Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Dangerous Ideas & Killer Questions

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending "Dangerous Ideas & Killer Questions," the final session of the Maryland Five Quarters program, a statewide, collaborative staff development effort. As the only student taking part anywhere in the state, I found myself observing, more than taking part. While I did jump on a few questions when I simply couldn't bite my tongue any harder, I was so aghast at some of the things I was hearing that I was shocked speechless. Rather than a direct reflection on the day and the process, there was a deeper issue that I am compelled to address. 
I am earning a degree in Library and Information Science. Nothing makes me want to drop the "Library" from that title and run screaming from the whole institution of libraries more than an afternoon spent rehashing old ideas packaged as innovation in a room full of practicing librarians.

I'm beginning to think that libraries are doomed. Not, as many claim, by market forces and the rise of readily-accessible information on the Internet, but by inexorable librarians who are so busy clinging to the sinking ship that they can't see the lush islands just off the starboard bow. We can reach the archipelago--but only if we start swimming now. And the sharks are hungry.

Any conversation of ideas--"dangerous" or not--in which I've taken part since beginning my relationship with Library-land has had a chorus of people saying "We can't do that; we've never done it that way before." If even half of the energy and innovation used to rephrase and reuse that statement could be applied to invent new ways of doing in libraries, libraries would be wildly exceeding expectations. Instead, library workers are so attached to keeping their safe little jobs in their safe little communities that they're deliberately obstructing progress. When a truly dangerous idea comes up, they get scared and self-censor that idea into oblivion within moments.

Here's a thought:

Life is scary. Suck it up and ACT.

Librarians have done great things, incredibly brave things. They've educated their communities, they've led political change, they've harbored some TRULY dangerous ideas, and they've only grown stronger for it.

Libraries are dealing with problems everywhere, and it hardly seems a secret that while they may win an occasional battle, they aren't yet winning the war. With a truly dynamic change, I am convinced the tide will turn, and that is one of the primary reasons I've chosen to pursue librarianship.

I can already hear the responses--that I'm too young, that I don't know what I'm talking about, that once I get into the "real world" my enthusiasm will tarnish, that I should shut up around my "elders and betters" who have worked in libraries for decades, that I have no leg to stand on before I've earned my MSLIS.

My response to those people is that it's often the newcomers in a field that make breakthroughs, if for no better reason than we don't know what rules we're breaking.

To that end, I'm forced to wonder why "library innovation" sessions are always so closed. We shouldn't be hiding away in a bunker, but instead should be inviting comments from doctors, artists, engineers, academics, and (heaven forbid) the actual communities that our libraries serve! Assuming that "we know better," simply because we work in libraries or hold the degree, is more than incredibly elitist: it's also incredibly short-sighted.

Change is good. Talking about change without doing anything? Not so good.

Try again. Fail early and often, and try something else. Shorten the timeframe of evaluation, and get rid of dead wood to make way for new growth.


  1. In brief, start trying things. The exact things will vary depending on the setting, but I see a lot of people doing a lot of hand-wringing, or trying to keep a low profile, and I don't think it's going to work in the long run. In terms of the things I'm excited about:
    1. Librarians need to brand themselves as co-learners, not experts--we can solve problems with people by being guides, not gatekeepers, but it means we have to commit to going "on safari."
    2. We need to leave the library more often than we do. It's true, there's vast quantities of information online, and much of it is available for free. Why aren't we doing "roving reference" in a local coffeeshop, hardware store, or public park?
    3. We need to start creating. Librarians could be editing wikipedia, coding websites, making YouTube videos, teaching people how to crochet (and yarnbomb), and so much more. Some awesome librarians are already doing that, and I recognize that others would like to be, and are fighting political climates that prevent them, but by and large I think librarians are still in a very reactionary mode. I want to be proactive, not reactive.

    Better question: What are *your* ideas?