Monday, November 26, 2012

On the cultivation of virtue.

I promise that, in the end, this post will be about human resources and libraries.


In conservative social scientist Charles Murray's recent book, ComingApart: the State of White America, 1960-2010, he makes the familiar argument that self-governing free citizens cannot maintain a workable society in the absence of strong personal virtues. (I am only about halfway through, so I can't say if he takes the argument in any new directions.) The four virtues he lifts up as being of paramount civic importance are industriousness, honesty, marriage and religiosity.

Indulge me in setting aside the also-familiar counter-arguments about marriage and religiosity; the observation I want to make here is how, historically, social power in America deliberately did its best to keep whole classes of people from benefiting from all four of these virtues. The industriousness of ethnic minorities and women was attacked as “taking away” jobs from white men. Sexual minorities could not live honestly, have fruitful marriages or participate in the shared life of religious communities. These examples are the obvious ones that cannot be refuted. Of course, there are others that are more or less arguable in terms of scope and impact, along with the question of when (or if) the was of “historically” gave way to the is of the present.

The point of my observation is that citizenship does not just require virtue in order to succeed: virtue requires citizenship in order to develop. There is little incentive to work for a theoretically universal common good that deliberately or even accidentally excludes you in practice.


In my first marriage, I married into poverty. To say it was an eye-opener would be an understatement. I watched people that I loved making rational choices that were also bad choices. I watched their friends and acquaintances cycle through their own boom-and-bust economies on a micro scale. I learned the complete category error of the perennial question asked by people who aren't poor themselves, “Is poverty the result of moral failure or structural oppression?” In my experience, both direct and through extensive reading, what I've seen is that poverty shapes people. It's like psychological bonsai. Even with more resources, even in different environments, the history of constraint leaves its marks.


In human resources today, one of the more common topics of discussion is how to increase employee engagement. The basic idea is that a workforce that is both emotionally invested and competent will provide a competitive advantage over a workforce that is merely competent.

These discussions almost always make me want to laugh and cry at the same time, because highly-trained, committed professionals return again and again to a methodology of “what WE might do to make THEM feel invested in US.” It's HR as a brand-loyalty marketing program, really.

There are no shortcuts. There are no clever techniques. The way to increase employee engagement is to engage with one's employees. The way to increase emotional investment is to provide a return on that investment. People won't act like they have a stake in an organization's performance if they, in fact, don't. People who haven't had a stake before will continue to act like they don't, for quite some time.


In libraries today, especially academic libraries, one of the more common topics of discussion is how librarians can better respond to changing technological and economic realities. (Or, less charitably: how librarians can actually start responding, period.) One particularly desperate presenting issue is the impossible pricing models for serials, especially as they are bundled into online databases.

Recently, Jenica Rogerswalked SUNY-Potsdam away from the American Chemical Society. Responses were widely and overwhelmingly positive, though the Library Loon observed that somefolks were gravely discomfited. The BeerBrarian argued that eventhe applause contained disappointing elements, since Ms. Rogers' actions can reasonably be described as just doing her job as a library director. In larger libraries, some of those responsibilities fall on librarians further down the org chart.

A while back, I talked about whyI didn't want to be a library director anymore. The reasons boiled down to feeling powerless. I foresaw that it wouldn't be long before I had to make a similar decision to Ms. Rogers, and I assumed I would then get fired, as simple as that. I never would have predicted that faculty and university administrators could have been brought on board. Ms. Rogers is an outstanding library director, but I am thinking that the faculty and administration at SUNY Potsdam must be something special too.

I believe Library Loon when the bird says (in the post linked to above) that angry faculty get librarians fired. I think the causality there is off, though. I would say that "mediocre senior library administrators get librarians fired." Angry faculty is going to happen, especially in cases where publisher greed isn't as blindingly obvious, and it's just a question of too many pieces of the pie being a little bit too large. Communication and education can mitigate that anger. But effective communication by collection development and liaison librarians can't happen without the full support of the management layers above them. The librarians need time, personal encouragement and institutional cover to lay that groundwork.

I have had trouble over the years being tactful about librarian fears of irrelevancy and the embrace of information literacy as the primary response to a shifting information environment. Fundamentally, the prioritizing of teaching concepts over tools represented to me a surrender of any attempt to own (figuratively or even literally) thetools of library research. The profession collectively threw up its hands and said, "It's too hard!"

Well, librarianshiphas always been hard. That's what keeps it from being a pointless endeavor. If it were simple, we wouldn't need librarians as a specialized class of professional--and we clearly do. Or "information professionals," if you prefer. I'm not too picky about labels.

But librarians also have frequently needed to contend with mediocre administrators as well as a challenging environment. (The Library Loon talks about this a lot.) Librarians made rational choices about what they could achieve with the resources at hand. I realize now that I can't be too harsh on fearful librarians, though. They're correct to be scared--just of their bosses leaving them to hang out to dry, not the wider world in general.

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