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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Valuing Librarian Work: McMaster is Not The Only Model

By all accounts, Jeff Trzeciak at McMaster University appears to have jumped on the Taiga Train and is ringing in the end of the age of librarians in libraries. Jenica has a fantastic post detailing the myriad ways Trzeciak is undermining librarianship.

Mita goes even further on her New Jack Librarian Blog, discussing the implications of librarians being faculty-but-not-really, outsourcing information science work to vendors who now control and the library being a cost center maintained only by the good will of our communities. These are slightly longer term implications (though not, as Mita points out, for all three Mt. Hood full time faculty librarians, who were given pink slips).

A common thread here seems to be that administrators feel undergraduates will garner research skills on their own, somehow, without the benefit of librarians, despite the literature which demonstrates that such skills are not taught by the teaching faculty, who assume that librarians will take care of that, and despite the literature which demonstrates a strong correlation between library funding and number of full time librarians, and student achievement outcomes. Maybe McMaster's instruction numbers are declining because the Canadian students are just that awesome right out of the box. Or maybe it's because there are fewer librarians around to give instruction.

Regarding Trzeciak's "Likely to come out of IT, including audio/video production" piece of his slide - well, don't you just know, there are some dynamite librarians coming out with just those skills - and the ability to teach folks how to do advanced creation and editing in layman's terms. The librarians with these skills would probably also applaud Trzeciak for his ability to sit through an hour-long screencast (!) as opposed to a live-instructor session, where individual questions and confusions can be addressed.

This week we've been bombarded with tales of the librarianless library. Let me tell you about another kind of library. I won't call it the librarian-centered library, because the focus is actually on student needs, but perhaps the librarian-leveraged library.

Mine is a library where we are taking full advantage of new library technologies, as we:

-- implement OCLC's WMS system, which appears as though it will save us an incredible amount of time in materials processing

-- implement best practices and streamlined workflows for interlibrary loan

-- expand existing services and implement new services based on demand

In fact, with automated systems increasingly doing the rote work that library staff used to do, this has opened up new opportunities in our library for librarians. Automating routine processes frees human resources to do more of the work that requires creativity and critical thinking - two librarian strengths.

Unlike the McMaster model where librarians have been replaced at service desks, the more we advertise that our service desks are staffed by real, live research-expert librarians, the more excited our students and faculty become. The more our instruction librarians impress the faculty with their engagement, enthusiasm, and talent, the more sessions they are asked to teach, until our large R&I department is at capacity for the number of classes they teach each week of the semester, with increased interest from faculty teaching upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses a happy dilemma for us.

And we manage to balance this with our own activities and scholarship off-campus as well. Our Spring newsletter highlights that ten of our sixteen librarians - including our dean - are involved in presenting, publishing, contributing to research guides and instructional video databases, writing and earning grants, and keynoting library conferences. And those were just the folks who remembered to reply to the email solicitation for information!

So, Mr. Trzeciak, I want to add to the cacophony of voices reminding the world that your path is not the only path. That your vision for your library is not our vision for our libraries. That your disdain for the work, passion, and skill of librarians to be a part of the sea change of library engagement with the university is a mismatch for our own optimism and enthusiasm over the possibilities for how many ways we can contribute in this, and the future, information environment.

At my own library, the more quality service we provide our users with, the more they want us. Facing the happy-sad situation where one of my staff members left for a fantastic new job, and one of our awesome librarians is heading to an awesome new job, we're looking at how this could possibly change our current structure. And instead of banking the cash and leaving us short of needed expertise, or just going ahead and filling the slots as a staff position and a librarian position, the possibility of combining and breaking apart the lines and getting TWO librarians is a non-trivial option on the table.

That's right. Increasing the number of librarians. Because we are so damned good at our work, that our university administration, our library dean, our faculty, and our students challenge us to be more, and to be better. And if that means we need more librarians to make that happen, and we can creatively figure out how to make that happen within budget, well then, we will.

