July 2011


When I started to read the Administration section in the Librarians thread of R. David Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, I was prepared to respond with enthusiasm. I’d just finished reading my friend Laura’s blog post about activism as management metaphor, and I was hoping to find a similar blend of optimism and practicality in Lankes’ text. “Librarians working together, be it in formal or informal organization boundaries, are not some organizational chart but a participatory network… we must turn our facilitation skills loose on the profession” (Lankes, 2011, p. 160). Yes! Indeed!  Eagerly, I read on.

But then I arrived at these lines:

Before, if a librarian wanted to start a blog and you said no, you had to manage the librarian’s disappointment.  Now? Librarians go and set up a free Blogger account and away they go.  Now you have to manage their rebellion and potential impacts on the institution… The same awesome freedom that makes librarians invaluable makes them hard to say no to.  This is power discussed throughout the Atlas, but for management it is a challenge. (Lankes, 2011, p. 161)

and I felt some librarian disappointment of my own.  “Manage their rebellion?” That was the most vital conversation we could have about the specifics of manager-employee relationships, the one concrete example we were going to discuss? Lankes affirmed that the librarian’s charge to “facilitate our members and lead our communities (to improve)” applied within the working-at-the-library circle of the community as strongly as it did anywhere else. However, he claimed that we must simply learn from the best management concepts outside librarianship, without “seek[ing] to advance this knowledge per se” (Lankes, 2011, p. 161). Not advance this knowledge? Why not?!?!

Administrative librarians can and must seek to advance knowledge about managing humans. If our foundational skill as librarians is meant to be facilitating conversations, shouldn’t we have a lot to contribute in broader conversations about management? Even those few librarians who never manage other people will be almost certainly be managed by someone; don’t they need to develop a professionally-grounded understanding of how management should work? Shouldn’t we try, in our LIS educations, our professional scholarship, and our reflective practice, to figure out what being a managing librarian should mean, going beyond a straightforward adoption of practices and insights from other professions?

My own experiences as an employee and a manager, and my understanding of librarianship, convince me that the most important thing a manager can do is to recognize (and support) the moral agency of her fellow employees. Later in the Librarians thread, Lankes advocated that LIS students should be taught “[h]ow to plot and scheme, cajole and convince. How to map power and gain power to put beyond a vison” (Lankes, 2011, p. 18o). He further insisted that mentorship should be recognized as a universal professional obligation, under which “the entire profession sees itself as part of the education of new librarians” (Lankes, 2011, p. 185). To teach each other what we most need to learn about power, we must not manage rebellion, but manage for it. We must encourage everyone we manage to “challenge legacy processes. all of them. often.” (Buckland, 2011). We must encourage them to resist our authority for change when they think we’ve lost our way, and our authority for stability when they believe in a needed change. We must work harder at fostering revolutions than we do at starting or containing them.  How else can librarianship grow?

References

Buckland, Amy.  (2011, June 26).  The talk I meant to give [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://jambina.com/blog/the-talk-i-meant-to-give/

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; if I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them. 

In the “Improve Society” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship (2011), R. David Lankes described the shared values of librarianship as “a dedication to learning, a commitment to openness, a provision of intellectual freedom and safety, and a dedication to intellectual honesty ” (p. 120) and referred to librarians’ commitment to these values as a “pressure for improvement” that acts to amplify or, more rarely, oppose the other “pressure[s] for participation” in their communities (p. 119). So far, so good, right? But I had a lot of trouble with this thread. Not because I don’t believe in trying to change the world, but because every time I saw the phrase “improve society” (and, as you might imagine, he used it often), suddenly the textbook in front of me would turn into a red flag, and, bull-like, I would widen my nostrils, stamp my feet, and start muttering things like “Mao was a librarian, too,” under my breath. That response is, of course, a cheap shot. There have been lots of famous librarians, and many of them did improve society in useful ways.  I have no problem admitting that I want to follow my conscience even if it puts me outside community norms, so why did I have such trouble with those two simple words?

