Monday, October 10, 2011

On talking crazy, taking initiative, and having a comprehensive vision

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend Champions of Change, the Voice for Oregon Innovation & Sustainability's business soiree and leadership awards ceremony. It was much larger and more impressive than I had expected--a statement that is both a compliment and an apology to VOIS's all-volunteer organization and the event's many sponsors.

A number of businesspeople, community leaders and politicians spoke briefly. Their priorities and activities offer many possible connections to library programs, collections and services of all types. (The upside of currently being between positions is that I don't have "job blinders" on when attending these kinds of events. The downside is that it is much harder for me to actually act on any of those many possible connections.) What I want to talk about here, though, is three recurring themes that kept appearing in people's comments:

1. When they started out, everybody thought they were crazy. Now, it's just lots of people who think they are crazy.

2. The turning point for them came when they realized that nobody else--not government, not existing businesses, not large foundations--were going to do their work for them.

3. Common wisdom views sustainability and robust economies as competing goals that must be traded off against each other. They view sustainability as a necessary component of robust economies and robust economies as the only reliable guarantors of sustainability.

Anybody who keeps up with current trends in libraryland has to see parallels there. Open access vs. toll access, print vs. electronic, the de-skilling of previously professional positions, patron-driven acquisitions vs. professional selection, controlled vocabularies vs. folksonomies, and on and on. Do we think that we can be independent actors in the face of technological and economic changes? Crazy talk! Are we waiting for vendors, funders or other fields to develop the solutions we need? Bad idea. Do we believe that libraries can only thrive if taxes get raised or profit margins fall? Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't, but we set ourselves up for failure if we can only gain when others lose.

These thoughts have helped me clarify why I had such a visceral reaction to Colleen Harris' "On Learning, Library Evolution, Organizational Change, and the (Occasionally Ugly) Responsibilities of Library Management". (Her post is part of the ongoing discussion about library lay-offs at the University of San Diego, and it contains links to the essential background reading right at the start.) More accurately, I had a visceral reaction to the End Note of her post, which makes the flat claim that:

Libraries are not in the business of keeping people in jobs. We are in the business of meeting our mission of providing information to our users.

Up until then, I was completely, entirely, enthusiastically on board with her analysis of the problem and her recommended improvements to library management practices. And then I turned on her argument. Why? Well, imagine two slight variations:

Libraries are not in the business of recruiting and hiring staff who are members of under-represented groups. We are in the business of meeting our mission of providing information to our users.

Libraries are not in the business of choosing more environmentally sound products and practices. We are in the business of meeting our mission of providing information to our users.

All libraries, unless they are self-supporting through endowments and/or revenues, exist as a support function or vanity project for another institution. As such, our missions are fundamentally contingent upon and accountable to the missions of the institutions that support us. For the majority of these institutions, yes, library management has no warrant to make decisions based on the individual fates of individual employees who will be affected by restructuring or other layoffs. For some institutions, though, they might.

I have been the library director at two such institutions. One was a religious organization, and the other was a university with an official commitment to contemplative administration. The University of San Diego is a Roman Catholic institution with a mission and vision that require its administrators to look beyond mere effectiveness and efficiency when making decisions. Should they also consider individual livelihoods? I can't say, since I am not a member of that specific community or the Roman Catholic tradition more broadly. But it is a valid and important conversation for that community and tradition to have.

To put it another way, consider Verde, the Portland business founded by Alan HipĆ³lito, one of the award-winners at the Champions of Change event. Verde "has brought new environmental investments to Portland’s neighborhoods, involved community members in the planning and building of these investments, and ensured that low-income people and people of color directly benefited from the investments." Is this the model MBA students will learn? No. Could the model be directly transferred to a municipal department? Definitely not. Is it a bad model? No. It is a model that pursues multiple goals simultaneously in alignment with the organization's mission. Management is not only about industry best practices--it is about integrity. The same is as true of libraries as it is of a landscape, nursery and energy efficiency business.


  1. I love this. I'd start by saying that libraries aren't in business at all, or shouldn't be. Sure, we have to contend with certain realities of the market (licensing costs, internet connectivity prices, etc.), but we're not selling a product or trying to make a profit, and I think modeling ourselves after those who are is, well, crazy.

  2. Thanks, Laura!

    I agree that libraries aren't selling a product. I think there is a fine line between marketing a library's services and collections as an expression of the library's mission and simply trying to increase usage and satisfaction by any means necessary. I try not to judge what side of that line other libraries fall on, because outsiders don't always see the whole picture. But, y'know, I'm an opinionated guy, and I get opinions.

    I am less confident about saying that libraries aren't trying to make a profit. The difference between for-profit and non-profit isn't in the operating margins, it's in how the surplus is handled. If a library can responsibly reduce staffing costs and thereby free up more money for programs and collections, or responsibly reduce programming costs and thereby free up more money for staffing and collections, etc., I think it is a good thing. Effectiveness and efficiency aren't unqualified goods, but they are good. The main problem with libraries is that we generally don't have ownership of our own surpluses--it just gets absorbed by the parent organization at best or encourages budget cuts at worst.