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December 2006
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February 2007

What Makes Us Great?

Try this as a thought experiment.  It's a Friday evening and you're relaxing with friends at the local saloon; or it's Sunday morning and you're mingling with the members of your church over coffee and sweet rolls.  Whatever.  You're talking with people that you know somewhat, but some not all that well, and people start talking about their jobs.  With pride, you say, "oh, I work at such-and-such a library.  It's a great place!"  Somebody asks, "What it is that makes it so great?"  What would you tell them?

When Pat brought Jim Collins' Good to Great to us a few years ago for a series of book discussions, I found it intriguing, and some of the concepts to be quite useful, but it seemed to be limited in its application to our situation.  I was impressed with how data-driven Collins is, and how much serious research he and his team had brought to their analysis of what differentiates great companies from those that are merely good.   But in the business world that he was analyzing, it was possible to come up with a clear and quantitative definition of "great" -- you looked at a company's financial performance over an extended period of time and had a series of clear metrics to use to make the distinction.  That is not the world in which we operate, and I just wasn't sure how well those concepts would apply in our setting.

Collins was one of the speakers at the AAMC meeting in Seattle last October, and it turns out that he's been wrestling with those same questions -- how do you apply his Good to Great concepts in the social sectors?  So he's written what he refers to as a little monograph to supplement the book, and it tries to address some of those issues.  I've found it to be pretty compelling and we are pulling many of the concepts to use as we settle into some serious strategic planning.

He tackles the problem of defining great straight off, and breaks the concept of greatness into three elements:  superior performance, distinctive impact, lasting endurance.  He uses the example of the Cleveland Orchestra very effectively to break these down into specifics that one can, to some degree, measure. 

He is very clear that in the social sectors it is a mistake to think that we need to "act like a business" (the subtitle to the monograph is why business thinking is not the answer) and he acknowledges that the measurements that we use to assess ourselves are not going to be as neatly quantitative as those that measure the performance of a for-profit company.  But we still have to have clear goals, and strong discipline, and a way to tell whether or not we are moving toward those goals.

And it starts with how we define our greatness.  When our leadership group met yesterday I was also very clear to emphasize that we are trying to define the greatness, not of our "library", but of our "library organization".  The issue is not what our library is, it's what we, as a group of dedicated, energetic, creative and skilled people do.  If we start from the premise that what we want is a great library, we are already limiting ourselves.  I want us to be much more than that.  I know that we can be.

Audacious Planning

I was particularly taken with the notion of setting up a consumer health library in Zambia (where my university has a major AIDS research operation).  Not just for the audaciousness of the original suggestion, but for how seriously the rest of that particular group took up the suggestion and started refining it.  (Incidentally, when I mentioned it to the Dean of Public Health last evening, he took it quite seriously as well...  "Couldn't we put all the information on iPod nanos and hand them out...?  How will we do the training...")

This occurred during one of the all-staff strategic planning sessions that we held last week.  We were doing the small group thing, and the first of the discussion questions was to imagine yourself home for Christmas in 2008, telling your mother about the greatest new project that had been undertaken at your library in the past year.    A smaller group of us will go for a one-day retreat in a couple of weeks for the next round of planning and the ideas that came up during the all-staff sessions will be part of the package of inputs that we'll use for that discussion.

There were lots of great ideas besides the Zambian consumer health library.  But what impressed me even more than the individual ideas was the general level of engagement and creativity.  I had required all library faculty to attend (believing that it is part of their responsibility to help shape the future of our organization), but left it optional for the paraprofessional staff.  Still, most of the latter came, and their contributions were every bit as bold and intriguing as those coming from the degreed librarians.  To be honest, I found it all to be quite inspiring.

It did strike me afterwards, though, when reviewing the flip charts, that very few of the suggestions were technology-focused.  There was mention of implementing search systems that could do some analysis among concepts in order to guide the searcher better, and somebody talked about re-doing the web page to include mashups and multimedia, but if there was a common thread in all of the discussions it had more to do with identifying programs and services with which to engage our community.  The focus was not on the tools to use.  I think that it is simply taken for granted that when we dig further into the challenges of implementation, we will use whatever tools are available and appropriate to get the job done.

We had started the sessions with a general discussion of values -- just quick brainstorming on the things that are really important to us, and that we need to keep in mind as we proceed with our planning.    Lots of "service" words came up, of course -- "user-centered", "friendly", "welcoming", "excellence".    Being on the cutting edge of technology was perceived as a value, as well as being innovative and willing to take risks. 

