Wednesday, July 26, 2017

This is a story about control

One thing that the Unified Library Scene has always been about is understand the needs of your user community and responding to them. When reading the most recent Ithaka S+R issue brief, Rethinking liaison programs for the humanities, I was once again reminded of how central listening should be to the work we do in libraries.

I was fascinated by the idea that their projects are "scholar centered." The authors describe their centering of researchers by saying:
we do not ask scholars how they engage with library services, collections, or employees but rather in a more open-ended way what their experiences and practices are like as researchers. Our intention is not to evaluate the "efficacy" of liaison services as they are currently organized but rather to determine what services if any may be needed.
This idea of asking scholars about their processes really resonates with me because it centers the user and decenters the library. Instead of asking "how good are we at meeting your needs?" this process asks "what are your needs?" Instead of asking scholars to do the work of figuring out how to structure the services the library should be providing, the work of mapping the efficacy of services happens when trying to reconcile scholar needs with current service offerings.

This methodology is perhaps easier for Ithaka to undertake than many individual academic libraries because one imagines that they don't tie the answer that a respondent gives to the work being done in the organization those respondents represent. If you talked to the libraries that serve those respondents, they may not feel as comfortable with the scholar centered approach because they are invested in making sure that they are doing the best possible job of meeting the needs of the faculty they serve. And in the end, scholar centered approach requires a flexibility of thinking and a willingness to give legacy services up in order to take on new, more useful services.

Later in the issue brief, the authors talk about how because humanists are often working in sub-disciplines, they don't see their liaison librarian as an expert they can include as a collaborator in their research process. The authors explain:
Even if, as appears to be increasingly the case, subject specialists have advanced degrees in the relevant subject area, subject expertise at a discipline level is not what is being sought. Rather, for research support humanists are looking for engagement at the level of their own sub-discipline, which is rarely available through the library.
That was really hard for me to read, and I don't liaise with scholars.

It's dangerous to think of any user community as a monolith, so what happens at any given academic library might not scale. But I still think this is really valuable insight. I think that academic libraries and the workers who staff them spend a lot of time trying to foist services upon scholars who may not need them and then internalizing the failure they feel when they aren't able to build the kind of relationships they wish to have with the scholars in the academic community. It isn't that those scholars don't see the library as valuable--the authors of this issue brief are very clear that they do--it's that they don't see us in the way that we may want to be seen.

We spend a lot of time in academic libraries evaluating the services we provide our users. And I do think it's valuable to measure the efficacy of the work that we're already doing. But I think what this issue brief points out to us, separate from its findings, is how important it is to have a user centered orientation that comes from truly engaging with your user communities, knowing how they work, and identifying ways in which your work intersects with theirs in an authentic way.

Stay positive,

Friday, July 21, 2017

These are the days it never rains but it pours

I was happy to learn that the ALCTS Board approved the ALCTS Diversity Statement as part of its agenda at ALA Annual 2017. This statement addresses the Division's position of equity, diversity, and inclusion as they relate to acquisition, description, management, and preservation of library materials but it also addresses those issues as they relate to the recruitment and retention of library workers with marginalized identities. This statement is thoughtfully crafted and I sincerely hope that the member organizations within the Division both live up to and promote the values codified in the statement.

As a cataloger, the statement in the ALCTS Diversity Statement that is most applicable to my daily metadata creation and remediation work is "ALCTS practices include resisting bias in resource description while recognizing that the act of description is never neutral." As someone whose belief that the lived experiences of catalogers have a direct impact upon the work they produce, I was glad to see the professional organization I align myself most closely with acknowledge this truth. This idea was expressed also in the Core Competencies for Cataloging and Metadata Professional Librarians which was approved by the ALCTS Board in January 2017. That document states:
Human beings unavoidably assign value judgments when making assertions about a resource and in defining (via metadata standards and vocabularies) the assertions that can be made about a resource. Metadata creators must possess awareness of their own historical, cultural, racial, gendered, and religious worldviews, and work at identifying where those views exclude other human experiences. Understanding inherent bias in metadata standards is considered a core competency for all metadata work.
Even as we can rejoice over the steps that ALCTS is taking to acknowledge the impact that lived experience has on metadata creation, we should also recognize that the statements in these documents exist in tension with the Guidelines for ALCTS Members to Supplement the American Library Association Code of Ethics, 1994 which states "an ALCTS member strives to provide broad and unbiased access to information." I believe this statement reflects the attitudes that catalogers had at the time the document is created and the attitude that many people who do metadata creation and remediation work continue to have. A story metadata creators have told ourselves is that creation of unbiased metadata is both a worthy and an achievable goal. And that story has become such a part of who we are that we teach that story to each generation of catalogers who comes after us. In some ways, the tension between the statements in these documents reflects the tension happening in the cataloging world and even in the wider world of librarianship where people are testing where the ideals of a professional code of ethics intersect with the realities of the world in which we currently find ourselves.

Since the ALCTS Diversity Statement was published, I have been thinking about what it means that our Division says both that our lived experiences play a role in how we create metadata and that we are obligated to set those lived experiences aside. I think it would be easy to dismiss the disconnect between that ALCTS Diversity Statement and the Guidelines for ALCTS Members to Supplement the American Library Association Code of Ethics, 1994 as just an oversight. But I think it's more useful (and interesting) to see it as a microcosm of a larger tension happening in librarianship. ALA has a code of ethics which, among other things states that:
we distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
And there are a lot of people for whom this is the bottom line, who believe that we should shrug off our personal convictions when we arrive at work. And as I've written before, that kind of thinking works great for people with privilege. But for many of our colleagues with marginalized identities, the personal and the professional are inextricably linked.

