Gavia Libraria

In which the elephant is measured

Gracious. Such a response to yesterday’s discussion of library employment! Thanks to all who have commented, and all who will.

The Loon would call her readers’ attention to two additional dissections of the San Diego incident: that by Wayne Bivens-Tatum, which focuses on individual professionals’ responsibility for professional development, and that by Barbara Fister, which further interrogates systemic and management responsibility for lagging employees.

Here’s the thing: we’re all correct, all three of us! (Someone kindly stop the Loon before she starts trying to sing The Mikado.) Among us, we are blindly measuring the proverbial elephant. A complex ecosystem, this, with many interdependent organisms and many points of failure—or, for that matter, success.

The Loon could quibble with a thing or two. “But in reality most people who work in libraries don’t have wildly different definitions of what libraries are for,” says Fister. “They only disagree about the details.” The Loon shrieked with loonish laughter at this, having been the target of “but Libraries Don’t Do That” more times than she can properly count, on questions of publishing, open access, digital preservation (especially of gray literature), research-data management, copyright consultation, social media, computer programming—really, name it; if the Loon does it, some other librarian has questioned to her very face whether it’s properly a Thing Libraries Do. (Yes, the Loon has often wondered about that correlation, but she tries to avoid ruminating upon it, as it’s just too disheartening.)

“Usually,” says Bivens-Tatum, “it’s just a question of motivation and knowing where to look [for learning resources],” where “it” is autodidacticism. For talented autodidacts, like Bivens-Tatum himself, this is absolutely true. Most librarians, though, aren’t talented autodidacts (though the Loon pecks at her students constantly to remind them they should be). What librarians most often lack, in the Loon’s experience, might be characterized as “sense of direction.” Faced with a huge universe of possible things to learn, and little or no ability to synthesize a big picture from the apparent chaos, librarians flounder, unsure what to tackle first—and so they tackle nothing and hope the complexity goes away, or someone else provides direction. Alternately, they flail about “learning things” at random, without integrating anything they learn into actual praxis, and call that sufficient professional development.

(Or they arrogantly/fearfully declare they’ve nothing to learn; they are Good Librarians already, and that suffices. The Loon thinks this is far more common than Fister lets on, clustering particularly in large academic-library systems with unfirable librarians, whether because of tenure or just local employment custom. Acid test: Has a librarian been shuffled into a new position just to get them out of the way and doing no harm? Then librarians are unfirable. Supposedly this is humane employment practice. The Loon isn’t sure, believing that after a while, the accumulation and reshuffling of deadwood incurs a Very Large Budget Ax from the larger institution, which will affect many more staff than just the deadwood—and the deadwood, of course, may well be unemployable post-Ax.)

The Loon happens to be tolerably good at big-picture synthesis; it’s practically a necessity in the library-school-teaching game. Knowing her own capacity for it to be pure wild talent, however, she is sympathetic to other librarians’ struggle with it. She also believes that part of management’s job is to suss out big pictures and provide this kind of direction, particularly to those who have difficulty working it out for themselves; this, to the Loon, is a key aspect of “cultivating the bottom,” as Bivens-Tatum suggested. If this is overly aggressive, as Bivens-Tatum also suggested, the Loon pleads no-contest to aggression, believing this form of it necessary.

(Her favorite example of this process in action—stop her if you’ve heard this one before—is the mainstreaming of scholarly-communication outreach duties at the University of Minnesota.1 Management sussed out the landscape, formed a direction for the library, and insisted that appropriate employees learn what they needed to move the library in that direction—over their kicking and screaming where necessary.)

Does this always happen? Of course not; Bivens-Tatum is quite right about that, sadly, and his advice to librarians to protect their careers with constant learning is most wise. Does it need to happen more often and more consistently? Unquestionably. But the “kind, humane” culture of librarianship and library management doesn’t value directive management nearly as much as it perhaps ought.

So a buck-passing game begins. Fister demands that management step up, and Bivens-Tatum demands that individual librarians step up, and everyone can then pretend learning stasis in libraries is someone else’s problem. The Loon says “this is systemic, from individual librarians all the way up through individual libraries to library organizations to the total culture of librarianship, and attacking it at any single point is likely futile.”

(Even autodidacticism doesn’t always help the autodidact. The Loon is a dedicated autodidact, though certainly not as talented a one as Bivens-Tatum, but even so, her praxis has sometimes been shot dead in its tracks by another librarian’s ignorance, and inability or unwillingness to learn and change.)