A major part of my job is to do what I can to encourage an environment in which those sorts of things are perceived as values, and, at least based on what happened during those sessions, I think we're doing a pretty decent job.  But it is something that takes a lot of work and a lot of time.    And the task is never-ending.

So I think about those brilliant young librarians whose blogs I come across, who are trying to figure out how to introduce innovation (usually technological) into their organizations, but keep running up against roadblocks of apathetic or uninterested colleagues, or administrations that seemed dogged down by their own bureaucracy.  What advice can I give them that will help them hang on to their idealism and keep from being pushed into cynicism by their own frustrations?

One is that you simply have to take the long view and accept that organizational change is tough and takes a long time.  One of my frustrations with some of the "Library 2.0" discussion is that it sometimes gives the impression that you can shift a moribund organization into a dynamic one by pushing flickr and IM, when actually it's the other way around.

Another, I think, is to be very thoughtful and careful about the job moves that you make.  Certainly we all have personal constraints that may limit how far afield we can go looking for jobs, and, particularly when one is a fresh graduate, just about any professional position can be of value.  But as your career progresses, you need to give more thought to the kind of organization that you want to be a part of, and recognize that when you're going out on a job interview, you're looking at the organization as hard as they're looking at you.  Does it seem to be a place that is supportive of the kinds of things you're interested in?  Will you be able to grow and learn there?  Will you be able to have fun?

And in the meantime, recognize that every person working in the organization can be a leader, and that leadership is about listening and about finding opportunities to help somebody else shine.  Become the person that other people want to work with, because they know that it'll make them better.  Be that person, and you'll find that introducing new technologies becomes a whole lot easier.

Rilke Would Have Loved It

I woke Saturday morning wanting most of all to see some Whistlers.  I'd ended Friday night the same way I'd ended  the night before -- up the block from my hotel, sitting at Al Tiramisu's bar sipping grappa with Luigi, under Adriana's watchful eye.  A little grappa goes a very long way, and I was cautious, but Luigi loves the stuff as I do, and he's always got something new to try.  So when I rose to consciousness, and called down for my pot of coffee, I still had a bit of a pleasant buzz around the ears.  And I knew the best thing for me was to spend an hour with Jimmy Whistler.

Friday had been a very long, and quite wonderful day, and frankly, I wasn't sure what my energy level for the rest of Saturday would be.  I'd come to DC strictly on holiday, for the express purpose of seeing the completed expansion of the Phillips Collection, and the newly (and finally!) reopened Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I'd taken a late flight on Thursday, so that I could put in a full work day, and it was after 10:00 when I got to the hotel and considerably later when I got back from Al Tiramisu.   But I'd gotten up eager to get into my day and cleared my head with a long, brisk walk through Georgetown, and then a light lunch of mussels and frites at Bistrot du Coin.  I'd spent hours at the Phillips, thrilled with what they'd done, making repeated stops in the renovated Rothko Room.  Then I'd walked down to American Art for a brief overview before heading back into Georgetown for supper at Bistro Francais, and then ending up for that grappa nightcap with Luigi.  Like I said, a long and wonderful day.

I had a ticket for the Saturday evening performance of Richard III, and I knew I wanted to spend some hours at American Art, and I really wanted to try to pace myself -- but I needed to see some Whistlers.  Ever since that revelatory retrospective back in the late eighties (one of the few art exhibitions that I can truly say changed my life), he's been among my pantheon of painters (the others being Goya, Daumier, and Rothko), and I knew exactly where to go.  For several years now, the Freer has devoted their long lower gallery to rotating exhibits of small Whistler works.  I wasn't sure what was currently up, but I knew I'd love it and that it would fill me with that sense of astonishment and wonder and delight that Whistler always gives me.

It turned out to be a series of his small oils, most of them from the 1880s.  These are remarkable pictures, mostly seascapes, punctuated by some wonderful urban scenes.  I've been looking closely at Whistler paintings for most of my adult life, and even the ones that I know well leave me breathless, thinking, "How does he do that?  How, in such tiny spaces, with just a handful of confident, seemingly careless, brushstrokes, does he evoke whole worlds and the deep and complicated hearts of the people who live in them?"  As usual, the placards emphasize that Whistler was all about art for art's sake and was only concerned with composition and color and line.  I suppose it's true to a point, but it's also an excessively academic way of looking at the work.  He is among the most deeply human painters I know, and to claim that in a painting like the little red glove, for example, all he cares about is composition, is to willfully ignore the life that he has put into that young girl's eyes.  Sometimes art historians annoy me to tears.

