July 06, 2006
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.
You've touched a nerve with me here -- I've never understood why people (especially new librarians) think of the past as static. Librarians have always had new technology to deal with and some of us deal with it better than others. I'll bet there was even resistance when they went from writing catalog cards in "library hand" to typing them on those new-fangled machine!
Posted by: janna | July 07, 2006 at 09:44 AM
And imagine the consternation when some bright young reference librarian suggested that they start answering questions by telephone!
Posted by: T Scott | July 07, 2006 at 11:48 AM
This post also struck a chord with me, as I sit at the reference desk and think about putting together a presentation on blogging and RSS for faculty. It's change!
Posted by: Paula Barnett-Ellis | July 07, 2006 at 01:20 PM
Static often equals maintaining the "status quo," which is exactly what I've run into in most of the institutions where I've worked. I'm not saying everyone is against change, but most librarians are so overworked that they sometimes fear new services, new responsibilities, new tasks, even when those things might make them more efficient. I'm thrilled your institution isn't like this, but at my first library job in 1992, we had long arguments about how we couldn't fax articles to patrons because they should just be coming in to the library to get them (easier for us, more difficult for the patrons).
I haven't seen a single blog post or article that says change is new - do you have a cite for that? And I don't see anyone actively denouncing the past. I think what a lot of us are saying is that constant change has accelerated and has become the norm. Most librarians feel information overload and stress because of it. How do we adapt to this environment AND improve services to users? How many libraries have really looked around and adjusted their services to the new online world? Most of the small- and medium-sized libraries I've worked with just don't have the time to even think about this, let alone implement anything.
It's a debate worth having - AGAIN. If you don't jumpstart the debate, it doesn't happen because no one has time for it. I'm glad you've chosen to be part of the conversation! It's never a bad thing to talk about this stuff, only to ignore it.
Posted by: Jenny Levine | July 11, 2006 at 02:19 PM
Here's a quote that I certainly interpret to be from someone who feels change is something new: "Let me make the case for why transformation is needed and why now." And to continue on to the end of Leslie Burger's "revolutionary" platform, "I will work to lead change…to transform our profession, our libraries, our communities."
Umm...so what is different about this? I'll grant you that she also says that change is inevitable, and I admire her enthusiam. But I'm wondering just what it is she hopes to change. Why is the theme for her Year of Transformation entitled "Libraries Transform Communities" when the planks of her "transformation agenda" are all about change within the library? Not the community. The library.
I'm the curmudgeon Scott quotes who is fed up with all this change management rhetoric. Jenny is right, static often equals maintaining the "status quo". However, I have yet to see any organization that has had any long term success at maintaining a status quo. Sure, when processes or budgets or personnel or technology cause a shift, there will be individuals who will grumble, but resistence is futile. Change happens.
Actually, the word I used to Scott was "stasis" - specifically stasis in perceptions of what the library "should" be, stasis in professional attitudes, stasis in budgets. How do we manage those?
More than 30 years ago, I became a librarian just as online searching was coming on the scene. In my first job, I had to fight stasis just to get a photocopier in the library (perceptions were that students should take notes by hand). Ten years later in a different library, I had fight stasis to buy our first desktop computer (perceptions were that these were primarily used for gaming). By the time I started working in private industry, I knew more about PCs than the "data processing" guys did (because all they knew was mainframe).
I suppose much of my attitude comes from the organizations in which I have chosen to work. Some organizations can turn on a dime in order to meet the needs of their clientele. I have never worked for one of them, but every organization I HAVE worked for was determined to try to find a way. Change wasn't something to be managed, it was something to be expected and encouraged.
I've found that academic medical libraries tend to be more "transformative" than university libraries. Following the mission statement of the larger organization (a medical school, for instance)results in a much greater need for urgency. There are lives at stake; how can we do this better/faster?
My own beloved public library (http://www.hoover.lib.al.us/) is never the same place twice - it's a vibrant, well-supported library with a great staff, an actively supportive friends group and board, and a director who is very much in touch with her community. They offer a regular movie program, an active live theater, a "Battle of the Teen Bands" contest. They even have a Teen Book club that discusses books that have been made into movies. By the way, this library started in a storefront in 1983.
Posted by: Lynn | July 11, 2006 at 07:15 PM
The forces of change and stasis are easy to decipher. I am for change when the status quo does not suit my interest. I’m for stasis when everything suites me just fine. What’s hard to figure out? Change nor stasis are inherently good or bad. It all depends on your perspective and your current position in the environment. It has always been so; it will always be thus. Though Lynn I do have to admit to suspecting that photocopiers are indeed the spawn of the devil.
I think there is one difference between ‘now’ and ‘then.’ Change has always been with us, but the pace has increased in the last few decades. It would indeed be delightful to have one or two constants for a few years. I feel like I am always juggling this change or that. I don’t know how many times I have ‘mastered’ a particular program only to find that a new version has been released and I have to learn it all over again. What’s with that? Has my life been made better with version 287,364,506,584.4 of Word?
And since I have the attention of librarians. There is one consequence of change that has always troubled me. Whatever happened to the old card catalogue drawers? Did they find some other use? Are they all in municipal dumps? Did they end up with antique dealers? You see, even when there is a clear advantage in change (surely electronic cataloguing and searching are far superior to cards) there is also a loss. Many of those old catalogue drawers were beautiful. They were great works of craftsmanship – even art. Can you really say the same of a PC (alright excluding Apples)? Don’t be too hard on people who resist change, for even when change is clearly for the better, there is always a loss with the gain.
Now let’s change the subject.
Posted by: MarkD | July 11, 2006 at 10:39 PM
While I agree that change is a constant, I think the concern is the required changes are overlapping each other. For instance, I am explaining blogs to some people in the library field and for others I hear "blogs are old."
I'd love to be able to say this is an age thing as well, but the "blogs are old" people are not just twenty-somethings. Some of them are old enough to remember when Russia was scary and Iraq was a good guy. They have encountered change, and see *this* change as bigger than television or the VCR.
All the more difficult is that I used to be able to explain the VCR "it plays movies on your television" -- but have a much more difficult time explaining RSS to people. And if I do get the explanation right, many think treat RSS as the change.
Another issue is that the "change" is not a "library" change like automation or a service change like "DVDs" but an external change that has huge implications on the way users perceive libraries. It's not just implenting technologies, but changing the way libraries ought to speak, interact and play.
Maybe I'm alarmist, but I think this change is gunpowder being discovered in a stone age society. Those libraries who understand gunpowder are going to determine the future of libraries, while those stuck with stone mallets are going to disappear (it is already happening). Do we have critical mass of "gunpowder" libraries to sustain services for the long run?
Posted by: Ryan Deschamps | July 14, 2006 at 11:37 AM