Thursday, May 30, 2013

30th Year Reflections/46: Spies

“Smiley is one of the truly great creations of post-war English literature: a nondescript man of late middle age who confounds every stereotype of the spy as man of action; a man, as le Carré has it, with ‘a past so complex that he himself could not remember all the enemies he might have made’, whose weapons are a beady eye and a profound understanding of human fallibility. As Sherlock Holmes is to the world of detection, so George Smiley is to the world of espionage.” — Mick Brown, The Telegraph

There are a few authors I cannot get enough of, whose works I come back to again and again, reading everything in streaks, long evenings, and entire weekends swallowed up by their writing. John le Carré (aka David Cornwell) is one such author and I am currently on a le Carré binge. Over the past few weeks I’ve read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; watched the television version starring Sir Alec Guinness and the movie version starring Gary Oldman (multiple times). At the moment I’m reading The Honourable Schoolboy. Smiley’s People awaits. After that, who knows? Why the abiding interest? And what is the professional connection?

At a point in my career when I was looking for a change (and probably sometime shortly after the 9/11 attacks), I applied for a librarian position at the Central Intelligence Agency. I submitted an online application but never heard back from Langley. I have no knowledge of why this was so and let the matter rest. Having talked to a couple of colleagues who worked for, or had contact with, the agency I had no romanticized or movie-inspired thoughts of what the job might entail. I was realistic in my appraisal. I believed—and still do—that I had the necessary skill set to perform well at the position. But I will never know, not having the opportunity.

This brings me, then, to the pen of le Carré and the world of George Smiley, “whose weapons are a beady eye and a profound understanding of human fallibility.” Or has Holmes once said to Watson in a corrective tone of voice: “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” This sense of observation became apparent during a time previously mentioned in these posts: my study of the Iranian Revolution during 1979 as part of a collegiate senior seminar in history; a time in which we of the seminar knew the revolutionary players so well that we could predict with a high degree of accuracy what would happen next. It was this experience, and others, that drew me to the world of Smiley and “the Circus” (le Carré slang for MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service of the United Kingdom). This attraction had less to do with the act of spying, or the apparatus connected with those acts—lamplighters, scalphunters, or wranglers, to use Cornwellian jargon—and more with the hard grind of research; the analysis that made such acts of espionage possible. It was this sometimes grim, often demanding investigative work that drew me to the Smiley character, le Carré’s stories, and the world of academic libraries.

Here, then, is the professional connection: a delight in the difficult yet rewarding work of study, examination, and exploration. And an enjoyment in being of service to others engaged in similar work.

Early in The Honourable Schoolboy, as Smiley and his small circle of confidants attempt to reconstruct a lost portion of Circus history destroyed or misplaced by a Russian double-agent working within the hierarchy, they attack the archives with a vengeance, looking for missing pieces. Two excerpts from the book describe their work:

By minutely charting Haydon’s path of destruction (his pug marks, as Smiley called them); by exhaustively recording his selection of files; by reassembling—after aching weeks of research, if necessary—the intelligence culled in good faith by Circus outstations, and balancing it, in every detail, against the intelligence distributed by Haydon to the Circus’s customers in the Whitehall market-place, it would be possible to take back-bearings (as Connie so rightly called them) and establish Haydon’s, and therefore Karla’s point of departure….To Peter Guillam the night was taking on surreal dimensions. Smiley had become all but wordless. His plump faced turned to rock. Connie in her excitement had forgotten her arthritic aches and pains and was hopping around the shelves like a teenager at the ball.

The grit and joy of research and analysis are here for all to see. In Smiley’s world the stakes were much higher than in my world of archival special collections and rare books. But there is a camaraderie between spheres and a necessary gravitas in each endeavor. Smiley’s people and the world created by le Carré inform my work and my perspective on the world. Is there an author who provides you with the a similar professional esprit de corps?