After filling myself up for awhile with those paintings, I was ready for some lunch before continuing on to the major event of the afternoon (I had another french bistro in mind, of course), but wanted to take a quick stroll through the rest of the Freer first, and that's when I came across the most unexpected revelation of the entire trip --  Gwyn Hanssen Pigott's  Parades.   I'd never heard of Pigott, but she turns out to be a well known Australian ceramicist, who, in her own work, arranges her pieces in very precise still lifes, so that the relationships of one to another creates a whole that is much more than the individual pieces.  She was invited into the Freer's ceramic storerooms to see what she might do out of their collection.  I find the results absolutely astonishing.  Because she was looking at the pieces from the standpoint of an artist, looking to create a new work from what she found, she wasn't interested in provenance or history or type of piece (all of that stuff that the art historians dote on), but on how the forms could relate to each other.  The beauty of what she has accomplished brought me to tears.  (The online exhibition is useful, by the way, but it doesn't give a hint of how powerful the arrangements are in real life).

I walked out of the Freer about noon and headed across the mall, feeling, quite literally, as if my feet were barely touching the ground.  That hour or so would've been worth the trip to DC all by itself, and my Saturday was barely underway.  As it turned out, it wouldn't end until some fifteen hours later, when I'd walked back to my hotel from the Dubliner,  after a long talk with the bartender Joel and the guitar player Conor Malone, but that, as they say, is another story...


Community software, personal contact, and stalking

There is a wonderfully brilliant piece on NPR this morning that presents a case study of the intersection between online contacts and in-person follow ups.  If I believed in tagging, I tag it something like: 

awkward social encounters
online communities
unintentional stalkers
digital culture

Here's the current link.

If that doesn't work, it's been moved to the archives and you'll have to find it there.  The piece is titled "How iMet My Neighbor on iTunes" by David Kestenbaum, and it was broadcast on the January 12th Morning Edition.

Better Buildings

To say that the library building is becoming less important to what librarians do is not, of course, to suggest that it is becoming unimportant.  It's a matter of degree and balance.  In the print world, the library building was the center of the librarian's universe; now, it may be a home base, but it is no longer where we necessarily do our most vital work.

It may be my imagination (these things are so difficult to quantify), but it seems to me that I hear much less often than I used to the comment from faculty or administrators or people on the street that we don't need libraries anymore because everything is electronic and available through the internet.  (Again, this is not to say that one never hears this stuff anymore -- just that I seem to be running into it less often).   The building has always served many purposes, but since housing the collection was far and away the most important one, many people saw it as the only one.  Now that the local collection is becoming less important (although not unimportant), we can pay more attention to all of these other purposes.

Case in point -- on my campus we are engaged in a process to do major renovations to the "other" library -- the one that principally serves the non-health sciences schools of the university (and, hence, serves a much larger portion of the undergraduate population than we do).  Discussions started over a year ago, and in the slow and lumbering way in which universities move forward there've been many discussions, lots of misunderstandings and contentiousness and then long stretches where nothing at all has been happening and one wonders if the project is ever going to resurface.

But yesterday, there I was with half a dozen others who've been appointed to the architect selection committee, listening to presentations from five groups who were hoping to get the job.  Three of the five presentations included people who spoke eloquently and passionately about the importance of the library to the campus, its evolving role as a learning center, as a hub of campus life, as a critical destination and meeting place for students and faculty.  And it is clear from the amount of library construction & renovation going on around the country that many people in higher ed understand this.

The challenge for librarians (and, as I'll argue later today during the Talis podcast conversation, I think this is true for public as well as academic librarians) is to not let this focus on the evolving uses of the library lead us into thinking of our role as nothing more than the tenders of the building.  It's easy to get swept up in the excitement of a new library project and to think about cybercafes and information commons and a wired and comfortable environment full of happy students working collaboratively in tastefully designed spaces full of flexible seating arrangements.  But if the essence of our role is bringing people and information resources together for the whole broad range of reasons that people need to, and want to, dip (or plunge) into the accumulated knowledge that is increasingly available to them, then tending to the building can only be one part of what we do.

