Library Adolescence. (Or: how can we avoid growing up?)

30 Mar

Birds: agile, and capable of quick changes of direction en masse. Libraries: less so.

Increasingly I see more people, organisations or ideas struggling with the transition between adolescence and adulthood. There is something brilliant about them in the first place – something which means they become successful enough to need to grow up at all. Then the process of growing up either dilutes, or sometimes eliminates entirely, the very factor that brought them success.

We all know it happens with consumer products, where two guys in a basement somewhere set out to change the world with an ethical product, and then it becomes so huge they get bought up by the very corporations they set out to provide an alternative to.

It appears to be happening with Twitter -  to quote Alexandra Samuel in the Harvard Business Review: “When Twitter burst on the scene, it was on the strength of an API (application programming interface) that made it extremely easy for developers to create a wide range of user experiences and tools. Twitter was lego rather than destination: a way for people to build something expansive rather than color within the lines.” But last friday they announced they were ending all that (or most of it), instructing developers to stop building new consumer-oriented Twitter client applications. They got too big to be open. They had to formalise things to ensure control of something that had become too valuable to be casual about.

in libraries

It happens locally all the time, too, in our work places. The really bright, switched on, enthusiastic library staff – the ones who absolutely LOVE libraries, who really GET what the mission is whilst accepting that the way we implement this is changing all the time; the ones who are amazing with the patrons – pretty soon get promoted away from the front-line, so end up spending far less time (or no time at all) dealing with the people (for whom libraries exist, after all).

What I’m really interested in, is the grass roots movements in libraries, and how they can cling on to what makes them great when they grow up into fully fledged library services. It seems there’s a lot of individuals or groups who are making things happen on their own, rather than waiting for the Great Library Machine to lumber in to action and give them top-down instructions and go-ahead.

When I was in Cambridge for the #LAC11 conference, the whole afternoon was given over to presentations on these kinds of initiatives – 23 things programmes, teach-meets, library presence at the fresher’s fair, Open Libraries. Projects which people decided to get done, and which were run (to a greater or lesser extent) informally, without people having big meetings with minute-takers, often without budgets being involved – in short, without all the trappings of micro-managed organisation that prevent an idea from being dynamic and agile. A lot of these initiatives went really well, which means they’ll be repeated, and expanded, and officially sanctioned – which means there’ll be minutes, maybe some money involved, and basically they will be held to account a lot more. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can prevent the kind of innovation and quick-response to new ideas which made them work the first time around.

the shining example

The shining example of what can be achieved when you decide to take some action is surely Voices for the Library. The majority of people reading this will know who they are already, but for those who don’t: this is a campaign group made up of librarians all of whom have proper jobs, but who come together in their own time (often via social media) and have achieved extraordinary success in a very short space of time. If you’ve read a newspaper article about libraries, chances are you may have seen a quote from at least once VftL member. You may even have seen them on the 10 o’clock news. They’ve muscled their way in to the library narrative, and speak for us where previously we weremute and unrepresented, like a someone standing trial without a lawyer.

They have done this by being flexible, proactive, dynamic, and aggressive. But of course, the whole point is they had to come together and form something new, because the existing channels weren’t getting the job done. They had to move outside the usual library environment and set up their own suburb to achieve, because only then were they unburdened by the usual restraints. Even now, their success has led to some compromise – they have sponsorship and plenty of celebrity support, which means they can’t say anything completely outrageous (not that they’d necessarily want to) and their members probably have to self-censor a little more even when they’re ‘off duty’ as VftL and just speaking for themselves – plus Phil Bradley has had to stop being involved because of a potential conflict of interests with his CILIP Vice-Presidency. The great thing about that, of course, is that he’s bringing some of the forward-thinking dynamism that VftL have thrived on, to the massive, multi-million pound operation that is the Chartered Institute.

the big question

The big question is, how do we combine power and authority, with agility and malleability? How do we become more like a flock of birds, who are capable of the same dynamism and adaptability when they are flying with 3000 of their peers, as they are when flying solo? How do we become adults without losing the ideals, ideas, and rebellion of our adolescence?

so what’s the big answer?

I really wish I knew – I suspect it has a lot to do with bravery, being willing to try something and fail, and being able to listen and understand really well. Being brave – doing something you know might not work – gets harder and harder the bigger the organisation, because more and more people are stakeholders in your success, and more and more people will know about your failures. But there’s evidence that bravery and innovation can work – CILIP seem much more gutsy and more responsive under the current regime, and it’s working so far; Andy Priestner is in a position to implement new and intimidating (to some) ideas at Cambridge, and does so, successfully. People like Buffy Hamilton and David Lee King seem to be getting it done on their own terms in the US, which is inspiring.

I suspect a lot of library-innovation success is about empowerment – librarians empowered to make decisions without endless checking for approval, and in turn empowering their staff to take control of their own area and revel in autonomy.

