June 6, 2007

Crawford, Walt. Balanced libraries: Thoughts on continuity and change. Cites and Insights (Lulu.com), 2007. 247pp.

The library literature. I don't know about you, but those three words strike fear in my heart. When I think library literature, the word that comes to mind is, well, turgid. (And to be fair, most bodies of official scholarly literature are just as turgid, if not more so, so I'm not picking on us any more than any other discipline.) Books and articles that are basically a struggle to get through, dull, overlong, full of jargon. Just awful. For all the great ideas that can be encapsulated in the articles, the execution can often leave a bit to be desired. And the articles I've inflicted on the world are no different, I'm sure. So, what's to be done? Engage the biblioblogosphere, of course! Lively and diverse, full of opinion and debate, mostly written in a conversational, accessible style. The experimental rigor might not be there, but that's more than made up for by diversity, immediacy and accessibility.

On the other hand, wouldn't it be nice to have a shining example of a book that is well written and with ambitious, almost scholarly, intentions, well thought out arguments, deeply explored ideas, intellectually rigorous debate that seriously engages the most important professional topics of the day? Impossible, you say. I say, I'm holding that very book right here in my hands and it's Walt Crawford's Balanced libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change. And the issue it is engaging is perhaps the most important facing our profession these days: how to embrace new technological possibilities while still maintaining our core values as libraries and librarians while not going completely crazy in the process. And how does Crawford's fare in this endeavor? Pretty darn good, if you ask me. There's a lot of very profound wisdom in this book, and I would recommend it very seriously to any library professional, especially to those that are most directly engaged in building technology solutions for libraries.

There's a lot of good stuff in this book that I want to talk about, but first let's talk a little about the author for those of you who may not know about him. Walt Crawford is the author of numerous other books (including the excellent First Have Something to Say, which I've also read and which was influential in my blogging career), the important library ezine Cites & Insights and blog Walt at Random. A sage and sane voice in the biblioblogosphere, one that many have found inspiring.

And now, Balanced Libraries.

One of the best things about this book was that it provoked an awful lot of internal debates as I was reading it. You know how when you're reading a book and suddenly you're stopped in your tracks by something? It doesn't matter if you agree or disagree (and I certainly didn't agree with everything in Crawford's book), it makes you think, it makes you start a kind of virtual discussion with the author. You find yourself saying, "But, what if..." or "You know, that's not how I think that would happen..." or "Right on, and what about..." It takes a long time to read a book like that, because so much of your time is spent digesting what you've read. It often took me a day or two in between chapters to process. Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics, which I was reading more or less simultaneously, was the same.

So, what were those debates, what were the topics I endlessly worked over with my imaginary Walt Crawford? Well, let's take a look at the book more or less chapter by chapter and see what I came up with.

Chapter 1 (A Question of Balance) is the introduction. Crawford defines balance as "change with continuity," "expansion over replacement," and "continuous improvement over transformation," which is a definition I can live with. I guess you could say my first virtual debate was here, struggling with my own definition of balance. Like Crawford, I think I favour gradual, incremental change most of the time, but I do have a bit of the revolutionary in me as well and certainly this section helped me come to my own definition, even if it's a bit less than ideally "balanced." But it's a good way to start the book, to make sure we're more or less on the same wave length.

Chapter 2 (Patrons and the Library) really resonated with me. Are the "patrons always right?" Do we do what ever they want, no matter what, even if it might be outside our core mission? To what degree to we "pander" to patrons' every whim and to what degree do we use our professional judgment to decide what's best for them? A difficult question, one that I don't have the answer for -- and this this chapter provoked a lot of introspection.

Chapter 4 (Existing Collections and Services) struck a bit of a off note for me. In the discussion about existing collections there's quite a long section that romanticizes traditional book browsing on the shelves. I'm not sure the serendipity you get from browsing on the shelves is better than the kind of serendipity a good online system (with tags and recommendation systems, for example) can give you. I appreciate and use both kinds of discovery but I think that they can and should be profoundly complementary.

