I was invited to present a short talk for the 2016 ALCTS President’s Symposium, Re-envisioning “Technical Services” to Transform Libraries, and to expand on this in an ALCTS Webinar. This post follows the basic train of my remarks (as of 25 January 2017) but expands on a few points and has been updated to weave in ideas that came up in the discussion.
The last twenty years have been rough going for libraries. In the early 2000s, just as I was getting started in my own career, it looked like we were about to be wrecked by chronic staff shortages at just the same moment the world was making an enormous transition to using the internet as its primary publication system. MLIS programs started to recruit heavily, with an eye to building the next generation of librarians, and then the whole global economy tanked in 2008-2009, so libraries basically stopped hiring.
[I am consciously not pushing deeper on the complex set of social, economic, and political issues that are just one degree of remove from the market collapse that led to the Great Recession in 2008, and the development of the world wide web as publishing platform. I think those two things – recession and the public web – are sufficient for framing this discussion, even knowing there are additional factors that are exerting a lot of pressure on early career professionals, as well. Other factors are at least as important in a holistic sense, but they are also far beyond my ability to treat adequately in this talk, so I am begging your sympathy for focusing on the simpler, proximate causes that are within my reach, rather than venturing into territory where others are more qualified to comment. This was true when I first gave this talk in 2015, and even more so now, as we feel our way through the roles of American librarianship under a government whose executive branch and majority groups in Congress have adopted a number of proto-fascist stances and taken actions that threaten to undermine freedom of information and the economic bases of the library, archive, and museum professions. I have recorded my preliminary thoughts in this post: ###]
I will not dwell on this history now, and simply observe that 1) adapting the library to the internet age, 2) providing a safe path to retirement for our long-serving colleagues, and 3) providing a successful entry into the profession for our new colleagues are all necessary and all worthwhile. We have not had the resources to do all three, however. We have had no choice but to adapt to the internet simply to provide the services we ware obligated to provide, and we have to care for our colleagues who are finishing their careers out of simple decency and professional courtesy, over and above our legal obligations. And so, a lot of recent graduates from MLIS programs have been left un- or under-employed.
[I am refraining here from a sort of zero-based interrogation of library budgets and strategic priorities. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition that budgets are moral documents applies here, but they are political documents, as well and reflect all the compromises and boundaries that come with that. I gladly concede that libraries could and should revisit their budgets when they find that their spending and strategy are out of alignment, but I also recognize the limits that come along with doing that sort of deep re-evaluation legally and in real time. So, while the argument that libraries might have had additional options is viable and dear to my heart, I also recognize that there are structural reasons for the outcomes we have seen, and they can emerge from taking two positive and necessary actions, and abstaining from one positive but non-mandated action. I think this is a key lesson in management practice and pitfalls.]
I think this problem cuts deep in technical services, where apprenticeship is so crucial. We are basically an oral culture, one that transmits its lore by word and deed. As a preservation librarian, I can’t reach too far into my own stash of arcana without encountering handfuls of mold and bat guano, so I will spare you that gross pedantry, but I’m sure some of you know of the Paris Principles? Continuation orders? A Greenaway plan? CONSER and the mysteries of Authority Control? What do you think PDA stands for? These things are not common knowledge, even among recent library school graduates. They are esoteric arcana, a professional jargon that is but they are also a professional culture that develops over years of habituation.
Like all occult societies, technical services needs to be attentive to recruiting new members and finding charismatic leadership. For technical services, having this leadership means we need to develop a cadre of inspiring experts, not just competent managers. And for our libraries to thrive, technical services leaders need to bring a diverse set of skills and knowledge to bear so that a diverse set of materials can be made accessible in a variety of ways.
And we need to do these wonderful things quite soon, preferably without spending much money, which puts me in mind of the old joke about getting work done to exacting standards, quickly, and at very low cost…. just pick two.
Residency programs are one way to resolve this problem. The basic pattern from the National Digital Stewardship Residency was to take two very significant problems – relocation and term-limited jobs – and treat them as design constraints. Instead of trying to eliminate those problems or just giving in to despair, the NDSR assumes those as pre-conditions: everyone will come here and in a set amount of time, they will leave.
With that done, the residency focuses its limited resources on the remaining problems. In the NDSR’s case, there were 1) building a professional network and 2) developing the skills and knowledge required to care for digital collections.
That program was supported by IMLS and has its administrative home in the Library of Congress Office of Strategic Initiatives. The inaugural year brought 10 residents to Washington, DC., and last year, independent satellite programs commenced in New York City and here, in Boston. By then end of the three-year program, 40 residents will have passed through the program.
[Attendees at the symposium received a handout with links to information on each of the NDSR regional programs. I briefly summarized the way the residencies run, but you can read all about it here:
• DC/Library of Congress: http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/ndsr/
• The Boston Cohort: http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/ndsr_boston
• The New York Cohort: http://ndsr.nycdigital.org/]
Across these regions, there are a few critical features that each program has in common:
Geography: Residencies need proximity, so that people can interact and so that the experience is anchored in their memory. We have different conversations in person and we remember differently, more deeply, when experiences are set apart in time and place.
