April 1, 2009

Some provocative statements

A little while back the Taiga Forum: A Community of AULs and ADs released their TAIGA 2009 Provocative Statements. There's been a fair bit of commentary around the web, most not that impressed.

A bit late to the party as usual, I've decided to add a bit to the not-so-impressed pile.

For the most part, their statements seem meant almost not to be taken seriously. They are pokes-in-the-eye. Unsupported and unsupportable....and yet, I've done a lot of the same things in my own ten years series, I've even said some of the same things (of course, a few years earlier). So the idea that you can be provocative and a little far out shouldn't bother me, right?

What bothers me is the tone. It's destructive and negative rather than cautionary or even visionary. It's "look at me, look at what a guru I am" In fact it's part of a strain we see these days of people trying to out "apocalyptic guru" each other. One person says, "newspapers and old media are dead" and the next says, "I think newspapers and old media are deader than you think they are!" "No, I think they're deader!" "No, I do!" And so on.

So, "Libraries must change!" and "No, I think libraries must change more than you do!" The Chicken Little impulse is natural, but not constructive.

Frankly, it's not hard to picture them all sitting around a table in dark sunglasses, black berets and smoking Gitanes, discussing Don Tapscott or Chris Anderson instead of Sartre or Camus.

So, in the same spirit of making ridiculous, unsupportable, poke-in-the-eye provocative statements, I feel the need to make some about them too:

  1. I have trouble remembering their name. I always think targa or parka.

  2. The document is in PDF format only. This seems oddly old fashioned.

  3. What's with all the ellipses? Really, you didn't need them and it makes the document look funny.

  4. The web site is so 2001. It looks like it was cobbled together in a weekend using FrontPage.

  5. There's no blog or online forum to promote discussion, not even a page that allows comments. This is very web 1.0, not what you'd expect of provocative visionaries.

  6. Not even Twitter. How can you be provocative without Twitter?

  7. "faciliate" is just funny. How are you going to get librarians to take you seriously if you can't spell.
    "An online social network is maintained by the Taiga Forum to faciliate continuing discussion of pertinent issues throughout the year. Membership in the online social network is open to all AULs and ADs who wish to participate. To receive an invitation to join the network, please fill out the contact form on this web page."

  8. The whole top-down, non-crowdsourced, walled-garden approach is kind of old-fashioned (see text of previous item).

  9. They changed their minds on their best point.

  10. The provocative statements are actually the Provocateurs preferred future.

In the complementary spirit of unsupported and unsupportable commentary, let's take a look at the individual statements.

1. ... all librarians will be expected to take personal responsibility for their own professional development; each of us will evolve or die. Budget pressures will force administrators to confront the "psychological shadow" cast by tenure and pseudo-tenure that has inhibited them from performing meaningful evaluations and taking necessary personnel actions. Librarians who do not produce will be reassigned or fired.
This is definitely provocative.

However, in my opinion, any organization that refuses to play any role in supporting the professional and career development of it's staff is a bad organization. Any organization, especially one with an academic mission, that behaves like this isn't "provocative." It's dysfunctional. Why so confrontational? Should we expect better? Shouldn't anyone who works in a knowledge industry expect better? Who do these people take their management lessons from? Donald Trump?

Yes, libraries have personnel issues, tenure can be a problem, transitioning people to new skill sets and career paths is a challenge. Yes, it's called leadership.

Yes, yes, I know that the Provocateurs aren't actually advocating running libraries this way, that it's all only a thought experiment. But it's all so gleeful and gosh-wow that it's hard not to extrapolate that this would be their current preference.

2. ... collection development as we now know it will cease to exist as selection of library materials will be entirely patron-initiated. Ownership of materials will be limited to what is actively used. The only collection development activities involving librarians will be competition over special collections and archives.
Just-in-time collection development versus just-in-case. Haven't we been discussing this for years?

In a nearly 100% online collection environment, it's entirely possible that we won't actually own anything, but will only access things on a pay-per-use basis, especially for new e-only monographs. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine all the commercial journal publishers disappearing in five years and that a pay-per-use model for all that content makes any sense for us or them.