I hope that ALCTS leadership brings the ALCTS Diversity Statement and the Guidelines for ALCTS Members to Supplement the American Library Association Code of Ethics, 1994 more closely into alignment. But more than that, I hope that ALCTS members engage with the tension that exists when our lived experiences and our perceived professional obligations conflict. This tension is where many of our hardest choices exist.

Stay positive,

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

No time to think of consequence

By now I'm sure you've heard people talking about the article in The Chronicle called "What the 21st-Century library looks like." The article is paywalled, so you may not be able to read it. I don't want to write a reaction piece to the whole article, but there is one quote from the article that I do want to engage with. The middle of the article, the author writes "While traditional skills won't go away altogether, he [Mr. Wilder] says, new hires can help their employers 'figure out what the 21st-century research library looks like.'"

To give you some context, prior to this quote the author references the fact that there is a theoretical impending generational turnover that coincides with the fact that the shift to an almost entirely digital environment requires academic library workers to identify emerging needs of academic library users and develop services to meet those needs. The quote implies that because the newest hires among us are younger than us, they can help those they report to better understand how to navigate this new world and what it requires of us.

I have three things I want to say about this.

First, that's a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of someone who just got hired into an academic library. Imagine that you're an early career librarian. You're in your first job out of graduate school, mostly likely with a lot of student debt. Depending on how much you learned in school or through internships, you may feel out of your depth in this academic environment. If you're a person with marginalized identities, you may already feel like you were hired as the token person to teach everyone about diversity and inclusion. Now imagine that your supervisor, or someone higher up on the library's administrative team would like for you to help them understand younger library users and what they need. Or maybe they don't ask you to be part of the conversation--maybe they just add to your job description that you'll be charged with developing new and innovative services to reach younger user groups. That's a lot of pressure, right? The best outcome in this situation is that your early career colleagues will feel overwhelmed with all of this responsibility. The worst is that they burn out because you're set them up to fail.

Second, demanding that your newest and youngest library workers help you "figure out" what the future looks like disenfranchises the mid-career and late-career library workers in your organization. It suggests that an administrator feels like those library workers are too out of touch with what younger users need and, as a result, don't have any good ideas. I am not a fan of the but we've always done it this way mentality, but I do think we need to acknowledge that both our new hires and our incumbent staff are capable of coming up with good ideas about how to serve the various user groups in our academic libraries. Early career librarians have the good fortune of being new to your organization and they can see your services with fresh eyes. Mid-career and late-career librarians have the benefit of having seen the context in which your services exist and the context into which you plan to introduce new services. Assuming (and, yes, this is a big assumption) they are open to the adoption of new ideas, they can offer constructive feedback and help you anticipate problems.

Finally, the future is not as knowable as you think it is. Yes, you can use present data to predict future trends. But your user community is not a monolith and its likely that by the time you build the services you think they want that their needs will have already changed. We have this problem in librarianship where we're constantly trying to outrun our obsolescence by trying to predict the future and create services to support it. That's not great because it keeps us from engaging with the present--with identifying the needs of our users as they are right now and expending our resources to meet them. Sure, look at gate count and study how users make use of your space. And use the data you gather to be the best steward of your resources that you can. But never get too attached to the idea of the future that you give away resources your current users need to build a future that your future users may never need.

All of this is not to say that you shouldn't trust the opinion of early career librarians when it come to creating and deploying services to meet the emerging needs of library users. You should. But do it by including early career librarians in conversations in your library about these emerging issues and listening to them when they talk. Placing the burden entirely upon them for helping to create the future of your library is bound to be problematic for everyone.

Stay positive,

Monday, July 3, 2017

I'm already just a skeleton

Yesterday this question came across my Twitter feed, asking what misconceptions one would share with newcomers to librarianship. Below you can see my answer:

Based on the handful of retweets and likes my answer got, I surmised that I resonated with people.

I was trying to force a blog post into existence, but sometimes the story that you want to tell just won't let itself be told. I wanted to write about these lies we tell early career librarians about how they have to follow X path or do Y thing in order to finally be taken seriously.

As I was trying to force this blog post into existence, I went back and looked at this blog's very first post. I was reminded of how when I started writing here in 2014, I was looking for a place to talk about how technical services and public services library workers could build meaningful relationships that lead to collaborations that bettered the experiences of user communities. There wasn't a space to have those kind of conversations, so Rachel and I made one.

Sometimes, though, the story that you end up telling is the story that needs to be told instead of the story you set out to tell. While Rachel and I started out telling a version of the future of libraries where technical services and public services worked colleagially for the good of the user, it turns out that the story that needed to be told is about how vital it is to the see the humanity in others--whether it's your user communities, your colleagues, those you're closest to, or the stranger. The story doesn't end with seeing the humanity in others, though. The other part of the story is choosing how to respond once you've seen it. How will you work to build a future that's better than the present in which you find yourself?

Of all of the posts on the blog, my favorite has always been one that Rachel wrote in April 2015 called There is no map. It is my favorite because it demands that I stop standing still, even as it tells me that there's no way to know if the way forward I choose is the right one. You can't stand still, this post reasons, because you're already late for whatever future lies beyond the edges of what you think you know.

Wherever you are in your career, your ideas matter. And there is no path for building the kind of career that you deserve. Start where you are, stop standing still, and be willing to deviate from the path when the story that wants to be told isn't the story that you set out to tell.

Stay positive,