Anyone else have a big answer to the big question?

- thewikiman

a new bit added later

I wrote this post a while ago and haven’t had time to proof it, add the links etc so only got around to publishing it today. I’ve been thinking about it since, and the more I consider it the more I think a horizontal hierarchy is the key to this issue. If you have a traditional pyramid structure there are just too many levels of seniority to escalate issues to, to ever really get anything done. A flatter system allows for more people to share more of the power – and because no one person (even a genius, visionary leader) can expect to know about or to be able to facilitate EVERYTHING, perhaps that’s the key. Distributed power equals agility?

One of the main strengths of LISNPN (already, and even more so if and when it realises its potential) is that the face-to-face meet-up events are run by people from the regions in which they take place – there is no top-down instruction or go-ahead happening there, people just do stuff under the LISNPN umbrella. That’s easy for the network because it’s an informal network, there’s not a lot of money involved in it, the stakes are low. But maybe big organisations need to try and have that aspect of self-organising cells that work independently towards the same ideals, in order to be able to incorporate all the great new ideas and initiatives which library staff are capable of.

Also, make sure you read Andy’s comment below, it’s ace. :)

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  • Ned Potter March 30, 2011 at 6:14 PM

    Wrote this ages ago, only just finished off and published… Library Adolescence. (Or: how can we avoid growing up?)

  • Simon Barron March 30, 2011 at 6:17 PM

    @therealwikiman on Library Adolescence (Or: how can we avoid growing up?) And @UKpling is a "shining example"! :)

  • Library Web March 30, 2011 at 8:40 PM

    I think libraries have matured once already, but society has changed, they need to change with, and they are now in a second growth phase, with a negative profit for a while, focusing on their new business model (I know Tim Coates’ version of this is books books and more good books + informed staff, but there is a Web 2.0 generation rapidly advancing and the next iteration of library science, and which personally I would like to see very much include formalising the field of community librarianship).

    In terms of top down planning ( ) the assessment stage looks at the organisation in society, past, present, future (we can ask if a mnemonic such as PEST reveal anything useful to the current focus of study), but also stakeholder analysis. The field of libraries I think is an exemplar as to how stakeholder analysis can be of value to an organisation, by looking at the values of its stakeholders libraries can really begin to measure their worth to society and the vision can follow. Off the top of my head to start the ball rolling :) Users (will ususally quite happily tell you of the value of the libraries to them, young, old, young and upwardly mobile, parents, teens, for leisure, for work, and so on); the professions will reflect on the libraries also (teachers, the health professions, law and order, the researchers and academics in the sciences and arts, etc. etc.); writers, publishers, booksellers and all of the libraries’ partners otherwise in the literary ecosystem that serves our culture; commerce and business; politicians and the unions have their own dogma and philosophy and values also in respect of the libraries; researchers researching the libraries (there is precious little of this in the public sector, and not very focused to current need IMHO – why?); consultant reports are generally framed in a language that reflects the values of the managers who commissioned their work; and of course last but not least the library profession themselves, the chief librarians and their key note speeches and the librarians who write books about the libraries (past and present, some of them researchers in academia, do we have any practitioner research yet?), through to the staff on the front line themselves, librarian library managers and paraprofessionals (and to whom the public will look as their servants in the field to advise them on the value of the libraries to them and to society).

    I think this top down analysis would reveal that the process of exhausting all the possibilities that new technologies bring means that perhaps an inside-out strategy development process is appropriate (at least to an extent).

    E-books are one of the biggest upheavals libraries will have to contend with. Without carrying out a full scenario analysis ( ) intuitively surely the priority has to be to realign the copyright of these books to something that enables libraries to purchase and loan books again, and I’m sure it can be done in a way that writers and publishers will feel the true worth of their work even more so than in the past (people value books, and I think are willing to pay for them, and it is about to become much easier to read), readers will have a library service that their parents could not have even dreamed of.

    I like your ‘child prodigy’ analogy wikiman :) And the libraries are so again perhaps for a second time in their young history. The libraries are very much in the day and age that we live in one of the most exciting aspects of the future we have. So librarians, please don’t let everyone down – we all live in the same society, you will be letting yourselves and your profession down if you do.

    (paraprofessional, honorary shambrarian)

  • Ned Potter March 30, 2011 at 10:11 PM

    Have updated this to add a new conclusion I've come to. Library Adolescence. (Or: how can we avoid growing up?)

