About a week after I got the offer for my current job, and ten days or so before I started, I went to my future workplace and walked in the front door. I did not tell anyone who I was or why I was there. I just puttered around, getting a sense of the place and how it felt to be a patron there, how intuitive it was, how welcoming. Where people clustered, and for what purposes. What self-services were available, and how navigational information was arranged, and how readily staff made themselves visible and available to help. What I saw pleased me a lot. It was so obviously a space that had been designed and built before the paradigm shift, that had adapted and changed and was continuing to adapt, and that gave me hope.
I began working in public libraries in 2004, just as the wave was breaking on Web 2.0/Library 2.0 (Casey & Savastinuk, 2007). Everyone I worked with was from “before” and their experience of this was fundamentally different than mine. I never unlearned the old way. Because I was new, I was intensely aware that I knew nothing, so I embraced the unknown and the cascade of constant change, it was not disruptive or disorienting to me, it was just where I lived.
I was aware of that in part because I was an ethnography student. It was weird and fascinating to watch: participant-observer to the end of an old world and the birth of a new, constantly studying what was happening around me and how my colleagues were reacting to it. Everything is changing! Yes. When does it stop? Do you see it stopping? It’s exhausting! Yep. How can we possibly learn all of this new technology? We can’t. It’s okay. We learn the patterns, the trends, the emergent needs, and how to stay one step ahead of the curve. We learn what we can, and we learn to make peace with what we don’t know. And anyway, it’s not actually about the tech, it’s about the connections the tech makes. The emerging ways of connecting people to people, and people to Story.
My experience at my new workplace was a strange echo of this: my hiring cohort came in as a direct result of a major reorganization from a traditional-hierarchy institution to a horizontally integrated, team-management-based, participatory organizational model, a change articulated in a strategic plan called the Blue Dot Document, so there is a “before Blue Dot/after Blue Dot” division in the institutional culture, and a mass of retirements as the “before Blue Dot” people who are not adapting self-select out. It’s a big organization, and a document doesn’t transform a culture overnight (especially when the document is about moving away from top-down dictates), but the culture shifts as people respond, interact, reach across, connect. Disruption becomes transformation. Smart managers – and our managers are very smart – cultivate this transformation, support it, strengthen emerging pathways. Change is where we live.
As Searls and Weinberger point out, it’s now been fifteen years. We’ve found our sea legs. The radical has become mainstream; a generation of professionals are accustomed to this. And we’re stagnating. A new ILS, a new self-service feature, a new web-based reference service, a new device (Wifi hotspots, anyone?), it’s just part of the routine. We’re all in classes and webinars all the time. We speak the language of SWOT analysis and Design Thinking and rapid prototyping and deconstructing barriers to access, and those are important things, but with repetition and internalization they lose some of their punch.
When technological agility and user-centric service models themselves become routine, where are we going? What is change for? If continuous improvement is the new culture of libraries, what are we improving? And why?
When we’re closed off to concepts without examining them fully, or without exploring the frameworks in which they exist, we’re unlikely truly to innovate or create any radically meaningful experiences.
And that question takes me back to my roots in the social sciences.
What I’m seeing implied but not explicated in these pieces – the next step I think we need to tackle – is a reframing of the idea of expertise and ownership. We fight to be recognized as experts, as professionals, as we should. Hey, why are we in graduate school anyway?
Expertise is necessary but not sufficient.
What I think gets lost in conversations about how to serve patrons is: our users, our patrons, are the experts of their own experience. And we are them. We are our patrons. We are in the community. We are creators and consumers of popular culture. We are privileged and marginalized and complicated individuals. We are participants. Which means we are also the experts of our own experience, and we bring that experience into our work. What I’ve seen unfortunately a lot of is people in leadership roles who give lip service to that idea but do not understand it.
We are the medium… caring – mattering – is the motive force.
Giving patrons freedom over their own holds queue is one thing, but it’s still framed as giving them something that was ours. Delegating. It’s natural to feel like we’re giving something up – something we’ve worked very hard for. And it’s the wrong message to send; it does devalue our very important work. (If machines and clerks and the patrons themselves can do the work, again, why are we in grad school?) Because – we know this, we just need to be really good at communicating it – checking out books and weeding from a checklist (or even designing the checklist) and formatting in Microsoft Word isn’t the work, and it never was. The work has always been making a connection, an exchange, a conversation. Always. And we can’t do that if we hold ourselves apart.
When we talk about participatory service models, it cannot be about “letting” patrons participate in (some aspects of) their own library experience. If we’re talking about centering human experience then we’re talking about letting librarians be humans first, playing and discovering, making mistakes, getting messy, asking questions (and not being afraid to say “I don’t know”), shaping our institutions to be open to and informed by the passions, experiences, needs, and expertise of everyone in the community that we are participants in creating (but do not own). We need to break down othering, because us and them is not helping.
So we’re learning how to be experts without being gatekeepers, and that means letting go of some ego, letting go of holding ourselves apart. Shifting the locus of ownership . Traffic crosses blurring boundaries in both directions, and magic happens at the boundaries.
Buckland, M. (1992). Redesigning library services: A manifesto.
Casey, M. E., & Savastinuk, L. C. (2007). Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service.
Denning, S. (2015). Do We Need Libraries?
Searls, D. & Weinberger, D. (2015). New Clues.
Weinberger, D. (2001). The hyperlinked organization.
Stephens, M. (2016) Open to Change.
Schmidt, A. (2014). Exploring context.
Booth, M. (2013). People and UTS Library.
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Beth Harper is a public services paralibrarian living in historic central Denver and working in the western foothills under the shadow of the Front Range, and an MLIS student at San Jose State University. As Elizabeth Biehl, she writes on SF/F literature and community, art and culture, and occasionally librarianship at www.edgeofcenter.com.