The best way to explain it is by considering the ideas of personal experience and bias that Lankes touches on elsewhere in the thread. When I read “improve society,” my mind immediately reaches back to the uses of those words I’ve most often heard before. My personal experiences include a background in evolutionary biology and a lifelong interest in world history, so for me that phrase conjures up a murky blend of social Darwinism, eugenics, colonial powers, and the Hundred Flowers Campaign – not exactly the right combination for feeling optimistic about doing good. Rather than giving up on the conversation entirely, I started casting around for a different phrase, one that could help me stay open to the thread as a whole. Soon enough, I remembered The Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck.

“Decreasing worldsuck” might sound a little silly, but for me it’s downright liberating. As an idea, it grew from the minds of a large number of warmhearted human beings who aren’t afraid to look foolish in the service of their ideals, anchored by my favorite YA writer and his brother. I also like the term because its coiners explicitly acknowledge that you only know it when you see it; everybody’s idea about it is a little bit different, and yet most of us can agree that hurricanes involve a lot of worldsuck, whereas a charitable microlender has no worldsuck at all. The effort to decrease worldsuck focuses on small, incremental change: what can I do today to make things a little bit better for someone else (or even myself) than they were the day before? Maybe it’s helping a library member find a book to read to their kid, or maybe it’s rewriting policy to strengthen services for the library’s most vulnerable members; either way, there’s a little bit less trouble, and a little bit more happiness, in the world than there was before.

“The mission of librarians is to decrease worldsuck through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”? That’s a mission I can make my own.

References

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; if I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them. 

It was my first day working at the library, and I was as nervous as a cat at a dog park. I’d spent the week before in an overheated warehouse, moving boxes of books for my old boss. Now I stood around in air-conditioned comfort, watching my colleagues play Guitar Hero and argue about Facebook, and I worried. What would my new job be like? What were my new coworkers like? For the last eight years, I’d worked with no more than a half-dozen other employees at a time. How was I going to fit in among all these new people? How would I build the relationships I would need to do my job? As I hovered on the edge of the group, one of the librarians touched my arm. “You like to read,” she said. “You should join our book club.”

I blinked. “What sort of books do you read?” I asked.

“Oh, all kinds. And it’s not just library people, either. We have other friends who come too.” I smiled, and asked for details, and talked myself into going to just one meeting. I didn’t think I liked book clubs, but I liked this librarian. And it was much easier to say, “I love to talk about books,” than it would’ve been to say, “I need to make new friends.”

Four years later, the librarian in question has been living in far-away Chicago for almost four years, but I love the book club she introduced me to so much that I go to every meeting. Even the one we had last week, when I should’ve been reading my textbook instead. If I had been reading my textbook, I might’ve seen the Jessamyn West quote that opens the Community thread, “One of the things I learned in library school is that when people have an information need, they’ll always ask people they know before they ask a librarian. The trick is making sure that librarians are some of the people they know” (West, quoted in Lankes, 2011, p. 83), and wondered why I hadn’t gone. Since I did go, though, what I want to talk about now is what a book club does for its participants (really, of course, what they do for each other).

In my case, my fellow book club members were my first and best mentors in learning about the local context of the wider college community. They provided the safe environment and extended network that I needed to make sense of things. When the college went through a financial crisis along with the rest of the country in 2008, their long memories and sharp wits shaped my understanding of what my colleagues outside the library were going through. When I decided to return to school, they cheered me on. They’ve shared their adventures and losses, their concerns and enthusiasm, without stinting, and I’ve been inspired to do the same. We consider each others’ lives, not just our opinions of the books we read. Even when we discuss books, the context of our group friendship enriches our conversation.

I know first-hand that it’s not just me (not just us) who benefits from book club. Last year, I had the privilege of attending a meeting of the Dayton’s Bluff Book Club in St. Paul, MN, a neighborhood project facilitated by librarians from Metro State University Library and the Dayton’s Bluff branch of the St. Paul Public Library. Members of this book club represented a true cross-section of the neighborhood demographic, including students, blue-collar workers, and retirees who’d lived in Dayton’s Bluff their whole lives. They talked about the book, yes. But more than that, they talked about their experiences in the neighborhood, their connections to the past, and their hopes for the future. They were acting together to turn the “arbitrary and historic conglomerations” (Lankes, 2011, p.85) of shared residence in Dayton’s Bluff into something richer and more meaningful.

