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:


pip said...

I find it increasingly amazing how many of the issues raised in this entry are also so relevant to my current courses in Adult Education. (In fact I am running into a number of lib tech grads now taking Adult Education at UFV as well). One could almost call it the invasion of the pencil pushers when it comes to qualitative verses quantitative measurements of progress or as we call it in the corporate regime ROI: Return on Investment. My view and a historical view of Canada seems to indicate that this country is a cooperative rather than competitive society. But now it seems there are forces among us who wish to reverse that notion. Canada as a cooperative and community oriented society has always needed disruptive fighters to protect that view of our society and now more than ever. Bravo Christina.

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