Friday, January 20, 2012

...What it is ain't exactly clear...

“All of Harvard Library staff have just effectively been fired” — A Twitter “tweet” from Harvard library staff member Abby Thompson during a recent “town hall” meeting at Harvard.
This morning I read an email message from a colleague in our Music library that contained a number of links to reports on a meeting at Harvard that may have implications for us here in the Twin Cities as well. One of those links led me to a blog (“Feral Librarian”) by Chris Bourg, Assistant University Librarian (AUL) for Public Services for the Stanford University Libraries which does a good job of summarizing all the other reports. Chris titled her blog entry “What’s happening at Harvard." Here's a good chunk of what she wrote:

The twitterspere (at least my corner of it) was all abuzz today about the Harvard Library Town Hall meetings (hashtag #hlth). Harvard Libraries have been in a “transition” for some time now, and it appears that the meetings today were intended to provide library staff with some updated information on the transition. Judging from the tweets, it was not particularly effective — more questions than answers apparently.

I have absolutely no insider knowledge at all, but as far as I can tell from trying to keep up with the tweets all day:

• An initial tweet claiming “All of Harvard Library staff have just effectively been fired” was re-tweeted often, as was a Google+ post written by a former Harvard University Library staff member.
• Later tweets clarified that no staff were laid off … today. Layoffs are imminent, however, and more details will be available next month.
• The layoffs will be in areas that are “Shared Services” — such as technical services, preservation, and access services; not collection development, research librarians, or special collections.
• Some jobs will be eliminated, some restructured, some new jobs created.
• For restructured and new jobs, internal candidates will be solicited first.
• All library staff are being encouraged to fill out employee profiles (with skills, interests and a CV/resume), which will factor into decisions about restructuring (and presumably who stays and who goes, and where the stayers go …). It looks like the deadline for completing profiles is only 1 month away, and workshops on how to do so are already full.
• The general sentiment on twitter is that the senior administrators at Harvard Libraries handled this very poorly — that the town hall meetings produced more questions than answers. Rather than serving to keep staff informed, they served primarily to created significant anxiety.
• Plenty of folks are worried that as Harvard goes, so go other academic libraries – in other words, if massive layoffs can happen at Harvard (with its huge endowments), then no academic library is safe.
• An official Harvard Library Transition Update was posted publicly on January 17. More official Harvard Library Transition stuff on the Harvard University News site.
• Excellent first-hand accounts and analyses from @mpeachy8 and @oodja.

I find this interesting on a couple of fronts. First, as in the case of the Wikipedia blackout, I think this gives us more than an inkling of the power social media plays in immediate communication and, because it is so immediate, to perhaps distort that communication in ways that heighten an event in terms of scope or impact. (Distort is maybe not the correct word; perhaps amplify or accentuate are better words to describe the phenomenon.) Folks in the news business (and other corporate endeavors) are hired to monitor social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, so it should come as no surprise that this story of the Harvard meetings was picked up by the Harvard Crimson, the Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Library Journal. And once the news is picked up by these organizations and placed online experience shows that the story will pulse around the world, amplified along the way by other tweets, re-tweets, postings, and commentary.

My second interest in the story relates to how it may play out here within our university library system. The colleague who sent me the original email ended his note by saying “A cautionary tale to keep in mind as we embark on our own reorg.” Yes, we are in the midst of our own reorganization. To quote from our staff web site: “In August 2011, the Libraries launched an Organization Review process to assess the optimal organizational structure to support strategic directions and goals.... This process comes in the context of a period of reduced resources and critical position vacancies resulting from a University Retirement Incentive Option program.” The initial word is that our unit, Archives and Special Collections, will not be impacted much (if at all) by the redeployment. But other units will. The principles that will guide our organizational design work are these (again from the staff web site):

Efforts to define the Libraries’ organization should aspire to:
1. Support the development of robust services and operations outlined in the Libraries’ Strategic Plan. This will be accomplished in large measure through the coalescing of expertise, resources, and leadership in areas of future focus.

2. Sustain foundational operations of enduring value, preserving and extending gains of efficiency and effectiveness achieved in current processes.

3. Balance capacity demands in supporting foundational and strategic functions through prioritization based on:
a. Alignment with the University’s priorities -- are we providing the services that strongly support the institution’s mission and directions?;
b. Value to Libraries’ user populations -- a relative measure of impact+benefit/cost;
c. Trends -- where is the value proposition going moving forward; and
d. Opportunity potential -- ventures that hold promise for gaining institutional competitive advantage, achieving excellence, expanding access, and controlling or reducing costs.

4. Invest in staff training and development, providing ample opportunities for professional growth into functional areas of new or expanded interest.

5. Prepare for strengthened commitments to collaborative models, where there is clear opportunity to achieve levels of integration, scale, and economy not otherwise possible.

If you can make your way through the “administrative speak” the plan takes its cue from the libraries’ strategic directions and goals statement, with emphasis on such actions as “coalescing expertise;” maintaining (and perhaps) growing efficient and effective operations; cost/benefit analysis relative to priorities, trends, and potential; developing staff; and collaborating wherever and whenever possible.

So, I’m drawn again to Bob Dylan’s lyrics, this time from the last stanza of “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

The line it is drawn | The curse it is cast | The slow one now | Will later be fast | As the present now | Will later be past | The order is | Rapidly fadin' | And the first one now | Will later be last | For the times they are a-changin'.

Where is the line? And what is the curse? Who are the slow and the fast, the first and the last? Is the line a “lean and mean” staff, “just in time” delivery of service, or “doing more with less?” Is the curse financial pressure, a changing technological landscape, or an invasion into library-land of MBA bred financial types and for-profit vendors? Are the slow the labor unions (e.g. look what happened with Wisconsin and collective bargaining) and the fast capitalist entrepreneurs or bleeding edge library administrators? Like the Harvard meetings, maybe my post is more questions than answers. I find all of this maybe a bit more than unsettling, even though I sit in the relative security of a continuous appointment and endowed curatorship in special collections. Or maybe I'm just echoing another lyric:

Paranoia strikes deep | Into your life it will creep | It starts when you're always afraid | You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound | Everybody look what's going down

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