navel gazing

cmrb 2020 annual report

(Note: I’m stealing this idea from Ashley Blewer because it’s a good one, and because I think it’ll be a useful exercise in a year that was especially tough to wrap anyone’s head around.)

We’re down to the last 48 hours of 2020, and I’m not joining in the chorus of people saying we’re sure to have a better 2021. I’m not sure we will, frankly, and I’m not sure which spheres of existence (personal, social, political, economic) folks are expecting to have that better year in. And better in the eyes of what beholder? I’m at least aspiring to spend my time and energy differently, but I’ll get to that. I remember thinking 2019 was a pretty tough one, too, between a shitty living situation and some, let’s say, occupational ups and downs.

For some context, in February 2019, one of my colleagues was killed in a fatal bike accident about a mile away from the branch I’d just spent the last 6-8 months helping renovate. At the time, I was riding my bike just about every day, and we’d often lock up next to each other outside the building when I was working over there. Less than a year before, while riding my bike about two miles away from the scene of my coworker’s accident, I had been knocked unconscious and woke up in the ER with a severe concussion and a broken arm after a motorist slammed me into a fence before driving off. In the months following her death, a series of disappointments at work got me thinking it was time to leave, and opportunity presented itself, and I took it. I regret how that went down, but we managed to get that water under the bridge for the most part.

Within half a year of changing jobs, though, it was clear I’d done the whole “frying pan into the fire” thing, which I can describe no further in a public blog post at this time, but suffice to say it was incredibly stressful and disheartening. Meanwhile, Chris and I were still living in an apartment in Jamaica Plain that had been a nonstop nightmare since we moved in. After contending with a broken oven for a month, clogged plumbing, broken laundry machines, and general fuckery from our landlord, we discovered we were also paying over ten times as much for heat in our apartment as the units on the lower levels because of a faulty boiler that the owner had neglected for 3+ years. The heat intermittently stopped working throughout November and December and we had to call Boston ISD on New Year’s Eve (which we spent at home, because we were both so worn out by 2019).

We moved out of that place in mid-January and I posted something on Twitter at the time along the lines of “Goodbye, terrible apartment. I hope getting out of this cursed place brings us better luck for 2020.” And we all know how that worked out!

So, that said, 2020 wasn’t the worst year for me personally by a long shot. 2019 may have been worse. 2016 and 2014 certainly were. 2020 was strangely a lot like 2009 for me, which had its ups and downs, a world in the throes of another type of societal crisis that did have a much more dire impact on my economic prospects. But in the spring, I spent a good amount of time watching Chris play Halo and chat with his friends, which was how many evenings went down when I first moved to Boston and had zero dollars and no one to hang out with. I also spent hours upon hours wandering around my neighborhood, just as I did back in the Great Recession days.

Before lockdown began, I managed to squeeze in two trips – one to Brooklyn with Chris for my birthday weekend, one to Nashville for the Public Library Association Conference. I spoke at PLA to more people than I ever had before, and I spent a good chunk of time not far from where the Christmas Day bombs went off…ugh, that poor city. I think the last live show I caught was Opeth at the stunning Ryman Auditorium, flanked by library pals. When I left Boston for that trip, covid was an increasing rumbling; by the time I got back, the Biogen thing had happened and the mood and response was noticeably changing, at least at the local level.

I had been selected to speak at the 2020 SXSW Interactive, but then it was cancelled for the first time in the festival’s history. Then other conferences, a few months off, started to cancel. Then we sent all of our students home in the week leading up to spring break. Then the grocery shopping with masks and gloves and the going-absolutely-nowhere-else-for-any-reason began. And then it became clear that not everyone was working at a library or for a town, city, or college that took this as seriously as my employer thankfully did. So I did what I could to try to help people fight to stay home or at the very least negotiate safer work conditions.

