Library Adolescence. (Or: how can we avoid growing up?)

Increasingly I see more people, organisations or ideas struggling with the transition between adolescence and adulthood. There is something brilliant about them in the first place - something which means they become successful enough to need to grow up at all. Then the process of growing up either dilutes, or sometimes eliminates entirely, the very factor that brought them success.

We all know it happens with consumer products, where two guys in a basement somewhere set out to change the world with an ethical product, and then it becomes so huge they get bought up by the very corporations they set out to provide an alternative to.

It appears to be happening with Twitter -  to quote Alexandra Samuel in the Harvard Business Review: "When Twitter burst on the scene, it was on the strength of an API (application programming interface) that made it extremely easy for developers to create a wide range of user experiences and tools. Twitter was lego rather than destination: a way for people to build something expansive rather than color within the lines." But last friday they announced they were ending all that (or most of it), instructing developers to stop building new consumer-oriented Twitter client applications. They got too big to be open. They had to formalise things to ensure control of something that had become too valuable to be casual about.

in libraries

It happens locally all the time, too, in our work places. The really bright, switched on, enthusiastic library staff - the ones who absolutely LOVE libraries, who really GET what the mission is whilst accepting that the way we implement this is changing all the time; the ones who are amazing with the patrons - pretty soon get promoted away from the front-line, so end up spending far less time (or no time at all) dealing with the people (for whom libraries exist, after all).

What I'm really interested in, is the grass roots movements in libraries, and how they can cling on to what makes them great when they grow up into fully fledged library services. It seems there's a lot of individuals or groups who are making things happen on their own, rather than waiting for the Great Library Machine to lumber in to action and give them top-down instructions and go-ahead.

When I was in Cambridge for the #LAC11 conference, the whole afternoon was given over to presentations on these kinds of initiatives - 23 things programmes, teach-meets, library presence at the fresher's fair, Open Libraries. Projects which people decided to get done, and which were run (to a greater or lesser extent) informally, without people having big meetings with minute-takers, often without budgets being involved - in short, without all the trappings of micro-managed organisation that prevent an idea from being dynamic and agile. A lot of these initiatives went really well, which means they'll be repeated, and expanded, and officially sanctioned - which means there'll be minutes, maybe some money involved, and basically they will be held to account a lot more. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can prevent the kind of innovation and quick-response to new ideas which made them work the first time around.

the shining example

The shining example of what can be achieved when you decide to take some action is surely Voices for the Library. The majority of people reading this will know who they are already, but for those who don't: this is a campaign group made up of librarians all of whom have proper jobs, but who come together in their own time (often via social media) and have achieved extraordinary success in a very short space of time. If you've read a newspaper article about libraries, chances are you may have seen a quote from at least once VftL member. You may even have seen them on the 10 o'clock news. They've muscled their way in to the library narrative, and speak for us where previously we weremute and unrepresented, like a someone standing trial without a lawyer.

They have done this by being flexible, proactive, dynamic, and aggressive. But of course, the whole point is they had to come together and form something new, because the existing channels weren't getting the job done. They had to move outside the usual library environment and set up their own suburb to achieve, because only then were they unburdened by the usual restraints. Even now, their success has led to some compromise - they have sponsorship and plenty of celebrity support, which means they can't say anything completely outrageous (not that they'd necessarily want to) and their members probably have to self-censor a little more even when they're 'off duty' as VftL and just speaking for themselves - plus Phil Bradley has had to stop being involved because of a potential conflict of interests with his CILIP Vice-Presidency. The great thing about that, of course, is that he's bringing some of the forward-thinking dynamism that VftL have thrived on, to the massive, multi-million pound operation that is the Chartered Institute.

the big question

The big question is, how do we combine power and authority, with agility and malleability? How do we become more like a flock of birds, who are capable of the same dynamism and adaptability when they are flying with 3000 of their peers, as they are when flying solo? How do we become adults without losing the ideals, ideas, and rebellion of our adolescence?

so what's the big answer?

I really wish I knew - I suspect it has a lot to do with bravery, being willing to try something and fail, and being able to listen and understand really well. Being brave - doing something you know might not work - gets harder and harder the bigger the organisation, because more and more people are stakeholders in your success, and more and more people will know about your failures. But there's evidence that bravery and innovation can work - CILIP seem much more gutsy and more responsive under the current regime, and it's working so far; Andy Priestner is in a position to implement new and intimidating (to some) ideas at Cambridge, and does so, successfully. People like Buffy Hamilton and David Lee King seem to be getting it done on their own terms in the US, which is inspiring.

I suspect a lot of library-innovation success is about empowerment - librarians empowered to make decisions without endless checking for approval, and in turn empowering their staff to take control of their own area and revel in autonomy.

Anyone else have a big answer to the big question?