Chapter 6 (Balancing Generations) treats that hoary old proposition: kids today are going to hell in a hand basket/old fogies are so out of touch. Crawford struck a good balance here, talking about balancing the needs of younger vs. older patrons and the strengths of more experienced staff vs. new grads. Being a newer librarian who's not so young, I found a lot to like in this chapter, even if I sometimes seemed to find myself in both camps at once.

Chapter 7 (Pushing Back: Balance vs. Resistance) has a discussion of the dangers of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt that got me thinking. It seems that there's a challenge here, how to find a model for life-long contribution to the profession for everybody, not just the tech-savviest. Ultimately, we all get a little duller around the cutting edge (some less than others, some earlier than others), so how do we harness the wisdom and experience of those that have been-there-done-that?

Chapters 8 (Naming and Shaming) and 9 (Improving and Extending Services) were perhaps the most provocative and compelling in the book. They give the compelling and controversial story of the Library 2.0 wars, from the True Believers to the doubters to the mushy middlers. Crawford's portrayal of many of the L2 advocates is considerably less than flattering, to the point where I found myself shaking my head and remembering why I mostly stayed on the sidelines for the debate. On the other hand, Chapter 9 is an amazing exposition of perhaps what L2 is really about. I often found myself nodding my head in vigorous agreement, thinking "Gee, that's cool" or "Maybe I should try that!" The contrast between the two chapters is telling: in one librarians sound shrill and a bit mean, in the other we sound open minded, progressive and brilliant. Chapters 10 through 13 really just expand on the possibilities for embracing balanced change begun in chapter 9.

Chapters 14 (Balanced Librarians) and 15 (Change and Continuity) form a kind of extended conclusion for the book. Chapter 14 challenges us as professionals to take it easy, to use our time and energy wisely, to pace ourselves but at the same time to stop and think, to focus our concentration and really contemplate our situation. Chapter 15 brings it all together, challenging us to once again think deeply about what is worth keeping and what needs to be changed. As Crawford closes, "Whatever names you adopt, whatever tools wind up suiting your needs, I hope these thoughts will help you find a balance of continuity and change." (p. 229)

Well, you get the idea. Every chapter will make you think.

Another really interesting thing about this book was how it advanced the form of scholarship. Here's a self-published book with very serious intentions, not lightweight at all, which mostly referenced blogs in the bibliography. I find that really interesting. A book that's about how librarians should engage the most important issues in their professional practice and it's mostly propelled by bloggers and not by reams of articles in the official scholarly journals. By my quick count, 151/187, or about 80% of the items in the bibliography are blog posts. And he makes us sound pretty good too. And I'm not saying that because my blog appears three times in the bibliography. For the most past, Crawford showcases the best writing and the best thinking out there among the liblogs (except for Chapter 8, mentioned above, but even that showcases some real passion too); we are committed and engaged and thinking about the issues. If you are a liblogger and your colleagues are a bit skeptical about the the worth of what you are doing, show them this book. What we do, if we do it well, is worthy for our tenure files, for our professional CV's. Our work on our blogs should be counted the same as any one else's contributions in traditional media based on its intrinsic quality not its format or place of publication. Thanks to Crawford, we have an example of what we are capable of presented in a somewhat more traditional format and written by someone whose contributions to the field cannot be easily dismissed. We appreciate the support.

But enough of me. Go buy the book. One for yourself and one for your library's collection.


waltc said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review! I'm delighted, obviously.

Some day we must pursue the issue of complementary browsing, where I suspect (but am not sure) we agree more than we disagree.

John Dupuis said...

You're welcome.

We probably are more alike than different on browsing, and to be fair you were mostly quoting another source in that section so you might not have phrased it in the same way.

Oddly, personally I am a huge fan of bookstore browsing and hardly ever buy anything online. On the other hand, I read a lot of reviews of books I'd like to read that never show up on the book shelves around here...