When I listen to librarians talk about the need to pay attention to those who don't come into the library, the conversation is too often couched in terms of "What do we need to do to get those people to come in?" and that is entirely the wrong approach.    People should have to come to the library only when that is the only way to get a desired need met.  And the needs of many people in our communities can be well met without ever coming to the building.  I know, for example, that my Dean of Medicine is a daily library user -- but I'm pretty sure the only time he's been in the building has been for a lunch meeting or a reception.  I don't spend any time trying to figure out how to make the building more "inviting" for him -- I want to make sure that we've got systems and practices in place to make him as efficient as possible in his office or his lab or at home.  And while much of this can be done virtually, much of it can only be accomplished by having librarians out of the building and being active, engaged members of the university community in all of the other buildings and spaces in which the life of the institution goes on.

Another case in point:  A couple of days ago, our Associate Director for Public Services and Assistant Director for Reference Services received an email from a doc who is the program director for one of our internal medicine residency programs located downstate (about ninety minutes away).  It said, in part,

[The Associate Dean] was kind enough to forward me a memo from 12/11/06 regarding the courses that you have developed for medical students and now also residents and fellows regarding improved proficiency in information management and search capabilities. Our residency program would be very interested in participating in such a course and/ or seminar.

Would it be possible for you to come ... for a lecture or a series of lectures on these topics? We would be glad to reimburse you for your time and travel.

Or course it will be possible!  And no, we wouldn't think of asking for reimbursement for time & travel.  This is what we do.

The presentations yesterday gave me some good ideas for things we can do with our building.  We haven't done a major renovation is ten years, and while the furniture layout was pretty state-of-the-art when we put it in then, now its deficiencies and limitations are all too clear.   When I think about how we might reconfigure our use of our space, and make it more inviting and collaborative and flexible, I do get excited by the possibilities.   And when the place is full of happy and productive students I know that we'll be meeting part of our mission.  But only part.  That team that we'll send down I-65 a hundred miles to work with those residents is an essential part of our mission as well.  For those young doctors, and the patients that they will care for, our building is completely and utterly beside the point.  They don't need our library, they need our librarians.

What Do You Call "Success"?

I was scanning Roy Tennant's recent column about the ACRL Technology and Change Summit and paused at this sentence:  "Academic libraries have three huge challenges that we must address to be successful."

The three challenges that he speaks of are to "reconceptualize the role of the library," acquire "agile, imaginative staff," and get our hands on "new tools."  Seems pretty straightforward.  But I worry just a bit when he goes on to say that, "In the end, we all came away from this meeting with a profound sense that things must change."   I sure hope that wasn't new news to any of the participants.

I keep going back to that earlier sentence and wondering, "What does it mean to be successful?"  I would suggest that a fourth, and even greater challenge, is to answer that question.  I suspect that most librarians would have a hard time with it.

Librarians worry about the library becoming less relevant.    My M-W Collegiate Dictionary defines "library" as either a place or a collection.  In these senses it seems to me that "the library" is, indisputably, becoming  less relevant.  The very essence of the digital world is that place in general has become less relevant.  And in an age when the activity of a collection development librarian is focused on licensing content rather than on actually "acquiring" anything, the concept of "a collection" has been stretched past the breaking point.  The library, be it public, academic, or whatever simply is not as important as it used to be and will become even less important as time goes on.

I hasten to add that "less relevant" is not at all the same as irrelevant, and "less important" does not at all imply unimportant.  But we are fooling ourselves mightily if we think that social software, gaming, and friendlier signage are going to keep our places and collections as important to our communities as they once were.

But despite what my dictionary says, I think there is another sense to "library" -- it is also an organization, a group of librarians.  And librarians are more important than ever.  The first of Roy's challenges needs to be recast as a need to reconceptualize the role of the librarian.

I go back to my dictionary and see that "librarian" is defined as "a specialist in the care or management of a library."  If that is, in fact, all that a librarian is, then we are less important and less relevant as well.  But I think my dictionary is short-sighted.

At their essence, what librarians do, and have done for many thousands of years, is much more than care for libraries.  We connect people to knowledge.  We bring people together with the intellectual content of the past and present so that new knowledge can be created.  We provide the ways and means for people to find entertainment and solace and enlightenment and joy and delight in the intellectual, scientific and creative work of other people.  This is what we have always been about.  For all those centuries, the way that we could best do that was by creating places and collections -- but along the way we lost sight of the fact that those were only tools.  We allowed our tools to define us.

