Saturday, March 26, 2016

Resiliency & the Future of Libraries: Questioning Assumptions About Library Continuing Education

It has been a long time since I last made a blog entry and it has weighed on my mind for quite some time. It is not that the ideas have not been circulating. Far from it! I have been working on my doctorate which has pulled me into a whole new realm of writing, re-writing, and more writing....

However, it is time to resume my musings here in the hopes that it inspires some conversation.

Recently, I crafted an editorial piece for a library publication discussing some issues around library education and, through that process, I came to the conclusion that in the "sea" of learning opportunities, library practitioners continue to struggle with access to educational possibilities. That is not to say that there are not a plethora of webinars, moocs, and other low-cost options that focus on skill-based outcomes. By virtue of our education, training, and professional persuasions, library practitioners are very good at sharing their skills and knowledge. My concern rests with the growing need to expose, discuss, and explore the often complicated conditions that shape our working environments. These environments are shaped by global/national/local politics, economics and social agendas that ultimately affect the shape and character of library services.

Carnegie Branch, Vancouver Public Library
Discussion around the future of libraries is something we ALL need to engage in. However, we often find ourselves running to keep up with the now. While essential, skills training and development does not build in resiliency. Continuing education for many library practitioners is reserved for the privileged. The structural barriers to deep and meaningful continuing education persist for most people in this industry, creating difficulties that affect everyone. A simple example is access to conferences. As the cost of attendance climbs and professional development budgets stagnate or disappear altogether, those in the most marginalized positions are cut out.

Ironically, many of these people work the most intimately with library members. They see, first hand, the effects of globalization, economic uncertainty and broken social systems. Their experiences are an important part of the library narrative. Often these very workers are subject to the same structural inequities of the people they serve. Precarious work, in the form of "auxillary", "on-call", and "contract" positions, ensure that many of these employees exist on the edge of the organizations they work for, often being denied access to professional development support. The irony is that these people are the future of libraries. They are part of an undeniable shift in North American labour practice that excludes workers from benefits, guaranteed livable wages, and organizational belonging. Further, they are mostly women.

Surrey Public Library: A view within the City Centre Branch
Much discussion around the future of libraries centres around libraries as institutions -- brick-and-mortar spaces. There is an eerie silence about the future of the people who work within these spaces. We must be cautious not to mistake dialogue around professional development (that is often skills-focused) for the equally important and necessary discussion around the role of library practitioners in libraries of the future.

There is a large supply of rhetoric around the future of work that includes the influence of automation, artificial intelligence, global outsourcing, climate change and more. Far from unified, much of the general professional employment literature is grounded in what employers need. Employer need, particularly in a world where "short-termism" prevails, is not the only lens that should be used to contemplate the future. Library practitioners, from all levels and job descriptions, have a very important role in developing libraries of the future. However, by virtue of their positions and power dynamics in the workplace, they are often denied the means of participating in these conversations.

As I ponder how we create space for conversation for all individuals, I recognize that, as mentioned in earlier posts, library folk often do not have the ability to speak openly about their profession. As an educator, I am also acutely aware of how costs prevent many from gaining access to forums where they can share ideas and concerns. I wonder if it is possible to take advantage of technology to develop better communication networks that allow for grassroots discussion and action. I fear that even the newly proposed Canadian Federation of Libraries is a project that fails to encompass the grassroots contributions and considerations that are so profoundly necessary in building resiliency. Perhaps it is time to organize more, low-cost, open invitation "un-conferences".

While the values of individuals may comfortably align with those of the organizations they may work for, this is not always the case.  What do we do if there is a disconnect? What can we do? What should we do?

I have worked very hard to create a certificate program for library workers that attempts to create one possibility for building empowerment. More recently, I am experimenting with place making as a "way in" to thinking creatively about our future and its relationship to human need. I believe that the ways we wrestle with our social problems are highly subjective and iterative. For me, this suggests that the plurality of our experiences is not only inescapable, it is the only way we are going to be effective in developing a robust future for ourselves as individuals and for our organizations.

This means that we need a stronger investment in the intellectual capital of library practitioners. We need to make it part of a national library agenda. An agenda that is not defined by libraries as institutions but an agenda defined by libraries as organizations of people. An agenda that incorporates skill development but is equally focused on inclusive conversations about the role of library practitioners both now and in the future.  The politics of difference will always constrain our actions but this does not negate the need for expecting and supporting thoughtful engagement.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding Empowerment Through Continuing Education

Sculpture at the University of Alberta, Spring 2014
I was recently pulled out of my daily distractions when I was invited to speak with a group of library practitioners who had kindly invited me to their annual general meeting (LTAS). Connected by an interest in information work and the call to be part of a professional community, I realized that my prospective audience had asked me to speak as part of a pursuit in their own ongoing education.  These informal and collective moments are an important part of an earnest endeavor to remain intimately engaged with the larger issues of their field.  Yet, such activities often go unrecognized as forms of continuing education because we assume that such work happens in more formal arenas.

This points to a very significant problem. While education remains a popular concept in library and information studies, the role it plays in the lives of practitioners is not always clear. Certainly, it is easy to infer that taking courses from accredited institutions, attending workshops and conferences are forms of continuing education. However, these are not necessarily the places and moments when significant learning occurs.  Indeed, within some of these structures it would be more accurate to say that they present opportunities for training.  

