Previous month:
April 2007
Next month:
June 2007

The T. Mark Tribute

It was a terrible shock last year when the word began to spread that T. Mark had died unexpectedly.  For those of us (those very many of us) to whom he was friend, mentor, colleague and example of the finest kind, it seemed inconceivable that such a vibrant, lively, energetic, endlessly curious and compassionate man could simply be gone.  But that's the way death sometimes happens.

I don't know who first had the idea to name it for him, but MLA's Librarians Without Borders taskforce had already been charged with coming up with an award celebrating international service.  It seemed a pretty obvious thing to give the award his name, and to make him the first honoree.   Judith agreed to come to Philadelphia to accept it for him.

I always get emotional at the awards lunch.  I've been at this long enough that I can always count some of the awardees as good friends, and (except for the various student scholarship winners) I generally know most of them at least in passing.  I love seeing them honored by their colleagues for the work they've dedicated themselves to, and I don't at all mind getting a little teary on their behalf.

But I came into this lunch dreading the moment that Judith would come up to the podium to accept the award.  I'd seen her the evening before, at a reception, the first time I'd seen her since Mark's death.  She introduced me to her daughter and spoke easily about "daddy" and some of the things he and I had shared.  As far as I could tell from that little encounter she was doing fine.

Coming up to the podium though, would be a big emotional moment -- certainly terribly bittersweet for her, and for all of us who'd known him.  I was sure that I'd break down and was worried for her.  I watched her as the earlier awards were being handed out, trying to imagine what she was going through, hoping that she was drawing strength from the hundreds of people in the room, many of whom were, I'm sure, watching her just as I was.

I needn't have worried.  Yes, I started weeping as soon as the award was announced and Judith started walking up to the podium.  But she looked out at us and smiled, and in a clear and strong voice that never quavered, she thanked us, and told us how much the award would have meant to him.  She talked about clearing out his office, and finding the award he'd gotten from ICS when he wrote their history, and how she'd found that he'd tucked a little fortune cookie fortune into the frame -- "one day you will receive a great honor."  She knew how much that award meant to him.  And she said, "Mark wasn't wrong very often, but he was wrong when he thought that was the greatest honor that he'd receive..."  She told us how thrilled and moved he would have been to have this award named for him, and to have been its first recipient. 

She was gracious, just as articulate as her husband would have been, managed to throw in a light moment or two just to keep us all from falling apart completely, and said all of exactly the right things.  The standing ovation was loud and long and full of gratitude.

Grief's a journey.  Judith helped us all.  Mark would be so very, very proud of her.




Connection & Transparency

Marian's Gymboree conference coincided almost precisely with MLA, which resulted in me leaving Philadelphia early Tuesday morning so that I could pick up Josie and have her stay with me for a couple of nights until her Mom got home.  We had a wonderful time and I'd been looking forward to it for months, but it did mean that I had to miss Mark's inaugural address.

He's been working on his themes & message for nearly a year, so it's not as though I wasn't familiar with the content, but knowing Mark as I do (for over twenty-three years now!) I'm sure that he delivered it with great wit.  (I still remember his Lessig-style treasurer's report from several years ago).

Among the board members, we've had a number of discussions about the implications on the culture of the organization of using social networking software.    We used a blog over the past few months to track a couple of discussions, and the general assessment among the board members is that it went quite well.  So we'll do more of that.  And at the tea on Saturday, Mark urged all of the chapter, section & committee leaders to look for ways that they can start using some of these tools in the work of their units.

It'll be interesting to watch.  Part of the reason that associations are so clunky, and that things take so long to get done, is that the mechanisms for interaction that we've had up to now require a lot of in-person communication.    Much of the necessity for committees & working groups & task forces and the various levels of organizational hierarchy come out of just trying to manage those logistics.  Conference calls and email have certainly helped, but they've still taken place within those traditional organizational structures.

The typical way for a large committee to approach an issue, for example, has been to set up a small group of two or three to investigate an issue, consider the various options, and then make a recommendation to the larger group.  The larger group then considers it, makes adjustments, and passes it on up the line to the board.  The board finally accepts or rejects it and the results are then made known to the members.

In the connected association that Mark envisions, there's an opportunity to change that dramatically.  You still probably need to start with those small groups, because somebody has to take responsibility for moving an issue forward.  But if that group could set up a wiki or a blog (or whatever tool was appropriate to the issue at hand), they could start including all interested parties in the investigation and discussions right from the start.

Take as an example the new research policy statement that was approved at the Thursday board meeting.  The Task Force has been working on this for a couple of years.  They did do a good job, I think, of getting a wide variety of member input into the initial stages of the process, and various task force members shared drafts along the way (for example, with members of the Research Section), but the overall process was still fairly opaque.  Imagine what might have happened if the drafting and discussions could have been done online and open to all members to participate.

Would this have been better?  Would it have resulted in a better document?  Or, regardless of whether it resulted in a better document, would it have been better for the association to have developed it in a more transparent fashion?  Or would it actually have been worse -- would task force members have been less willing to be creative and innovative if they knew that their half-baked ideas might be criticized by anyone?  Would the process of editing and arranging have become so cumbersome and chaotic that no coherent document could result at all?

