Libraries and Learning

Change and Agency

December 5, 2019

I’ve always had a prickly relationship with the word “change” when it comes to libraries. It has been invoked as both an existential threat – we had better change, and fast, or we’ll be irrelevant – and as an imperative – you must change, or you’re one of those stodgy people who stands in the way of progress. There have been entire consultancies devoted to explaining how library organizations should change. And it’s all over our literature. There are over 9,000 articles with that word in the title published since 1990 in the LISTA database. It ramped up especially during the first decade of the current century. The rate of increase has slowed down – just a little over a thousand new titles in the decade just coming to a close – though “innovation” is nudging ahead, used in very similar ways.

That institutionalization of change as a top-down demand responding to external threats and fear of obsolescence is both irritating and exhausting. Nobody likes to be heckled about how behind they are and how the things they’ve been doing (and which still have to be done) don’t count for much. Admittedly, there is a conservative tendency in libraries – not politically; we tend to be pretty lefty – but in terms of organizational culture. Unlike most academics, we often have to ask permission for even small things, we tend to make decisions by committee, and it’s not in our nature to claim credit. The library launches new programs. The library announces a change. The building has amazing powers. Some of us can be suspicious of new things and want to know if they will be sustainable, even if it’s a response to something we’re doing now that is clearly not sustainable. People who find this cautious pocket-veto culture frustrating tend to leave, or be driven out, depending on your point of view. Yet most librarians I know are not reluctant to think creatively and indulge in curiosity (why do we do this thing, exactly? Could we try? I wonder what would happen if?) without being ordered to “embrace change or else” by their boss.

I’m thinking about this after reading Audrey Watters’ feisty provocation, Ed-Tech Agitprop (I can’t wait for her book, Teaching Machines,* to come out) followed by the text of Donna Lanclos’ recent talk, The Anthropologist in the Machine. The notion of “change” or “innovation” is really only fraught when it’s institutionalized – either as an imperative driven by threat or as an irresistible force of forward momentum. Both approaches miss something really important.

We have always changed. We manage the unending parade of technical upgrades and migration, we switch up the syllabus, we try new things in the classroom. We notice something isn’t working or someone is left out, and we put our heads together to come up with a fix. We build alliances, and we quietly retire ones that aren’t working. We bring new people aboard and we greet new students every semester, a fresh chance to do things differently. A lot of these changes are invisible, either because they are new things we do continually in our teaching and reference work and as we address the budget cuts that keep coming or because we want to roll out things that have changed in a way that is as painless for our users as possible. A lot of our work is continually tinkering to make things better and try stuff out. A lot of it is maintenance, a lot of it is repair, some of it is reflection (though there’s precious little time for that) and some of it is considered resistance to things like the inaccessibility of research to the public, the price of textbooks that leaves too many students out, and invasions of privacy.

But when we’re ordered to change so we operate more like a start-up or be more like Google, we should recognize the library is already a “growing organism.” Change can be resistance to market assumptions, walls, and student surveillance framed as “success.” It’s innovation when we align the changes we make day-to-day with values that matter. Standing up for what libraries are and should be is revolutionary enough these days.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.