Sunday, April 20, 2014

Leadership & Privilege

Having just returned from yet another, well-organized BC Library Conference, I am left with many complicated thoughts.  I aspire to share some of them here as a way of encouraging others to reflect on their own experiences in an effort to wrestle with the problems and assumptions that remain hidden in library culture.

I am interested in understanding how we have arrived at certain conditions that seem to be the product of certain forms of leadership and, more importantly, how we discuss it. Despite the difficulty in trying to tease the issues out, it is important to tap into what lies beneath the surface of this profession and, even, the broader social problems that we all face. Doing so, for instance, may help us to better understand  how we might approach our work, our professional development and our education to open up more space for debate, experimentation, and support.

To begin my exploration, I turned to what has been written and what is being discussed both formal and informally at conferences, in the literature and in other web resources.  While there is much "discourse" or discussion about leadership, there is space for delving deeper into what is hidden -- the assumptions that construct the ways in which we make decisions and perform our roles. For example, we need to take a closer look into how relations of power and privilege can position certain people to become leaders*. Furthermore, we need to understand how different kinds of leadership produce certain outcomes that may or may not reflect our inherent values and understanding of our roles in library work.  This can only be done if we first attempt to unpack the concept of leadership.

The lack of consensus on the meaning of leadership makes it an "essentially contested concept" (Dowding, 2011). This means that our understanding of leadership is relative and is likely to shift over time and circumstance.  Recognizing this, enables us to see that approaches that appear in the workplace in addition to the professional and academic literature are merely possible ways of  "seeing" and are not, in any way, definitive.  Some approaches are so common that they take on a kind of power of their own that is discursive and seemingly natural.

As a way of untangling some of the meaning, it is useful to examine the work of Keith Grint, who appreciates the significance of leadership but challenges the notion that it can be universally understood.  He begins his book, Leadership: Limits and Possibilities, with four possible ways of understanding leadership
  • Person: is it WHO 'leaders; are that makes them leaders?
  • Result: is it WHAT 'leaders' achieve that makes them leaders?
  • Position: is it WHERE 'leaders' operate that makes them leaders?
  • Process: is it HOW 'leaders' get things done that makes them leaders? (2005, p.1)
I venture that the general discourse of library leadership is based on ideas of position and, to a lesser degree, results. For example, Peter Hernon (2010) examines the Blackwell Award Program, revealing that not only is leadership tied to program development, applications are focused on management with an underlying assumption that leadership is present.  "Management is concerned with executing routines and maintaining organizational stability - it is essentially concerned with control; leadership is concerned with direction setting, with novelty and is essentially linked to change, movement and persuasion" (Grint, 2005, p. 15). In order to understand when true leadership occurs (and whether it is has assisted us in order to move in the direction of a worthy and desirable future), it is important that we carefully separate the practice of management from leadership.

We can also understand leadership looking at how leaders and leadership are acknowledged and by whom.  Grint asks, "So who says what the context is (it's usually a crisis)?  And who says that - as a consequence of the context - we therefore need leaders of a particular kind (it's usually 'decisive')?  Usually the answer is: the existing leaders" (2005, p. 11).  In other words, leaders decide what the crises are and who is needed to lead through these crises.

How, then, do library folk become leaders?  While many who become organizational "influencers" rise through the ranks of their organization through what seems a natural career progression, others are more carefully groomed.  There are numerous leadership institutes for librarians and their focus is, understandably, on leadership skill development.  A main objective of ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute, for example, is to, "force participants to examine their own leadership styles" (Kalin, 2008, p. 266).  An attendee of the Northern Exposure to Leadership Institute blogs, "NELI helped me to understand more about myself and my strengths as a leader" (Mac, 2012).

What appears to be lacking in the discourse of leadership is a discussion of the social constructs that enable some to rise to positions of leadership that may or may not have anything to do with their demonstrated abilities and/or knowledge.  The matter is made more complex by the fact that the work environments are becoming increasingly "accountable" through technologies that cannot easily incorporate the qualitative elements that are so often the basis of public service.

Our culture has become dominated by the language of austerity. It is increasingly difficult for us to imagine ourselves operating in any other way other than as economic entities. Economic growth trumps social justice. Henry Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux summarize the effects most meaningfully, “As the discourse of neoliberalism seizes the public imagination, there is no vocabulary for political or social transformation, democratically inspired visions, or critical notions of social agency to enlarge the meaning and purpose of democratic public life”(as cited in Ayers, 2005, p. 536).  Consequently, we find ourselves attempting to respond to change from only one perspective.  This relative position is one that does not allow for individuals to influence development and change in a more distributed, democratic fashion.  Doing so invites debate, deliberation and questioning that is simply not welcome in a neoliberal regime.

All of this leads to my observation that inequalities prevail in all sectors and at all levels.  Some benefit from privilege while others suffer as the other. While such problems extend outside of the library field, it is essential that some attempts are made to understand where privilege may not only disadvantage some but may also inhibit our collective ability to grow and adapt to changing societal habits, values, and circumstances. Inequality in the workplace is powerful, sometimes subtle and certainly something to be examined and challenged. Pease (2010) attempts to unravel the complexities of inequality by revealing that an examination of unearned advantage (privilege) can help us to understand why some social problems persist. He eloquently states
This belief in the naturalness of inequality leads most people to accept and live with existing inequalities in the same way we live within the laws of gravity.   It is only when we understand that social inequalities are human creations designed to benefit a few that we can see the possibilities for challenging inequality (p. 14)
This relates directly to the discussion of library leadership because the institution that is the "library" is increasingly influenced by economic and political ideologies that are unraveling what it means to be democratic, accessible, intellectually free, and diverse - values articulated in the ALA Core Values of Librarianship.  The present condition of Library and Archives Canada  (LAC), the process of program reviews in education, the penetration of private companies that seek to "aid" libraries in becoming more efficient through "de"-selection, automating services and, most recently, the outsourcing of our national bibliographic holdings are only some of the more obvious examples.  It is very, very difficult to have an open and candid discussion about why it is that some of the actions taken by government, library workers, and management teams may be problematic. Despite the fact that the profession needs to exercise its voice by challenging problems, most in the field feel limited in how they may speak and act.

