You can stand me up at the gates of hell

Scene:  Deck lounge, overlooking the Oswego River, drinks flowing, librarians milling about after a long day of discussing document delivery and the future of libraries, including a brief presentation by two collections librarians on the pilot project being undertaken by a small group of SUNY libraries to attempt to do cooperative collection development.

“…so they’re only going to buy 5 copies of any book, and expect that we’ll all just share them.  It’s completely bogus.”
“That’s ludicrous.  What idiot thought that up?”

At home, I refer to this as a “Jenica Loses Her Temper” moment.  Because the ‘idiot’ who thought that up was me, with the able support and collaboration of thirteen other SUNY collections librarians, at the behest of our Directors.  And I happened to be standing not five feet away from the men who were so derisively condemning our efforts.

So I introduced myself, and told them what was really going on.  A group of like libraries, composed of SUNY four-year comprehensive institutions, are volunteering to attempt to reduce duplication among our collections by not buying more than five copies of any one title, and when a sixth copy is requested by one of these libraries, collections managers will work with the selector to choose another book that is less widely held, unless the selector can identify a pressing local need for an additional copy (like, reserves, or core curricular needs, etc.). In theory, this should broaden the number of titles available for our users to borrow, and therefore meet a broader range of information needs without unduly burdening any one budget, campus, or user.  It’s entirely voluntary, it’s non-binding, and it’s a pilot.

The questions I answered in my brief sojourn in Hostile Village:

  • Why do I have to justify my request for a 6th copy? Why don’t you?  Shouldn’t we all, as selectors and collectors, be justifying every single one of our selections?  You should, if you’re collecting thoughtfully, have a justification and reason for each and every book you propose to spend state dollars on.
  • So if we want to buy the most recent Pulitzer-prize winning works, or the new edition of a dictionary, we have to do it before five other people do, in order to have a copy in our library? No. Local needs will always trump the project’s limits, and any good collection manager will know and express that clearly.  Some things make sense to have at every campus, and some things don’t.  Our professional judgement is going to guide us as to which is which.
  • Isn’t it a bad idea to involve the SUNY Central administration in local purchasing decisions? Yes, it is, which is why no one suggested that we would do that.  This is pure extrapolation of your fears onto our project.  We’re not formal, we’re not ‘official’, and we’re not creating a new level of bureaucracy that takes power out of the hands of the local institutions.
  • How are we going to implement this on my campus? You’ll have to ask your own collection librarian; I have no intention of telling anyone else how to run their library.  If your campus chooses to participate, you’ll have to figure out the workflow that best suits your needs.
  • Don’t you think it’s unreasonable to ask a librarian to do more collection development work? No, I don’t.  I think collection development has been a sideline at small colleges for too long, seen as an add-on to other ‘more important’ duties.  I think that asking librarians to do careful and thoughtful and intentional selection of materials is not only logical but also necessary to build strong collections that meet the evolving needs of our users.
  • Who put you in charge? No one.  I’m not in charge.  No one’s in charge.  I volunteered to report on the group’s efforts, and we’re having different people and campuses host our meetings, so we make that librarian be the unofficial chair for the meeting.  It changes every 3 months.  No one charged me with a task other than my director who told me to investigate this idea and report back to her.  Which I am happy to do.

It became clear to me as this conversation progressed that the main naysayers were men in their 50’s and 60’s who were irritated by change.  Whether that’s a natural inclination, an age-based position, or a personal choice, I cannot say, but it’s representative of many of my experiences as a young woman in this profession.  I felt that I was being painted as an uppity young thing making what they saw as unreasonable demands without what they perceived to be the authority to do so.

And that pisses me off, frankly.

A group of dedicated and energized librarians drove a total of 48 hours to come together in the center of our very large state to discuss a forward-looking initiative that we will participate on a voluntary basis dependent on campus leadership’s support.  And we’re being condemned for that effort — before we’ve even begun — by a subset of our peers based on their own fear of change, dislike of being directed in their work, and generally poor information gathered through hearsay and innuendo rather than conversations with people actually involved.  (And they were doing it loudly!  In public!  There’s an arrogance there that really bothers me, as well.  If you’re going to denounce something in public, you might consider being aware of all the facts, and also looking around a bit to see who might be listening.) They didn’t have the real facts, they didn’t have the whole truth, and they weren’t terribly interested in learning it.  They were getting more pleasure out of grumbling and condemning than they were out of listening or learning, and that became very clear very quickly.  Once our conversation reached a polite stopping place, and began to drift over to complaints about the SUNY budget process, I apologized for the interruption, thanked them for listening, and excused myself.  And bought a stiff drink.

