Tuesday, March 13, 2007

From Your Crusty Colleagues

I don't work in one of those fast paced public libraries that have to "market" themselves and try to please the general public. I guess I just don't like that kind of hectic, "consumer driven" professional lifestyle, and of course I've had to pay the price in not getting all of the benefits it brings. No risk, no reward, I guess.

No, I work in a nice slow library, where the pace of change is measured in decades, not days. We like it here. After a pleasant day of reading a little email and collecting and preserving the scholarly record, we like to relax on the front porch with a cup of tea or perhaps a mint julep watching the world go by and wondering why everyone is in such a hurry to get wherever it is they're going. What could be that important, we all think, that means people have to rush so much. You'll just do yourself a mischief, we always say, and take another sip. Slow down and enjoy the intellectual life we have here at the college. This is a place to think and learn, not scurry about!

It turns out not all my fellow academic librarians agree with my relaxed, calm, and scholarly approach to life. No, they want to turn us all into little marketeers and change agents and such. Consider this interesting argument from Library 2.0: an Academic's Perspective. It's an attack on collegiality, saying it's "both deadly and dangerous for our profession." No, that's really what it says. See, collegiality is about getting along with people, and not upsetting them, and not forcing yourself on them.

But that's a problem for some people, because collegiality can be "used as a tool to fend off unsettling ideas. It is used to shelter those who are resistant to change, often by administrators who want to protect their staff - and sometimes themselves - from the discomfort of disruption. It represents the practice of librarianship based on personality, rather than talent, knowledge or skills." I'm not quite sure what's so great about "unsettling ideas" and uncomfortable disruptions, but some people like that sort of thing. Takes all kinds to make a world.

I'm certainly in favor of librarianship based not on personality but on talent, knowledge, and skills, mainly because I don't have much of a personality. But still, I'll have to take issue with this. Being able to get along with people and to persuade them that you're correct does take talent, knowledge, and skill, just of a different kind. They're called "people skills," which is odd since most people are so sorely lacking in them. It's easy to state your opinions forcefully, and it's easy for those in power to force their ideas on others. It's easy to claim people with whom you disagree just don't "get it," but persuading them is a different matter. It's not easy to get people to agree with you and not make them feel forced. That's the talent and skill that only a few have.

Now the Lib2.0 people might agree with the proposed new definition of "collegiality": "Maybe we need a different definition of collegiality. If the essence of collegiality is the value of agreeableness, let's turn this definition on its head. Rather than preserving comfort levels, it would do the opposite. In its new definition, collegiality would cooperate with - and actively support - innovation and change." That's an interesting definition, but we already have words for that. People who don't want to preserve comfort levels are called "rude," for example. And people who want lots of innovation are called "innovative." The English language is a rich and beautiful thing, and there's no need to go redefining words and making up meanings. English has at least half a million words; surely one of them fits without lapsing into Newspeak.

This redefinition would change everything. No longer would getting along and not being rude be important. No, "Collegiality would value our advocacy for shaping library services to satisfy users' rapidly changing expectations and needs. The most collegial among us would be the ones who looked to the good of the profession by shaking us up with their ideas."

This assumes, of course, that all rapidly changing expectations are worthy of consideration. It also assumes that being shaken up with the ideas of your colleagues is a good thing. I've rarely known that to be the case, but maybe your colleagues are just a lot cleverer than mine, though mine do all right. I'm all for looking to the good of the profession, I'm just not sure how "shaking us up" has anything to do with collegiality. Surely the shakers-up amongst the librarians can get their points across while still remaining collegial?

You should always treat people as ends in themselves, and not just as means, as my father used to say. (I'm pretty sure someone else said it before him, but he got to me first.) Collegiality is about treating people as ends in themselves, as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. Forcing people to change without persuading them that the change is a good thing isn't collegial, because it's not treating people as ends in themselves, but instead as means to your end. Dismissing your colleagues concerns just because you disagree with them doesn't assume they deserve dignity or respect. No doubt you might think your ends are important, but are they important enough to ride roughshod over your colleagues to get your way?

It turns out, and you might have noticed this, that if you don't respect the concerns of your crusty colleagues, then they have no reason to respect your concerns. You've shown by your dismissive attitude to their comfort that you don't care about them, and they respond by ignoring you. It's harder for you because they'll always outnumber you.