She wishes she could be more optimistic, but having been driven out of practicing librarianship at least temporarily owing to being caged into an outletless professional backwater until she went even madder than loons are wont to be… she’s heavily scarred, and scared for the libraries and librarians she still loves dearly, and very leery of testing library-employment waters again. For now, at least.

6 thoughts on “In which the elephant is measured

  1. Wayne Bivens-Tatum

    “Talented autodidact”: I like that!

    I also agree that we were all right, and agree that libraries have responsibilities to cultivate their employees rather than just let them grow stale in their daily routines. “Aggressive” was probably too strong a word, and indicative of my own dislike of being told what and how to learn. Then again, that’s never happened because I try to be…maybe not cutting edge but at least ahead of the curve, and I find when I learn things on my own I learn them better, which I know isn’t the case for everyone, maybe even for most people. My post in response to yours was more about librarians protecting themselves. I’m basically risk averse, which in my case doesn’t mean not trying things because I’m afraid of failure, but instead pushing myself to learn what I can. I’ve been at Princeton for almost ten years and have no plans to leave, but I still try to approach my work as if I might go on the market tomorrow.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Hear, hear! And indeed, the Loon doesn’t think your management should get all up in your grill, save perhaps when the library needs something you aren’t yet capable of but can certainly do with a little autodidacticism. In that case, a gentle, give-and-take discussion is warranted. Otherwise, give autodidacts resource support and leave them alone!

  2. val

    For those of us who are stuck in jobs with co-workers who REFUSE to adapt or learn new things, sometimes cutting the dead weight is, in fact, supportive of a humane work environment (for those of us who stay.) The truth is that the autodidacts are often forced to not only provide for their own learning and direction, but are increasingly called upon to drag the rest of the staff along with them, even if they are *not* in management positions, and that is a heavy burden to carry. This profession needs to start supporting and promoting up through the ranks the stand-outs, instead of driving them out of the profession into places where their motivation and passion can net them a better salary (in a different industry) or more flexibility (as consultants and speakers.)

  3. Colleen S. Harris

    I would posit that while it is necessary for both individual librarians and staff to learn, that they do so should be made explicitly clear in their position descriptions and annual evaluations. It is then management/admin’s job to *hold them to that standard* and provide appropriate opportunities. Not doing so depresses morale (for the reasons Val notes above), but it also creates the no-win situation for incoming managers that Barbara describes in her latest Library Journal article.

    As a library manager I have walked into a new position tasked with quickly changing culture and conducting honest evaluations, only to find that (1) administration wanted it done quickly (2) administration wanted it done with no hurt feelings (2) administration would not actually support enforcing the consequences when evaluations were poor and required intervention, documentation, and occasionally disciplinary action. All of the open communication in the world (which is absolutely necessary so that folks know what is going on and why) does not help when you are given the mandate to make change happen, but without changing anything.

    My own call is for management and administration to step up and take responsibility (which it sounds like may have happened at UCSD, and this was the fallout). What should have been incremental change was instead episodic and painful. At some point, if learning has been allowed to lapse, and the institution does not have the time to allow a slow gradual reintroduction, it is going to be uncomfortable.

    But aside from the calls for leadership, I would posit that this is a strictly *management* best practices issue. (Management /= leadership, though the two are not mutually exclusive.) If learning is required for a position, it needs to be documented. If it is not getting done, then that – and management’s attempts to provide additional opportunities – needs to be documented, too. And then if by some awful refusal to comply or simple inability (and yes, that inability does exist in some cases), the failure to learn is still there, you have enough to go about moving people out of their jobs *fairly*, by due process, using the disciplinary measures of your institutions resulting (gods forbid) in termination.

    That the idea of “humane workplace” has grown to equal “somewhere that management has to let standards lapse to keep me in my job” is squarely on management’s shoulders. If management is doing their job, then anyone who loses their job (for reasons other than budgetary cuts) bears the responsibility, since they were given clear direction and opportunity. This does not make letting people go easy; but it gives staff and librarians control. *This* is what evaluation systems and job descriptions were made for. To ensure that firing is not arbitrary, but the last resort after both parties have been required to do their part.

    I say this with great sympathy, being a library manager and knowing how difficult this is to do, especially when you have to implement policy from scratch over existing practices.

    Not-learning on the part of staff is a learned behavior perpetuated by weak management/administration not willing to do the work to keep positions updated, to make expectations clear, to ensure high quality work, and to follow disciplinary steps where required. If there are non-learning staff members still on board, the mechanisms that were intended to motivate or move those folks is, in the end, a management mechanism.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      Thank you for saying this. The Loon can’t, as she’s never managed anyone, and so practically anything critical she says on the subject is taken as sour grapes or cluelessness or both.