It should be noted that while librarians are understood to be a class of "professionals", in most cases, they are also paid servants of the state.  Pease notes "that professionals have a range of privileges connected to their relative job security and control over their labour process and the work of others (A. Ferguson 1979). So, their material interests are connected to the status quo" (2010, p.75).  This creates a strong tension when the ideology of how libraries must organize themselves and define their value shifts. Today, this transformation is part of pervasive and powerful claims that all aspects of education, training and public service must operate to support the interests of business and industry.  Many of us know that questioning the very powerful discourse of rationality, austerity, and  productivity  puts us in very vulnerable positions.

So while many are frustrated by the ebbing away of what it is that we value as a profession, they feel absolutely powerless.  This is precisely why we must understand how leadership does and does not work. One of the limits of leadership is that it continues to operate in the library field in a hierarchical fashion that is often position-based.  These positions are political and reflect power structures within organizations that structure who is able to speak, what they are able to share and do, as well as when and where.  If we are to understand strengthening leadership as a way of facing the future with some degree of success, we are well-served to heed the words of Bob Pease (2010)
members of privileged groups need to be aware of the ways in which their speaking positions can be oppressive and dangerous and, at the same time, not retreat from political work that is contentious.  After all, what could be more privileged than positioning oneself in a way that is beyond criticism? (p. 31)
It is difficult for us to think our way outside of this box unless we consider leadership as something less binary (leader/follower, powerful/powerless, control/resistance, etc.) and something more interdependent and fluid. Collinson suggests that such an approach, "recognizes that leaders exercise considerable control and that their power can also have contradictory outcomes which leaders either do not always understand or of which they are unaware" (2005, p. 1435).  Doing so can reveal that deploying other forms of leadership (like distributed or participatory) may, in fact present new opportunities for dealing with very large and difficult problems.

Distributed leadership acknowledges a collective responsibility and collective flexibility and helps us to see expertise in new areas within the field.  Being less individual-driven, this form of leadership has the potential to re-invoke what it means to be socially responsible (Grint, 2005).  This possibility could be one way in which the community of library workers, from all levels, can become more involved and empowered to address the real problems the field must face.

While leadership may remain an "essentially contested concept", we can better position ourselves to understand its varied and contextual role if we are to to continue to provide communities with access to diverse resources and aid in the navigation of a complex information-centric society.   The problems we face cannot be solved by individual "heroes" who have had the benefit of elite educational and training opportunities.  There is simply more force to defend democracy and intellectual freedom if the profession is able to call upon the diverse knowledge, interest and expertise of all of its members.  Without it, we are not much of a profession at all.

* However, a good place to start is the Progressive Librarian Guild's journal Progessive Librarian: A Journal for Critical Studies and Progressive Politics in Librarianship.

Ayers, D. (2005). Neoliberal ideology in community college mission statements: A critical discourse analysis. The Review of Higher Education, 28(4), 527-549). 

Collinson, D. (2005). Dialectics of leadership. Human Relations58(11), 1419-1442.

Dowding, K. (Ed.). (2011). Essentially contested concept.  In the Encyclopedia of Power. doi:

Grint, K. (2005) . Leadership: Limits and Possibilities. New YorkPalgrave Macmillon.

Hernon, P. (Ed.). (2010). Shaping the future: Ldvancing the understanding of leadership. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited. 

Kalin, S. (2008). Reframing leadership: The ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians. Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship, 13(3), 261-270.

Mac, L. (2012, Mar. 17) TSLIS execs strengthen their skills at the 2012 Northern Exposure to Leadership Institute. [blog post]. Retrieved from:

Pease, B. (2010). Undoing priviledge: Unearned advantage in a divided world. London: Zed Books.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Peeling back the layers

It has been too long since my last post but my reasons have been good ones.  I began a doctoral program and I have been deeply buried in literature.  The results have already been life-affirming because I am developing a toolkit to help me to better understand the dissonance that I both observe and experience.  I am now ready to share some of the things that I am thinking about in the hope that others may feel inspired to examine and discuss these things as well.  This is not a research piece, it is an editorial examination in preparation for further work.  There is a body of literature that discusses issues that I will mention below but my goal, here, is to first bring some of the issues to light in anticipation of deeper analysis.

As part of my journey, I am reviewing "codes" and policies that we use in the profession of librarianship and how the use of such tools shape the ways in which we operate.  These instruments are political and powerful but are often hidden from view.   I am keenly interested in how it is that the majority of library employees (technicians, assistants, clerks, etc.) remain on the periphery of library discourse, despite the fact that they act as the "face" of libraries as front-line workers.

There is much discussion around the "de-professionalization" of librarianship and the "up-scaling" of library support staff.  This is not surprising as libraries, like many public sector institutions, are falling prey to neoliberal practices that emphasize efficiency and effectiveness as the only means in which value can be measured and rewarded. The effects of this movement are seductive.  Libraries become subject to decisions and actions that subtly undermine the philosophical frameworks that shape library services.   For example, librarians act to uphold the principle of "intellectual freedom", yet they, themselves, are not free to practice such freedoms.  The most obvious example of this would be the introduction of a code of conduct at Library and Archives Canada that instructs employees to adhere to  a "duty of loyalty" that limits their freedom to even discuss what it is they do in a workplace which "belongs" to Canadian citizenry.  However, freedoms are challenged in many other ways and in many other environments.  Interestingly, those who are subject to these conditions may not be aware of how their situations are problematic because the contexts are complex and closely tied with existing politics and power relations in the workplace. Many library workers have not had the privilege of being exposed to the theoretical frameworks that can provide some basic tools to respond to these pressures.  In addition, they are not in positions to challenge the dominant views of their library culture (views that we also perpetuate in our service to our communities).