I know the trendsetters are always frustrated that folks just aren't moving fast enough. "Move, move, move! Change, change, change!" they always shout. And I know the trendsetters have, or at least claim to have, the good of others at heart. "It's for the users!" That's a fine place to begin an argument, since theoretically librarians should agree that helping library users is ultimately, perhaps, the reason for the library.

But in an academic library, there's a question of which users are more important, and the trendsetters tend to favor the neophyte undergraduates who just need things made easier because that's the way kids today like these things to be. And others believe that the most important users are the serious experienced scholars who are using the library to advance scholarship. And those people don't necessarily spend all their time on Facebook and Second Life and IMing other scholars while switching songs on their Ipods. Spending resources to please the undergraduate is great, but it has to come at the expense of something else, such as the collections.

Every dollar a library spends on services designed to bend over backwards for the students is a dollar not spent on collections. And some people might say that our goal is to teach the students how to be scholars, and not mollycoddle them so much. In a hundred years no one's going to care about your hot new trends, but they'll be grateful for the portion of history the library collected and saved, including all the quaint manifestos about Library 2.0.

That's what all the reactionaries I know always say, at least, over tea and mint juleps on the front porch of the library, as we watch the frustrated trendsetters rushing about trying to shove people out of the way and getting themselves all stressed and frenzied. My recommendation is just relax and don't get so worked up about this stuff. Don't shove your colleagues, persuade them. And maybe have a cup of tea or even a martini. You'll sleep better at night.


Laura Cohen said...

Hmmm. Seems that you left out an important part of my posting: "I have no doubt that we can move our colleagues forward in positive ways. This is called leadership, and we have good role models out there to draw on for inspiration."

Golly - sounds like "people skills" to me!

Anonymous said...

I see a subtext that relates to the schoolgirls suspended for saying "vagina" after explicitly being told not to do so. Their defense is that they are "leaders, not followers" by challenging authority. There is this premise that chnage for the sake of change is good, that it is noble to challenge everything. There is, however, never any thought to considering the price of disruption as compared to stasis.

That, by golly, seems to point to the need for porches, rocking chairs and semi-sober (re-)consideration.


AL said...

Laura, if I'd read that part, it wouldn't have been as much fun. But the crusty colleagues will always outnumber you!

Anonymous said...

and yet even some of the crusty ones have those innovative bloggy thingies...;)


Anonymous said...

"Golly - sounds like "people skills" to me!"

No, just sounds like more pushiness with perhaps a candy coating of manipulation. That's why Library 2.0 is such a turn off to me. It sounds like a bunch of people who are positive that they have the answers. Anybody who disagrees or voices concerns are obstacles to be dealt with, not people to be dialogued with.

AL said...

You don't sound like you're ready to be led! Or at least you can't be made to drink.

I don't think I was unfair to Ms. Cohen, and I also don't think I was too harsh. I think the 2.0 folks overlook a lot of other priorities in their efforts to constantly adapt, and I think they tend to dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as reactionaries who can be ignored. There certainly are plenty of reactionaries who just don't want to change, and my library has its share. I'm always tempted to smack anyone who says "that's just the way we've always done it." But there are also people who have a different, and at least as credible, view of what academic libraries should be doing, and who believe that collections are just as important as services now, and more important in the future. No amount of "leadership" without substantive arguments is going to persuade those people.

janitorx said...

I don't think AL was being harsh--and I am NOT sucking up.

The underlying problem with Library 2.0 is how it is presented as a necessary change, without any compromise, to more seasoned librarians. How hard is it to understand when presented in this manner in the spirit of "change or die", some librarians will have a knee-jerk reaction dismissing this trend and opposing Library 2.0? Collegiality is very important and I personally think it is "dangerous and deadly" to mitigate this fact. Essentially, you are asking for a toxic work environment if you try to enforce ideas without any discussion, compromise, etc. Part of collegial relations is negotiation. It makes sense for all librarians in a workplace to come to a mutual agreement about which aspects of Library 2.0 they are willing to adopt and how these will fit into the current workflow of library service. It is patently foolish to embrace Library 2.0 wholeheartedly.