High Anxiety

Lots of interesting stuff in this week’s Chron on technology and libraries. One piece in particular is a paranoid’s dream. James G. Neal, in “Information Anarchy or Information Utopia?” offers a long list of our current phobias. Now I’m worried because hardly any of this stuff frightens me.

An example: “The relationships between libraries and faculty members will be disruptive. We must more effectively integrate the library into the academic enterprise. Libraries must be professors’ partners, not their servants.” Wow. When I showed up for work twenty years ago as a member of the faculty nobody asked me where my maid’s uniform was. If that was disruptive, I missed it.

And this: “And the weak leadership-development efforts in academic libraries will produce chaotic administrative turnover. Where will we find the next generation of academic-library leaders?” Um, how about looking at the librarians we’re hiring? They’re not wearing maid’s uniforms either. In fact, most of the ones I know are expecting to lead, and excited about it. If leadership is reserved to administrators who have to be removed from libraries to receive special training, we’re in trouble. You know how they do it in the sciences? They mentor new scientists and they do so assuming they are all part of the same glorious enterprise. That’s leadership development with integrity.

Anxiety is one of the most potent levers available for making your agenda into a significant social issue. (If you want to know how it works, read Philip Jenkins or Joel Best. Fascinating stuff.) Librarians are as prone as anyone to sound the alarms in order to raise the profile of something they care about. But on most of the issues listed in this article I think our profession has a much better record than Neal suggests. It’s the Wrong Platform Syndrome. We are perennially afraid of being left behind, even when we’re ahead of the curve.

Maybe it’s just a simple misunderstanding. Anarchists are utopians. They believe people are capable of acting in the insterests of others. The majority of librarians and library workers I know fall into that camp (without being perceived as servants) and they don’t think change is disruptive; it’s simply the most rewarding part of the job.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

2 thoughts on “High Anxiety

  1. While I agree with Steven that I see myself as a partner to classroom faculty, I assume that Jim’s point is that this perception is not universally shared (either among librarians, or between librarians and other members of the academic community). I have definitely been places where the assumption that librarians were servants rather than autonomous and fully-credentialed partners in the academic enterprise was strong among elements of both communities (librarians and non-librarians).

    Fostering the idea of librarian as partner both inside and outside the library is an ongoing challenge, as is making sure that librarians have the resources available to them to actually act as effective partners across campus. In my mind, that’s one of the things we have ACRL for.

    Regarding leadership development, I agree that it’s another ongoing challenge, esp. as the skills required for 21st century library leadership are both different than those required in days gone by (as Jim notes in his essay), and are still emergent. In an earlier post, I invited comment on some of the most prominent leadership development opportunies currently sponsored by library associations, but Steven brings up the critical notion of “leading from the middle” and that leadership development for libraries must include the provision of opportunities for that sort of regular, on-the-job leadership development. Many new librarians may indeed be looking to lead, and it’s up to those of use who currently have administrative responsibilities to make sure that they have both the opportunity to do so and the resources to be successful.

    Interesting stuff!

  2. I think there’s a gender angle here. Some people think providing service is degrading. They’d rather be the professional with mystique and secret powers (doctor, lawyer) than the professional who gets down and helps (nurses, teachers).

    Really, do we need to develop leadership or develop libraries where people can experiment and play around and get things done without asking permission? Libraries where we aren’t waiting for somebody to tell us what new thing needs doing. Too many libraries are run like 19th century factories. Or at least they have adminsitrative structures like that and all they do is get in the way of librarians who want to do cool things. And reward people who want to stick with the old – it’s someone else’s job to decide how to change.

    It takes a culture shift, not just administration.

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