Now that the tools are available that can enable complete transparency and global participation, we need to figure out when it makes sense to do that.  We've talked about this a bit on the board as well -- if there's an issue before the board, do we need to discuss it among ourselves and achieve a consensus first, or should we open discussions up widely from the very beginning?  And does it matter what the issue is?

The task force that Mark is setting up will investigate these issues as well as the technical & practical ones of how MLA headquarters can facilitate the use of these sorts of tools.  There is certainly a strong commitment on the part of the leadership of the organization to forge ahead.  It's going to be a fascinating year.  My personal predilection is to take transparency as far as we can, but that will require a new sort of discipline on the part of those leading discussions.  For board members, it increases our accountability to the membership at large, but we still need to be able to achieve the necessary compromises and consensus to move things forward, and we have to be willing to open our opinions up to more potential criticism.  It's a different way of doing business, and we'll no doubt have some stumbles.  But over time, we'll get better at it, and the end result should be an association that is stronger and more useful because of the greater degree of connectivity that will result.


Making Music

Marian calls and says that she and Josie are watching American Idol when Jon Bon Jovi comes on and starts playing guitar.  Josie points and shouts out, "Nonai!"  (That would be me).  She starts playing air guitar along with the guy on the screen.  Then she turns to her Mom, raises her hands out to the side, cocks her head and says, "Where's mine?"

"I know it's early," Marian says to me.  "But you might want to think about getting her a guitar for Christmas."

I love the idea.

"It doesn't have to be a real guitar," she goes on.  "You can get a toy guitar at Wal-Mart for $30.  And they come in pink!"

But I'm already past that.  Yes, I know that she doesn't need a real guitar -- but I don't want her to have something with plastic strings that don't stay in tune and that doesn't sound anything like the sound in her mind.  So what's actually appropriate for a 3 year old?

I remember how grateful I was to get back into playing after that thirteen year hiatus.  I vowed that I would never let making music out of my life again.  It always saddens me when I hear somebody say, "I'd love to play an instrument, but I just don't have any talent."  I'm firmly in the camp of those who believe that anybody can play -- it's not about being a virtuoso, it's about the sheer joy and pleasure that comes from making music, even when it's simple.  It's good for you and everybody can do it.

It does help to start early, of course.  When Josie is at our house, she'll generally make her way to the piano at some point and start banging away.  Lynn has shown her how to pick out some of the simple tunes that she sings at school.  Of course, she's just as happy to slam her hands down on the keys with abandon and laugh.  I don't see any signs of a prodigy in the making.

But I do want her to grow up believing that making music is just another one of those normal things that people do.   


Lookin' For A Ladder...

I've been at this game for nearly a quarter century, and have, perhaps, paid a due or three, but I am scarcely less annoyed than Jane when the impatience of my younger colleagues is dismissed with the notion that you need to be wait your turn and "pay your dues".   

Experience rarely yields wisdom.  It certainly doesn't necessarily make one more capable at anything.  And we're at a point in our profession where the change we are undergoing is so dramatic that experience can actually be, in some ways, a drawback.  Nonetheless, experience can, sometimes, provide a bit of perspective.  With that in mind, here are some observations and, perhaps, a bit of advice:

1)  This has nothing to do with a particular culture of librarianship.    There is nothing peculiar to librarians that makes our organizations especially change resistant or unwelcoming to the ideas of people who are new to the field.  This is about human nature and the dynamics of organizations.  I defy you to show me any mature industry or field of endeavor in which more than a small percentage of the organizations within that sector truly foster a culture of innovation, mentoring and risk-taking from top to bottom and from side to side.  Drucker started writing about this stuff in the thirties.  The reason that this is important is that it means that if your goal is to change the "culture of librarianship" you are choosing the wrong battle and you are doomed to lose. 

2)  The notion that "millennials" are somehow intrinsically more risk-taking, eager for change, and impatient with the slow movement of the organization, while "boomers" are congenitally risk-averse, overly cautious, and unwilling to allow their younger colleagues to advance too quickly is bullshit.  It pains me to have to point out that it was the boomer generation that marched and chanted and actually believed that we could overthrow the capitalistic system altogether -- preferably within the next three weeks, back in 1968.  (We thought, of course, that we invented rebellion, being entirely clueless about what our grandparents had done in the twenties).  The more difficult truth is that a significant portion of young people in all generations are eager for greater social change and impatient with their elders-- but then they turn into the elders!  Most of the radical rebels from the sixties & early seventies turned into the cautious, maintain status-quo managers of the 90's and 00's -- and it will happen to the millennials as well.  Your challenge, if you really want to be a change agent in the long haul, is to manage to maintain that idealism, energy and impatience throughout a long career.    Most people don't.

