Lynn says, grumpily, "We don't need another session on 'managing change' -- we need one on managing stasis!" She's seen too many conference themes and programs that seem to reflect a notion that this "change" stuff is something new.
Leslie Burger's inaugural speech as president of ALA is all about the need for change -- "transformation". I don't really disagree with anything that she says but I confess to being a little startled. Is "change" really such a radical notion? From the tone of some of the responses to it, one could get the impression that, except for a few dynamic and visionary individuals, the vast mass of librarians have been mired in change-resistant postures for decades and are only now waking up. But surely this isn't the case.
Leslie says, "Librarians and libraries have already been through a decade of great change..." Only a decade?
When I was at the National Library of Medicine in the mid-eighties, MEDLINE was opened up to searching by anyone -- previously only trained librarians had been able to do this. The era of "end-user searching" dawned. Radical change for reference librarians who had to begin to shift from doing searches for people to providing support so that people could do better searches on their own. Tremendous resistance and fear among librarians, along with excitement and a vision of the tremendous possibilities being opened up.
Just a couple of years earlier, while I was in library school, I assisted in the retrospective conversion process at my university -- getting rid of the card catalog. Radical change. Again, much resistance, and much excitement as well.
In the early seventies MEDLINE became the first publicly available online bibliographic database. Nearly two decades before Berners-Lee invented the WWW, librarians were radically changing the way that access to the medical literature was provided. In short order, companies like DIALOG expanded this notion across all disciplines. Radical change. Resistance and excitement.
I could go on. In 1994 I did a presentation on this theme at a conference in Orlando. Despite my aversion to cute titles, since we were in the land of Da Mouse, I called it "Why Are We Being So Mickey Mouse About Change?" My point is that this "change" thing is nothing new. It is the nature of the world and it is a fantasy (one that humans are particularly prone to) to imagine the past as a stable environment where people knew what was going on and what their role was, completely unlike the present, which is full of uncertainty and pressures being imposed on us from every direction.
The great danger in this fantasy is that it leads us to look at the present as a brief transitional time. With sufficient drum-beating and cheerleading, we can reach a point where everyone "gets it" and we can become transformed. And once we're transformed, then we will have achieved a new stable era and can go on about our business. This is a recipe for frustration, disillusion and burnout. Some years ago, when we fell into the business of providing IT support for several of the schools here, I ran into our Head of Systems at the elevator one evening at the end of the day. We'd just hired a bunch of new techs and I asked him how it was going. "They're doing really well," he said. "They're learning the ropes, getting along, getting to know the issues and what we can do about them. There's only one problem..." He paused, then said, with a grin, "They think we're gonna get done."
We're not going to get done. Thirty years ago it was the dawn of online searching and integrated library systems. Fifteen years ago it was the rise of the internet and the world wide web. These days it's blogs and wikis and social networks. Fifteen years from now....?
If you're going to be in this for the long term, it is critical that you understand that the flow of change is unending. You never step in the same river twice. (I suspect that Heraclitus was a librarian).
There will always be resistance. This is the nature of humans and their organizations. Leslie says, "No one much likes change..." This isn't quite true. Some of us like change quite a bit, and find it to be our natural element. It's also the case that few people are opposed to change on principle. Most people are resistant to changes being imposed on them when they don't see that the result of the change is going to be an improvement in their situation. Managing change requires being sympathetic to these facts, seeking allies, building excellent communication vehicles, providing opportunities for maximum input, etc. And anybody who has followed the change management literature for the past several decades knows that none of these principles are new.
I'm glad for Leslie Burger's enthusiasm. I think she'll be a good leader for ALA. I'm delighted at the energy and excitement that I see is certain quarters of libraryland. It's a fun and exciting place to be, and I'm tremendously optimistic about our future. But I know we're not going to get done.