Library culture comes with its own very interesting attributes including a class system of its own.  As librarians with master's degrees continue to move into "coordinating" and "managing" positions  and away from front-end work, the hierarchical nature of the workplace is further solidified.  In tandem with these changes come divides between the library "elite" and non-elite.  Those occupying positions in the upper echelons of the workplace are more  privy to the instruments of financial and managerial control and, additionally, exposed to a different work culture as members of decision-making teams.

The evolution of New Public Management and its neoliberal ideologies are frequently taken up as being the only rational ways in which libraries can demonstrate that they are not a "burden" on the public purse.  However, the byproduct of such an approach to management has lead to the incredible outsourcing of library work.  There are some very persuasive arguments made in favour of such practices that underscore the need to survive through fiscal restraint. Such arguments make it very challenging to insert a critique because money becomes the centre argument that trumps discourse in areas of values, theory, and, even, philosophy.

One of the effects of our present situation relates to the notion of "de-professionalization" and concern about the future of the profession and, more importantly, the future of libraries.  Through processes of fueled by managerialism and a lack of open and honest discussion about its limitations, we have been unable to reveal how the structures in our workplaces inform directions which may not be congruent with what we understand to be the "right" way to operate.  Freedom of information, for example, cannot be reduced to something as simple as providing access to a body of material in a library.  Freedom is grossly more complex, operating on various assumptions including our notions of what it means to be "free".  This is understood in the workplace when librarians struggle with voicing their concerns regarding their own practice.   For instance, it becomes difficult for librarians to disassociate themselves from their organizations in order to act independently of the brick and mortar institutions in which they are employed.  This is an important point because this hampers library professionals from offering a critique to practices in the profession.   There is no "space" for safe discourse.

What is most fascinating to me, as a researcher, is the contradictory nature of what library folk perceive as their core values and what they find themselves subjected to in their own environments.  Yet, in order to have a candid and realistic understanding of the future and the role of libraries, there is call for open discussion of this dissonance.  There is a call for less exclusionary practices that further divide the "elite" and the "practitioners".  Practitioners, of all levels, experience the seismic shifts in technology and community engagement that can inform practice.  In addition, the insertion of theoretical frameworks can help us to understand how these changes might be addressed as we move forward.  We would have something to "hang our hat on" that takes us beyond rationalization into the realm of what is right, what is needed, and what is relevant.

Friday, May 10, 2013

What Keeps Me Up at Night

I was recently invited to sit with a panel of library "CEOs" at the 2013 BC Library Conference to discuss issues that keep us all "up at night".  When I first began pondering the question, my reaction was, "what doesn't keep me up at night?!"  In order to teach a wide variety of courses, manage site visits and field placements, mentor students, and encourage community engagement, I find myself observing and experiencing many changes to the profession of librarianship, technology and human behaviour.

After some reflection, I was able to channel my concerns into one thread of thought that appears to inform many of the other issues that I see at play.  The following content is distilled from my portion of the presentation.

"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." --- Albert Einstein, 1879-1955.

We increasingly see accountability and responsibility used interchangeably to describe why the activities of organizations must come under significant and measurable scrutiny.  Arguments that the only way for government to be accountable for its actions(i.e. demonstrating “efficiency” and “effectiveness”)  is to discretely measure "outcomes" and "outputs". 
This practice is facilitated by technologies that allow greater mechanisms for acquiring, storing,  and mining data. However, with public services that are costly and do not lend themselves to “easy” quantitative assessment, defining "success" is not only a challenge, measuring success can become highly problematic (consider the on-going debates regarding standardized testing in K-12).  In addition, an over-emphasis of such practices has the tendency to downplay discourse relating to morality and taking action because it is the "right" thing to do. 
 Indeed, by being complicit in doing what is “asked” of us, without any intellectual discussion, we further subject ourselves to some of the unintended consequences of rationality that include:

Managerialization: “public agencies exist only to carry out programs and policies established by the legislative and executive branches of government, and to do so with maximum efficiency. “* It can also be seen as a belief that management science and the application of its tools can solve problems and tends to justify structures that improve managerial control.

This practice divorces social and organizational contexts in such a way that impedes critical reflection. There is a LOT of use of the term “leadership” but it often plays out as managerialism.  Behaviours of managerialism can be described as: avoiding conflicts, possessing subordinates, creating objectives/goals , having formal authority, and having a focus on results.  Compare this to leadership, where there is cultivation of followers, creation of vision and purpose, and having influence  rather than "control".

Anti-intellectualism:  Raising questions about why we are required to do things is not only frowned upon, it can have unpleasant consequences.  In order to examine problems holistically (and, I would argue, effectively), it must be possible for people to bring a critique to process and decision making.  However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so for truth, today, is believed by many policy makers to be solely embedded in quantitative outputs.  For example, recent closures of federal government libraries in the spirit of finding cost efficiencies, undermines  access to information that is fundamental to critical thought.  A recent and telling example is the closure of the internationally respected Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries.  