The first major effort I helped with was insisting that the Boston Public Library close all of its locations and allow its employees to work from home with no docked wages or furloughs. A group of area library workers in the New England Radical Reference Collective Slack channel worked together on advocacy with the assistance of other community supporters and the stalwart efforts of the BPLPSA union. We were successful. From there, a loose collective of activists from that group as well as the broader “Library Twitter” world joined in the fight. We targeted institutions and municipalities, imploring them to #closethelibraries. We wrote and called governors, mayors, college administrators, directors, and trustees. We put the pressure on our professional organizations to take a stronger, pro-worker stance. As time went on and restrictions started to be reversed, we adapted the advocacy and campaigned to #ProtectLibraryWorkers. I believe we saved lives. I also believe we challenged our organizations to make an effort to speak in more transparent language about workers and the importance of their health, safety, and livelihood; I’m not sure what difference that has made or will make yet, but if it gets even one fewer person to assume there are invisible elves stocking the shelves and not, y’know, humans with immune systems, I guess that’s something.

In May, I co-hosted and co-organized a conference called #LibRev(olution), a day-long series of presentations aimed at exploring “collective resistance & communal resilience” among library workers. It would not have been possible without an amazing team of speakers, moderators, and co-organizers. We tried to keep the conversation going via Discourse but have since moved to Slack. A bunch of us also contributed to, a resource site for people looking for help with their own advocacy and campaigns. When I was personally targeted by the board of trustees of one Boston-area library, I admit I did dial back my outward-facing efforts. But through #LibRev, the Library Freedom Project, and the state and regional associations I’m part of, I still will fight for library workers.

I also finished co-writing a book for ALA Editions that was released this fall, Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach. I hope it isn’t bullshit.

Meanwhile, at work, I tried my best to take advantage of the situation and soldier on. We converted to a new ILS at the beginning of summer, replacing a horrendous excuse for one that was making the simplest tasks (like placing holds!) impossible. This meant we joined an area library network and now have our cataloging outsourced (we are a team of 3) and access to Overdrive. This was not nearly as painful as it could have been, and the fact that we weren’t physically open was a blessing. I believe I weeded around 11,000 books from the collection (14,000 of our total had never circed in 20 years) and the majority made their way to Better World Books – praise be to student workers. I reconfigured the downstairs layout of the library, moving 3D printers out of our space and over to the shops and expanding our sewing area setup. More furniture changes are coming once the shelves cleared by weeding are removed; all of these decisions were made based on results from last year’s strategic planning survey. The student workers and I did an aggressive deep-clean of the workroom and we began organizing and cleaning the archives, a room left to fester for several years.

When I was at home, I worked on improving our website and moving us over to the college’s Linux server. I spent an untold amount of time gathering stats and putting stat site logins into a Pinboard list. I cleaned up our record of current subscriptions, negotiated with just about every vendor, rolled with budgetary punches, and got us up and running with OCLC’s hosted Ezproxy. We also had a huge amount of scanning and digital book buying to do as physical reserves weren’t available this past semester. I’d say the big problems at the library that are within a certain range of fixable have been fixed.

On a more personal level, the apartment we now live in is such a vast improvement over the last place, I can’t even tell you. My cats have been lovely and hilarious, and Avey’s brush with death in October was devastating but has me so grateful for every day I wake up with him half-smothering my face. We were fortunate to visit our families and a select group of friends a few times over the summer, and we had two vacations to Maine that involved lots of kayaking and bike riding. A few days spent at Drakes Island Beach and in Denmark (the Maine one!) were especially perfect. The summer was gorgeous and I’m missing it dearly. We squeezed in one last trip before we got too freaked out, to a three-season cabin in New Hampshire for Chris’s birthday. As I mentioned yesterday, I got to read a ton of books this year (a ton for me, at least). Many of those happened in front of a fire with WMBR streaming on our crappy Bluetooth speaker. And I started a new weekly radio show, Outback Witch House, broadcasting live on from 9-11 PM EST most Fridays.

Less fun to report is the amount of injuries I sustained this year. I broke my foot in August (it was dumb and involved a shopping cart), I fell off my bike and got pretty banged up in October, and I threw my back out at least three times, most likely because of the physicality of weeding, scanning, boxing, and shifting books. I haven’t been able to see a chiropractor since we moved, but I got a bunch of back exercises and stretches from the latest doctor I saw that are saving my shit.

So, from all of this, what did I learn, what did I take away? Well, I’m enormously privileged to have been able to take as many vacations as I did, to stay healthy and keep away from dangerous circumstances as much as possible, and to have the time to read, walk, and focus. I learned that management is a two-way street, and if people aren’t receptive to being managed, that’s not necessarily an indictment of the person doing the managing. I learned that you can never be too careful with separating your personal and professional identities as much as possible online. It was reinforced for me that you have to find ways of celebrating your own victories and congratulating yourself in the absence of external appreciation (not gonna lie, this post was a little bit that for me).