On the third hand, as we see progress towards an Open Access paradigm, it's hard to see how this point is relevant to that material at all, or that they even considered libraries' role in curating, organizing and managing those scholarly resources at all. And I guess they've completely written off IRs.

The dig at the end about gladiator-like competition makes a lot of sense in the human resources model the Provocateurs seem to favour in #1.

3. ... Google will meet virtually all information needs for both students and researchers. Publishers will use Google as a portal to an increasing array of content and services that disintermediate libraries. All bibliographic data, excepting what libraries create for local special collections, will be produced and consumed at the network level.
In the PDF version of the document, this provocative statement is actually crossed out, as if they changed their minds and no longer thought this was a provocative statement.

Oddly, I actually think this provocative statement is the best of the lot. It implies a very large question: What do we think is worth paying for?

The dominance of discovery at the network level will put A&I database vendors under the gun, forcing them to innovate like crazy or die, something we're already seeing. The opportunity for us to to be able to use the money from cancelled A&I services to fund other aspects of the transformation we need to survive, particularly to our physical spaces.

Provocative? Sure. Hardly a new idea. I wrote about it two years ago and I'm sure others before me.

4. ... knowledge management will be identified as a critical need on campus and will be defined much more broadly than libraries have defined it. The front door for all information inquiries will be at the university level. Libraries will have a small information service role.
Frankly, I can never get myself to finish reading a sentence that has the term "knowledge management" in it.

I'm not sure what's provocative about this one. Are there any libraries that are currently the knowledge management hub of their campuses, meeting all possible information needs? Is this a role that makes sense in the future. Maybe if I had a clearer idea of what they meant by this statement.

5. ... libraries will have given up on the "outreach librarian" model after faculty persistently show no interest in it. Successful libraries will have identified shared goals with teaching faculty and adapted themselves to work at the intersection of librarianship, information technology and instructional technology.
I sort of understand this one. The point seems to be that faculty are no where near as interested in us as we are in them. This always has been and always will be true.

"Outreach Librarian model" is used oddly here. I would think that part of reaching out to the campus community is identifying shared goals with teaching faculty. I'm not sure that the role of outreach librarian is generally so narrowly defined as to exclude what the statement is implying we will embrace.

If faculty show no interest in "outreach", what makes them think that faculty will show any interest in identifying "shared goals" and working with us at the "intersection of librarianship, information technology and instructional technology."

But is it provocative to suggest that the best way to engage faculty is by getting involved in their educational activities? The best way to do outreach is via curriculum integration. A kind of broader form of integrating into the curriculum via educational technology is exactly what this statement is suggesting.

6. ... libraries will provide no in-person services. All services (reference, circulation, instruction, etc.) will be unmediated and supported by technology.
Yes, this one is genuinely provocative.

It's interesting that this sort of assumes that libraries will have no role on campus in providing study, collaborative or casual spaces. And that all the successful Learning Commons projects will just fold up and disappear and no new ones will be initiated.

If students are in our physical spaces, they may actually want to talk to somebody about something at some point. I can kind of see myself (after all, I'll only be 51 in five years), running away from students in the library so that I'm not tempted to perform some service for them unmediated by technology.

It also assumes that pretty well all aspects higher education will be mediated by technology. Which is possible but hardly likely in five years.

And I assume that Information Literacy will also disappear, as I will begin running away from profs and ignoring their emails just in case they want me to do some unmediated instruction or consultation with their students.

7. ... libraries will have abandoned the hybrid model to focus exclusively on electronic collections, with limited investments in managing shared print archives. Local unique collections will be funded only by donor contributions.
I'm not sure that anyone would think of this as particularly provocative anymore. The idea that libraries will abandon print completely one day has been around for awhile, particularly in the science library community. Will most or all libraries completely abandon print as soon as five years? Probably not. Probably not even ten years, although by then we might only be spending one percent or less of our budgets on print.

However, the idea that local unique collections would only be funded by donour contributions is absurd, destructive and actually kind of misses the point. If newspapers can find part of their survival strategy in aligning themselves to their communities with an intensely local focus, then so should academic libraries. It seems to me that local unique collections can provide something that Google can't and that intensely local focus might be something that we do think is actually worth spending money on. And yes, I'm sure we'll digitize our intensely local print collections.

