Alchemical Thoughts

Webinars your bosses make you attend (or please tell me something new)

Posted on: October 28, 2009

I am honestly not sure what to make of this. This webinar, "'Big Challenges (and Opportunities) for Academic Libraries" (see the link here for some details) was something our director pretty much made us watch recently. I honestly expected a lot more given that a reason our director was making us watch it was as a prelude to upcoming work on strategic planning. I was not impressed by the content, and at times I found it a little condescending. Some of the (supposedly) revolutionary ideas they presented were things we have been doing already for years. Even when the boss managed to get through on the phone line to ask a question, asking the "now what?" (after we have done all that) question, we did not get a clear answer. The article by Walton (see citation below), which was the basis of the seminar, was not that much better.

One of my colleagues, who is a recent hire, commented that much of the presentation and article was a "fear" presentation, namely one of those gloom and doom presentations where they speculate about the fall of the library. And there is enough in the article to show that a lot of administrators, including Walton, contrary to his claims, who would not miss the library as we know it were it close tomorrow. Walton may claim he is in touch with libraries, but he is a consortium administrator. He has not been in the trenches for a while. So when he asks a question such as "is a great academic library based primarily in a great collection?" then answers that access is more important than ownership and does not address materials other than to reduce books and print, I have to wonder. Because where I currently work, there is nothing more embarrassing than having a student ask if we have books on X topic only to have to turn them away because we either do not have them (a very likely scenario for certain topics) or we have it as an e-book, in which case they look at you as if you just insulted their parentage (this happens fairly often too, and it will likely keep on happening as we increase electronic holdings in favor of print. Not a choice I really agree with, but I don't make that decision). Walton seems to agree with the assessment from other administrators that "books, except entertainment reading, were eventually going away" (page 90 in the article).And this is just one example. There is a lot in this presentation that seems alarmist and at times a bit overgeneralizing.

For the McCombs segment of the presentation, I just wanted to go down her list and say, "we do that, we do that, we do that other thing, that thing over there did not work," so on. I found it to be nothing more than restatements of the obvious. Allow to use some examples (quotations are from her presentation):

