Beaten before we start

I don’t call myself a futurist, though I do find enjoyment and sometimes enlightenment in watching what’s going on in the world and trying to extrapolate toward what academic libraries might want to do about it. I also harbor a strong love for examples of novel services and fresh ideas about longstanding services, though I’m old and scarred enough not to take them quite at face value—there’s almost always struggle and conflict behind the scenes that does not get aired in order to keep the peace among librarian colleagues.

I often pull these extrapolations and examples into my classroom. Most of my students love them, finding them thought-provoking and energizing. Indeed, I must sometimes remind them as gently as I can about the amount of time, work, risk (individual as well as organizational), and workplace politics that go into every new thing, lest they take their immense creative energies into the world hoping for welcome and support and find alienation and antagonism instead. I try to remember to end my admonishments on a rosier note: “this will be hard, no lie, but it will also be worth the effort.” They accept that. I have to hope it’s true.

A few of my students respond differently, though, and I lately realized that their response resembles the dominant response I get from academic librarians when I talk with them about new ideas, new services, and libraries that are implementing same. Too many times, the conversation goes like this:

Me: Here’s something that’s happening, and here’s how we could respond to it.

Librarian: Are any other libraries doing that?

Me: As a matter of fact, yes! The Research Library of Gondor is—

Librarian: Well, we can’t do it, then, because RLG is huge and we’re not.

Me: Well, perhaps you’ve heard about the Rivendell College Library’s program to—

Librarian: Oh, Rivendell College. We can’t do what they do, because they’ve got an endowment and we don’t.

Me: I heard that Laketown Community College Library—

Librarian: Community college. Hmph.

(I don’t even know what to think about that last one—my sister works as a community-college librarian, and I am in complete awe of what these librarians accomplish for their faculty and students. All I can say is that I’ve heard academic librarians dismiss them, I wish I hadn’t, and I never want to hear it again.)

I’ve been intentionally vague about the novel ideas or services under discussion, not least because I’ve rung variations on this conversation about nearly everything imaginable. I also do not want to give the impression that only academic librarians at smaller institutions talk like this. If anything, I hear it even more often from librarians at immense research libraries. (Selection bias may well be at fault there, as the types of work I do and teach about tend to appear in research libraries presently.) What I want to focus on is not the novelties but the discourse pattern:

  1. Hear about novelty.
  2. Demand example of novelty
  3. Immediately latch onto any local difference from the example given, to declare why the novelty cannot happen locally.

In a nutshell, it’s asking how We are different from Them, not to adjust our tactics to local realities, but to insist that We are incapable of whatever They did. Because I can’t… Because we can’t… Because we won’t… Because they won’t… Because, because, because. There’s always one more defeatist “because,” it seems. How often do we declare ourselves beaten before we even start? How much are we not doing for our patrons that they would appreciate because we talk ourselves out of trying? Why do we do this to ourselves? How much organizational decay in libraries is caused or worsened by this habit of thought?

I’m certainly not innocent, sad to say. I just didn’t quite realize how pervasive this dismissive pattern was in academic librarianship until recently. I want to train myself out of it—call it my New Year’s resolution for 2015—and I share my plans in hope of encouraging others to do the same.

In a nutshell, I want to stop asking myself “why can’t I do what they did?” That question automatically puts them (whoever they are) on a pedestal above me, which isn’t fair to either of us, and I certainly don’t want the answer to be “because they didn’t talk themselves out of trying, the way I’m doing now.” Instead, I want to ask myself a series of questions:

  • “Do I want their outcome to happen here?” This one is simple. If the answer is “no” for whatever reasonable reason, I’m done. I don’t need to envy or emulate that library for doing something I see no point in or even oppose.
  • “What did they actually do? How long did it take?” To rise above discouragement, I need to remind myself that there are no magic wands. Journal articles and conference presentations tend to condense a lot of details and elide a lot of work and struggle; I’ve seen that lead to unrealistic expectations and eventual disillusionment. If I can probe for a more realistic description of their process, I can prepare myself better to see a similar process through where I am.
  • “Why did what they did work?” Local conditions can’t be ignored; they just shouldn’t become excuses. Figuring out cause-and-effect is not straightforward, of course, especially at a remove from the action, but it’s an important element in building a testable, revisable theory of change.
  • “What would I have to change about their process, given local conditions here, to achieve their outcome?” This follows on naturally from the last.

It’s not that every idea will fly if we just find the right way to go about implementing it. Nobody is that much of a Pollyanna, least of all me. It’s that immediately dismissing ideas that might actually fly is risky to the long-term health of our libraries. It’s that closing our eyes to the experience of others vitiates our adaptability as librarians. It’s that sometimes there are viable answers, if we are open enough to want them and disciplined enough to seek them!

I’ve noticed already that it’s easier to reach a workable answer I can be satisfied with when I have more than one example to triangulate from. Naturally, it’s also easier when innovators talk and write honestly about challenges, failures, and retrenchments, though I do understand that public honesty is inordinately difficult in highly-politicized library environments.

I’ve also noticed one factor in success that I don’t often see explicitly emphasized: serendipity. A striking number of success stories I hear contain a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “And then I just happened to meet this person who immediately took an interest, and…” moment. I find myself wondering whether this points to a weakness in common conceptualizations of service outreach and popularization, how academic libraries recruit stakeholder buy-in and engage users. Strategies that connect us with one or two people we hope to turn into prime movers necessarily differ from marketing strategies designed to engage broad audiences.

This struck home for me at the recent Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) conference. I’ve been asking myself for years whether the approach I took to helping launch a research-data management service, broadly marketing a help desk for National Science Foundation data-management plans, was the right one, as I don’t have the successes to recount that places like Purdue and Penn State do. At ASIST, I heard David Minor of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) library talk about their introduction of research-data management services. Like Purdue in its data-curation pioneering days, Minor and UCSD consciously started small, partnering successfully with serendipitously-encountered individual researchers and labs before making any effort to connect more broadly across campus. I am now convinced that the start-small approach is more effective—see? I used the questioning process I just described and found an actual answer!—but clearly, making it work takes serendipity engineering instead of standard marketing.

The need to leave ourselves open to serendipity might be the most important reason not to dismiss possibilities out of hand because they seem challenging. At minimum, it never hurts to keep our ears open for chances to be useful. At best, though, when we keep ideas in the back of our heads alongside specific barriers we know we need to overcome to make them work, we’ll have an easier time recognizing and capitalizing on opportunity when it speeds by.

I wish us all a safe, joyous holiday season. May we all return in 2015 with fresh determination to give new ideas a fair shake!

Note: This post is copyright 2014 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”