When I thought I didn’t like book clubs, I believed that they weren’t about the books, but they ought to be. Once I fell in love with my own book club, I decided that they weren’t about the books, but they didn’t need to be. In St. Paul, I realized that the real glory of book clubs is that they aren’t about the books, but they can pretend to be. By inhabiting a space between the impersonal and the intimate, book clubs encourage a deepening of trust.

References

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; if I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them. 

“Entitled” is an epithet that gets tossed around a lot these days. Professors bemoan students’ sense of entitlement, administrators bemoan professors’ sense of entitlement, and if I told you I’d never bemoaned a library member’s sense of entitlement, you’d be right to call me a liar. However, blanket attitudes of entitlement are very rare among the members of the small college library where I work. Almost everyone who walks through our doors expects to cooperate with others, not to blame them. For a long time, I’ve thought that was because our overall campus culture is one of fervent engagement with just about everything. But as I read the Facilitation thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship, I started to see things differently. In the course of a discussion about broadening literacy, R. David Lankes drew on practical examples, along with some of Saul Alinsky’s insights about power, to advocate for a flexible definition of librarians’ roles as facilitators, a definition that focuses on member empowerment. As I considered Lankes’ claim that “[t]o be ‘literate in’ means to be able to use something to gain power,” (2011, p. 75), and mulled over our local context, I developed a new explanation: the reason why relatively few of our library members act entitled is that relatively many of our library members feel empowered.

At this moment, gentle readers, I am imagining you with deeply wrinkled brows.  “Entitled” and “empowered” are synonyms, after all. When we talk about entitlement pejoratively, though, what we’re really talking about is the appearance that people care too much about their own power, not power itself.  What if most of the people who seem to think that they deserve the world on a plate are bluffing? What if their dominant emotions are not contempt, or selfishness, but anxiety, fear, or even despair?

During the first year I supervised carrel sign-ups for our thesis and capstone students, I noticed a pattern.  While our carrel-using seniors started the year with smiles on their faces and flexible attitudes, by the time mid-March rolled around, a sizable minority of these students became overemotional, demanding, and downright rude.  No one I talked to was surprised by my observation; the thesis preparation process was harrowing and stressful, they said, and we at the service desks were an easy target for blowing off steam.  What could we do?

Here’s what I did. First, I started listening to what the students had to say, instead of how they were saying it.  They needed that carrel right now, not just during their thesis block; they had trouble keeping track of everything they were required to do; they felt frustrated, and confused, and as if their whole lives were dangling by a thread.  Then, I convinced my coworkers to eliminate our byzantine rules about thesis carrel assignment. We did need some system, because there wasn’t enough space for every senior student to have a carrel, but the original process was built around gatekeeping.  In theory, a subject librarian let circulation know that a particular faculty member had acknowledged that a particular student was working on a thesis in a particular month.  In practice, there were always workarounds, exceptions, and delays. The new system widened access so that any student with senior standing could sign up for a thesis carrel, and then keep it for as long as they wanted.  Responsibility for signing up, and for renewing that signup each month, was placed firmly on the shoulders of each student, where it belonged.  We do email our carrel holders every month to remind them about the renewal period, but mostly because it’s a great excuse to let them know about the resources and support they have available, and to encourage them to talk back to us.

My conscious motivation for seeking this change had nothing to do with increasing equitable access, creating a supportive environment, or any of the other noble goals that Lankes identified as aspects of successful facilitation. I was operating from instinct, in response to my feelings of empathy and irritation.  “No more desperate thesis students crying at the circulation desk! I don’t want to deal with rich kids asking my workstudy employees if they know how much a student has to pay to go to this school!”  And yet, when I look back at what we’ve done, and reflect upon what I’ve just read, it seems obvious that our troublesome, “entitled” students were mostly feeling helpless, and that the choices we made worked because we helped them move from helplessness to strength.

References

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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THING ONE: Well? Which is it?

THING TWO: Shhh. I’m busy trying to remember what I used to know about Hegel.

THING ONE: No, I won’t shush. Which is it??

THING TWO: Which is what? No, wait, you know what? I don’t even wanna know.

THING ONE: Yes, you do, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

THING TWO: Honey, the only reason we’re having this conversation is because we both agree that we’re not really in the mood to write a blog post right now.

THING ONE: Well then.