In terms of allocating my energy differently in 2021: I apologize for the vagueness, but I’m going to stop bringing horses to water they won’t drink, or at the very least I’m not going to try to get them to drink it as often as I have been. In non-work-but-professional matters, I’m going to try to listen, follow, and assist more than to lead–except in matters where white female gatekeepers desperately need to be redirected. I’d like to publish something in an academic journal. I’m going to keep myself open to changes, possibly big ones. I want to keep reading, walking, and writing as much as I have in 2020. I’m going to keep trying to figure out how to get better at sewing, and I’m going to get better at all the other maker-y tech we have lying around the library.

Above all, I’m thinking back to how in the days after the aforementioned library renovation was finished but before the death of my co-worker, my boss and I fantasized about having a “quiet year” – not trying to do anything amazing or new or special, just managing things as best we could. It was no one’s fault that we didn’t get that in 2019, but I’m hoping I might try for one in 2021. 2020 wasn’t personally that bad in many respects, but I know I worked harder than I should have, and took things out on myself more than I deserved. No matter what happens at the levels I can’t control, I hope I can be a little nicer to myself next year.


year-end reading recap

I read 80 books this year. That makes it an above-average year for me. I’m not posting this to brag. I know people who have read many more books; I know people who have read far fewer books. I’m putting it here because it feels worth recording in some way.

Most of these books were great. Some of them were incredible. Some of them sucked. Most of them were written before 2020, some well before 2020; I am usually lagging behind a bit for my dependence on the trusty ol’ library ebooks.

Giving this a handful of brain cells before I go off to bed, it looks like fiction beat out nonfiction by 58 to 32. Most of the nonfiction was about technology, race, or both. It’s kind of tough to isolate top genres for fiction, though I’d say I picked up more sci-fi than usual for me. Women, nonbinary people, and people of color definitely beat out the cis white males, which was somewhat intentional but, let’s be honest, pretty easy to do when you’re looking for something good to read. (I briefly picked up Joshua Cohen’s 2015 Book of Numbers this year which had me recoiling in horror with its pretentious MFA bro-iness by page 30 or so.)

If I had to pick a number one book that was actually written in 2020, I’d go with Such a Fun Age, which I think actually came out on December 31, 2019 but let’s just let it slide, lol. Darkly witty, deeply awkward, and unflinchingly accurate, it was a perfect tale for our times, even moreso as I gobbled up its clever soapyness in a lonely quarantined world.

I’m not sure what my 81st book read in 2020 will be, but I’m feeling pretty drawn to Wendy Liu’s Abolish Silicon Valley, awaiting me in print form (my library’s copy, no less). As shitty as this year was, I’m grateful I had the time and stability to read as much as I did, and for the fact that my brain still finds so much solace in the written word. Books got me through, folks. Whatever got you through was the right thing for you.

Top 8 2020 releases (that I’ve read so far):
Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell
Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey
Lakewood, Megan Giddings
A Black Women’s History of the United States, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
Cemetery Boys, Aiden Thomas
Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey
Pretty Things, Janelle Brown

Top 6 fiction:
Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell
The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne
Caucasia, Danzy Senna
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
The Pisces, Melissa Broder

Top 5 nonfiction:
Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks
Dark Matters: On the Blackness of Surveillance, Simone Browne
Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey
Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin
Superior, Angela Saini

Top 5 that taught me the most:
The Charisma Machine, Morgan Ames
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
This Land is Their Land, David J. Silverman
A Black Women’s History of the United States, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale

Top 5 that will probably have the most significant and/or lasting impact on me:
Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber
How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell

5 best audiobooks:
Catch & Kill, Ronan Farrow
Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez
Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan
Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

The complete list:

  1. Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez
  2. Ghost Work, Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri
  3. Artifical Unintelligence, Meredith Broussard
  4. Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil
  5. Sorry I’m Late (I Didn’t Want to Come), Jessica Pan
  6. Permanent Record, Edward Snowden
  7. Automating Inequality, Virginia Eubanks
  8. The Clockmaker’s Daughter, Kate Morton
  9. How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell
  10. How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi
  11. The Charisma Machine, Morgan Ames
  12. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
  13. A Woman is No Man, Etaf Rum
  14. Hunger, Roxane Gay
  15. Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin
  16. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Jaron Lanier
  17. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
  18. Pretty Things, Janelle Brown
  19. Dark Matters: On the Blackness of Surveillance, Simone Browne
  20. The Story of Arthur Truluv, Elizabeth Berg
  21. Confession Club, Elizabeth Berg
  22. Pull of the Moon, Elizabeth Berg
  23. Night of Miracles, Elizabeth Berg
  24. Caucasia, Danzy Senna
  25. The Giver, Lois Lowry (reread)
  26. Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis
  27. The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale
  28. The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides
  29. The Chain, Adrian McKinty
  30. Emergent Strategy, adrenne maree brown
  31. Superior, Angela Saini
  32. Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan
  33. Hollow Kingdom, Kira Jane Buxton
  34. Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble
  35. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (reread)
  36. Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey
  37. The Murmur of Bees, Sofia Segovia
  38. The Butterfly Lampshade, Aimee Bender
  39. Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener
  40. The Yellow House, Sarah Broom
  41. My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell
  42. A Place For Us, Fatima Farheen Mirza
  43. Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrik Backman
  44. The Pisces, Melissa Broder
  45. Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler (re-read)
  46. Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler (re-read)
  47. Redefining Realness, Janet Mock
  48. The Dearly Beloved, Cara Wall
  49. Get a Life Chloe Brown, Talia Hibbert
  50. Upright Women Wanted, Sarah Gailey
  51. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
  52. Today We Go Home, Kelli Estes
  53. Lakewood, Megan Giddings
  54. The Whale & the Reactor, Langdon Winner
  55. Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid
  56. A Black Women’s History of the United States, Daina Ramey Berry and Kali N. Gross
  57. So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo
  58. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika Sanchez
  59. Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
  60. The Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina Henriquez
  61. The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
  62. The Color of Water, James McBride
  63. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  64. The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock, Dave Thompson
  65. Ghost Wall, Sarah Moss
  66. Her Body & Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
  67. Cemetery Boys, Aiden Thomas
  68. Catch & Kill, Ronan Farrow
  69. Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi
  70. Pet, Akwaeke Emezi
  71. Luster, Raven Leilani
  72. Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey
  73. The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne
  74. Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
  75. Wow, No Thank You, Samantha Irby
  76. The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (reread)
  77. This Land is Their Land, David J. Silverman
  78. Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber
  79. Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart
  80. On Bullshit, Harry G. Frankfurt
  81. Ring Shout, P. Djeli Clark


library heterotopias vs. library bullshit

I gave my five-minute talk about rapid change and strategic-planning-that-isn’t-really-strategic-planning this week, and there were two big takeaways: 1) that people who aren’t librarians actually kind of want to just talk about library stuff, so I didn’t need to try to reframe the narrative for them and it may have been more accessible if I hadn’t and 2) the premise probably sounds like bullshit because there is a huge leadership crisis in general right now, and libraries for suuuuure in particular. Let’s unpack why I’m saying that.

The year of covid was like one of those fluorescent lights you sit under and every single acne pockmark you’ve had since the age of 12 is made visible. The long-standing toxicity and ineffectual leadership present in the field was so thoroughly, utterly exposed for what it is, and instead of trying to cover up the ugliness, there were many people in positions of power that chose to lean into the light, to bask in it. I’ll give you some specific examples without naming specific institutions because lord knows I don’t need anyone else baying for my blood at the moment. We had libraries try to get rid of all of their staff during a pandemic, ignore hundreds of community members, and indicate that automation was making their jobs unnecessary anyway – these efforts were led by librarians. Not McKinsey consultants or their icky ilk. We had libraries open for curbside pickup when everything was closed except grocery stores and hospitals. We had professional organizations and administrations pledging allegiance to “diversity, equity, and inclusion” but not fully understanding what that means and condescending and punishing members for attempting to improve that understanding. In one professional org I’m part of, when I brought up concerns about language in a policy/procedures doc that came off as racist and ableist, my qualifications and experience as a manager were questioned and it was implied that discussing power imbalances in the workplace was merely a new fad.

