Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Change at the Human Level

For a couple of years now, I've been on the road talking about how libraries need to change. Based on the environmental scan (and more recently the Perceptions report), my talks have focused on changing the direction of library public services, about becoming more user-centric, about implementing aspects of self-service, disaggregation, and collaboration.

Not long ago, I spent some time with a very good friend who is in middle to upper management in a library. Both she and the library shall remain nameless. Her library is in the process of implementing a lot of these changes, and, basically, she blamed me and OCLC for destroying her life.

She was kidding.

I think.

Her library is studying and has proposed a variety of changes. They are thinking of taking out a whole level of middle management (which could cause her a demotion, or perhaps even cost her her job). They are considering de-emphasizing reference, moving to a readers' advisor/roving support model that we have heard described in several places, deprofessionalizing the positions along the way. They are centralizing materials selection, and administration wants staff to be trained and willing to work at multiple locations rather than the single location for which they were hired.

The kicker is that my friend supports every one of these changes. But she is seen as being part of the ancien régime of the library, and, as a result, not part of the modern, agile leadership that the administration seeks. She faults herself for being more deliberative than assertive in the system. She feels that her skills in teaching and building consensus are out of the current mainstream in her system. And she's not sure that she's ready to make a major change in her approach to the world at the age of 54.

The fact is that changing an institution, whether it's a large, complex academic library or a suburban public library or a one room school media center is never easy, and it's frequently very painful. People are invested in the status quo, and we as librarians take a great deal of pride in what we do. As the world around us has changed, we sincerely believe that the processes and services we provide hold enduring value.

I don't know what to tell my friend. She's a smart, thoughtful, dedicated professional who feels the way the monks in a scriptorium must have felt the first time they saw a Gutenberg printing press.

If you are in a situation like this, from whatever position, I would love to know more about your experience. Maybe you can help me help my friend. Maybe we can come up with some new strategies for dealing with change. Because the only thing of which we can be very sure is that the change is going to happen either with us or to us.


Bruce Newell said...

I think George has put his finger on something that is true here. Change is tough. Many of us have nailed our feet to the floor; both feet, hard floor, and change swirls by outside leaving us in its dust. How do we keep libraries' intrinsic values while somehow staying current to the swirling change all around us? How do we preserve root library values which should endure, while keeping step with a world that acts to leave us, and our antique values, on a siding, in a snow storm, alone, in the middle of Wyoming?

Laura said...

Oh dear. . . I'm moving to Wyoming to become a librarian in a one-room library. . . .

George, I don't know what to say to your friend--except that I hope her library is smart enough to keep a few of its scribes around, even as they rush headlong into the world of the printing press. Surely a few of the monks in the scriptorium saw moveable type and thought, "At last!"