Gavia Libraria

Additional hurdles to novel library services

The Loon wholeheartedly endorses Miriam Posner’s list of challenges to digital-humanities projects in the library; she sees nothing whatever with which to disagree (which we all know is a rarity with the cantankerous Loon). She notes that they hardly apply only to digital-humanities projects! Anything novel in libraries will run into these roadblocks, usually repeatedly.

Because Dr. Posner is working on an article on the subject, the Loon will make bold to offer some additional thoughts, however half-baked. (Dr. Posner is of course welcome to excerpt and/or adapt these thoughts or any others here as she wishes, as is anyone else; as customary, please attribute to Gavia Libraria, authored by the Library Loon.)

Dr. Posner’s observations (and those of her commenters) on the hierarchical and siloed nature of library organizations are vitally important. What the Loon would add is bunkered, siloed thinking on the part of many rank-and-file librarians, in no way owed to any fault of library administration, or of hierarchy generally. Liaison librarians live over here and do these things; digital librarians live over there and do those things, and never the twain shall help (or even endeavor to understand) each other.

No one is innocent in these sorts of contretemps; the Loon has seen overtures from each side inappropriately rebuffed by the other, and both can be madly territorial (“how dare you speak to my faculty without consulting me first?” “well, how dare you make technology promises to faculty without consulting me first?”). Librarianship’s well-known low level of tech-savvy (and unwillingness or inability to self-train) does not help at all; neither do low expectations of professional development. Frankly, though, if the Loon had to pick one barrier she’s flown headlong into over and over, it would be resentful fear: too many liaisons fear their own lack of technical capacity, worry that it is making them and their work obsolete, and therefore resent and actively resist both technology-oriented library work and the coworkers they perceive as more capable of it than they. Again, fault is not all on one side; even the Loon must own up to frustrated digital triumphalism now and then.

In most academic libraries, liaison librarians hold significantly more organizational power than digital librarians, for all that many liaisons believe the reverse. Often this is sheer numbers at work; often it’s greater longevity or rank, exacerbated by academic libraries’ pernicious habits of new-hire messianism and Coordinator Syndrome (both of which Posner also recognizes, though not with those names). Sometimes it’s also deep-held, largely unexamined beliefs library-wide (or nearly) regarding what is and isn’t “proper library work.” In practice, this means that liaisons hold an organizational veto over anything the digital folks may suggest, and in the Loon’s experience they are not at all hesitant to use that veto.

The Loon acknowledges Dr. Posner’s (and commenters’) points about resource allocation, authority, hierarchy, organizational commitment… but she thinks all these might be symptoms of a somewhat larger organizational malaise: steady-state librarianship. The deepest organizational desire of many libraries seems to be reaching a sort of service Nirvana in which everything is reduced to well-known, standardized, predictable and predicted, even Taylorist interactions and processes that change only incrementally if at all. This desire has more pernicious effects than the Loon can quickly list; here are a few:

  • Either nonexistent or inappropriately-domineering “process.” The Loon has sometimes seen a cycle around this: management dumps a new thing on the rank-and-file without consultation (or, often, appropriate resourcing), whereupon the rightfully-resentful rank-and-file invents process to keep it from happening again, whereupon the invented process stifles all would-be innovation, whereupon management… and ’round the cycle goes.
  • The inappropriate dominion of the established over the possible; similarly, an unwillingness to look hard at established services’ effectiveness and strategic importance, and change service portfolios and priorities accordingly. An already-planned, already-running (however poorly), already-staffed service is sunk costs; altering or jettisoning it costs too much political capital and planning effort.
  • The inappropriate dominion of “service” overhead. Quickie low-investment experiments are enormously difficult in academic libraries, which rush too quickly to imagine them as full-fledged Minerva-from-Jove’s-brow services. Anything whose boundaries are fuzzy, or whose staffing and resource models aren’t yet bell-clear, or which might remain too small or grow too big, can’t be tried at all, ever, because it can’t be pre-planned to the nth decimal place.
  • Inability to “pivot” a new service. Because novel library services are either not planned at all or hopelessly overplanned, no provision is made for mid-course corrections; indeed, the need for same is usually viewed as failure. This especially dooms services that turn out to need more or different resources than originally planned.
  • Inability to handle short-term and one-off projects. If it hasn’t been reduced to a Taylorist effort-minimum, it can’t be done.
  • Inability to scale or generalize from one-off projects. A fundamental principle the Loon wishes libraries understood is that all services start out inefficient because of small scale, learning curves, and unanticipated complexities, but nearly all grow more efficient over time. Too many planning processes never take into account what the library’s Moore’s-law coefficient might be.
  • Poor management (or even awareness) of the library’s total project portfolio. Jennifer Vinopal’s marvelous article1 opened the Loon’s eyes to the scope of this problem, as well as how to fix it.
  • Unwillingness to admit, assess, redress, or shut down project and service failures.
  • Poor or nonexistent integration of new services into the worklife of existing on-staff professionals. Kara Malenfant chronicled difficulties surrounding scholarly-communication integration at Minnesota2; Bill Kara wrote a useful essay a decade ago on “mainstreaming” services around electronic materials at Cornell3 that the Loon wishes had received wider attention.

The last phenomenon the Loon wishes to call out is academic libraries’ precarious, over-stereotyped position within their institutions. The Loon was once on a search committee for a librarian working in a novel service area. At one of the candidate job talks, a faculty member in attendance repeatedly, belligerently demanded to know why the library was doing this work, positively affronted that it didn’t fit hir image of libraries and librarians. These libraries-are-wallets4, librarians-are-handmaidens attitudes must be emphasized as innovation killers! While the Loon is generally unsympathetic to attempts to rename libraries, librarians, and librarianship, she is also sensitive to how this largely stereotype-driven boxing-in by faculty and campus administrators motivates a desire to shift nomenclature.

Phew. That’s probably more than enough to go on with, though it isn’t everything by any means. Some of the above challenges are relatively trivially solvable (note well the word “relatively”); others are wicked problems endemic to library organizations and hard to eradicate. The wickedness of these problems sometimes even leads the Loon to believe that her job as a library-school educator is to disrupt or supplant academic libraries, not sustain their faltering steps.

  1. Vinopal, Jennifer. “Project portfolio management for libraries: a gentle introduction.” College and Research Libraries 73:4 (2012), 379–389.
  2. Malenfant, Kara J. “Leading change in the system of scholarly communication: a case study of engaging liaison librarians for outreach to faculty.” College and Research Libraries 71:1 (2010), 63–76.
  3. Kara, Bill. “Mainstreaming.” In Susan J. Barnes ed. Becoming a Digital Library. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2004.
  4. Long and Schonfeld, “Library survey 2010: insights from U.S. academic library directors.” Ithaka, 2011.