On the other hand, we saw some incredible organizing, pushback, and reform coming from other places than the usual mouthpieces of the field. Meredith Farkas describes this succinctly in American Libraries mag; the latest issue of The Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship (CJAL) is all fire but particularly focuses on this phenomenon in Danya Leebaw’s piece, “Critical Library Performativity: Toward Progressive Change in Academic Library Management and Organizations.” Leebaw’s description of alternative initiatives and movements in libraries, such as the Library Freedom Project and we here, as “heterotopic,” or occurring in unexpected/non-traditional places, resonated with me. As I was doing a deep dive into the latest CJAL, I discovered Jane Schmidt’s remarks at a 2018 conference, “Innovate This! Bullshit in Academic Libraries and What We Can Do About It.” She rightly points out that one of our defenses against bullshit is to stop always fetishizing our leaders:

We live and work in an era of unprecedented shameless self promotion and absurd reward systems. The proud display of the mundane to the remarkable are often indistinguishable. We reward our students with badges for coming to the library and we offer our explicit approval to colleagues by endorsing them for completely obvious skills on LinkedIn. It is hardly surprising then that we seek ever more accomplishments to enumerate and share. The often derided but always noticed annual ​Library Journal​ Movers and Shakers list is probably the most clear example of rockstar librarian bullshit, with apologies to those have moved and shook here in the room, of course. If I had a fiver for every time I saw announcement of yet another event featuring a panel of Thought Leaders, I could buy Congress a round of beers.

– Jane Schmidt, “Innovate This! Bullshit in Academic Libraries and What We Can Do About It”

I am a library director, but I try really, really hard to not engage in bullshit. I try not to make my colleagues do bullshit tasks. I try not to invent unnecessary work or problems for people. Rather, I listen to and observe the needs of our users instead of defaulting to tried-and-untrue library operations because “that’s just the way we’ve always done it” (shudder). This is what drove me to co-write a book for ALA Editions and give the talk this week. But I know when I speak to fellow directors, I’m probably not preaching to the choir for the most part. Hey, I’m sure most of them think I’m some weirdo manic pixie 25-year-old from Bah-ston (cue that sound from the Sam Adams commercials), so I can rag on them a bit if I want. Let’s be real, though–what I have written in the book and presented about on the topic is better spent on people who aren’t in conventional leadership positions (or in leadership at all), and I want to embrace this heterotopic idea as a defense for how the bullshit and toxicity at the top of (and throughout) many institutions can undermine what I’m suggesting at the outset.

In another stellar turn in that same CJAL issue, Sam Popowich points out something that I feel is at the twisted core of so many of librarianship’s problems:

“…any conception of social justice as a goal of intellectual or academic freedom can only take the form of an affirmative rather than a transformative model of redress (see Fraser and Honneth 2003, 74), in which minor adjustments, like Indigenous intern positions or statements of LGBTQIA+ solidarity, are seen as affirming a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) while leaving the fundamental structures of marginalization and oppression unchanged. The way to achieve social justice, in this view, is through recognition, statements of solidarity, or rhetorical commitments, rather than through material transformation of the structures of injustice themselves.”

Sam Popowich, “The Antinomies of Academic Freedom: Reason, Trans Rights, and Constituent Power.”

Popowich hits a nerve that comes up in the discussion of the recent Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL) panel “Why Did I Leave the Profession? A DEI Perspective,” something I want to force everyone from several committees I serve on to watch. (As I said on Twitter the other day, “Believe it or not, antiracism isn’t just a passing craze your ‘intergenerational workforce’ is into right now.”) We repeatedly see a lack of desire for change, especially within the DEI context; change would mean a massive amount of power shifting, tons of difficult conversations and open interpersonal conflict, and accepting discomfort and forcing ourselves to feel it instead of blaming seen or unseen forces or making it about us (I’m a cisgender white middle class lady).

Now, I want to pause here for a moment and point out that change can itself be total bullshit, in the way that word is often thrown around. I talked to a lot of people this year and I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten which lovely soul among them shared the term “weaponized innovation” with me, a great example of that being the aforementioned library that thought it should fire everybody during a pandemic and replace them with Roombas. It is not, however, bullshit to analyze the brokenness and bias of existing structures and to commit to tearing them doing and doing better. It’s not bullshit to be self-aware and honest about what we’re fucking up and to own the responsibility for fixing it.