Because that's what we do. We make things happen. We come up with creative solutions. And we fill the gaps that PhDs can't - more administrators should read up on the literature about the research skills of PhDs. I've got a literature review article forthcoming that provides quite a bit of evidence that our faculty, much as I love them, don't know quite as much about research skills as we assume they do. At my library we knew that anecdotally, because so many of our faculty come to our nifty research workshops targeted at showing faculty how they can leverage things like auto-alerts and RSS feeds for their own research. We know it because our librarians talk about what's going on at the reference desk, including noting what our faculty are asking for help with, and noting when the wording of an assignment is leading students astray, and we help faculty redesign it so students are better directed to the proper resources. We know it because our faculty are begging us to become involved in populating their courseware with research aids.

All with our 16 librarians and 12 staff to serve our almost-11,000 FTE constituents. And we're hoping to eventually make the ratio even more librarian-heavy -- not because we want to make librarians look important/needed/sexy, but because we have that much work to do. Because we have not exhausted developing the services our community needs. Because our librarians demonstrate their value every day, and we have some great ideas we would love to implement, but our current librarians are already full-up on the awesome meter.

Meeting and exceeding needs and expectations. With librarians.

The mind boggles.

I'll admit, I give a healthy dose of side-eye to any library that feels it can do without the higher-level work and creative energy of librarians. Computers - incredible as they are - can only do so much. Non-librarians may be good at their part of the world, but developing a library staffed by people without a broad understanding of information organization and theory, without a sense of the bigger picture of how the myriad pieces of a library work together, without any focus on the needs of your undergraduates who will become your graduate students and eventual faculty, is terribly short-sighted.

I don't disagree with Mr. Trzeciak's call for systemic change - quite the contrary. But I suppose I see librarians as integral to creating and maintaining that change while increasing the quality of our contributions - not standing in the way of it.

I don't know whose vision will be more widespread over the long-term, but I'm happy to be on this side of my library's walls, beside my colleagues and our students, while we wait to find out.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Library Administration: Necessary Evil or Necessary Advocate?

Poking my nosy nose into a mild kerfluffle between Jenica26 and @campbell_b, I landed smack in the middle of the greater debate on the evils of Administration. I jokingly (sort of) suggested that administration might be more appreciated if there were a wide walk-out, and library staff were left to live without the work administrators do.

Note: I don't take issue with folks who complain about bad administrators. I've known excellent ones, and I try to be a good mid-level manager myself, but I have been at the mercy of awful administrations, and there's little else that can make your professional life a living hell. I don't deny the existence of bad administrators.

What I do take issue with is the idea that library administration do nothing to add value to the library or to librarians' work-lives. Per Bryan's tweet to Jenica & me, "Walkout week? How about a few months? Staff will flail, adjust, move on. Try it. Maybe an innovation we need"

I don't doubt it will cause innovation - slack will be picked up, and people will try to figure out what needs doing and how. We're versatile creatures. What I do doubt is that the staff will be pleased about what gets added to their plates. In terms of academic libraries, the meetings and negotiations with university administrators-that-be to battle for funding dollars, providing oversight and leadership regarding the direction of the library - this is what a good library administrator does. A good administrator facilitates things so that the library staff can concentrate on their jobs.

How many reference and instruction librarians would be happy about leaving the desk and classroom to do more paperwork, have those negotiation meetings, pore over the budget, provide broader contexts for decision-making, and the various other non-patron-contact work that gets done in administrative chairs? Even Jenica notes that the more her plate gets filled with administrative work, the more she has to actively carve out space for librarian-like work. At a recent management council meeting, my own dean (who has developed an organizational culture I would be loathe to leave, and whcih I wish on everyone) celebrated that our University recognizes the good our library is doing - and lamented the necessary consequence that the impact of this is to increase her administrative responsibilities whcih pulls her further from the librarianship practice she loved.

