On Learning, Library Evolution, Organizational Change, and the (Occasionally Ugly) Responsibilities of Library Management

Inside Higher Ed's "Library Limbo" story, noting the backlash against layoffs at the USD library, has sparked some great conversations about professional development and management in the past few days. Positions such as inventory control official and reserves supervisor, seen as non-essential to the USD Library moving forward, were apparently done away with in favor of positions with greater technology responsibilities. People were laid off close to retirement. People were offended that one could be let go after serving a university for more than 25 years.

Required background reading, if you haven't already read them:
Gavia Libraria (The Library Loon)'s "Libraries: The Last Humane Employers"

Barbara Fister's IHE column "You are not a tinker toy: Libraries and reorganization"

Wayne Bivens-Tatum's post "Responsibility and Professional Development"

Barbara Fister's Library Journal column "What do we want? Change! When do we want it? Yesterday!"

First, I would like to note that there is a great divide in terms of skills and competencies between a position such as evening supervisor staff member and, say, a digital integration librarian. The degree requirements are vastly different (a BA desired versus an MLS or MS required), customer service position versus coding and programming skills. These are not positions for which, even with generous learning opportunities, it would be likely that a person could be moved from one to the other. The sad fact of organizations is that some positions die out in terms of necessity. While some of those skills will be transferable to other areas, some will not. To be an agile organization means making difficult decisions that may seem inhumane to certain individuals.

That inhumanity of organizational growth and change, however, should not be due to a lack of communication or failure to inform the community that such organizational changes are being considered. Nor should it translate into poor treatment of staff at any level.

My concern - and it has been a concern since I began managing in libraries - is that much as these changes seem sudden, drastic, and unexpected, had best practices been followed, they would be none of these things. This sort of change should occur gradually over time, immersed in a culture of reviewing the staffing and service needs of the library versus the existing positions. When there is a mismatch, positions should be rewritten. Training and learning opportunities to keep staff up to date and useful in an agile organization should be part of the annual evaluation and goal setting process. Failure to meet learning standards should be met with the same processes used to handle any other failure to perform the job.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where it all comes to a head for me. No, I do not believe that all staff everywhere would be happy to continue learning given the chance, nor do I believe that all library staff actually have the capacity to learn and change as often as we need them to. I'm afraid I've spent too much time in the management and HR trenches and have met those few percentage points that would have me disagree with Barbara Fister's statement:

Of course if learning is a requirement of the job and an employee refuses to do it or does it only under such duress that it’s more work than it’s worth to coax them to learn something new, that's a significant problem. I can imagine a situation in which such a conflict becomes so intractable that the only solution is for the staff member to leave the organization. But frankly, it’s rare for things to be that bad.

I've worked at places where not only was that not rare, it was the norm.


That staff have been allowed to become complacent about learning *and keep their jobs* is not their fault. It's not in their own best interest in terms of staying marketable in an unstable economy. It's certainly not nice to do to their colleagues. But that it happened; that it was allowed to happen over time to the point that it was only just realized that their positions were so out of date as to be completely unneeded by the organization; that it never became a factor in their annual performance evaluations; and that what I would call the re-districting of positions within the library came as a surprise strategy of organizational growth instead of being seen as a natural evolution of the organization - that, my friends, is the fault of management and administration.

I say that with sadness, as a library manager and occasional administrator-of-things myself. Sadness, because none of this should be new; none of it should be outside the scope of the sort of organizational self-review that should happen at least annually; none of it should have been unforseen by any of the involved parties. All of the hullabaloo could have been avoided had management pushed the sort of paperwork they get paid extra to push - evaluations, performance improvement plans, position reviews and evaluations, environmental scans, needs assessments. It's boring work. Lots of people don't want to deal with it due to the paper stacks and occasionally very difficult conversations those paper stacks force us to have. But it is an important job. And we see why when something like this happens. it goes from fuzzy organizational development theory and 'management best practices' to "Oh shit I just lost my job, whafuck happened?"

I am going to quote in its entirety the comment I left on the Loon's latest post, "In Which the Elephant is Measured" (and apologies, Loon, for the length of it!:

I would posit that while it is necessary for both individual librarians and staff to learn, that they do so should be made explicitly clear in their position descriptions and annual evaluations. It is then management/admin's job to *hold them to that standard* and provide appropriate opportunities. Not doing so depresses morale (for the reasons Val notes above), but it also creates the no-win situation for incoming managers that Barbara describes in her latest Library Journal article.