Friday, May 24, 2013

30th Year Reflections/45: Diversity

“The ancient sage who advised knowledge of the self was not thinking of non-profit membership organizations like ALA. But most such groups do collect basic professional and demographic information about their members. This information helps in planning programs and services, in presenting the group to policy-makers and potential funders, and in responding to questions from the press and from the members themselves.” — Mary Jo Lynch, ALA Office for Research & Statistics

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (and a site I’ve quoted from before), there were 156,100 professional librarians in 2010 (professional defined as one having a master’s degree). Another report prepared for the American Library Association (ALA) in 2009, put the number of “credentialed” librarians (i.e. those with a master’s or doctorate) at 104,600. The ALA Committee on Diversity and the ALA Membership Committee provide another snapshot of the profession through a member demographics questionnaire. This survey assists ALA in understanding its own makeup. 40,776 current members (68% of the membership) responded to the survey as of March 2012.

According to this survey, membership age is given as the following:

• 1% of the membership is under the age of 25
• 20.7% are between the ages of 25-34
• 20.5% between 35-44
• 20.6% between 45-54
• 27.7% between 55-64
• 8.4% between 65-74
• 1.1% age 75 or above

The survey notes: “Baby boomers—born between 1946 and 1964—represent 46.9 percent of the ALA membership….Members already at retirement age (over 65) represent 9.5 percent of those who provided a date of birth in their response. If we estimate retirement age beginning at age 62, then about 17.4 percent of members…fall into that range.

Other demographics from the survey present a predominantly female profession (80.7% of the membership). I fall into the other 19.3 percent. As a profession we are also predominantly white (88.7%). The survey notes: “In describing their race/family origin, members selected the following responses:”

• 88.7% White
• 4.5% Black or African American
• 3.7% Hispanic or Latino
• 3.7% Asian
• 1.1% American Indian or Alaska Native
• 0.2% Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
• 3.8% Other

Other statistics to consider: 63.7% hold a MLS degree. 26.5% hold some other Master’s degree. 4.6% of the membership holds a PhD. 2.9% of respondents reported having a disability.

Why do I bring up these statistics? In part because I think it is important to be aware of professional identity. Who we are matters. But I also bring up the numbers because I’m sometimes asked about them, and my location within those numbers. As the numbers show, in some ways I am part of a majority, in other ways a minority, and each provides a perspective to me on the profession.

I was sometimes asked early in my career (not so much anymore) what it was like to work in a female-dominated profession. Should I have taken offense at such a question? Does it matter? Well, sometimes I think it does. I probably could have made more money in another line of work. But I did not enter this profession to get rich. I went into the field with my eyes wide open. Are compensation levels across the profession suppressed because of the gender imbalance or gender identification given to the profession by others? I don’t know, but I don’t believe this is the case. I think it matters more where the profession is situated within a larger context. Nursing, also identified as a female profession, has a higher median pay for registered nurses than librarians. A registered nurse just starting a career can make more per year than I do after thirty years.

There are other issues or questions raised by the numbers. As a white male of certain age within the profession I think it is fair to say that some doors have been closed to me because of my gender, race, and maybe age. I have experienced some of those closed doors. I’ve not had access to various scholarships, career development opportunities, or leadership positions. Should I be upset? Have I been discriminated against? Can I prove it? It is conceivable that my condition has been prejudiced. Perhaps I should be troubled. But I’m not the litigating type. I’ll leave it to others if they want to play the role of angry white man. They won’t get much support from me. What is true is that we, as a profession, are not as diverse as we should be. There is work to be done.

Friday, May 17, 2013

30th Year Reflections/44: Leadership

“His opponents had been certain that Lincoln would fail in this first test of leadership. ‘The construction of a Cabinet,’ one editorial advised, ‘like the courting of a shrewd girl, belongs to a branch of the fine arts with which the new Executive is not acquainted. There are certain little tricks which go far beyond the arts familiar to the stump, and the cross-road tavern, whose comprehension requires a delicacy of thought and subtlety of perception, secured only by experience.’” — Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

For the better part of a month I’ve been pondering the concept of leadership. My ponderings were triggered by an invitation to be part of a panel discussion at the multi-day Minnesota Library Association Institute for Leadership Excellence (MILE). In preparation for our discussion, MILE leaders gave us a number of questions to consider. Perhaps the hardest question for me was the one most simply stated: how would you define leadership?

