more slowly and generate more resistance, because they involve the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. James says that we have to find people who can tell a new story and show the possible future. We resist transformation because of fear. We need compelling stories to combat fear. She thinks librarians can tell those stories.
It seems to me that we are looking for the intersection of knowledge and creativity – this is our “due north” and the point by which we orient all of our other decisions and explorations. As Andy Woodworth said:
I get up every day and encourage curiosity. Whether it is educational or recreational, I am a literacy facilitator, a creativity generator, and intellectual advocate all rolled into one….It is public service in the cause of the common good….An institution where you can explore freely, inquire openly, and learn unbounded by the shackles of others. A construct where you can see the near infinite landscape of human knowledge and revel its depth and breadth. A place, I believe, where people can let themselves go and become the person they were meant to be.
You may have noticed that the intrepid explorers I’ve quoted really avoid making predictions about HOW libraries will do their work in years to come. They focus on the core beliefs that underlie our work. That’s not an accident, and it’s not a cop-out. After looking at the profession with a critical eye, these folks have come to the conclusion that the values are what will last – the expression and physical manifestations of those values can change (and will have to change) as often as we need them to in order to keep serving our communities in vital and viable ways.
As Clay Shirky said about newspapers:
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
In fact, Char Booth says that the one “librarian as _________” metaphor that may be able to encompass our identity for the time being is “librarian as shapeshifter.” We take on roles as needed in order to fulfill our larger purpose, which is not to save libraries (although I believe that will happen, too), but to serve and protect our very civilization.
See? Noble! And not dependent on printed books, either.
And now that we’ve established our guiding principles, we can strike out in all kinds of directions without losing our way.
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.
I had to interrupt my series posting to throw out a quick one on Old Spice Guy. If you’re not aware of the viral phenomenon, Old Spice has a campaign where they have the star from their TV ads respond to tweets with YouTube videos. I think every librarian I know has already seen this one:
Fast Company has an interview with Iain Tait, the Global Interactive Creative Director behind the ad campaign, in which he talks about how they choose which tweets to respond to:
we’ve built an application that scans the Internet looking for mentions and allows us to look at the influence of those people and also what they’ve said. They’re working in collaboration with the creative team that are there to pick out the messages that: 1. Have creative opportunity to produce amazing content; or 2. Have the ability to then embed themselves in an interesting or virally relevant community.
It’s not just picking people with huge followings, it’s a really interesting combination.