Despite the never-ending angst in the biblioblogosphere over the sad state of the culture of librarianship, I remain optimistic about the state of my profession. It's still hard for me to believe that things are really as dire as some folks seem to think, when I see so much evidence to the contrary all around me. But then, as I've said before, I know that all organizational/professional/social groups advance on a bell curve, with a relatively small group of innovators on the leading edge, a large middle group cautiously moving along, and a relatively small group of laggards whining and complaining and dragging their feet. It sometimes seems to me that those among us who are most critical of the state of the profession take the trailing edge as emblematic, while it seems to me that those on the leading edge are the true heralds of where we're going. But I also know that the shape of the curve itself is never going to fundamentally change. It's got nothing to do with the "culture of librarianship" and everything to do with human nature.
That being said, when I read all the fussing and worrying I'm grateful that I ended up in academic medical libraries, rather than general academic libraries. Anecdotally, at least, there seems to be more innovation, willingness to experiment, and less resistance to change than would appear to be the case in other library sectors. Part of that, though, is just that we're smaller. I run a relatively large academic medical library, and it's still only 60 people. And our association is much smaller than ALA -- we get 3,000 people at our annual conference rather than 20,000.
The current MLA president, Mark Funk, set up his blog this week, and the social networking taskforce is charging ahead. The board of directors has been doing much of its work via email for several years, and we're now using a blog to track our discussions of issues. Most of the sections & committees are experimenting with various online mechanisms for getting their work done (the HLS wiki is particularly good).
What intrigues me the most is how all of this activity changes the way that the organization does business. Earlier this week, Jane (A Wandering Eyre) posted a typically impatient note on meetings, asking why we insist on having meetings to do things that are easier done on the web. Jane thinks that people use f2f meetings to hide process and hang on to power. I suppose there may be some of that, but my experience, at least, suggests that inertia, inexperience, and the desire to avoid looking like fools account for most of it. If you read the literature on meetings and group dynamics, you know that there is a life-cycle to groups and that a certain comfort level with the members of the group needs to be achieved before the group can really function effectively. The primary reason that most meetings & taskforces are so ineffective is that the organizers don't pay attention to that life-cycle. The process is crippled from the start.
Jane is, of course, quite right that much of what we try to do in physical meetings can be much better done online. But the same social dynamics process will have to take place. And now it's not just a matter of exposing yourself to people in a meeting room who you might not know well and who you might not entirely know how to trust -- you've got to do that while there are untold, unknown numbers of other people potentially watching from the wings. The paradox is that the more transparent you make the process, the more hesitant some people will be to risk putting their best ideas forward, for fear of looking foolish or being criticized. That's a human hurdle that'll have to be overcome. I think we'll get there, but there's a learning curve, as the occasional flame wars on the web have shown. As Mark says at the end of his first post, "Play nice, and no hitting." Establishing an online culture that demonstrably lives by that is essential.