Despite that moment of challenge, I received a dozen compliments on the brief presentation Jennifer Smathers and I gave at the conference, and answered a dozen more interested and enthusiastic questions about what we’re trying to accomplish.  I’m planning to let that support and interest carry me over the frustration of those three men kicking mud on my new toy.  The thing I won’t forget about that moment of challenge, though, is that the profession hasn’t changed.  Not yet.  Not really.  We’re changing it, slowly and surely through our actions, ideas, and innovations, but the job’s not done.  Fear still rules.  Tradition still has power. The heels of stubbornness are still dug in.  We are scared of a future which looks to be different than the present.  And I’m going to get smacked down a few hundred more times before that’s not true anymore.

I’m not giving up, though.  I’ll keep waiting for the sea change, critical mass, tipping point, what have you.  And untill then I’ll keep standing back up and saying “It was my idea. Can I answer some of your questions about it?”

16 thoughts on “You can stand me up at the gates of hell

  1. T Scott

    Very frustrating indeed — without knowing any of the local issues, it certainly seems like a sane idea to me, in a time when library budgets are being squeezed more and more. The logistics of this kind of collection sharing ought to be pretty easy to manage by now and one would think that the opportunity to maximize one’s budget by implementing this kind of a pilot project would be a no-brainer. But then, I’m just a 52 year old academic medical library director and we just don’t think the same way our general academic counterparts do.

    Keep at it. You’ll outlast ’em.

  2. Wilfred Drew

    Go Jenica, Go!!!! Thew only quibble I have is the stereotyping you have done but that is minor. I would love to know who they were. I probably have exchanged words with them before. I have heard the same objections from others in the past concerning collection development and other ideas. They seem to be Cooperative Collection Development monies dispensed through the 3Rs. We have to justify how that is spent every year.

  3. Jenica

    Bill, I know the stereotyping is unfair — all stereotyping is. But today, I’m feeling it pretty strongly. I’ll get over it and be more reasonable later.

    And, yes, you know ’em. 🙂

  4. Logan

    The down side to the whole “be the guy” mentality. Personally, I faced some of this when I worked with older librarians. I guess us “young things” have to stick together.

  5. Jenica

    You are absolutely right, Logan. This is the cost of being out front. But I’m still not backing down — I’m gonna keep on with my “be the guy” mantra. Someone has to take that first step… else we’ll all sit at a bar and bitch about change, and that just doesn’t sound like any fun at all.

    Also, someone in the last three days pointed out that we should figure out what the new average age of the SUNYLA exec board is. 🙂

  6. Anna

    The next time someone at SUNY complains that this won’t work, tell them to STFU and talk to the folks in the Orbis Cascade Alliance. 50+ libraries in several states, public & private, 2- and 4-year, undergraduate & graduate, all doing collaborative collection development by simply making local decisions based on consortial holdings.

    I don’t know how many times I didn’t buy a mathematics graduate textbook because it was already held by at least two other Alliance institutions, we didn’t have the program need, and it wouldn’t get used, anyway (if past circulation stats mean anything). No one minded, and anyone could get available books from other institutions within a few days of making the request.

  7. Jenica

    Thank you, Anna. I wasn’t aware of the Orbis Cascade Alliance, and I’m absolutely going to check it out. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do, and we’ve been looking for examples of successful initiatives (other than OhioLink, which is just intimidating). We know we have to start small, but EVERYTHING starts small, and maybe we can make this one get big, y’know?

  8. Brandi Tuttle

    It still surprises me how threatened/unnerved/hostile people can get over any change. Espcially one they don’t really understand and don’t really care to understand. Yes, I agree..how irritating and frustrating. Two cheers to you to not letting them get you or the pilot project off the ground.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with the thoughts that collection development has been sidelined. Making decisions based on real homework is intimidating but necessary. This project may or may not be the solution, but at least it’s got people thinking and talking about it. That’s definitely a start!

  9. Mark

    Language is a dangerous thing and I appreciate your reply to Bill Drew. Seeing as I know you, I knew what you meant. And Logan’s probably a great person but the language used in that comment also irks me and seeing as I do not think I know Logan I currently have no desire to do so.

    This is possibly as big a stereotyping as either Logan’s or your use of “older” but my view is more that the issues are primarily with librarians who have been librarians for a lot longer and not necessarily due to their age. Of course, having been librarians for longer pretty much makes them older but they are not equivalent. Now, I do not mean to imply everyone who has been a librarian for a while fits this mold; just that it is length of service vs. age.

    As one older than you, Jenica, and clearly older than Logan, I frequently bridle at these kinds of things. But as one who is (hopefully) about to have his 1st professional position out of library school–and for all of my fellow students “of age”–I must protest that we are not change averse. In fact, some of us may just be more qualified to advocate for change with “the elders” as we have more [life] experience and have more in common [in some ways] with “the elders.”