A number of recent articles regarding education for library workers reveals a tendency to focus on training, with discussion limited to a focus on skill development for the purpose of creating efficient organizations and employees (e.g. Certification, 2014; La Chapelle, 2014; Leong, 2014;  Lopuszynski, 2014l; See & Teetor, 2014) . Using "training" and "education" interchangeably, obfuscates their individual meanings and, ultimately, their roles in the lives of  library employees. This is not to say that training is not important or, even, critical to the work that is performed in this field. Training is limited in that it enables us to perform our jobs as they evolve but it cannot inspire us to confront our fears. It cannot empower us to speak up and it cannot act as the key that unlocks our passion to do better.

I boldly suggest that we need to shift paradigms and begin thinking about continuing education for library workers as something that moves beyond training into something far more integrated, meaningful and emancipatory. Doing so will allow us to bracket training as something that is skills/competency-based and used for improving job performance. Continuing education can be focused around the person and his/her journey towards self-actualization.  Granted, such a shift is neither easy nor assured.  However, such a shift in thinking presents an opportunity to reexamine how we currently describe and support education.  Further, this move can renew conversations about what we actually do to support learning, what needs to be improved and, most importantly, to what end.

For a profession that prides itself on a service ethic to empower others to realize their potential, library personnel struggle to access this same support for themselves.  If an increasing number of staff are part of the precarious workforce, whether due to poor pay or contingent work, their ability to exercise empowerment (in the ways we hope for our broader communities) will increasingly elude them. Not only does this reflect a deep hypocrisy within our profession's core values, it also jeopardizes our ability to navigate our way into a successful future as a profession.  How can libraries support engaged, highly participatory and informed communities if those who work in libraries are not engaged?

Many of the most poorly paid staff in libraries are also the ones who interface most closely with the public. Representing the "face" of the library, these front-line employees are frequently the least able to advance their education in order to grapple with the changing expectations of their communities (I have seen this first hand with my own students, who are often already working in libraries). Not only do these individuals often have limited financial means, they also have little or no political and social capital within their organizations. This hampers their ability to contribute through creative problem solving and innovative practice that jeopardizes the way the entire organization is perceived and, therefore valued, by its community.

There is a troubling trend in libraries (and in many other organizations, for that matter) to only support continuing education if the endeavor directly informs a position or role. While the reasons for this relate back to the need to demonstrate accountability and rationality, this approach undermines the prevailing assumption that libraries support life-long learning. In such cases, learning opportunities are constrained by employer values and needs.  This is problematic for libraries because they are organizations that, in the very first instance, exist to serve "a learning society". ALA has codified our responsibility as a profession in its Core Values  by stating:
We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession
Although there are many examples of free or inexpensive training and development options for library staff, most represent short-term skills acquisition. These resources fulfill only a partial role in the educative process. The complex problems that library professionals face are not easily fixed or managed through one-off experiences because they do not invite the learner to challenge the status quo in order to reimagine the future.

Significant learning offers us a way of seeing education as something that incorporates individual experience and change. "For learning to occur, there has to be some kind of change in the learner" (Fink, 2003, p. 30). Such change requires sustained introspection, discussion, and exploration. This form of education takes a turn away from training to become something more lasting and, ultimately more impactful. Continuing education "helps develop an understanding of our society and the world ... and it helps develop the personal, social, and human competencies" (Schejbal & Wilson, 2008, p. 32). 

As in the case of the LTAS AGM, library workers can exercise some agency in their educational pursuits but the structural barriers that limit these efforts must be called out and probed. However, I have mentioned in earlier posts that finding voice is also an issue for this field. We will not become better librarians and library workers by becoming better technologists or managers. We will will become better librarians and library workers by becoming better people.

Once again, I reflect on the purpose of continuing education and I see it clearly as something that is far more complex than a course, a certificate, a workshop or a conference.
It is a process and an investmentIt is essential and, most importantly, it is our collective responsibility.

I am left with Dewey's passionate claim:
The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has (1976, p. 226)
** I would like to thank the members of LTAS for their invitation to speak and the opportunity to reflect on how it may be possible to "lead from below".   
Certification for Public Library Personnel. (2013). Public Libraries52(2), 13-21.

Dewey, J. (1976). Creative democracy: The task before us. In J. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925-1953, volume 14 (pp. 224-230). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Fink, D. (2003). A taxonomy of significant learning.  In Creating significant learning experiences. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

La Chapelle, J., & Wark, L. (2014). I've Got My MLIS, Now What? Further Educational Opportunities for LIS Professionals. Partnership: The Canadian Journal Of Library & Information Practice & Research, 9(1), 1-4.

Leong, J. (2014). Purpose-driven learning for library staff. Australian Library Journal63(2), 108-117. doi:10.1080/00049670.2014.898236

Lopuszynski, C., Ramirez, P., Rosenthal, L., & Zukowski, J. (2013). Staff Training: Day In, Day Out. ILA Reporter, 31(1), 22-24.

Schejbal, D. & Wilson, D. (2008). The value of continuing education. Continuing Higher Education Review, 72, p.32-43.
. See, A., & Teetor, T. (2014). Effective e-Training: Using a Course Management System and e-Learning Tools to Train Library Employees. Journal Of Access Services11(2), 66-90. doi:10.1080/15367967.2014.896217

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.