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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Reflection on the Darien Statements

There’s been a great deal of talk about the recently posted Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians. Kathryn Greenhill, Cindi Trainor, and John Blyberg got together and waxed a little poetic about the fundamentals of libraries and librarianship. I’m not talking earth, fire, water fundamentals…more like atoms and electrons. The absolute fundamentals. The primordial ooze and Platonic Form of Library, if you will.

I’ve done a good deal of mulling the Statements over. I’ve been wondering about this lately, about how I connect to the larger idea of Library in general and to Academic Library specifically. It was much easier when I was a reference and instruction librarian – I could easily draw the lines that connected me to student and faculty learning, improved scholarship, publication for faculty and graduation for students. I could connect myself and my work easily to the Idea of Library as Bastion of Information Record of Humanity. I was in the very mix of library use and education, and rarely, if ever, questioned my sense of belonging to the Great Library in the Sky.

Now I help manage an Access & Delivery department, and it has gotten more difficult for me to connect myself to the educational mission of the university and that sense of Library that made me want to be a librarian. We do essential work, putting a face to our library services, accomplishing deliverables and making sure that the library’s circulatory system is healthy and going at a good pace. We make sure that our patrons (mostly faculty and staff, given that we are an academic library) get what they need in timely fashion and with good customer service attached. Much of my time is spent in meetings about services, meetings touching base with other areas of the library that connect with Access, and in cajoling, wheedling, shaming, praising and berating staff. It definitely feels one floor down in the ivory tower sense of the library’s educational mission, but is just as essential for the library’s existence – what good is a library if you can’t access its various holdings, after all? But it feels grittier than classroom and research work, more coarse than selecting materials and acting as a liaison to academic departments. It’s different, and I’m still adjusting.

Anyway, all this is to say that my personal sense of where I fit into the Library has shifted as I’m getting accustomed to my new(ish) position. Then I saw the Taiga Statements, which didn’t really incur any reflection on my part other than to be thoroughly insulted that ARL institutions – um, I work at one of these – were thoroughly unabashed about how little regard they have for the work of librarians. So I said my piece about them, but I don’t take them very seriously. Except, of course, for the fact that apparently ARL muckety-mucks apparently take those statements seriously, which makes me wonder why future librarians would consider working at places that obviously don’t value their work. The Darien Statements, on the other hand, are written by three folks whose work I know, who I respect on both a personal and professional level. Their intent, rather than to cut librarians out of the action and scare the bejeebus out of us by making us fear for our livelihood, is to (as I understood the statements) make us reflect on the most basic tenets of librarianship and what the core values and mission of the library are.

It’s been interesting to see and hear reactions about the Statements. Kellat’s recent post takes a legal view of most of the statements, pointing out that the eternal Library is anything but immutable, and that underlying ideas and ideals do change over time, and how unlikely it is to be able to put these Statements into actual practice.

I would argue that the Darien Statements are not meant to be solely praxis, though where it is possible, perhaps they should be. What I’d like for people to consider are the differences between a values statement, mission statement, and vision statement. They’re intended to do and convey three very different things, (see the Wikipedia entry for Strategic Planning – there’s a good explanation there) and I think a great deal of the disgruntlement so far in the discussion about the Darien Statements is that folks are displeased that it doesn’t do the gruntwork of telling us how to make the Darien Vision of Library fact in day by day life. Initial reactions from some on the front lines sounded something like, “All well and good and very pretty, but who’s going to be assigned to throw out the drunk guy taking pictures up girls’ skirts in the West Wing?” Because this document straddles a couple of lines between values, mission, and vision, my first suggestion for future revision would be to be careful about mixing these in a single document, since it does lead to confusion. I consider this largely a values document, laying out the huge underlying foundation for why it is we do what we do – perhaps not in the legal sense of it, but in a larger "what is our purpose" sense.

To be honest, the "Role of the Library" and the "Role of Librarians" sections aren’t so terribly different from what various professional organizations provide us, or from what we learn at the feet of ye older librarians in graduate school. I think they’re very lovely in an aspirational sense, and there’s nothing wrong with striving to meet those. Meeting user needs, preserving access to information, assisting folks…yup, sounds like the basic job description of a librarian to me.

The trouble occurs when you take the Platonic form of Library as it’d discussed in the Statements, and then give the Statement to “little-l” librarians to pick apart. Because let’s be honest – we don’t work in Library, we work in libraries. Law libraries, academic libraries, corporate libraries, and more may share similar basic values, but our missions and the communities we serve may differ drastically.

A few things that caught my eye from the Statements that I’d be interested in hearing more about:

Under “Preservation of the Library,” and not necessarily in the order they appear,

"Eliminate barriers to cooperation between the Library and any person, institution, or entity within or outside the Library." This is one of those things that’s great for Library, but maybe not for libraries. Libraries that run on cost models, or have user restrictions (as most academic libraries do) will not meet this criteria, but are no less meeting their purpose. Again, for an aspirational document, I think we can all agree this is what library and freedom of information principles would prefer – it just may not be possible in practice, especially when the mission of the Library is not the mission of *my* library.

"Choose wisely what to stop doing." Ay to the men. Note the “wisely” in there.

“Engage in activism on behalf of the Library if its integrity is externally threatened.” All well and good, and we librarians would like to see more of this, certainly. But why the addition of “externally”? Should we not encourage activism in the face of all threats to the Library’s integrity, including those internal to the organization? Many of the threats libraries (actual and physical, as opposed to the Platonic form of Library) face are internal, including foundering administrations, poor assignation of resources, incompetent management and

"Hire the best people and let them do their job; remove staff who cannot or will not." I’m going to both applaud the authors for adding this, and jump up on my imaginary podium for a moment. This has been one of the most difficult and emotionally exhausting duties I’ve taken on as a manager, and I wish more people would step up and shoulder this sort of responsibility. It is a damned shame to see what could be excellent institutions shackled by folks who refuse to meet their job descriptions. No, it is not fun to hand out poor performance evaluations, but as a manager, it is your duty. to fairly and accurately evaluate your staff’s performance. (Please note that I use “staff” here loosely, and include whatever professional librarians you supervise as well as parapros.) I know quite a few library systems that have gotten into the habit of blanketing everyone with “Outstanding,” which is terrible on a number of levels. First, telling your entire staff that they all perform outstanding work should make the truly excellent staff indignant that they are lumped in with whomever works in cubicle 4, who shows up late for work, leaves early, and never meets a deadline. Those outstanding staff will leave, hampering your library’ progress. Secondly, in times of economic crisis, when jobs are eliminated and folks are shifted into other departments, you just foisted off a problem employee onto another manager. Your former staff member may get a rude awakening when accurately reviewed, and your reputation as a manager will suffer. Third, and here I don’t cut much slack - it is your job as a library manager. Please do it, or leave so that someone competent can take your job.



All in all, I appreciate the Darien Statements as an aspirational document and a starting place for discussion. They do reconnect me to that larger sense of what I had hoped to contribute as a librarian – not in the “omg I’m doing something so very important for the world!” sense so much as in the “I work in a profession I am proud to stand on and call my own” sense. I think it’s a good way to think about how our mission, vision, and maybe values *do* differ within the profession, and how different types of libraries and libraries can stand under a single umbrella. This may not be that umbrella, but it’s an interesting place to start.

1 comment:

Chadwick said...

Bravo Colleen for articulating this so well. I have very similar observations that I hope to express soon. Very well said my friend!