With that as context, here's my advice:

1) The corollary to number 1 above is that change happens one library at a time.  If you're on the leading edge of comfort with change, you need to put yourself into an organization whose interests are aligned with yours.  If the predominant viewpoint in your library is "you've got to wait ten years until you've paid your dues," you are not likely to change that.   (If there are just a few people who feel that way, don't worry about it -- just ignore 'em).   Start looking for an organization where you're going to have more freedom and get more support, and set your sights there for your next career move.  Those organizations are out there.  There are many great and wonderfully innovative and exciting libraries of all types.  When you're early in your career, don't fuss yourself with trying to turn your library into one of those.  Your focus should be on getting your precious self into one of those libraries where you've got good mentors and the leadership that will help you grow and experiment and have fun.

2)  In the meantime, be specific about the changes that you think you can effect in the organization that you're a part of.  Identify the people in the organization who have the power to change things, and figure out why the change that you think is necessary is going to help them solve one of their problems.  That's the only way to sell it.  Let them take credit for the idea, if that's what it takes.  And look outside of the organization for satisfaction as well -- you may find that you can have a greater impact there.   Five Weeks To A Social Library was a stunning achievement, and its ripple effects will be felt for a very long time.

3)  As your career progresses, don't allow yourself to become complacent.  It'll sneak up on you.   One day you find yourself a department head with several eager young librarians reporting to you, with lots of exciting ideas -- but now, if one of their ideas blows up, it's your neck on the line.  Can you discipline yourself enough to be willing to give them the same kind of freedom and opportunities you're craving now?  Or will it look very different from that perspective?

4) Be patient.  I know, I know, that sounds like "paying your dues," but I don't mean it that way.  Change never happens unless there are people who are continually pushing, but sometimes change takes a long time.  It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.  If you're really in it for the long haul, you have to be willing to stick to it.   One of the things that I really wanted us to be able to do when I got here was get more formally aligned with the medical school curriculum -- at that time we did a variety of orientations and occasional in-class presentations, but it was all ad hoc, dependent on the particular interests of a particular instructor at the time.  I worked on building relationships within the medical school, on understanding what they perceived as the major problems and issues.  The goal was building trust and a greater awareness and appreciation for our expertise and range.  It took ten years before the door I was looking for appeared -- and then it was easy to open it and walk in because we were prepared and ready for it.  Now we're not just formally involved in the curriculum, we have librarians leading a significant part of a complete revamping of the curriculum.  The important thing in this context is that I didn't know if we would ever get there.  Sometimes you just have to keep planting those seeds without knowing if the thing you're looking for will ever sprout.

Back to point 1 above -- libraries have been changing steadily for centuries, it's just hard to see that when you're relatively new.  Even the most authoritarian, hidebound, do-it-like-we've-always-done-it library is far more progressive and open than its counterpart of twenty-five and fifty years ago.   But the majority of libraries (the majority of organizations) will always be in the middle of the pack, waiting to see what the leading edge organizations are doing before they're willing to take those same steps.   Fortunately, there are always organizations and librarians that are doing amazing and wonderful things.     And in our world of blogs and instant networked communication, it is much easier to figure out which libraries those are.  Students have much greater opportunities for getting the lay of the land than their predecessors of even a decade before.  Rather than being frustrated about being unable to change an organization that is in the middle of the pack, set your sights on going to work for one of those innovative, exciting places.  That's where you'll get the support, experience and energy that you need.

A final note -- when I'm at a conference, hanging out in the bar with the library directors that I tend to associate with, we're likely to be sharing strategies about how we can get our organizations to move faster, to be more innovative, to be more hospitable to new ideas.  And we'll be fussing about how we can get the best & brightest to come work for us.  We will never be in the majority, and that's okay.  If we were, I think I'd start to worry that I was losing my edge.


Looking For That Beef Chow Mein

I don't remember why I added "Werewolves of London" to the Bearded Pigs set list years ago -- I know that I thought that watching a roomful of librarians howl like wolves would be pretty entertaining.  I was right, and it's been a staple for us ever since.

So Lynn and I were quite delighted, on our first afternoon in London, after we'd had lunch and were out walking somewhat aimlessly just so that we could get adjusted from jetlag, when Bruce suggestedLondon_010 taking us past Lee Ho Fook's.  A couple of weeks earlier, in Memphis, we'd finished playing the song and he laughed and said, "I was just at Lee Ho Fook's last week.  Ate the beef chow mein."  Silly me; it had never occurred to me that it was a real place.  They have a poster of Zevon in the window.

A review of a book by Zevon's wife in yesterday's NYT reminds me that there are a lot of other Zevon songs  I'd like to add to the list.    I've done "Mutineer" solo, although I don't think I've ever done it with the band.  I keep meaning to work up "My Ride's Here."   And once you start to get into his catalog, it's hard to stop. 

I was tremendously moved by the way he faced his own death.  I was reminded very much of my father, in fact, although two more different men would be hard to find.  There was an unflinchingness in both men that I greatly admired, and have tried to learn from.   But the book reminds one as well that Z. was a very difficult, very flawed person, who managed to be his own worst enemy and cause a lot of pain and distress to the people around him.   Much to be learned there as well, I suppose.  Despite our natural tendency to try to do so, people's lives can't be summed up neatly in a sentence or two.  And it was Aristotle who pointed out that you can't make a judgment on whether it's been a good life until it's finally over.