At a certain point, and particularly as the library grows in size, services, and constituents, administrative duties begin to eclipse what we think of as traditional librarianship roles. And while some libraries have this to a lesser extent than others (based, I would posit, largely on size of institution, mission, and engagement level), I don't think it is a situation that can be entirely avoided. And so yes, library staff may adapt to having no administrators, and the pain wouldn't show in the short term - where the hurt comes in is over time with lack of leadership, lack of organizational clarity, lack of wider context for decision-making, and the like. Where the hurt comes in in the longer term is that all of the librarians who currently sing a song of never wanting to be management would be forced to take on those responsibilities, taking them away from the work they love and prefer.

Unhappy with management/administration? Become management and change it from the inside. Leave places with bad management, and make it clear why you are leaving - don't reward them with your hard work. (If enough people did this, such places would be forced to change. I believe this.) Talk to administrators and find out exactly what they do, how they spend their time, and how they facilitate the library's work.

Truly, do you know what your administrators do? Due to our transparent culture, I know that my dean's time is largely taken up by meetings with the Provost about budgetary and staffing issues; meeting with student development about some problem patrons and making policies more user-friendly; preparing materials to speak to the full faculty and the Faculty Senate about ongoing projects including the library's current collection review project; attending and leading library committee meetings such as IT Council, Management Council, and the electronic resources committee, among others; monthly meetings with department heads to ensure we are on track with our own projects and have the resources we need to accomplish them; chairing the campus-wide IT task force which is looking at revamping the current campus IT organization and infrastructure; attending state-wide (TennShare) and system-wide (UT/TBR) meetings around the state, where she provides input on our behalf on initiatives such as a possible courier service and more resource sharing and price-sharing agreements between UT-system libraries; being on the search committee for a new dean of the Graduate School; negotiating to keep a staff line or to convert it into graduate assistantships instead of losing it completely; meeting regularly with the architect and campus regulatory folks about our new building, in addition to the biweekly internal library building committee meetings; gathering and distributing data for the annual report, IPEDS, and for the accrediting reports for the individual department; attending after-hours university functions to represent the library to administrators, donors, students, and bigwigs; acting as our subject liaison and collection developer for Film Studies and for Library Science; going over budget figures regularly with our head of materials processing to see how money is spent, from whcih accounts, and by various university account breakdowns; working the circulation desk two weekends a semester; and much more.

That list only covers this semester, and I am certain I've left any number of time-consuming issues Theresa tackles regularly off the list. She is a more active dean than most in terms of also doing librarians-level duties such as liaison/collection development work and working the service desks. I will say that the reason I can concentrate on what needs doing in my own department in terms of staff development, training, re-imagining workflows and innovating in services is because she does all of that. Even spreading her to-do list around the fifteen librarians we have wouldn't be enough to cover it all, given that we are all active professionals both in terms of our librarianship at home and in the wider profession.

And so, I was thinking. If my dean walked out, would I be able to "flail, adjust, move on"? Flail, certainly. I work with fantastic people, so I have no doubt we would adjust to absorb those responsibilities. But it would have a devastating impact on our services, and I have no doubt that our staff would feel the pressure of that new time crunch. My colleagues and I pride ourselves on being advocates for resources and facilitators of improved workflows. And yep, I would indeed probably move on...in terms of leaving my position for one where I could actually do my job effectively.

Unless most library staff have significant problems with having too much time and not enough to do -- which I find unlikely in the current "we do less with more" environment -- I don't know that such a redistribution would be beneficial.

Perhaps there are some administrators folks might welcome doing an administrative walk-out. But I wouldn't assume that administrative duties at large are unnecessary to the running of a library. (I would also say that if your administrator could walk away for a few months and you wouldn't notice, think seriously about getting a new administrator.) A good administrator paves the way for librarians to do - and concentrate on - excellent work, as much as a bad one hinders it.

So tell me, how would you feel about, say, a four-month library administrator walk-out? Would it impact you much? Would you toss confetti, or go into panic mode? If you're feeling free enough to air it in public, say something in the comments.