Here at Lister Hill, we are about to embark on a major strategic planning exercise.  I think we've met Ray's second challenge -- the place is full of agile, imaginative staff -- and it's time for us to really dig in (again) and think about what we are the very best at, and what our community needs that only we can provide (to borrow some concepts from Jim Collins).  Frankly, my dears, I don't give a damn if the "library" is successful.  But I will make sure that this organization of talented, dedicated people is.

Librarians who believe that their job is to care for and manage their places and their collections will need to accept that their role in society, and their importance to their communities, will continue to shrink.   But for those who see that their role is deeper than that, the great age of librarianship is just beginning.  Our places and our collections will never become unimportant -- we are, after all, physical beings.  But in order to become the fabulously successful librarians that we have the capability to be, we will need, in significant ways, to leave our libraries behind.

What You Don't Know...

I watch the memes that float around the blogosphere, but I've never been tempted to participate myself.  This time, however, I've been tagged by Tom Roper, so I feel compelled to comply, in my own fashion.  (His tag also comes at a time when the MLA President has sent a similar query to the board members, for nefarious reasons of her own, which I suppose shall be revealed at next month's meeting.)

What's perplexing about this exercise is who the "you" is.   I know that there are many people very close to me who read the damn thing, so I'm not likely to come up with much that they don't know.  As for those who've never met me in person, or have only a passing acquaintance with what I write here, what in the world could possibly be of interest to them?  But the game's the game, and I'll try to be a good sport.

It astonishes people when I tell them that I am almost pathologically shy.  And I mean "pathological" in the sense in which I learned about it in psychology class in high school -- a psychological quirk that makes it difficult (or impossible) to function in the day-to-day world.  I've spent all of my adult life learning coping skills, and I have to work on it every day that I'm out in public.  All in all, I do pretty well.  I still get intense physical nervousness before I go in front of a crowd -- be it playing guitar and singing, or doing a presentation of any sort, up in front of six people or a thousand -- and yet, once I hit that first chord or speak that opening sentence, I'm completely comfortable and feel wonderfully in my element.  The most problematic continuing manifestation of my shyness is that I have, over the decades, developed an intense, irrational aversion to placing telephone calls -- I don't have any problem talking on the phone, I just hate making the call.  I'm working on it.

Notwithstanding that not quite debilitating quirk, I have played guitar and sang, either solo, or with others, on four continents in the last dozen years.  This is particularly impressive to me given that as recently as 1991, I thought I'd never perform again.  Although I'd played the coffee house circuit in college, I'd been thirteen years without playing in front of people when I started to sit in with the folks who formed Liquid Prairie.  There are two lessons here -- never say never, and try not to stand in your own way out of fear.  I've also done presentations on library related subjects on four continents -- but not the same four.   I fully intend to get this all straightened out and have seven and seven before I give it all up.

Although I am a very happy guy, with a generally positive demeanor, I actually take what most westerners would consider to be a pretty bleak view of the world.  When pressed to name my religion, I'll often say Taoist, although my views may, in fact, be closer to the animism of the Lakota.  I do not believe in progress overall -- that is, I see no evidence that the human race as a whole is advancing toward anything.  It shouldn't take more than a glance at any edition of the New York Times to persuade one that, on the whole, we are no more enlightened or "self-actualized" in the 21st century than we were in the 10th, and that the sum total of human misery has not been decreased one iota.  Given that, the regularity with which individual human beings surpass all reasonable expectations in their generosity, kindness, bravery and selflessness is astonishing and continually delights and enchants me.

Perhaps it comes from that bleak view of the world that I have never wanted to imagine myself living as another person or living in another time.   The questions, "If you could be anybody at all, who would you be...?" or "If you could live in any other time, which would you pick...?"  are nonsensical to me.  I am so much a part of my time and place, that I can't register the notion of a "me" existing elsewhere or elsewhen.  And while I haven't always been happy with the man that I am, I've never wanted to escape myself -- I just keep trying to figure out how to do a better job of walking my path.

And it's a path that has taken me to some amazing places.  When Lynn and I became lovers, I found it astonishing.  I had known her by reputation for quite some time, and had come to know her in the couple of years previous as an interesting colleague, but when I tumbled off of my heart and into hers, it took me quite by surprise.  There were times, in those early months, when I would wake up in the middle of the night and lean on one elbow, just gazing at her sleeping form in wonder, amazed that I was here, in bed, with her.  Thirteen years later, that still happens.