It’s time for younger librarians to claim the future.
I was intrigued when I saw an announcement for an ARL-CNI meeting, “Achieving Strategic Change in Research Libraries”, to be held in mid October, because Lord knows this is a good time for strategic change. Yet when I clicked through to the program, I was sorely disappointed. The program is oriented toward library directors talking amongst themselves. In the growing string of strategy meetings and whitepaper collections coming from research library organizations, I see many familiar names. While I find these individuals to be brilliant, thoughtful people, I don’t believe much will come out of their talking amongst each other for another day. Library leadership has been discussing emergent roles for libraries for over a decade.
(N.B.: In libraries, the senior executive usually has the title “University Librarian”, and their immediate junior staff, “Associate University Librarian”; these are abbreviated as UL and AUL respectively.)
The current leadership of many of the leading research libraries belongs to a cohort that has held senior management positions for several decades; they have exceeded, or are near, retirement age. The generation beneath them, the late boomers and the Gen X’ers, have often been unable to fully advance in their careers because of the overhanging cliff edge above them. In libraries, archives, and museums – all organizations with astounding levels of commitment and loyalty – theirs will be a Lost Generation. They are not likely to steer these institutions for any long length of time. Instead, Gen X has led – is leading – a Long March.
Even in conversations with the existing leadership, there is wide acknowledgment that the greatest sea change of vision and perspective among librarians, museum and archive staff, rests primarily among those (more or less) in their 20s, into their early to mid 30s. This generation has completely different expectations for information management, privacy, direct access to data and people, interaction with services, and organizational behavior.
It is perhaps in the expectations for organizational conduct that the need for change is greatest, and most immediately wanting. Libraries are supremely hierarchical organizations, not given to matrix management or effective team based project management. Many young librarians do not have any effective means to make substantive comment on change in their institutions; even when their voices are heard, no engagement is offered.
I have heard ULs say that they are all for new initiatives, but their librarian unions are preventing them from making deep structural change. Well, you know what? Unions don’t want to be the last one to turn out the lights either. Don’t blame labor.
We strive to ID timely topics & speakers based on the forum theme. We have begun talking about how to recruit new ideas & faces… including the “new library generation” so your input is timely & well taken. Thanks again for taking the time to give us feedback.
That’s not what I am talking about. Revolutionary councils don’t form around the existing leadership. Existing leadership has spent its credibility. The changes they led long ago were bold in their time, but this is a new time, with new dangers, and new people must address them.
Here’s what I would like to see:
It’s time for the youngest generation of librarians to gather amongst themselves to discuss change in libraries. This definitely needs to happen in RL, but it can also happen online. This would be a gathering of people that I would denote as “< A/UL” – in other words, lower than (less than) AUL. Not <= AUL. There should be no directors present, no associate directors present. This is not about them. It is about those who will truly redefine the future of libraries. And there will be libraries in the future. And they will kick ass.
This is also not a Taiga-like recitation of calls for change or 5-year predictions for libraries, delivered by AUL level staff. It is not likely that a “community of AUL’s and AD’s challenging the traditional boundaries in libraries” is somehow going to make change happen. I applaud their manifest: “[w]e must develop cross-functional vision that makes internal organizational structures more flexible, agile, and effective. We must move beyond the borders and transcend the traditional library organization.” Yada yada yada.
That’s not enough. There is tremendous skepticism about Taiga in the rank and file. Let Taiga deal with their shifting boundaries, I want to plow under the farmland and gather with those who are madly tossing seeds for wild grasses on the prairies, provoking the native spirits into spring rains. Strategy is for young people.
As a friend observed to me, “v cool. in add’n to younger library staff, I’d also like to see non-librarian library professionals in lib strategy discussions.” Right on. Because the future is not contained within the neat walls of existing research libraries, but among all libraries, and archives and records keeping museums, attempting to redefine their role and purpose in a digital world. We live in a flattened world.
I am not suggesting that out of new conversations will emerge fully formed a blue print for a new class of library. But what I would suggest is: without energetic conversations, without more awareness of the things already being discussed in the hallways, libraries will have a future too long delayed. And that’s more than a problem for libraries. It’s a problem for everyone. By speaking together, we can break the deadlock and move the mountain. Talking about the world we want will help to build that world.
Right now, the best possible thing that ALA could do to reboot the future is to fund support for these meetings and gatherings, encouraging spontaneous leadership. If they cannot do that, then some other vehicle needs to step in and provide the platform where change can be not merely discussed, but architected. Realistically, I suspect that ARL is not the right institution to do this. William Faulkner said it best in Go Down, Moses: “Them that’s going,” he said, “get in the goddamn wagon. Them that aint, get out of the goddamn way.”
It’s too easy to proclaim the knock down – the traditional call out for the terrain-effacing transformation that is eroding the ground underneath us. Today, there is incredible optimism, energy, and enthusiasm in libraries –- at no other point in history has there been such opportunity to reach people with information using such a variety of tools, across such a range of means.
When mobile phones are held in the hands of farmers in the remotest villages across the planet –- the reach of every single library on this planet is now global. As our responsibility, let’s forge that vision.