THING TWO: …

THING ONE: Sooooooooo, which is it? Is Lankes crazy or did he get it right?

THING TWO: That’s what you were on about? That’s not even what he meant by that sentence. He said, “That’s why two different people reading this can come to different conclusions: Lankes is crazy or Lankes got it right”  (Lankes, 2011, p.33). It’s an example of an aspect of conversation theory: he’s just exploring how someone who is using an artifact to learn things is really building agreements with themselves, not with the person who committed those ideas to paper. He’s not asking you to make a decision!

THING ONE: So he mostly got it right then?

THING TWO: Sure, I guess. Is that really all you wanted to talk about?

THING ONE: No, not really, I mostly wanted to talk about what you just said.

THING TWO: I don’t see how that can be, when I only just now said it. But go ahead.

THING ONE: Um, duh, we’re the same person. So, anyway,  if someone in conversation with an artifact is really in a conversation with their own imago of the author (or painter or programmer or what have you) … what happens if the author somehow joins the conversation? What if the first person writes down her conversation, or, ooh! ooh! the conversation she’s having with herself about that conversation, and posts it online or something, and then the author comes along and has a conversation in his head with his imago of the conversants in her conversation, and then he writes something down and passes that writing along to the person who wrote down the conversation about the conversation, so then she has a conversation with the author’s conversation about the conversa-

THING TWO: Breathe!

THING ONE: Phew.  OK, sorry.  But do you understand what I mean? It’s dizzying!

THING TWO: Yeah, and at the end of it all you have to wonder: are two people  ever really in conversation even when they are talking face-to-face?  Or are they always just talking to an ever-closer imaginary approximation of the other person?  Does conversation theory break the entire idea of having a conversation?

THING ONE: Dude. Not helping.

THING TWO: Fine.  You’re the one that wanted to talk about all this stuff!  I wanted to talk about Lankes’ work on the Scapes project, how it resembles and surpasses some of the daydreams I used to have when I was first exploring the ‘Net, and how the reference librarians where we work are already demonstrating their agreement with its underlying premises when they walk over to a student’s work area, or encourage students to use their own laptops at the reference desk.  But we’ve already written too much!  Thanks a lot!

THING ONE: What, you think I planned this?

THING ONE and THING TWO grin slyly at each other, link arms, and  disappear.

References

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; when I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; when I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them.

I don’t believe that librarians must share a worldview to work well together. In fact, I would prefer that librarians choose a wide spectrum of different (albeit connected) missions for ourselves: doing so allows us to enrich each other’s perspectives, build relationships with a diverse range of patrons, and serve our communities more flexibly. My four favorite librarian manifestos conflict with each other, and with my own beliefs, in all kinds of delicious ways, and so it does not surprise me to react with similar ambiguity to the “mission” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship. There are some deep resonances between my views and those of its author. In general, the particular vision of librarianship that R. David Lankes used to ground and guide his book,  “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities, ” (p. v, and throughout) closely matches my own experience of librarians.

But Lankes was wrong to posit an antagonistic dichotomy between his own worldview, as reified into that mission statement, and what he identified as a mainstream “materials-centered librarian worldview” (Lankes, 2011, p. 15). Librarians do not necessarily have to subjugate their love for useful materials in order to excel at their jobs; an obsession with good tools is a fundamental, intimate aspect of what it means to be human. Learning-focused librarians and artifacts-focused librarians often get along famously, benefiting from the orthagonal tension between their worldviews, and I know librarians who balance those two focuses so expertly that I’d be hard-pressed to fit them into either category. The real antagonist, which stifles true librarianship wherever it occurs, is the rules-centric worldview. In The Atlas of New Librarianship, Lankes described a situation where a public library instituted the rule of increasing the materials budget by 10 percent every year (without regard for what that could mean for necessary services in a succession of financially lean years).  He blamed a collection-first worldview for this absurdity (Lankes, 2011, p. 15). Is it not equally likely that the problem resulted from a rules-first worldview?