I decided not to answer the question by employing specific examples or experiences. Instead, I attempted a more generic approach, one that answered the question by pointing to various pairings, combinations, or opposites: head and heart, light and dark, passion and intellect, art and science, at the front or behind the scenes. I started with this last pairing first, stating that leadership required a lot of hard work and long hours in the background, away from the bright lights, making sure things got done so that others could enjoy the fruit of your labors. At the same time, and with this same combination, I also stated that there were times when it was appropriate to be out front, to be the public face and voice for a particular issue. As the various pairings poured forth I tried to give attendees a sense of how these interacted or related to each other. The image of a delicate dance sprang to mind, one I communicated to those in the room.

I don’t know if my definition found root with those at the Institute or if it made sense. I’m still wrestling with my answer. The image of a dance works for me, or perhaps a ballet, in which there is more than one performer. Leadership does not happen in a vacuum; it is not a solo experience. It engages other individuals or corporate entities in a movement. There is purpose to the dance. Subconsciously, and in a different existential or metaphysical sense, I believe I was reflecting my own ethos, my own understanding of a faith that is beyond a discussion of professional matters but which informs who I am as a professional. One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, provided an image of the dance that no doubt inspired my answer to the leadership question:

In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed. Thus each is equally at the centre and none are there by being equals, but some by giving place and some by receiving it, the small things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love.

You may think it inappropriate to bring matters of faith (or religion) into a discussion about professional leadership. If this is the case, I have no objection. We are free to choose or reject as we will. But I would ask a question in return: what is the foundation, the bedrock idea on which you base a definition of leadership? I would argue that it has to be on something beyond librarianship, something beyond a professional code of ethics, something beyond ourselves. There are any number of transcendent ideas or systems from which to choose. I’ve given you my choice, the one in which I live and move and have my being. For me it is the root of any definition for leadership. Others will find their own answer, their own way. Shall we dance?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

30th Year Reflections/43: Context

“Simply put, our nation needs far more college-educated citizens than are now being produced.” — Jamie Merisotis, ACRL 2013 Annual Conference

As you might tell, I’m still chewing over some of the presentations from the ACRL annual conference. Later this month some of our staff who attended will offer a “Brown Bag” session over the lunch hour to recap their experiences and provide insights into sessions they attended. One of the invited presentations, by Jamie Merisotis (“The Attainment Goal and the Changing Higher Education Landscape”), caught my eye. I’ve re-read his talk a couple of times as I seek to understand this changing landscape in which I work.

Context is important. The context of my work is higher education, and specifically academic libraries within higher education. So what are Merisotis and others saying about my space? They’re saying that change is necessary and change is coming. Merisotis cites labor economist Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale estimates (quoting from Merisotis) “that, by the end of this decade, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require some postsecondary education and training. The simple fact is, jobs are becoming more complex and require higher-level skills than ever before … and that trend is sure to intensify in coming years.” Beyond the economy and job market Merisotis believes change is necessary in order to create societal benefits “including greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, less dependence on public assistance.…” Finally, Merisotis sees change in terms of societal need, “an equity imperative” to address the “massive gaps in educational achievement in this country linked to race and class.”

On other fronts philosophy professors from San Jose State University issued an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel on why they will not use material from Sandel’s online course on justice. The brave new world of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has generated various reactions across higher education. The New York Times, in reporting on the San Jose letter, also noted this reaction: “Faculty backlash against online courses has spread in recent weeks, as the Amherst College faculty voted against joining edX, and the Duke faculty voted down participation in Semester Online, offered by a consortium of universities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education also covered the story, including the text of the open letter. In February my institution announced its partnership with Coursera, “a leading massive open online course (MOOC) platform,” to quote from the news release, “to develop free online courses as part of the university’s efforts to improve teaching and learning through technology.” Our Provost was quoted in the release: “We’re excited by the opportunity to explore innovative ways of using e-learning to extend the reach of University of Minnesota educational offerings across the state, nation and globe. This partnership will give people from around the world the opportunity to learn from the U’s world-class faculty at a time when we are working harder than ever to increase access to higher education, reach broader audiences and strengthen our land-grant mission.” In a conference last weekend, also reported by The Chronicle, scholars gathered in Milwaukee to discuss “The Dark Side of Digital.” MOOCs were part of the discussion. The Chronicle noted: “In a talk dubbed ‘,’ Rita Raley, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, described how societal and technological changes had ‘reconditioned the idea of the university into that of an educational enterprise that delivers content through big platforms on demand.’”