8. ... library buildings will no longer house collections and will become campus community centers that function as part of the student services sector. Campus business offices will manage license and acquisition of digital content. These changes will lead campus administrators to align libraries with the administrative rather than the academic side of the organization.
Ah, now I understand #6.

But isn't playing video games with students and serving them coffee a service that's unmediated by technology? Oh, sorry, can't play Wii games with them, only MMORPGs.

I would suggest that what they're talking about is also no longer a library, so I guess I'm not working there anymore anyways. Which leads to understanding #s 1, 2, 5 and 7. Wal-Martization is the term we're looking for, the race to the bottom hollowing out the mission of all of higher education.

In fact, I think it's possible to see this as the uber-provocative statement, the one from which all the others follow. The loss of the academic library's academic mission leads to treating our staff like Wal-Mart treats theirs and to viewing our licensed and purchased content like Wal-Mart views the products they stock.

Which makes it odd to put at #8. It probably should have been #1.

And I surely can't imagine that this would be anyone's preferred outcome.

9. ... the library community will insist on a better return on investment for membership organizations (e.g., CRL, DLF, CNI, SPARC, ARL, ALA). All collaboration of significance will be centered around either individual entrepreneurial libraries (e.g., HathiTrust, OLE), or regional consortia.
This one's fine, although I'm not sure why they would have considered it even mildly controversial rather than full-blown provocative. Using the word "all" rather than "most" or "much of" does seem rather strong, but again not provocative.

10. ... 20% of the ARL library directors will have retired. University administrators will see that librarians do not have the skills they need and will hire leaders from other parts of the academy, leading both to a realignment of the library within the university and to the decline of the library profession.
Since these statements are coming from AULs & ADs, I find it odd that they don't seem to think that they are qualified to make the next step and become directors. Or that anyone on their campuses will think that they are. Although the skills that librarians do have are probably not best suited for running what's left of the library the in the student centre model anyways, so maybe it's just as well.

It's interesting. The sum total of the provocative statements seems to be that we'll all be spending our time serving coffee to students in the next five years as pretty well every other library function will either completely disappear or be taken over by someone else. It seems that they're despairing that we'll lose virtually any sort of genuine, meaningful, professional role that libraries or librarians can have in the academic mission of the university.

Now, what they provocatively suggest may come true. The Provocateurs may even think it's inevitable or desirable, although I hope not. I do think that it would have been possible to have worded most of their statements differently, in a way that suggests a way forward. I don't think it's useful to approach the future from such a defeatist perspective, that some of their provocative statements could actually show some, you know, that thing we expect of library leaders like AULs and ADs. Oh yeah, leadership.

I also find it interesting how much contempt and disdain for their fellow library workers oozes out of the various "provocative statements."

(I like to think that the Future of Academic Libraries presentation I did in 2008 is nicely sprinkled with provocative statements. Take a look.)

(BTW, just to reiterate, this whole screed is intended in the spirit of provocativity. No harm, no foul. Right?)

(Also, it may very well be no coincidence that it's published on April 1.)


Mita said...

My initial reaction was "Oh - you folks write down ten sentences and then sit back and expect everyone else to do the heavy work in refuting it. That's hardly fair."

John Dupuis said...

It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

I'd actually sort of forgotten about wanting to fisk the provocative statements until the whole PMR thing came up. Since commenting in detail on his very numerous posts wasn't that practical and needling the Provocateurs was like shooting fish in a barrel, well, it was an easy choice.

Mita said...

Understood. I didn't agree with pmr's starting premises (how again is it librarians fault that faculty signed their copyright away?) but at least he was making an honest effort of trying to understand the library world.

I'm sure the folks at Taiga also had put in some thought into their statements. I just wish they they had shared some of the reasons why they said the things they did.

Dorothea said...

BRAVO. Well done, John.

And Mita, agreed on all counts on PMR. :)

John Dupuis said...


Re: PMR.