- thewikiman

a new bit added later

I wrote this post a while ago and haven't had time to proof it, add the links etc so only got around to publishing it today. I've been thinking about it since, and the more I consider it the more I think a horizontal hierarchy is the key to this issue. If you have a traditional pyramid structure there are just too many levels of seniority to escalate issues to, to ever really get anything done. A flatter system allows for more people to share more of the power - and because no one person (even a genius, visionary leader) can expect to know about or to be able to facilitate EVERYTHING, perhaps that's the key. Distributed power equals agility?

One of the main strengths of LISNPN (already, and even more so if and when it realises its potential) is that the face-to-face meet-up events are run by people from the regions in which they take place - there is no top-down instruction or go-ahead happening there, people just do stuff under the LISNPN umbrella. That's easy for the network because it's an informal network, there's not a lot of money involved in it, the stakes are low. But maybe big organisations need to try and have that aspect of self-organising cells that work independently towards the same ideals, in order to be able to incorporate all the great new ideas and initiatives which library staff are capable of.

Also, make sure you read Andy's comment below, it's ace. :)

Libraries at Cambridge Event

Last week I attended the Libraries@Cambridge event, and it was excellent. Laura and I were due to present on the Echo Chamber together but, in what is rapidly becoming known as The Curse of the Echo Chamber*, once again one of us ran into problems - this time Laura had Flu so I had to go solo. The keynote was from Alex Wade, Director of Scholarly Communications at Microsoft, no less. He designed the search functionality in Windows 7, calling on his expertise in information retrieval, acquired during his time as a librarian. This is an interesting use of a librarian's skills, and another example of the myriad career paths potentially available to the Info Pro. The thing which most caught my eye in his presentation was Academic Search, a free service from Microsoft, which at the moment is in beta. Currently heavy on the Computer Science side of things but soon to be expanded to cover more subjects, it nicely allows the user to navigate to scholarly papers via various different means. It's a very attractive interface, and easy to use: it shows that presenting data in a more visual way really serves a purpose beyond nice aesthetics - here's a screengrab, showing Alfred V. Aho at the centre, and all of his co-authors around him:

Picture of academic search from Microsoft, screen-grab

If you click on the lines between the authors it shows you how many publications they've co-authored and takes you to them if you want to drill deeper, and if you click on any of the co-authors then the whole matrix re-centres on them. It looks really useful and is perhaps indicative of what 3.0 generation library catalogues could usefully do to make navigation easier for users.

Alex had to rush his presentation as he had more to say than he had time to say it in - he literally skipped 20 or 30 slides. This baffled me somewhat - we all knew well in advance how long we had to talk, so why not tailor the presentation to fit the time? No one HAS to say yes to an invitation to present - if you don't have enough time to prepare properly, time your talk etc, why agree to do it? I was up late the night before, timing my talk, finding it was 3 or 4 minutes too long, and then cutting bits out and timing it again until it was right - because I was honoured to be there, and didn't want to disrespect the audience, the organisers and my fellow presenters by over-running. Turns out I'm quite high-horse-ish about running to time...

Next up was me. I have to say it was pretty amazing to be doing a plenary session in front of 250 people at such a venerable institution - one to which I owe my very existence, as my parents met there. I refered to this in my introduction with a 'thank you for having me' gag, and the way the audience responded completely relaxed me - I knew it was going to be fine after that, despite not knowing the bits Laura normally does as well as my own sections, and having added new bits and a re-structure for this presentation. I've never spoken to that many people at once before, and I've certainly never used a screen that big - it was literally about the size of my house!

Picture of a really, really big screen

Although I don't really get nervous when I present, I do worry about the technical side of things - I need to know, in advance, that everything is working, or I get stressed. I was really glad I asked that we check everything was okay before the conference began, because both times that Alex removed his laptop so we could hook up the 'general' one most of the rest of us were using, it didn't like the Projector and took ages to display on the big screen. Thankfully there was a break before my talk during which we could iron this stuff out.

Having got up at 4:45am I was worried I'd be tired, but adrenalin and the four-shot coffee I'd had at the station earlier carried me through. It was great to do this presentation to a crowd that was really mixed in terms of age, seniority and so on, and who weren't all familiar with what I was talking about - sometimes I fear Laura and I preach to the converted ABOUT preaching to the converted. The talk went well, I remembered everything I wanted to say (I think) and it really was far better not using notes than the New Professionals Information Days where I did use notes. People did a fantastic job of tweeting the presentation - you can read the twapperkeeper archive here - and really got the points across well, which is good as I didn't have time to amplify this event myself by setting up any auto-tweets.

People were really kind in what they said to me afterwards, and there was lots of positive feedback. It was particularly good to hear a lot of people say they found the presentation fresh and engaging even though they'd read about it all on this blog, on twitter etc, in the past. Because I really believe in the echo chamber idea and its importance, I was really pleased that many of the afternoon sessions referred back to it - I think the concept stuck. As ever, if you're interested in reading more about echolib, there is a Netvibes page with all sorts of information in one place.

