Guitars on five continents
The end of the story

On connecting...

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.



Scott, I think you are absolutely correct in your assessment of face-to-face meetings. Too few people focus on the human aspect of interaction.

I believe however, that the complexities of online meetings are far greater than you state, for the very reason you state – human nature. The fear of looking a fool is, in my view, more daunting sitting face-to-face with ones peers than it is on the net. Most of the people on this blog have no idea who I am. That gives me freedom to say almost anything. It gives me freedom to succumb to baser instincts as well. It is much easier to throw out a snide remark or to insult someone anonymously then it is to do so face-to-face. A good deal of communication is in the intonation and in movements of the body. As you say, trust is essential in achieving results in a group. Trust cannot be built with mere words.

Also I think there is an inherent assumption that both you and Jane make, that being; the world at large is like America. I think it important to remember that the world is not a unitary culture, there are in fact contextual and cultural complexities that make online meetings extraordinarily difficult. Scott, as your last few blog entries demonstrate, the world grows smaller with each passing year. Increasingly, groups are made up of people from different cultures, speaking different languages. Ironically, the net does allow us to include groups from around the world in a global discussion. However, the web also allows for an exponential increase in misunderstandings as well. Scott, you just returned from Japan. I think you would find that many of the librarians you met in Japan would be shocked by some of the strong language sometimes found on this very blog. The problem with the net isn’t technical. The problem with the net is that human conventions have not yet caught up with the technology. As Mark says, “play nice, no hitting” Don’t you find it shocking that the President of the MLA would feel it necessary to say such a thing on his blog? But it is indeed necessary; isn’t it?

I have been observing an anthropological experiment conducted by Berkshire Publishing. They have set up a blog called “Love US Hate US.” Berkshire had intended it to be a place where people from across the globe could express what they liked and disliked about the American experiment. I’ve watched this site for well over a year. It indeed has been fascinating. In the end, it has turned into a shouting match between Europeans and Americans over the virtues and vices of each others culture. It is at once fascinating and dismaying to watch. It is not a dialogue at all. It is in essence a virtual reality street brawl. I think therein lies the paradox, people are not cowed by the very public nature of the net, on the contrary the anonymity of the net emboldens people to indulge their baser instincts.

In your last sentence you state, “Establishing an online culture that demonstrably lives by that (play nice no hitting) is essential.” Truer words were never written my friend, and in fact, for all the marvels of the technology and all the possibilities it offers – it is the hardest part of all.

T Scott

The anonymity that many people prize about the internet does, it seems to me, often encourage peoples' worst impulses. When people aren't accountable for what they say, too often they seem to feel free to say anything. The "virtual reality street brawl" that you describe is a pretty common feature of internet discourse. And, as you point out, the opportunities for misunderstanding across cultures are great. (There were numerous elements in my presentation where I used different examples in Japan than I would have in the states -- and I no doubt still said some things that came across poorly).

I guess the bottom line for me is that few of the things that frustrate people about f2f meetings are going to be resolved simply by moving them online. There are certainly cases where online interaction may turn out to be more appropriate and effective -- but thinking one's way through all of those human factors and accounting for them will be just as essential as when we're all sitting in the same room.

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