Risk Aversion:  in a highly rationalized workplace, experimentation is not cost “effective”.  Failure “costs” money.  But, as Naomi Klein chillingly stated in her speech at the 2003 ALA /CLA Joint Conference,We curtail our own freedoms out of fear of what might happen." She argued that sharing is under siege and resistance entails ensuring that libraries are accountable to communities by being transparent, democratic and making libraries “feel” public.  She passionately asserts that,a marketing concept will never be able to replicate the passion that flows from an institution that is truly an outgrowth of the people it serves”. **
A rather perfect and timely example of the federal movement to sever the community/library accountability position is the Modernization Project of Library and Archives Canada.  CAUT, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, describes this project as,”the government’s intent to fundamentally restructure Canadian democracy towards increased individual and less community responsibility [emphasis added], a reliance on markets, and deeply conservative values”.*** 

What can we do?
I often tell students that in times of great challenge, comes great opportunity. There are many things we can do when we finally become aware of some of the profound issues around an over-emphasis of rationalism.   Dr. Carole Elliott of Durham University advocates, “Education as a means to actively disrupt the reproduction of management practice” and we need,  "Managers to disrupt distinctions between ‘practitioner’ and ‘academic’".+  This is not to say that all library practitioners must become "academics".  Rather, it is absolutely necessary to encourage library workers, at all levels, to engage in a higher level of intellectual discourse about what it is libraries do and their effects on culture and society.
Doing so will, in turn, equip us with the ability to develop new ways of using the very language we are given, in our reporting structures, to change the conversations.  If we fully understand the systems that are in motion by having a much more critical view of how politics and policy influence decision making, it becomes possible to find new or "innovative" ways to influence the future of libraries.  It brings into question, however, what kinds of people are needed to lead the charge.  This requires “fighters” and “tacticians” who have the appetite for disruption.  It also requires a new way of thinking about library education and looking critically at how individuals are prepared for this field.  Rather than focusing on task and skills based issues, incumbents need to focus on combining intellect and practice.  Additionally, an examination of  what growth opportunities are  available for those already in the field is needed. 
"Innovation" in libraries cannot be fully understood until we understand the greater context in which we, as library professionals, find ourselves.  Since libraries provide incredible opportunities for social connectedness in addition to access to information, it should not be difficult for us, as passionate and dedicated professionals, to reimagine a future where libraries resist complicit and reactionary actions and lead from a place where critical thinking, intellect and courage to experiment are the new professional requirements.

* Edwards, J.D.  “Managerial Influences in Public Administration” Retrieved May 5, 2013 from
** Klein, N.  (2003).  "Why Being a Librarian is a Radical Choice". Retrieved May 5, 2013 from:

*** Stewart, P. (2011). "Harper Gov’t Puts Library & Archives Canada at Risk", CAUT/ACCPU Bulletin 58(4). Retrieved May 5, 2013 from:
+ Elliott, C. (2008?). “Professionalizing Management”. Inaugural Professions Network Conference. Retrieved May 5 from:

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Water is Heating Up...

Having spent the last year and a half exploring the relationship between library education programs and the library field, it has become quite evident that libraries sit on the precipice of transformation or, more ominously, extinction. This does not mean that libraries must recreate their infastructure or transform their collections. The changes that must occur start at the intellectual discussion of what it is that libraries ultimately do.

Certainly, it is a widespread perception that libraries are "valuable". Yet, this value is frequently the product of granular calculations like the number of materials circulated or the number of people who attend programs. When discussions around value are observed to be based on things ike the Friends of Canadian Libraries value calculator, discussion around the meaning and relevance of libraries shifts from an examination of their sociological and cultural impact to a reductionist analysis of transactions. While some library folk may loudly protest that libraries are strong and are doing a fine job of staying relevant, it is useful to examine present conditions and trends to determine if this is, indeed, the case. Like the frog that enjoys his aquatic environment and is unaware of the looming threat that his water is slowly being brought to a boil, libraries may find it difficult to see how certain decisions may result in unintended and unwanted consequences.

A recent Vanity Fair article, “Firestorm on Fifth Avenue”* examines the festering battle over the fate of the famous Fifth Avenue location of the New York Public Library. Essentially, the board hopes to relocate much of its collection to an off-site environmentally controlled space and renovate the iconic building, recreating the interior space to accommodate a circulating library that embodies 21st century sensibilities. Many argue that moving the historical collection and radically changing the interior space of the library threaten the very essence of the library as a place of research and creative inspiration.

At face value, the debate over renovating a notable civic building appears quite pedestrian and expected. Indeed, it can be portrayed as a fight between “progress” and “tradition”. While there are always people who want to preserve the past, there is constant pressure to change and improve. However, decisions to restructure the New York Public Library may stem from a need to liquidate two nearby properties that support the Fifth Avenue location and would bring important funds into city coffers.

It is debatable whether the proposed changes to this library are truly progressive. Indeed, it is difficult to ignore the growing tendency for governments to become so focused on accountability and efficiency that the greater intellectual conversations about the purpose and scope of public service are single-handedly dismissed. Those who attempt to engage in public discourse about the cultural, sociological, historical and philosophical merits of spending money to better the human condition are easily dismissed as being “unrealistic”, embedded in some idealist sensibility that merely impedes progress. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have conversations about what is “valuable” because value is being redefined to suit a very granular and scientific world view.

There is a growing disconnect between creating rationalized systems of operation and the need to serve the cultural, social and philosophical needs of communities. By trying to create justified and 'accountable' systems of management, there is a great opportunity to lose touch with our raison d'etre. As sociologist and philosopher Max Weber asserted, we undermine our ability to fulfill our obligation to support the education of our fellow citizens by becoming slaves to bureaucracy and managerialism.

"Man has a way of becoming enslaved to his own instruments, and of getting so occupied with the means of life that he forgets the end.", A.D. Lindsay** .

