8 Deadly Words

There is a phrase that I have heard over the last few years, and every time I hear it my brow furrows, and my mouth gapes.  I stand there dumbstruck and incredulous, not believing that someone in my field, who I respect, would say such a thing.

It goes like this:

What does this have to do with libraries?

My God, I think to myself.  Do you really have so little imagination that you can’t envision how this could benefit our customers?  Do you not see where we are going as a profession that this is something that we should be exploring?

What this phrase says to me, every time I hear it, is that this individual has a preconceived notion about what libraries should and should not do.  Where she has drawn that line means that anything that crosses that line needs to be justified within the context of her preconceived notion.

This is the same sort of argument that people use when “working to rule.”  The parameters have been set to a low standard, and only that standard is required.  There is no need or desire to move beyond it, for to do so means you are doing more work then you need to do.  You meet your requirements and you go home.  The service is solely “at par,” nothing more, nothing less.

Maybe I’m just an overachiever by nature, but this smacks me too hard.  When I hear the 8 deadly words I know that someone’s mind has closed off.  That the ability to convince that person of this vision of the future is an uphill struggle.  That the person is living in a vision of the institution that is in the past, and only getting further and further behind.

As part of the information profession we have a duty to stay on top of how innovation is changing the way people interact with information.  How they access it is only a fraction of that.  The bigger piece of the pie is how this change, changes us all.  How does this shift change social structures.  How does it change culture, and how can we adapt to this new environment.

The future isn’t about eBooks.  It’s about how eBooks are created, distributed, and consumed.  It’s about how this will change the entire paradigm of publishing, and what that in turn will mean for Mega Corporations who own everything we read.  What would happen if the big six (now five, I guess, with Random Penguins) were to just crumble and a thousand little online distributors took their place?  How would we cope with that?  How is having access to 3D printers going to change the way we interact with mass produced goods?  How is localized print on demand books going to affect book stores?  How are albums that are being funded through Kickstarter and Indiegogo going to affect standard music distribution channels? What happens when cable companies dissolve and internet only services take off?  What happens when smart phones and tablets are so cheap that everyone can have one for next to nothing?  What about all of these contributions to free online resources like Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, and the countless Open Source Software projects that people are working on every day.

This is a global paradigm shift we are living in.

It is touching every facet of our lives, and all of these things have implications not only in how libraries will operate, but what we will actually be in the 21st century.  If you’re not thinking about how to work through these issues, and how that’s going to change our culture, you’re not going to stay ahead of the game.  When your idea of the library is solely as a place where people read books, then you’ve already been left behind.

What we require going forward is a tremendous force of innovation, to overcome the inertia of “the way we’ve always done this.”  I would highly recommend reading Brian Mathews article “Facing the Future” about how libraries can think more like start-ups.  This isn’t just change for the sake of change. This adaptation for the sake of survival.

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6 comments on “8 Deadly Words

  1. Tony Ross says:

    Shit — was that me who said that?

  2. Dee Brown says:

    1. create the position of, “Emerging Technologies Librarian” and let them work
    2. give incentives to employees. do better work = get more money
    3. set clear goals for each employee and branch … and the system as a whole (meet monthly with staff to discuss)
    4. create an internal accountability office and officer to study staff, program, initiative and departmental productivity and impact
    5. find out people’s specialties and use them. we can’t have 15 people in a system with degrees in african american lit and none of them work in black studies.
    6. keep every statistic you can. and base everything you do on hard facts
    7. accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability accountability

    • Eric S Riley says:

      You’re reading my mind Dee. Though some of the suggestions you mention run counter to current practices because government jobs just have a tendency to not be meritocratic like that. So, monetary incentivizing is not something we could easily swing. However, studies have shown that monetary incentives are not what motivates people. Check out this video from the RSA Animate channel. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc

  3. These 8 deadly words are a phrase that I think about a lot in reference to my library school education (I’m just finishing my first semester). Not because I lack the curiosity to think broadly; in fact, my favorite aspect of library school is the opportunity to think creatively, widely, and deeply all at the same time. Rather, because I worry that my library school courses cover too much, too shallowly, as a substitute for allowing us to engage and make connections on our own. For example, one of the first reading assignments for one of my classes this semester included a chapter on leadership-in-[specific library niche that was the subject of the class]. “Believe it or not, you can be a leader even if your job title isn’t ‘manager’!” I’m paraphrasing, but barely. What does this have to do with libraries? A LOT. What does it have to do with library school? Not so sure. And can one ask these 8 deadly words about library school without being branded as a “it’s not in my job description” bureaucrat?

  4. Eric S Riley says:

    Hey DC Nerd. I think we absolutely should be asking these questions about library schools as well. But one of the things that I’ve learned about library school education over the last dozen years is that it focuses on theory for a reason. The stuff you learn there is meant to be universally applicable, and thus can’t really delve into any specifics. Over at Jess Olin’s blog Letters to a Young Librarian, I talk about the top ten things I didn’t learn in library school. http://letterstoayounglibrarian.blogspot.com/2012/03/ten-things-i-didnt-learn-in-library.html All of them are practical customer service and daily maintenance types of things. I could easily write another top ten list. But even with that gap, I feel like my library school education was hands down one of the most useful experiences of my life. Primarily because it gave me the opportunity to gain that broad perspective on the field that you need to be adaptable.

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