  • Andy Priestner March 30, 2011 at 10:49 PM

    Thanks for the name-check there. Great post. I agree that guts have a lot to do with it, having said that, others might consider my actions and initiatives to be brave but really they’re just part and parcel of my rather brash approach! You could never accuse me of not setting out my stall and in my view not nearly enough librarians do this, being more comfortable to go with the flow and then moaning when they don’t get the support or budget they need. I explained at my interview for this post that, if they did employ me, I would seek to completely transform the service to make it highly visible and that in terms of the budget I wanted at my disposal I would be an expensive choice, In choosing to offer me the job they therefore took a bit of a punt, so maybe senior management bravery is also important? I hate to say it but I think the fact that most of the six-strong interview panel were business school staff rather than librarians might have helped my case,
    I’d say its also important to prove that you can be left alone to get on with your job and that winning respect for your professional knowledge and expertise from your superiors is vital – again perhaps easier if your boss is not a librarian – mine is Director of Operations for the business school. You could judge me to be lucky in that respect, but then I chose business school librarianship because it offers more professional freedom than other sectors.
    I was pleased to be described by you on Twitter as rebellious recently as I like to think I harness that side of me on a day-to-day basis in order to challenge assumptions and push through change. Above all else I think its important to question anything and everything that is put before you and also to believe that anything is possible and usually far easier to achieve than you might first imagine. Some librarians dwell to long on the reasons not to do something. Personally I wish there were more risk-taking activists in librarianship at this crucial point in the profession’s timeline.

  • Eileen March 30, 2011 at 11:20 PM

    I appreciate this post very much. What really stays with me is, “How do we become more like a flock of birds, who are capable of the same dynamicism and adaptability when they are flying with 3000 of their peers, as they are when flying solo?” I couldn’t help but think of this in the solo librarian context, especially because we use ‘flying solo’ for a lot of things and the SLA solo division even gives us bird pins!

    I think the idea of ‘getting big’ has personal ramifications on us solos. It poses a dilemma for solo librarians, especially those who need management experience but who wonder if gaining it will make you want to seek a new position elsewhere. Some of us need to just stay where we are, do what we do, and find a way to be stay great at it without expanding.

  • Library Web March 31, 2011 at 1:29 AM

    There is some current ongoing research, it shows how a shoal of fish all move together by not straying to far from their neighbours, something they instinctively do for safety reasons. So if fish on the edge of the shoal see a predator, and head in the opposite direction, quite soon the whole shoal is moving in the same direction, even though only a few of the fish actually know the reason. (Apols for the lack of citations here.)

    A recent news article on the BBC showed how elephants deduced when a task to obtain some food would take two elephants, furthermore was able to reason that another elephant was thinking the same thing, and that they had the necessary communication skills to be able to organise it! (I could probably look a citation up here if anyone wants it.)

    The above is all the dynamics of teamwork I guess.

    Research also finds that creativity and innovation actually increases not linearly with the size of a team, but exponentially, so four people are not twice as innovative as two people, but five or six times more so. (Citation on request.)

    Back to the subject in hand, it’s almost as thought the libraries have matured once (with only need of incremental change), but Web 2.0 and 3.0 has resulted in the need for a paradigm level change? (Maybe the current culture of the libraries is too deeply rooted in bureaucracy which Web 1.0 could be incorporated into, but not an environment that Web 2.0 and 3.0 can happen in?)

    In terms of organisation for innovation, there is an article in the current CILIP Update, The challenge of creating the ambidextrous organisation – Can organisations be simultaneously creative /and/ efficient. Characteristics of such organisations include internal communications programmes, active communities of practice, job swaps, etc. One company has a portal where employees can post questions they want the leadership and CEOs to answer (the CEO even posts up his own problems) – employees get to close the inquiry themselves.

    Technology management is an old subject, but this is essentially the tree to go barking up at the moment I think. What are the technology characteristics of the sector at the moment? A textbook technique will follow. Maybe though it is these former characteristics of the sector that are the question that has not been answered. Literacy 2.0 is a very new term, and that would have to be accepted first by a 150 year old bureaucracy before any progress could be made.

  • Ned Potter March 31, 2011 at 8:05 AM

    New and already updated once blog post! Library Adolescence. (Or: how can we avoid growing up?)

  • Mylee Joseph March 31, 2011 at 8:14 AM

    RT @theREALwikiman: New and already updated once blog post! Library Adolescence. (Or: how can we avoid growing up?)

  • Debby Raven March 31, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    LW: ‘E-books are one of the biggest upheavals libraries will have to contend with.’ Not perhaps contend with, more ‘grasp with both hands as a life-saver’! I’ve written a few articles on libraries loaning e-books, one for April’s CILIP Update out in a week’s time. Business models and lending platforms are a bit confusing at present, but I do think they are an enormous opportunity for libraries. Borrowing an e-book for free is more attractive, obvious and more akin to owning one than a print book – there is no emotional investment in owning some letters on a screen.

  • Ned Potter March 31, 2011 at 2:18 PM

    Any ideas how libraries can combine power and authority, with agility and malleability?

  • Ned Potter April 20, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    (Which chimes with Was great to hear the kind of stuff we discuss on here, from a super high up big boss man!

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