The crushing pressure to fund public services conflicts with the ever-increasing need to rationalize the existence of such services. In the end, providing mechanisms for sustaining a democracy are not only expensive, they do not pay a clear dividend at the end of each year. Success must be measured differently. However, this is profoundly difficult to do when politicians are increasingly dependent on making decisions based on quantified data collected by technically trained experts who have become quite removed from intellectual discourse themselves. The tensions between managerial control and professional autonomy begin to surface: librarians lament at the de-professionalization of their workforce at the expense of operational efficiencies and bureaucrats struggle to create balanced budgets.

It is within this context that that the water begins to heat up… library administration becomes vulnerable to subscribing to systems of management that can undermine the very values that shape libraries. While there remain many who support their community libraries, this support exists within an increasingly tenuous environment where challenges to free and open public services are regularly made. The growing number of public-private partnerships and user-pay systems are telling examples of diminishing commitment to funding services for the public “good” without some level of private sector involvement. This involvement comes with significant costs of its own, including trade-offs in services, values and influence.

Without participating in candid discussions about the fate of the public sector, library staff are at risk of subscribing to a world view that eats away at the very foundation of their profession. Libraries are not about providing story-times, recreational reading opportunities, access to Ebook collections or, even, meeting space. Public libraries are about providing access to information and services for the purpose of supporting a democracy, for it is only an informed citizenry that can truly participate in its own governance.

While it is only logical that libraries aspire to provide the best level of service in the most cost-effective manner possible, it cannot occur at the expense of the public they are charged to serve. For this reason, it is critical that members of the library community participate in open and a reflective discussion about what it is that must, at all costs, be protected for the benefit of society. These discussions must occur among practicing library workers, students of the field and members of the community. The construction of "circulating" libraries and bookstore-like branches serve an important role in the community but they must be balanced with endeavors that centre on the protection of information rights. Library workers need to to engage in deeper intellectual discussions about the influence of marketization on their services and, ultimately their value systems. If a transparent discussion on the role and values of public sector services is encouraged and sustained, it will enable communities to ensure that their core values are less vulnerable to erosion. Rapid changes, often spawned by technology, have put many library systems in defensive positions, reacting to change without a firm and well articulated intellectual framework to draw from.

It is, quite simply, not enough to say that "literacy" is important. We must be prepared and able to explain why.

* Goldberger, P. ( Dec. 2102). “Firestorm on Fifth Avenue”. Vanity Fair. pp. 180-188.

** "New Public Management and the Ghost of Weber: Exorcized or Still Haunting?". As quoted in Transcending New Public Management : The Transformation of Public Sector Reforms. (2007). Eds. T. Christensen and P. Laegreid. Hampshire, Engl.: Ashgate. p. (231).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Reflections of a Thomas Frey Presentation: The Future of Libraries and Cities

This month, the Fraser Valley Regional Library sponsored a day of exploration with futurist Thomas Frey called The Future of Libraries and Cities. His presentation and the ensuing discussions were focused on technological developments and their impact on libraries, cities, education and, to a lesser degree, work.

Frey painted a picture of the future that is laden with technological advancements that continue to transform how human beings interact with the world. Driverless cars, 3D printers that are able to produce real houses and food on-demand, body scanners that create custom-fit clothing, smart dust that can be distributed across land masses for data collection, drones to deliver our take-out pizzas, and the manufacture of replacement human tissues and organs are only some of the examples that populate our future. There was, however, a notable absence of critical commentary on these developments, suggesting that all of these developments and inventions will enhance our lives as humans. The picture Frey depicted felt... inevitable. Yet, Frey asserts that by anticipating the future we can act today to change how that future looks. He challenged us to think of how we, as community stakeholders, are going to prepare for the future.

There is no doubt that anticipating and preparing for the future is a healthy and responsible exercise for library and community leaders. Certainly, Frey gave his audience ample material to wrestle with. While he frequently posed the question of whether these developments are 'good' or 'bad', participants were left to draw their own conclusions. There was a feeling of disquiet around my own table as participants pondered over the implications of a world that is engaged in an accelerating and relentless adoption of new technology. We ascertained that much of this unease stemmed from the uncertainties around what it means to be human, what makes culture, and what will, truly, benefit the human condition. In addition, we wondered if this road we are heading down will be at the great expense of our relationship with nature.

In an initial exercise, Frey challenged library and community stakeholders to think about what 'systems' are used today that are not likely to serve us well in the future. As an example, Frey suggested that the Roman Numeral system became an impediment to developing higher mathematical functions because of its intrinsic limitations. While it is not that difficult to identify systems within libraries that may no longer serve (classification as one possibility), there was little room for discussion around the human resource issues associated with shifts in 'systems'.

More troubling is the issue over the nature of work and how technologies, designed to relieve humans of "menial" work, will interact with our basic need to have a purpose. While it is easy to suggest that new jobs will emerge that have not even been thought of, it is important for us to consider the legacies that we create today, to serve this future world. Our table wondered, just because we can, should we?

The future, as described by Thomas Frey, was remarkably void of two things, spirituality and social responsibility. It remains unclear as to how the technological developments, forecasted by Frey will help the human condition by reducing depression, anxiety, poverty, and, even, the disenfranchised, as a whole. Granted, time was short and the issues were complex but it would have been very helpful for attendees to explore these issues.

It seemed that another day would have enabled participants to actively brainstorm and tease out the social implications of emerging technology. One of the questions participants were challenged to answer was, "What are the core pieces of culture and community necessary to maintain a vital community in the future?" One question we needed to add was "What does technology do to our connection to the environment and how we interact with the natural world?" The innovations presented in Frey's future suggest that we maintain an exploitative attitude towards the natural world while seeking more sophisticated ways of creating 'things' and manipulating nature. As a result, people will need higher and higher levels of skill and knowledge that must be continually updated.