I found it refreshing that although he started with the assumption that we're all useless and dead, he did seem willing to at least listen and learn. Hopefully, we can listen and learn from him as well and see where we can improve.

At the end of the day, there's a lot of mutual misunderstanding between scientists and librarians. It's hard to know which is more of an issue: them not understanding us or us not understanding them.

stevenb said...

Ok John, you gave us some of the feedback we were looking for. When the folks who put these statements together do so, there's no way of knowing how people will react. It resonates with some. Others have a pretty negative reaction. You have to be open to any possibility.

Not even everyone involved agrees whether they are provocative or not. But the spirit is to question what's ahead, and to offer something that creates some conversation about the possibilities. Clearly, in your opinion, the statements don't live up to the expectations of the audience.

What I find a bit disturbing though is that the commentary is as much an attack on the people as the ideas. I'm not sure where the "let's take these self-important bastards down a notch" attitude in your post and the comments is coming from. You and others may think that's deserved. Knowing the folks who work on this and what they're trying to accomplish, I have to disagree.

Guess we'll have to do a better job the next time we create some provocative statements - and make sure we don't discuss anything that you've already written about.

John Dupuis said...

Hi Stevenb, thanks for the comment.

My tone is harsh, yes, but frankly that's the reaction I had. So on that level your provocation was very successful.

My tone is also derisive and that's probably not completely called for but again, the tone of the statements was also scathing and derisive of libraries and librarians.

As for "let's take these self-important bastards down a notch," I'll cop to that. It's not pretty but it's honest and I apologize if I crossed the line. However, the statements aren't pretty either but they are your group's honest expression.

As for whether the takedown is deserved, well, I quote the statements: "Librarians who do not produce will be reassigned or fired." "The only collection development activities involving librarians will be competition over special collections and archives." "University administrators will see
that librarians do not have the skills they need"

To that I'll add, if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Walt expressed very nicely in his post -- I think I did achieve some small part of what Jon Stewart is able to do.

Suggestions for next time? Try something a little more open and a little more broadly based. Provoke to inspire change, not despair.

But really I mean it when I say no harm, no foul. Let start from scratch next time and share a beer if we're ever at the same conference.

stevenb said...

I did forget to mention in my comment that I think you were absolutely correct that TAIGA failed to take advantage of the tools and technologies to allow for commenting and conversation.

I believe when this was done in 2006 the idea was that it would be a topic for discussion in libraries and at library organization meetings - not a web discussion. But this is 2009 and it's an oversight to not have easy ways for librarians to comment and create a conversation. So if they ever do this again, that is a definite area for improvement.

Yes, the statements are harsh, but I don't think there is an intent to demean librarians. Some are presented as worse case scenarios - a future that could be but that we certainly want to avoid. The idea, I believe, is to engage librarians in a "how do we avoid this future" discussion. Perhaps the statements just don't express that sentiment well enough.

But I would certainly hope that rather than divide library administators from their colleagues, we'd use these statements as a way to share our perspectives and figure out together how we make our academic libraries sustainable. I think that's the intent for inspiring change.

Starting over sounds fine to me - as does a conversation over a beer.

Anonymous said...

totally agree with you John, esp on the tone of these statements; much prefer your take on this whole issue...just my .02 as someone who works in the trenches and is tired of this rather pedantic and superior tone from above...

Joseph Kraus said...

I know John already knows about this, but others following this thread might enjoy reading the Blyberg, Greenhill and Trainor statements -- http://www.blyberg.net/2009/04/03/the-darien-statements-on-the-library-and-librarians/

John Dupuis said...

Yeah, Joe. They're great.

As I noted in FF somewhere, the Darien statements are CC licensed so we can all just republish and remix them ourselves (with attribution, of course). I'll do that for sure this weekend or next week. Spreading the word and restating our commitment to those values is something that we should probably do more often.

Anonymous said...

I was a library AD for six years, and I can certify that your take on #1 was on target. Library administrators really DO fantasize about how awesome it would be if they could just fire people and ignore all that pesky tenure stuff. Any administrator who says otherwise is lying.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Anon. I suspected as much.