Cohort: Residents need a peer-level cohort to provide support, feedback, and encouragement. Your peers can give a different type of criticism and encouragement than your teachers, supervisors, or subordinates.
Mentors: Residents also need coaching and professional guidance. These are the same basic functions the cohort provides, but coming from a supervisor they have a different scope and intent, and can be heard and integrated into a professional identity in a different way.
Projects: The residency has to have a goal to make progress towards, but a key learning outcome is that residents shift from the academic objective of a completed assignment (or research product) to the professional objective of achieving milestones on the way towards an evolving goal, represented by various deliverables.
Education: Residents are not done being students, but they are done with the formal classroom. We want to help residents get used to a reflective practice and to help them make a professional shift to having a deep personal commitment to the work and integrity in doing it, but without enmeshing their self-esteem in the success, failure, or correctness of any particular piece of the work.
In the classroom, negative outcomes are very close to personal failures. They can be a sign of poor study skills or intellectual limits, although the discovery of entertaining diversions and poor pedagogy should not go unremarked, either. As a professional, though, negative outcomes signal areas for further education, investigation, or training to build competence, while positive outcomes signal an opportunity to codify and promote successful practices.
The regional NDSR programs, and even the region’s approach to the residency from year-to-year, allow for a lot of variation. The schedule and types of continuing education is one thing that has been in constant change. Sometimes this is weighted to the start of the residency, as a sort of immersion session. Other times, it is part of the ongoing residency year, with offerings targeted at addressing issues that arise in the course of the resident’s work.
The nature and scope of projects change, of course, and each year we get a new mix of people engaged. One of the most interesting features of the NDSR is the match-making between residents and hosts. Both sides have to apply and the program staff effectively curate a set of projects and people that show a diverse set of issues within, and approaches to, digital stewardship.
Some of the NDSR programs this year are testing the role of geography, with dispersed cohorts anchored in similar types of libraries — art, public broadcasting, and bio-diversity — so we may learn something important about the relative value of these different program aspects over the next few years, and that may help us develop better programs, programs that are easier to initiate and sustain, in the future.
And we should hope to be wrong here, and hope that there are options that are still successful, but less exclusive with lower barriers to entry. Ridding ourselves of assumptions about what constitutes an essential qualification is a good step towards diversity. In many ways, residency programs demand diversity: more learning takes place, and a more robust and useful professional network develops, when there are different projects to be done around a common theme, by people with common cause, but with different skills and knowledge.
[I didn’t elaborate this too much in the talks, but residencies are also a good way to test and stretch institutional culture. A term-limited resident can be given a sort of pass on prevailing institutional culture and restrictions. A key part of the NDSR is top-level management endorsement, for just this reason. We often say that NDSR is really a Trojan horse program designed to get organizations to open their doors and give them permission to change practices.]
This is why I think residencies provide rich ground for cultivating diversity, and why I think there is a special opportunity for all of us in ALCTS to be of good service. I want to banish the ugly idea that diversity is a distraction or an extra added obligation and I am wary to the idea that diversity is a way to do a kindness for the less fortunate, a good impulse that borders on condescension.
Instead, I insist that diversity is a clear cut professional obligation, a means to an end, which is to get the best people possible working on the problems that are them domain of that profession, and doing so with the fewest possible biases to cloud their judgement. That takes everybody. For libraries, the problem is how to get the largest number of people thinking and learning in the widest possible variety of ways:
Every reader their book, every book its reader.
If we are doing our basic job as librarians correctly, we will have a diverse workforce attending to diverse users of diverse collections.
My own operation, ReCAP, holds materials in over 400 languages and dozens of scripts. Think of the language skills and cultural competencies that were required to locate and collect those materials, for American libraries to pay international dealers to acquire them, to catalog them, to guide researchers in using and interpreting them. And this before I say anything about oral histories, archives of activist organizations, collections of cultural property, art and artifact collections, music scores and dance notations; the lists go on and on.
Eventually you need at least a couple universities-worth of people to make sense of all of this. Libraries within those universities have a distinctive role in institutional diversity because libraries have such a clear business need to bring together a plurality of skills and knowledge in one business unit. To me, it seems the most natural thing in the world that the library should be at the heart of institutional efforts for diversity, and of course I think the heart of the library is found in technical services.
So, to summarize, I think there is a tremendous potential for residencies in technical services. We’ve had a very successful effort with the National Digital Stewardship Residency, and I think that the model carries over well, substituting the skills and knowledge needed in Technical Services for Digital Stewardship. (NTSR; only one letter to change in the acronym!)
We need to do more than just fill jobs: we need a cadre of new, engaged, practitioners, who want to become experts and carry the work forward. To that end, even if you can’t launch a residency program tomorrow: I’ll conclude here with a challenge: start teaching. If you are an expert, heck, if you merely know what you are doing more days than not, and you are not training your successor, start now.