Perhaps, as an unintended result, his presentation did spurn some of us to really think about our values and what it is that brings richness to our daily lives. Interestingly, the consensus at our table was that "richness" comes from personal connections and tangible engagement with our communities through activities that require a physical presence - fairs, art shows, theatres, open houses, parties, physical recreation, eating together, etc. How communities absorb the impact of emerging technologies and continue to provide people with a connection to each other, in a physical sense, may be an incredible challenge. Libraries emerge as a place that bridges the technological universe with the physical. Frey provided a shopping list of ideas of how libraries could participate and be meaningful in a world that is increasingly dependent on technology. However, the costs of "keeping up" while providing services to the varied needs of a community remain a notable obstacle. Will communities have the foresight to heavily invest in libraries as platforms of community activity? If current practices can act as a predictor, it does not seem likely unless significant action is taken by library and community leaders.

Further complicating the choices that we must make as a society, is the evolving nature of work and education. The rising costs of education, combined with human resource costs is already generating a need to restructure education. We are moving from one-size-fits-all physical classrooms to rapid-fire, immediate, online and 'teacherless" modes of instruction. In Frey's depictions, people will seek training through different mechanisms that suit their needs as students who cannot afford the time or the money for "traditional" post-secondary instruction. Ericsson Networked Society's video, Future of Learning, suggests that access to information and attending schools are no longer intrinsicly tied together. The role of the teacher is now focused on showing students how to ask questions because, with a connected planet, the answers are everywhere. Knewton, for example, is designed to create a personalized learning "platform" that is based on the needs and interests of the students. It does this by figuring out how a student learns and tailoring his/her education based on the data generated by the student's activities and performance. Many other organizations are also challenging the satus quo of teaching practice and more loom on the horizon. The message is clear, if we do not change the way we educate ourselves, we cannot be flexible to the "surprises" that lurk around the corners. We need to be adaptable in order to be effective at work and durable when things do not go as planned.

In tandem with education, work will be performed in increasingly piecemeal, or project-based formats, reshaping our notion of a 'workday'. Employers will exercise immense control over work by using collectives of trained people that they tap into on an as-needed basis. People, in turn, will be compelled to educate themselves in the same way. Employers will seek very skilled individuals because more menial work will be performed in more cost-effective and automated ways. Already, the costs of real-estate has prompted companies like HSBC to encourage staff to work "from home". Frey suggested that libraries could provide space for this new army of officeless workers in light of the fact that most people find working from their homes distracting and isolated. Ironically, this shift merely offloads the cost of housing employees from the private sector to the employees themselves and to the public purse.

An article in the spring issue of UBC's Trek* magazine highlighted a project to develop a simple method of making drinking water safe for Haitians. Despite the application of many impressive filtration methods, researchers discovered that putting contaminated water in clear plastic bottles and allowing them time on hard surfaces in direct sunlight was an effective and brilliantly simple way of treating the water. It makes one wonder if the most effective systems for ensuring the vitality and vibrarancy of the human race live in seemingly simple solutions. Certainly Neil Postman, author of Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, might have thought so:

"We proceed under the assumption that information is our friend, believing that cultures may suffer grievously from a lack of information, which, of course, they do. It is only now beginning to be understood that culture may also suffer grievously from information glut, information without meaning, information without control mechanisms."**

There is enormous potential for libraries to become places where communities can untangle emerging issues associated with technological innovation. This can be done in many ways including providing space for discussion, sharing, experimentation, creation, and production. However, those working in libraries must be intellectually and technologically nimble so that they can act proactively in the storms of change.

While library administrators and city councilors work to create their long-range plans, it is absolutely critical that library professionals, at all levels, discuss and define the characteristics and skills required for emerging library staff. How are they to be educated? Trained? Inspired? There is no end to technological change and library staff cannot rely on their past success as a predictor for future success. Quite simply, our attachment to the book will not serve us well in the world that lies ahead but an understanding of technology will.

*Good, M. (2012 Spring/Summer). "The Water School". Trek, 31, 24-27.

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 70.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

CLA Conference, Ottawa 2012

CLA 2012, Ottawa Canada

While there are many who share their conference-going experiences, I feel compelled to share my impressions of the latest national conference.

Situated a short walk from Library and Archives Canada, a national icon for Canadian heritage that is presently under seige, the conference was held in a vacuous space at the Ottawa Convention Centre. While an estimated 800 delegates attended the conference, the venue felt much smaller. Aside from a small Internet Cafe on the trade show floor, conference delegates could enjoy wifi access for a whopping 28 dollars a day. Not surprisingly, this greatly impeded the "tweet scene" that is a popular way to to share impressions at conferences. Presenters were subject to the same steep fees if they wished to access the Web for their sessions. While outwardly a small thing, this kind of compromise in service does little to encourage future delegates to attend conferences that are, already, expensive endeavors.

This was the backdrop to an already tense scene as librarians and archivists from across Canada process the news that the 2012 federal budget will gut the LAC, evaporate the National Archival Development Program for archivists and eliminate the Community Access Program (CAP). While no one would likely dispute that times are-a-changing, those in the information field know that these are not carefully measured and researched decisions. Yet, the Canadian public is assured that digitization and the Internet are all that is needed in this brave new world. Suuuuure.

It was with immense curiosity that I attended the opening keynote address by Daniel Caron, Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada. As the figurehead of all that is currently wrong with the LAC, I could not help but wonder what the audience would do. With perhaps 150-200 people in the room, he received a muted but polite hearing. Unfortunately for Caron, suggesting that the LAC would advance Canada's national information interests through the adoption of social media rang hollow in a room of professionals who recognize that this is neither innovative nor a substitute for good information management practices. His presentation affirmed that he is a public administrator and an academic who serves the people above him rather than the people below him. This lack of authentic leadership merely impedes real innovation and creative problem solving which is essential to helping Canadians understand and adapt to change.