It is not too hard to find differing opinions on the state of higher education in America. This little post has just scratched the surface. The trick for us, it seems, will come in navigating the currents flowing through this new landscape. Merisotis has a high view of our professional ability to handle change. “In my view libraries and librarians ― have always been in the redesign business … always on the cutting edge of change.” We’ll see if he’s right, knowing as we do that the cutting edge can sometimes be the bleeding edge. Finding our balance between the bright side and the dark side will be crucial.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

30th Year Reflections/42: History

“To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.” — Cicero

A sinking feeling grows daily in my mind: my profession is becoming historically illiterate about itself. I am not speaking of general historical illiteracy (although that, too, is a problem), but of a lack of historically informed discourse that helps guide our profession into new arenas of theory and practice. One of the most recent and stronger manifestations of this sensibility came as I reviewed the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) preliminary program included with my January issue of College & Research Libraries News. The conference theme was “Imagine, Innovate, Inspire.” Alas, I was not inspired to attend the gathering in Indianapolis, so what follows is based on an examination of the preliminary printed program and the post-conference online version.

I’ll acknowledge up front that my critique is biased and may be unfair. I would be happy to hear from conference attendees to the contrary. But here is my initial “take” on what I saw proposed for a conference of “more than 300 carefully curated, thought-provoking sessions” (to quote from the program) that would help me “explore innovative methods for driving the transformation of libraries, learning, and research.” Of greatest interest to me are the keynote addresses (3), invited papers (4), and contributed papers (80). Unfortunately, ACRL does not provide a full-text version of the program that could be text-mined for keywords in session descriptions such as “history” or “historical.” (They do provide a pull-down menu for “Primary Program Tag,” but the tags are not useful to me for this kind of analysis.) Individual papers are now available on the conference proceedings web site. The complete proceedings are available from Amazon (for a not insignificant price). The three keynote addresses are not provided as part of the proceedings, nor are they available in any form on the ACRL site. The descriptions provided for the four invited papers give at least a small hint of historical awareness. Alison Head’s presentation on Project Information Literacy indicates that the project dates back to 2008 and is ongoing. Here my questions would be how this five-year-old study was informed, if at all, by earlier studies on college students’ information seeking behaviors. David Green’s presentation on the ERIAL Project (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries), a two-year effort by librarians and anthropologists, raises similar historical/contextual questions. Jamie Merisotis’s presentation, “The Attainment Goal and the Changing Higher Education Landscape” give a sense of some historical analysis (if one is looking at a changing landscape). No text is available from the ACRL site, but speculating that at least a few of these folks are good self-promoters, I found Jamie’s talk on the Lumina Foundation web site. I discovered Brian Mathews talk by following a few clicks from his blog to a depository at Virginia Tech.

I still need to wade through the eighty or so contributed papers. There may be a gem or two (or three) there. A quick scan through the online program gives me little hope for historical perspective. One session on copyright provided at least a ten-year perspective: “Over the past decade, the American library community has been confronted by a copyright axis of evil….” Another session on information as a weapon even used the word “historical” in its description: “This session will look at current and historical examples of information as weapon, and examine the role of libraries in developing good consumers of information.” A session on ethnic and racial diversity analyzed “diversity statistics from Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in order to provide a longitudinal view of demographic patterns in ARL academic libraries.” But I also found “beer cans in the stacks” and "mutant superheroes" among the contributed paper titles. Maybe I’ll spend my lunch hours sorting the wheat from the chaff. Kudos, at least, to ACRL for making materials available, especially to those of us who could not attend in person.