This is true of things other than just DEI, where we are content to make statements all day long and mention amazing Black speakers we caught who “just have so many things to say that are important right now” in the affirmative fashion Popowich describes but shut down when self-critical analysis or redirection of resources is expected of us. I also can’t remember who said this year that libraries are great at creating problems for themselves, but man, was that any more obvious than in March when people were like, having patrons put their library cards in a basket and then using those trash collecting claw things to pick them up, trigger holds, and bringing stuff out to people’s cars in full hazmat gear while the rest of the goddamn country was in a lockdown and contending with a massive PPE and cleaning supply shortage? That’s what the early days of curbside were like. When I called out the absurdity, they did not like that. Who was this bitch from Massachusetts and why was she haranguing us in northern California? WELL SORRY BUT EVERYONE IN YOUR TOWN HAS LOST THEIR FUCKING MINDS, SO SOMEONE FROM SOMEWHERE HAD TO SAY SOMETHING.

This is all to say ideally we need better leaders who don’t pull bullshit like that, but we also need heterotopic structures that allow leadership throughout the profession instead of hierarchies that place one person unerringly at the top(s). I’m not sure if I’m advocating for flat org charts, at least not at this particular moment, but rather there needs to be a distribution of power that doesn’t tie up the biggest decisions with one person and maybe a board that are pretty disconnected from the day-to-day realities of boots-on-the-ground work. We also probably need to stop expecting sweeping, meaningful change from the traditional sources of power and influence in the field (I’m looking at you, state/regional and national organizations). Anyone who reads anything I’ve written or has seen me rant on a stage for five minutes to an hour (all 2 of you) knows I’m a huge fan of strategic plans, but I need to point out a critical caveat there: I am not a fan of the smoke-filled room approach to them. What you’re going to get out of a plan written with the director and the board, or the director and a dean or whatever, behind a closed door is a ton of people who go “wtf is this” when you try to do anything–not because people are change-hating sticks in the mud, but because you didn’t ask them what they thought and your conclusions probably make no sense with what they’re seeing in the day-to-day.

I want to go back to a point Leebaw makes that is also essential to creating plans that aren’t C-suite bullshit:

“…the principles to which we wish to adhere are not always reflected in our current practices, and in some cases might not be possible to achieve even if we diligently try… This misalignment between principle and practice has created uncomfortable dissonance for our staff… [T]he “growing chasm between our stated values and practices” is “ultimately alienating library workers” (Nicholson, Schmidt, and Slonowski 2019).

– Danya Leebaw, “Critical Library Performativity: Toward Progressive Change in Academic Library Management and Organizations”

How do we get better alignment between principle and practice? We need to stop hogging the decision making for our practices, and stop defaulting to doing the easiest thing because “tbh my calendar is a garbage tornado for the rest of the month and I just want to get this over with.” We also need to stop defending bullshit takes in the field and start walking the fucking walk. It’s 2020 and we still have dinguses on the Trash Tank who can’t see how letting the Nazis use the meeting room is in conflict with our professed value of access and welcome to all. In fact, I think we might have more dinguses saying this shit now than ever before. I don’t have an answer to everything and please ignore anyone who has ever said they did, but y’all, librarianship is deeply screwed up and acknowledging that is a good first step as any. We have such enormous importance and potential, but with ineffectual diversity messages, rampant toxicity in our workplaces, and the vice grip of doing more with less, we must know we aren’t delivering on that promise. These heterotopias give us a chance to step around the baggage and imagine what could be, and they might be our only shot at saving us–not from ourselves, but from our leaders.

library mgmt

building solid ground for constant change

I mentioned in my last post that I’m working on condensing the ideas of the book into a 5-minute lightning talk for the Blank consortium. The slides and a pretty-much-final script of my talk are below. It was interesting to target this beyond just libraryland–I hope the ideas resonate with other educators as well.

Btw, if you’re thinking this all sounds an awful lot like strategic planning, that’s because it is. 🙂 On one hand, I’m trying to make the idea sexier for people who roll their eyes at the term; on the other, the process I’m describing will make for a great strategic plan.

You might be asking yourself, “Okay, why is a librarian talking to me about change?” Well, does anyone know where this is?

old boston public library johnson building

That’s the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library, and this photo was taken in 2010 or so.