During the conference there was much discussion through social media about the role of CLA and its lack of interest in actively supporting the archivists and librarians who were to suffer at the hands of cutbacks. Yet, at the conference, people migrated politely from one session to another. Other delegates participated in an amazing advocacy event called CLA on the Hill where they had an opportunity to discuss relevant issues with over 63 Members of Parliament. In the thick of this, however, there was an effort to rally support for the Canadian Association of University Teacher's (CAUT) Day of Action by a handful of folks who handed out black ribbons. Since emotions were running high, this situation erupted when non-delegates were asked to leave the conference area. Interpreting this as an act to suppress expression over the LAC cuts, APUO Librarians cried out in their blog post titled:Librarians silenced at CLA conference. The post made its way through the social media circuit generating much concern and confusion. Had there been wifi access at the conference, the online debate may have gone much further. Regardless, it was interesting to note that this concern over CLA's position on library worker conditions did not open up more discussion in the halls of the actual conference.

The CLA executive did host a scheduled session that focused on gathering feedback to further "tweak" CLA's revised mission statement by asking "how best can CLA put the role of “national public voice” into action?". Ironically, more people seemed interested in participating in the humourous improv session called Battledecks next door. Despite criticisms of CLA's mission, there were only about 20 attendees providing feedback on the revised mission statement. Yet, even among those few that chose to make the mission statement a focus for discussion, there was some important and useful feedback.

The proposed statement reads:

CLA is the national public voice for Canada’s library communities.

We champion library values and the value of libraries.
We influence public policy impacting libraries.
We inspire and support learning.
We collaborate to strengthen the library community.

It was suggested that the mission should be presented as:

CLA is a national voice for Canada’s library communities.As members we:

champion library values and the value of libraries.
influence public policy impacting libraries.
inspire and support learning.
collaborate to strengthen the library community.

In October an LTAN recommendation will be put forward that CLA support an initiative to create accreditation for LIT programs. It will be interesting to see if the the CLA goal to "inspire and support learning" applies to members and potential members of their own organization.

It was quite clear that the CLA executive, did not see the role of CLA as a labour organization. Rather, the mission and the mindset of the organization is to influence policy through diplomatic means and represent the notion of a "library" than the workers, specifically. This brought out some debate as to where issues relating to labour can be channeled. There is no doubt that this was fueled by the recent federal cutbacks and there is no shortage of opinions about CLA's decision.

One of the more interesting aspects of this conference was the introduction of a "Living Library". A host of volunteers, many of whom were presenters at the conference, were scheduled to be "checked out" by guests for 30 minutes of conversation. It was a terrific idea. As one of these books, I enjoyed provocative and thoughtful conversations with library school students and colleagues. It provided attendees with an opportunity to have candid and intimate discussions about the issues that matter to them most.

Libraries and education are dealing with disruptive changes. Our professional associations are under pressure to satisfy the needs of members under increasing constraints. This conference revealed that we need to change the way we design conferences to tease out the real issues, solicit more immediate and quality feedback from delegates and create more dynamic problem solving opportunities. Sitting in a session and hearing from the experts has its place but it should not be the central theme to a conference. We need to converse - in the hallways and in the sessions. We need to debate. We need to feel inspired. We need to talk about what DOESN'T work. We need to talk about our fears. We need to talk about about our core values. We need to be candid about our strengths and weaknesses Finally, we all need to take some responsibility for our associations and what we need them to do for US.

There has been a lot of criticism about our associations in recent years and much of this is born from the same challenges that drive change in our libraries including the shifting face of communication, economic pressures, globalization, the Internet and so much more. The problem is, we try to solve our problems using old solutions. Conferences, for example, should be about conversations not sessions. They should be about problem solving not "what we did good in our library". As part of problem solving, however, they should also be stimulating and profoundly inspiring. It is that inspiration that fuels delegates throughout the year as they resume the challenges that lie ahead. Perhaps a little "play" is in order, with more Q&A and debate experiences. Perhaps it is in the hallways that we can check out our living books and examine posters, library "art", provocateurs, and playspaces.

Again, this can only happen if we become personally accountable for the state of our associations and act to shape them into what we need them to be. This means we cannot cry out from the sidelines. This means we act. If you need a push in the right direction, start voicing your ideas in any one of the CLA networks.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Library Education: putting our money where our mouth Is

At the recent 2012 BC Library Association conference in Richmond, BC, there was a strong sense that the tides are shifting. The changing face of information access, books, member expectations and technology are having a powerful affect on the library community. It is clear that attendees were interested in learning to become more nimble in the face of uncertainty and begin asking some very difficult questions about the future.

After having attended many BCLA conferences, it was the first time I heard such a concerted effort to use inclusive language when addressing attendees who work at all levels and types of library environments. Most notably, the Library and Assistant's Interest Group (LTAIG) was successful in gaining section status within the association in a unanimous vote at the AGM. Such activity strongly suggests that there is a shifting attitude about how library staff are going to navigate the future and a recognition that whatever that future is, we need to be more open in our discussions about how work will be done and how we will prepare for it.

Having extensive experience teaching and leading a library technician diploma program, it is clear to this author that the profession needs to participate more in the preparation of library staff for entry into practice. In addition, there needs to be a closer examination of how those who are in practice develop their skills and evolve their education. While there may be many ways to address such matters, I have had the opportunity to look at one, accreditation of library technician programs, as a means of encouraging industry input.