As a library manager I have walked into a new position tasked with quickly changing culture and conducting honest evaluations, only to find that (1) administration wanted it done quickly (2) administration wanted it done with no hurt feelings (2) administration would not actually support enforcing the consequences when evaluations were poor and required intervention, documentation, and occasionally disciplinary action. All of the open communication in the world (which is absolutely necessary so that folks know what is going on and why) does not help when you are given the mandate to make change happen, but without changing anything.

My own call is for management and administration to step up and take responsibility (which it sounds like may have happened at USD, and this was the fallout). What should have been incremental change was instead episodic and painful. At some point, if learning has been allowed to lapse, and the institution does not have the time to allow a slow gradual reintroduction, it is going to be uncomfortable.

But aside from the calls for leadership, I would posit that this is a strictly *management* best practices issue. (Management /= leadership, though the two are not mutually exclusive.) If learning is required for a position, it needs to be documented. If it is not getting done, then that - and management's attempts to provide additional opportunities - needs to be documented, too. And then if by some awful refusal to comply or simple inability (and yes, that inability does exist in some cases), the failure to learn is still there, you have enough to go about moving people out of their jobs *fairly*, by due process, using the disciplinary measures of your institutions resulting (gods forbid) in termination.

That the idea of "humane workplace" has grown to equal "somewhere that management has to let standards lapse to keep me in my job" is squarely on management's shoulders. If management is doing their job, then anyone who loses their job (for reasons other than budgetary cuts) bears the responsibility, since they were given clear direction and opportunity. This does not make letting people go easy; but it gives staff and librarians control. *This* is what evaluation systems and job descriptions were made for. To ensure that firing is not arbitrary, but the last resort after both parties have been required to do their part.

I say this with great sympathy, being a library manager and knowing how difficult this is to do, especially when you have to implement policy from scratch over existing practices.

Not-learning on the part of staff is a learned behavior perpetuated by weak management/administration not willing to do the work to keep positions updated, to make expectations clear, to ensure high quality work, and to follow disciplinary steps where required. If there are non-learning staff members still on board, the mechanisms that were intended to motivate or move those folks is, in the end, a management mechanism. (End of my comment on the Loon's post)

And so, this blog post is yet another place where I point to the Library Management Ether and tell you to Not Do This, to Not Accept This Behavior From Your Management/Admin. I was criticized in a previous post for telling people to leave management positions where they were discouraged from doing their jobs in terms of honest evaluations, performance improvement and disciplinary action by someone who said it's not that simple - and no, as I acknowledged, it's not. But if you stay and perpetuate a culture where these things are not addressed, you get the story of USD where trying to fix it results in even more backlash.

While I happen to agree, for a number of reasons, with Wayne Biven-Tatum's post about librarians being responsible for their own continuing education, it's management's job to hold everyone accountable.

End note:
That USD's library is being criticized for making the decision "with no regard to the livelihoods of those losing their jobs" (per the IHE "Library Limbo" story) strikes me as unnecessarily mean-spirited. Having been in on similar conversations at another institution, those discussions are always difficult and gut-wreching; people are well aware that this is going to hurt, and that it will probably hurt a friend and colleague. However, libraries are not in the business of keeping people in jobs.

I'm going to say this again, since this seems to be the perception of the management, administrators, and staff of libraries where honest evaluations are mere myth. Libraries are not in the business of keeping people in jobs. We are in the business of meeting our mission of providing information to our users. And while it may seem cruel that some jobs may have to go by the wayside, that is no judgment on an individual person or their worth as a human being. It is (or should be) a data-driven decision made with an eye to keeping the organization healthy.


Mark Kille said…
That USD's library is being criticized for making the decision "with no regard to the livelihoods of those losing their jobs"...strikes me as unnecessarily mean-spirited.

It is important to recognize that this particular criticism is in the context of a community debating the scale scope of what their religious identity calls them to. It may be true that "libraries are not in the business of keeping people in jobs," but an academic library's mission is not "providing information to our users"--it is supporting the mission of the host institution by means of providing information. Some colleges and universities view their mission not only as educating students and/or nurturing faculty research, but as modeling a specific kind of (virtuous) community. In that organizational context, yes, a library could be in the business of keeping people in jobs while also doing the best possible job they can of providing information to users.

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