  • "Created the 24/7 experience." This has been suggested in our campus a few times. It is just not going to happen. Unless there is a major hiring spree of extra staff to keep the library open, security to keep it safe, additional measures to lock down parts of the building, and so on, not happening. Those things cost money for one (something that McCombs did not mention anywhere in the presentation), and while some members of our administration like the idea (mostly because they do not have to stay late hours), in reality, they are not about to cough up funds or resources to make it happen. We don't do this literally, but we get close given our hours, plus the many resources on our website that are online 24/7.
  • "Develop specific and unique connections with student life." This is one of the reasons my position was created: Outreach Librarian. I am constantly seeking ways to develop those specific and unique connections with student life. From maintaining relationships with campus groups and students to implementing, administering, and maintaining most of the library's 2.0 initiatives, I can say we do that already. Tell me what's next, don't just tell me something I know already. Yes, we do that.
  • "Seen as innovative technology leaders." It must be nice when your campus (SMU in her case) has the resources to build an information commons or a student multimedia center. We barely managed to convert a conference room into a small practice presentation room for students to use. With significant effort and push by our instruction librarian, we finally got a hands-on teaching classroom for library instruction, a room that we do have to share with at least two other campus organizations (instructional design and interactive television) as part of the Faustian deal. And we had to fight for those things pretty much every step of the way, and let's not even add that the library has no control over a substantial amount of its space. We are working on this, but not easy.
  • "Strong faculty support." With a few exceptions, this is pretty much non-existent. And it is not for a lack of effort on our part. Our director has put a lot of thought and effort into implementing a librarian liaison program for academic departments. Our librarians strive to work with faculty to meet their needs in various ways, and very often, we are met with derision, indifference (which seems to be the attitude of choice), and/or insults (I have been called incompetent a few times by them, for instance). When I hear that "strong faculty support" is some panacea, I just want to know how do you overcome their overall disrespectful attitudes for openers. Don't just tell me you need to have "strong faculty support." Give me specific steps to build it, or how to work around things when it is lacking. Not everyone works in the same utopian campus where faculty all fawn over the library. Lacking, but to be honest, not our fault.
  • "Close relationship with central technology support services." Considering that we cannot even get our campus IT people to even make a phone call when they are doing some upgrade to the network or computer systems, I don't think this one is coming any time soon either. I could go on and rant about the many ways IT treats the library as an after thought or a bother, but I have more I need to write about. Lacking, but again, not our fault (communication and common courtesy are a two-way street. This is another thing that I often do not hear from many of these bright-eyed speakers).
  • "Special Collections involved with faculty for both programming and research support." Our Archivist has been hard at work at this, considering that she has pretty much had to build Special Collections and Archives from the ground up. I think this recent success of hers illustrates very well how our archives department is involved. Yes, we do that.
  • "Connections with the administrative community." To an extent, this is part of my job as well since I do a lot of the PR work for the library, so I strive to keep the administrative community informed. Our director spends a lot of time working with administrators as well. Yes, we do that.  
  • "Do not shy away from the big assignments." Oh really? Our librarians work on various campus committees, and we have done work in things as big as accreditation. A few of the librarians, including myself, were on various committees dealing with the accreditation process. Yes, we do that
  • "Volunteer." Yes. We do that too
  • "Create networks of advocacy." Again, part of my job for one, especially in dealing with students. Something our instruction librarian does with her students. Something the archivist does with potential clients, faculty, and campus. So does our director. Yes, we do that
  • "Be available to represent the university in any number of forums." To the extent this is possible, yes, we do that
  • "DO NOT WHINE." I may vent, but I do not whine. I, along with colleagues, put my money where my mouth is. I just wish others would do the same. Expressing frustration over a lack that, more often than not, you have no control over, is not whining. Give me your resources, your information commons, and your very supportive faculty, and I will build you castles. I can only work with what I have. Yes, we do (or not do) this too

There are other items in McCombs list, but there is only so much I can take of the condescending tone, the underlying attitude that if you are not doing those things, then there must be something wrong with our library, or you fall short somehow. I can attest the ways we literally bust our behinds to serve our academic community with little resources, often with ungrateful support (if any), and we still get very positive reviews on things like LibQual+. So please, tell me something new. Oh, and for the love of your sky fairy of choice, we are not Starbucks (no matter how many coffee shops you want to replace libraries).

Even Mendoza, who represented a community college, did not tell me much new, and she added to the alarmist tone. Her presentation in terms of suggestions was pretty much fairly similar to McCombs.

So again, I am not sure what to make of this. Maybe I am just not the audience for this presentation since I happen to be pretty well read when it comes to the LIS literature as well as being familiar with the various reports cited like ECAR and OCLC. In this day and age, are there really libraries out there that need to be told this kind of thing? In a way, this was not too different than the times when my school district, back in the days when I was a school teacher, decided to have some teacher in-service day and inflict some "motivational" speaker (who very often had not been in a classroom for ages or not at all) to come tell us how to run our classrooms. So much for change. 

Anyhow, my two cents for what little they may be worth.

Oh, almost forgot, the citation for Walton's article:

Walton, Robert, "'Big' Challenges (and Opportunities) for Academic Libraries." Texas Library Journal (Fall 2009): 88-90.

Update note (10/29/09): Here is a link to the Jim Neal "New Directions" (link to YouTube video) speech that is mentioned in the webinar. Unless you are really curious, don't bother. It's an almost hour and half soporific presentation by an administrator from a large campus (read very well funded) telling the rest of us (who are nowhere near as well funded) what to do. I inflicted it on myself, and I could certainly write a whole post just replying to it, but to be honest, I am a bit tired of this whole affair. Some of us have to actually work for a living.  


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