Not surprisingly, most people in the library profession are unaware how the formal entry into practice education system works. Although there are many reasons for this knowledge gap, the largest is likely due to the gradual acceptance that formal post secondary programs are preparatory for most professions. Unlike most other professions, however, library work does not have significant and cohesive rules around what is specifically required for entry into practice. Much of this stems from the incredibly rapid changes to the profession. This is followed by the pressures that exist within the field and a general attitude about library qualifications that has prevailed since the mid 20th century. Without going into a lengthy chronicle, it may be useful to reflect on the introduction of the Master's degree. Its introduction was intended to improve the status of library workers in the 1950s and was driven by librarians and not the community they served.* However, this was also a time of great clerical work and this work was undertaken by many without any post secondary education. The introduction of library technician programs during the late 1960s and 1970s reflects a need, at that time, for people with strong clerical skills to manage the daily, and often repetative, tasks of managing growing library collections. While some collaboration behind the inception of these undergraduate/college diploma programs would have occured, there is little collaboration going on 50 years later. It was only in 1982 when the first Guidelines for the Education of Library Technicians was published by the Canadian Library Association, While there have been two revisions since then, there has been little leadership from the national association on the matter of library education for non-graduate programs. While it may be argued that this is not the role of CLA, this author wonders whose role it should be, then?

Venturing into the cloud of silence...

While there are those who graduate from ALA accredited Master's programs, the remaining 43% of library workers do not. How they end up in libraries has not been adequately explored. While many come from library technician programs, many others do not. Yet, even in 2005, the 8 Rs research indicates that 78% of the work once performed by those who graduated from ALA accredited schools is being performed by other library staff. ** Since few in the profession would argue that the work performed in libraries has become LESS complex or less valuable, it is a mystery how this profession has avoided open discussions about how people a) are selected to enter practice and b) are prepared for entry. Further to this, it is also not clear how the profession is able to adequately inform education programs of what it needs with anything more robust than advisory committees and good intentions by program leaders. This is not to suggest that those who administer library techncian programs do not do good work. However, it does suggest that if any value is to be placed on the role of libraries and the people who work in them, more open discussion and examination is needed by all stakeholders. For example, are library technician programs moving in the right direction for the needs of the future? Are they recruiting students who will enter practice as leaders, problems solvers, and dynamic contributors to the profession? Is it the sole responsibility of those programs to act as the gateway for entry into practice?

It is not without some consternation to see that the 2008 CLA National Summit on Library Human Resources Association*** did very little to address such questions. Indeed, the focus of the summit seemed to reside in discussions about how retiring library managers and leaders would replace themselves and how graduate programs would recruit a new generation of graduates. Ironically, the people who might be interested in growth and advancement were not discussed. Again, the 8Rs research reveals that while some paraprofessionals felt too old to seek advancement, a number of others felt there were structural barriers to advancement. It raises the other issue of what is the profession doing to serve the life-long and professional development needs of its members? Indeed, that same research also indicates that 50% of those who graduated from an ALA accredited graduate program had been in the profession for more than 15 years along with 44% of paraprofessionals who worked in surveyed libraries.** In addition people are delaying retirement and the profession needs to consider how it is looking after the educational needs (formal and informal) of its employees.+

Response from my recent presentation at the BC Library Association Conference Shapeshifting: Library Education, Work and Expectations for the Future was not only overwhelming but it was clear that participants recognized the hypocrisy of being institutions that encourage enlightenment and betterment in their membership but often fail to provide the same opportunities for its employees. This is not to say that employees do not get access to some things like workshops, conferences, and courses but it is evident, from this author's experience, that it is limited, at best.

When the media regularly runs stories examining "jobs of the future", it is most obvious that library work is not the only field doing some soul-searching. A Vancouver Sun article, "What are the jobs of the future? To be honest, we don’t really know" from May 3, 2012 illustrates that that the future is anything but clear. Yet this is no reason to run from it. Not only does this profession need to examine how it prepares those ENTERING practice, it needs to spend some serious time looking at how it prepares people already IN practice.

What do we do?

While there is no "silver bullet" that will magically solve these issues for us, we do have a lot of work ahead of us because we have not been proactive for far too long. We must stimulate discussion and put these difficult issues on the table for exploration. We must call on our associations to help us negotiate through these problems and we must have a candid discussion about what are our CORE values as a profession as well as talk about what we need to do to prepare and improve. Below is a link to a proposal for accrediting library technician programs. This is simply one attempt at opening up discussion and finding ways to encourage input from the professional community. It is intended to stimulate discussion and to experiment. If accreditation of LIT programs is part of the solution, it should be noted that even this process will require "tweaking". Please examine the document, whether you are an educator or a practitioner and reflect on what it is you think will help the profession meet the demands of change.

Renowned Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan's fifth law is "The library is a growing organism" and, I would add, so, too, are the people that work in them.++

*Swigger, Keith. (2010). The MLS Experiment: An Assessment After Sixty Years. Scarecrow Press.

**Ingles, E et al. (2005). 8Rs: The Future of Human Resources in Canadian Libraries. Retrieved October 10, 2011 from: pp. 11, 52-53.

***The Intersol Group. (Oct. 6-7 2008). National Summit on Library Human Resources: Report for the Canadian Library Association (CLA). Ottawa, ON: CLA. Retrieved October 12, 2011 from:

+Yves C. and D. Galarneau. (2010).Delayed Retirement: A New Trend? Statistics Canada. Retrieved May 16, 2012 from:

++ Gorman, M. (2000). As quoted in Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Centrury. Chicago: ALA, 19.

Other Resources for Examination:

Guidelines for Library Technician Programs in Canada. (2011). Retrieved May 15, 2012 from">CLA Guidelines for the Education of Library Technicians

Training gaps analysis for librarians and library technicians executive summary. (2006). Cultural Human Resources Council. Retrieved October 19, 2011 from:

Neigel, C. (2011). Accreditation for Library and Information Technology Programs: A Proposal.