I know an unapologetically materials-centered elementary school librarian, someone whose professional life has revolved around her reverence for books. She applies learning theories skillfully, she pioneered the use of integrated library curricula in her district, and she’s very service-oriented; it’s just that those values don’t take first place in her heart, or in her conversations. This librarian retired not too long ago; she recently reported to me that the theory-focused, “new school” librarian who replaced her withdrew every book in the library that was more than five years old. “But surely,” I protested, “you mean that she withdrew everything that hasn’t circulated in the last five years! Things people aren’t using! I know how you feel about those old books, but if no one was using them…”  I was wrong. All materials acquired more than five years ago would henceforth be withdrawn without replacement, even high-circulation items. From what I could find out, the replacement librarian wasn’t artifact-centered at all; she didn’t care about shiny new computers any more than she did about dusty old books. She had simply developed (or absorbed) a set of narrow rules for establishing a purportedly modern library, where there would be plenty of space for purportedly modern learning activities.  There was no room left in her ideology for assessing her community’s investment in other ways of learning.

As part of my own job, I manage electronic reserves, and so I continually seek out and analyze discussion about them. In that context, the biggest conflicts arise between those library workers who want to explore possibilities, describe best practices, and work with the interpretation-based legal precedents surrounding fair use, and those parties (often other library workers!) who want to set clear, “objective” rules about what is and isn’t acceptable. No one in that area of practice is especially attached to the tools they use or focused on the specific materials that they digitize; the plentiful antagonisms between electronic reserves workers derive almost entirely from the tension between “the right thing is what works best for the people we care about, given these open-ended parameters” and “there must be exact rules to determine what the right thing is; then everyone just needs to follow the rules.”

Even with constant exposure to rules-centric librarians through these discussions about electronic reserves, I’ve never found one I wanted to emulate.  On the other hand, I’ve learned plenty from librarians who sharply disagree with cavalier attitudes toward the artifacts they treasure, and plenty more from librarians who gleefully display cavalier attitudes about almost everything. Lankes talks about librarian credibility, our “enduring value”,  in terms of our willingness to be the ones who “openly and transparently guid[e] members through multiple sources seeking consistency” (p. 24). In my own journey through the opinions of my librarian heroes, the one consistency I’ve identified is closely related to that willingness: a common understanding that their own rules, missions, visions, and worldviews must remain subject to change.

References

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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I am a veteran of the social internet.  When I first started going online in 1995, text-based MOOs were at the cutting edge of social networking, and the web was essentially static.  I remember when the easiest way to keep track of updates to someone’s online journal (we didn’t call them blogs at first) was to subscribe to their personal electronic mailing list, when the ability to comment directly on someone’s webpage was a startling innovation, when the advent of friendslist-based services such as LiveJournal remade the way people found their tribes online. I joined Google+ last week, and I couldn’t help but notice that some of the same people I typed at in 1995 were among the first friends I chose for my circles now, in this newest of a long line of new ways to interact. Sixteen years of experience with online forms of sharing have left me with one profound conviction: social media works best when we understand what it’s really about.  It’s not about the tools we use; it’s not about the loose ties we can accumulate like coins in a dragon’s hoard or spend for professional gain; it’s not even about the splendid and productive conversations we can have.  What matters most about social media are the deep, rich, and lasting connections we can form with other participants, and the ways in which those connections constitute not mere networks of convenience, but true friendships based on trust.

It  might be hard to imagine how personal loyalties can apply to institutional social networking.  We have become accustomed to perceiving institutional social media channels as straightforward purveyors of information: libraries offering members news and updates, members providing libraries with feedback that gets turned into data for program assessments, and so on.  It almost seems frivolous to embrace such emotional terms. But what else is a successful community, if not a gathering of friends, and friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends: people who truly care about one another, even when they don’t get along?   As Andy Woodworth (2011) wrote last week, “Our communities come for the emotional experience, whether it is the profound sadness or joy in books, music, and movies or the sense of accomplishment in learning or the feeling of belonging in reaching out online. They aren’t vessels awaiting a cargo of knowledge; they have come to feel, to experience, and to be.” When people talk to me about libraries, they usually mention one librarian with whom they really connected, or one library where they really felt that the employees working there cared about them.  I think most library workers care a great deal about our communities; to communicate effectively through social media, we need to wear our real hearts on our virtual sleeves.

References

Woodworth, Andy.  (2011, June 26).  Turn the world around [Blog post].  Retrieved from http://agnosticmaybe.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/turn-the-world-around/
 
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