    Personally, I hope to team up with my peers your age and younger–I go to school with people younger than my daughter–to take on some of these issues. I guess my lengthy point is that some of us new(er) librarians “of age” often are put off by such talk when we should be working together for the needed changes. But we aren’t likely to do so when people use language loosely because we feel like we are being lumped in with people with who we have little in common professionally. I (we) may be the same age, or nearly, as some of these people but we are NOT those people and we deserve a chance.

  10. Jenica

    Mark, I absolutely understand your point, and I look forward to a long career of working with like-minded librarians of all ages, races, classes, backgrounds, pick a group and I’d like to collaborate with it.

    But. You’re knee-jerking here just as much as I am. I know you’re on one side of this “older librarians” line, but you have to understand that I’m on the other. My ideas are sidelined or ignored because “you’re young. You like change. That’s not a good enough reason to do X” even if I have provided other reasons for X. My suggestions are ignored because “you’re young and you understand the social web. Not everyone likes that, you know.” Yes, I do know. I’m not an idiot. And my affection and advocacy for new ideas and technologies do, sometimes, have something to do with my age — but most often because of my culture, not just the years on the calendar. Logan and I joke about being called ‘young things’ because that’s what they call us. And it creates a feeling of needing to stick together. So I get just as angry as you do, but for the opposite reason. I’m tired of all the damned nonsense-y pushback because I’m “too young to understand”. Screw that shit. I understand just fine, thank you. I happen to think that pushback is WRONG, is all.

    The unfortunate side effect of all of this is that I’ve not met a single ‘young’ librarian who gives the same resistant, angry, uncooperative responses to change and new ideas that I get from older librarians. There’s a generational culture shift at work there, in many cases. It’s a culture gap that makes stereotyping easy on both sides of the line. We all get hit with it in different ways.

    You’re an exception, in my experience. So is Bill Drew, and a couple of my colleagues. When people like you and them become more of a norm for your generation, then I’ll jump up and down and cheer. In public. Loudly. Without hesitation.

    But my frustrated experience is not that pleasant. And so I’m not going to back down from what I know to be true, no matter how distasteful it is. Because it’s real, in my experience, and ignoring it or only working with librarians who are ‘exceptions’ won’t do anything to make it go away, make people aware of the problem, or help us to get past it.

    And don’t even get me started on the sexism I face from 60 year old men as a young woman in academia. Just don’t.

  11. Bill Drew

    I just read all of the comments. I am full of hope for the future of libraries and librarians because of people like you and Logan. However, be sure to not limit yourself to those who are just “like minded” as has been suggested. That is what the group of older librarians you are talking about has done. Keep in contact with those that agree with you and with those that actively or passively oppose you. As far as pushing back, there is nothing wrong with doing that. I do not understand why so many older librarians are afraid of change. I actively seek it out and consider one of the reasons why I am not planning on retiring any time soon. Keep the conversation going.

  12. Jenica

    Thanks, Jason.

    Bill, you are again correct. In my dream world, where working with others is easy and challenge-free, we’d all be of like minds. But in that scenario, what pushes us to learn and to grow and to change and to evolve? Not much, if you all agree all the time. So these challenges serve a purpose, don’t they? Life’s not always easy, and that’s a good thing.

    I’m still going to gravitate to the like-minded, though. The welcome’s warmer. 🙂

  13. thedonofpages

    This is a good story, and I have seen both sides. Too many dumb management moves and you are suspicious of everything management sends you. There is the fringe effect: when you are far from headquarters, they are as faceless as a computer. Headquarters has little idea of the daily problems you face, even though you submit detailed reports. Your buddies work with you, so they understand and are sympathetic. Rumors fly on winged feet, but sensible complete details are boring, and promulgate slowly. If the rumor isn’t flying, somehow it will get embellished so it will fly. Yes, the guys in your story weren’t interested, otherwise they would have been in the audience and heard you speak. You did the right thing to pause, then inform the guys of the part they didn’t hear. A face to face answering the guy’s concerns is far more effective than a detailed directive. In Managementspeak, you were thankful for the opportunity to address their concerns, correct? In humans, the important part was the pause, while you finish with the mental image of pounding the guys into mush with a sledgehammer. The reason humans use stereotypes is it serves to give rough guidance when lacking more detailed information. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks; We grow too soon old and too late smart (Deutchs). They just don’t understand like we do. About your collection policy, I agree, as if that matters.

  14. Jenica

    With a few weeks of distance, my takeaway from all of this is that change is hard for people, and that is something I’m going to have to continue to be aware of and responsive to if I want to continue to advocate for important change. Gender issues, generational issues, or questions about who’s buying the drinks aside, that’s the bottom line.

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