This is the same area of the library today. You can orient yourself with the dome-shaped windows.

boston public library children's room

This kind of huge transformation has been happening in libraries all around the world. Libraries don’t just change their look and feel–they also have been keeping up with changes in technology and their communities, which have grown increasingly rapid in the last 30 years.

Libraries that have succeeded in adapting to change have one thing in common: they are continuously asking and seeking answers to these three questions, all while keeping their communities at the heart of the process:

what do we aspire to do and be? what do we value? how do we make it happen?

This can help in many contexts: in classrooms, businesses, and for individual use as well. I want to note that I am saying the word “user” as a catch-all for community members, students, co-workers – all the kinds of people we do things with and for.

What do we value and aspire to be? This is high-level, conceptual stuff – your vision and mission. What do you care about and why? This isn’t just a time to praise yourself. What are you not doing? What’s not working and how can you fix it? Social infrastructure, to be welcoming & safe, and to be inclusive & do outreach are library examples; I would guess some of these resonate with you as fellow educators as well.

What do our users want? Where are you putting your energy–does it connect to what they want? In libraries, people want our help accessing information, community space, and creativity and learning opportunities. Even if we think we know what our users want, we still need to ask them.

How do we make stuff happen? The following steps are what I’d tell librarians to do, but I’d be willing to bet the same advice would work in many other types of situations. As I mentioned, we need to ask our users what they want, and we need to involve them in the process of creating and embarking on our goals. We stop doing more with less, meaning we figure out what we value, who we are, and what our users want, and use that to allocate our resources more appropriately. Last but not least, we need to view this process as continual – it’s not linear, it’s circular.

With self-awareness, we know how, where, and what to change. Even if we don’t know what will come next, or know what the long-term impacts of the current change and uncertainty we’re in right now will be, we can figure out who we are, what our users want, and what we mutually value.

library mgmt

a few thoughts on change stuff

I’m giving a talk for the consortium in a couple weeks, and it’s a lightning/ignite style presentation: just five minutes to pack in an introduction to a concept or idea. I’ve been working on trying to dump the key lessons of the recently published book I co-authored, Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach, into this five minute chunk. I’m also trying to retool the content for non-librarians. It’s been tricky, but ultimately it’s helping me see the stripped down version of the book’s thesis, which I think is encouraging people in the field (and beyond) to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What do we aspire to be?
  2. What do we value?
  3. How do we make it happen?

Can a thesis be questions? Probably not, so maybe it’s more like what’s at the core of what we’re prompting people to try to do. Change is inevitable, but if we can get ourselves to a place where we can answer those questions without racking our brains, we’re going to do a good job responding to it.

1. What do we aspire to be?

This question comes first so the answer to #2 (hopefully) doesn’t reshape it. Here’s where you don’t just recite the ALA Code of Ethics or buy into the general “libraries are and have always been emblems of democracy” self-praise. You think about what you’re not doing. You think about what’s not working and how you can fix it. If you’re saying you’re a welcoming safe space that’s free and inclusive to all, are you really providing that, or is it only an aspiration at this stage? #2 and #3 will help you make it real.

2. What do we value?

What are you spending time and money on? How does that relate to what you identified as what you’re aspiring to above? Libraries are continually being asked to “do more with less,” but it’s time to stop doing some things and start doing other things strategically (see #3). Now’s your chance to think about the Library Bill of Rights, intellectual freedom, and social responsibility. Which of these ethics and positions help us advance what we say we’re aspiring to do? As hinted at in describing #1 above, this isn’t a time for self-celebration; this is a time to think critically and deliberately about what is important to us and why.

3. How do we make things happen?

You need a strategy. How do you get one? Co-design with community feedback. Surveys and focus groups. Post-it notes. Bulletin boards. Get community experts on staff, or foster a culture of creating that expertise. That isn’t to say “keep everyone forever;” rather, hire and train people who connect with your aspirations and values and want to stick around long enough to help you get there. If you think you don’t have time to make your aspirations happen, unpack why that is. You can likely find things you can stop doing. Don’t think of it as sacrifice if you stop doing something because the feedback says you should be doing something else.

I’m just starting to explore this perspective, but I think I’ll get there. The bottom line is we need a mission, and we need self-awareness, if we’re going to endure change.