The updated Prezi used on the day is below - this is restructured and improved from previous efforts, so check it out even if you're familiar with the subject matter (and of course feel free to embed it on your own site):

Escaping the echo-chamber on Prezi

There was break-out sessions after this - I chose to go to one which contained a useful talk by Tim Padfield on copyright in Special Collections, very relevant to my current work with the LIFE-SHARE Project. At lunch time I talked to the Graduate Trainees who seem to be really switched on and forward thinking about the library profession - and also went outside to look at a tree my Dad fell out of when he was a choir-boy in Cambridge...

After lunch there was about a million mini-presentations around the theme of working together in Cambridge (by and large, the more senior the presenter, the less likely they were to run to time...). I particularly enjoyed Katie Birkwood (@Girlinthe)'s talk about Open Libraries in which she made excellent use of Prezi (and an exclamation point therein, in particular) and talked very entertainingly; and the Graduate Trainees' presentation; and the summary of the TeachMeet movement which began via a speculative tweet or blog post fuelled by wine. (The movement did, not the summary.) There was excellent use of theatre in a very good talk about the Fresher's Fair (and the funniest use of the phrase 'unexplained chasm' I'd ever heard) from the twinkly-eyed and very laid-back Huw Jones. I also very much enjoyed Andy Priestner's look back at Cam23, and some random aerobics (with kissing noises) he made us do in the middle of the session!

There was a theme running through a lot of these sessions - or rather two related themes. Firstly, many of these projects and movements came about because someone just decided to 'do it' - I've talked before about how much I think we all can just achieve things ourselves now, often via the web2 tools available to us, rather than waiting for someone more senior, more influential, or cleverer to do it for us. People just tried to make things happen, and they did, and the things that resulted were a success, and will be repeated. Which brings us to the second theme, which is of the trouble with formalisation. A lot of these projects were and are informally run - there aren't people taking minutes, or even necessarily people having meetings. People just communicate via modern channels, show up on the day and get things done. This malleable model really seems to achieve a lot - it allows people the freedom to act quickly and creatively (and is in stark contrast to the bureaucracy CILIP often gets bogged down in, for example, and it is by no means just CILIP who suffers from this). Voices for the Library seems to be the ultimate exponent of this modern approach, but it's happening all over the place. The problem is, it often becomes quite hard to keep informal when things start working really well. Up-scaling and informality do not often go hand-in-hand. Particularly when money becomes involved, the accountability that results often hampers the very creative endeavour which the funds are rewarding. It's an interesting problem, and not one for which I have a ready solution.

It did put me in mind of Bethan Ruddock's outstanding presentation at ILI2010, though. In her talk, entitled Do Libraries Have a Future? - you can see a transcript of it on her blog - Bethan says this about a LinkedIn discussion on the fragmentation of the library profession:

"I found ‘supergroups’ notion intriguing – the idea of self-selecting groups that can constitute themselves according to what they want to accomplish. What I found surprising, however, was the fact that no-one in the discussion explicitly acknowledged that this is already happening. It’s happening right there in the discussion, as disparate professionals are coming together to discuss problems and issues that are common to all.

I’m fortunate to be involved with another couple of these self-selecting, self-forming groups. The first is LISNPN – the LIS new professionals’ network. Set up by Ned Potter, this is a virtual space where hundreds of new – and not-so-new! – information professionals are gathering to talk, to collaborate, to share ideas and experiences. The network is independent – it’s not affiliated with any of the prof organisations, it’s run by new professionals, for new professionals. It’s not sector-specific, it’s not country-specific. Most of the users are from the UK, but on one random page of users I also saw members from the US, Canada, Germany, Serbia, the Netherlands, Finland and Nigeria, highlighting the truly international nature of some of the issues facing information professionals.

LISNPN has recently graduated from a purely virtual network to involving some face-to-face events. Theses have been social events so far, organised by members. There’s been no approval to get, no committee to go through, no worries over the target audience – just an idea of ‘wouldn’t it be nice to meet-up for a drink and a chat? Let’s do it! Everyone welcome!’.

Does this sound like a profession that’s fragmenting? To me it sounds like a profession that is embracing its differences, and finding its commonalities."

I love the message of hope in this! And I think it is relevant to the formalisation debate, too. Perhaps the answer is that we need both informal and formal groups, as both serve their purposes and allow their opposite to function more successfully, too.

Anyway, it was a great day. It was great fun to meet so many people I'd had online interaction with previously, in the flesh. Thank you so much to Andy Priestner, who lobbied the organising committee to have two New Professionals no one had heard of to do a plenary session at a big event; I'm really sorry Laura couldn't be there, but I had a great time. My only regret is that Andy's spectacular Star Wars related Echo Chamber incident (this post went viral) happened too late to be included in the presentation - I think it's my favourite echolib escape EVER. :)

There are some more blog posts about the day, from Annie Johnson, from Katie Birkwood, from Libby Tilley, and from Sarah Stamford - let me know if I've missed any.

- thewikiman

*Okay, no one is calling it that. Just me.