Bravery based librarianship is the (only) future

25 Jul
Fearless man

This. But librarianship. (Flickr CC image by BombDog.)


In recent months I’ve been fortunate to meet a few people  I admire. Stephen Abram, Terry Kendrick, Andy Woodworth, and Jim Neal* are all people whose ideas about librarianship I’ve been inspired by.

I’m really interested in a common theme, one which the SLA2011 conference really hammered home for me. All of them have talked about the need for for a little chaos. They’ve all talked about the need to build in the potential for chaos into the fabric of librarianship and the libraries we work in – to deal with what Stephen calls the “asynchronous, asymmetrical threats” libraries are facing. He believes the only way to deal with this is through pattern disruption (and incidentally, points out that pattern disruption is a lot easier to achieve with people than it is with buildings or books).  In other words, mixing things up. Not just plodding along the same old route.

I think that chaos – deliberate, sanctioned chaos – is very, very hard to engineer. The whole thought of engineered chaos is almost oxymoronic anyway. You can only build in the potential for chaos but you can’t be completely sure you’ll be able to decide what that chaos will be. So you have to be really brave.

I think that bravery based librarianship is the only future we have. At some point, we have to disrupt the patterns and set a new path. Many libraries are doing this already – our profession is, of course, much more responsive to change than most people realise. But fear-based librarianship, or at least caution-based, still seems prevalent. Many a decision is made in order not to upset the minority, rather than to potentially please a whole new majority. In many cases, this approach is taken with good reason. But we’re talking about the survival of our profession, here.

But what strikes me is how often I hear about bravery-based librarianship that goes well. There were loads of these at SLA2011. So many times when libraries take the plunge on some decision or other, the outcomes are positive. I know failure is less likely to make it into the public eye, but even so enough people are trying interesting things and discovering that – hey, guess what – the world DIDN’T end and the earth DIDN’T swallow them up, and in fact everything carried on, but slightly better. So we should learn from them.

So many great ideas get bottlenecked by trying not to upset people. We are at a time when we need to inspire people, not protect their delicate sensibilities. Merely not failing is no longer enough. We have to succeed in such a way that the odd failure happens too – otherwise we’re not speculating enough to accumulate sufficiently. And I’m not talking about whole libraries, I’m talking about the ideas which drive them. Can we get ourselves into a collective mindset where we don’t fear chaos?

If you have an example of bravery-based librarianship, either succeeded or failing, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

Andy Priestner, another librarian for whom I have much admiration, is a good example of someone who has reached a senior position and still innovates, forward-thinks, and generally terrorises the establishment. (He’s even employed a Special Projects Officer who has the freedom to make chaos happen, in a good way, because they’re not tied in to the daily grind of the library. This is, thus far, the only clear example I’ve seen of what Jim Neal advocates – to build in to your organisation at least one position with real freedom to innovate, react with agility, focus on new ideas and so on.) What Andy does at Cambridge works!  Bravery-based librarianship really can be done.

- thewikiman

* I didn’t actually meet Jim Neal in the end. He did a talk at my previous institution, and it was amazing – I queued to meet him but ahead of me in the queue were all the really senior people in the organisation, including my boss and the librarian etc. So I thought they’d think I was out of place, and he probably wouldn’t want to be bothered, so wussed out and left. Later, I found out he knew who I was because of the Movers and Shakers thing, and wanted to meet me. Moral of the story – if you get the chance to meet someone inspirational, just take that chance and filter out all the things which might cause you to leave instead! Don’t let caution get the better of you; bravery FTW. :)

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  • Hazel Robinson August 31, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    As Chair of the Friends of a very small library in Dorset which now has to become community-run, I am saddened at librarians talking about ‘bravery’ when they propose commonsense actions which anyone from the business world would think….simply normal. Having been unwillingly thrown into the world of hidebound, self-serving and untruthful Library Service Officers (and I do not include here our excellent frontline staff), I am no longer surprised by this. We did not want our library to become community-run but it will probably be the best thing to happen to it in decades. We have no fear that we will fail in making our small building far better than it has ever been under the aegis of the local authority…and we won’t even think we’re being brave.

  • thewikiman August 31, 2011 at 11:32 AM

    Hey Hazel, thanks for your comment – I appreciate what you say. But for libraries the stuff we’re talking about IS brave, so surely it’s better to attempt new things than to carry on with the status quo and say ‘in any other area this would be seen as normal’ but not actually change anything..? Building the capacity for chaos into your organisation is a hard thing to do, even if as you say it’s common sense.

  • Michael Ruiz September 21, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    I totally agree that bravery librarianship is a very important factor for a librarian. This should be given importance because librarians with this characteristic can effectively discipline students. A strong personality is always important in every leader.

  • Melissa Techman September 29, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    .@theREALwikiman meant to tell you how much I enjoyed yr post re Bravery-Based Librarianship!

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  • Kim von Weidts October 14, 2013 at 2:08 PM

    Hi Ned
    I gave a paper at the LIASA 2013 conference last week titled “Blow Up the Corporate Library: Why it’s STILL a Good Idea” where I explained the changes brought about in the information service that I rebranded, learned new skills and am HAPPY in doing. The old model library didn’t suit my clients, the environment we are in and was not adding value, I have found my niche and had to make a mind shift to do so, which required bravery.

  • thewikiman October 15, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    Hi Kim, yes, I heard great things about your paper! Thanks for commenting…

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