If I Could Recommend Just One Book

I believe there are two kinds of worry: the worry that you’re failing to live up to the world’s expectations and the worry that you’re failing to live up to your own. The first is the worry that you got an “F”; the second is the worry that you haven’t gotten a 100. When I wrote about worry in my last post, it may have seemed that I was talking about the first kind of worry when I was really talking about the second. I think we’re doing a great job and I couldn’t be any happier about investing my time and money in becoming an academic librarian. But I think we should make systematic changes in order to become more effective.

The philosophy behind making these sorts of changes is discussed in a book by Donald Berwick called Escape Fire. If I could recommend just one book for academic library professionals, Escape Fire would be the one. Here are his first three “properties of interaction that ought to be objects of investment and continual improvement”:

  1. Regard information transfer as a key form of service, and increase the accessibility, openness, reliability, and completeness of information for patrons.
  2. Interactions should be tailored to patrons’ needs. The call to arms here comes to me from a friend who, when he was director of a small library, placed over the entrance a sign that read: “Every patron is the only patron.” Each person in need brings to us a unique set of qualities that require unique responses… We are not finished—we have not achieved excellence—until each individual is well served according to his or her needs, not ours. Our measure of successful interaction is not just an average of how we have done in the past for “them,” but also the answer to the inquiry, “How did I just do for you?”
  3. Interactions begin with this assumption: The patron is the source of all control… The current system often behaves as if control over decisions, resources, access, and information begins in the hands of the librarians, and is only ceded to patrons when the librarians choose to do so.

And now a confession: Donald Berwick is not a librarian and his book is not about libraries. Berwick is a physician, and in the above I’ve substituted the word patron for patient, librarian for caregiver, etc. But that’s only to drive home an important point: academic libraries, like the health care system, have a tremendous amount of money and an enormously intelligent group of skilled, caring practitioners. We’re working hard and doing well, but we’re capable of doing much, much better. I hope you’ll read Escape Fire, especially the title speech, which is available for free online. And I hope you’ll recommend a book for the rest of us.

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