Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Retrofit 5: The Competency Trap

This is my fifth “thinking out loud” installment in preparation for the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

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I need to reexamine an earlier piece to this mental puzzle, a piece picked up and pondered in my first installment: the issue of competencies. In that post I made the following statement:

…we should deal with the real [professional] image, or at least the one we talk about in terms of professional competencies. It is here that we need to begin, to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and see if we like the reflection. With any luck, and perhaps with a bit of skill and guidance from others wiser than ourselves, we’ll see (or are in the process of seeing) “a professional who gradually achieves such general proficiency over the course of his/her career” and “a sense of community and common identity among special collections professionals” that at the same time helps “others to understand our work.”

I referred to the RBMS “Guidelines: Competencies for Special Collections Professionals” as a proper starting point for an examination of our professional future, a mirror for self-examination and reflection.

In my second post I admitted to some difficulty with this approach. A look in the mirror tells us who we are, “the reality of the work we do.” Our reflection might spark memories of a professional vision—our dreams—when we entered the field. If we’re lucky, the looking glass might even offer hints to future directions, as we compare our present reality with what the Guidelines ask us to be, or to become. But it is not a magic mirror. It cannot tell us the future. It is not something we can step through, like Alice, into an alternative universe.

Or can we? Perhaps we need a different approach, or a different perspective. Looking in the mirror—reflecting on our present status—can bring other thoughts to mind or bend us to other realities. If it doesn’t take us into Looking-Glass Land, it does something else: it suggests another answer, or another piece to the puzzle. We might find that the answer—or an alternate solution—was staring us in the face all the time.

I’m not suggesting any solution to this seminar riddle, merely another piece to ponder. In my case, the piece surfaced on Twitter. (Which makes me wonder, if only for a moment, and with tongue in cheek: is Twitter—or any social media for that matter—a magic mirror?) What suddenly appeared before my eyes was a string of tweets from the 11th Columbia Library Symposium, specifically those related to a talk by Elliott Shore, Executive Director of the Association of Research Libraries. It was the title of his talk that caught my eye, especially the last four words: “Fostering Leadership Across the Academic Library Organization: Avoiding the Competency Trap.” (emphasis mine)

The symposium tweets tantalized me. Obviously, I was not present at Shore’s talk; I experienced it via the Twitterverse. But I felt led in or around the mirror: here was another perspective worth examining. With not too much digging, I found Shore’s presentation slides on the Columbia web site. While it was not the same as being there, hearing his comments in person, the slides still gave me a sense of what he said, of the argument he made. Let me try to encapsulate those thoughts. The program description of Shore’s talk is a helpful starting point.

There are all kinds of reasons for doing things in the future more or less as we have done them in the past, especially as one moves up in an organization — after all, one has succeeded so far, why change? The notion of the competency trap, applied to organizations since the 1980s, can be applied to us as individuals — and can blunt the possibilities for change. In this keynote, Elliott Shore…will recount what he has learned about suspending disbelief and share thoughts about building an environment that questions unexamined assumptions.

First, Shore provided a definition of the competency trap offered by Levitt and March in 1988, refined by Becker in 2004: “The position of an organization which uses a suboptimal procedure because it is good enough in the short run and so does not switch to a better one.” This raises a number of questions that I’ll ask here, but offer no answers—placeholders for further discussion: are the RBMS Competencies a trap? Are they suboptimal? If so, in what ways? In the same manner, are there flaws with institutional procedures, e.g. annual performance reviews, workflows, or supervision, that blunt possibilities for change?

Shore offered an example of a competency trap: the threat (economic and otherwise) felt by 19th century sailing vessels to the new technology of steam. Sail’s response was to add more masts, more sail, more waterline—all suboptimal procedures. Steam continued to threaten. Sail’s addition of more hull, masts, and canvas—what Levitt and March noted as a “favorable performance with an inferior procedure” led sail “to accumulate more experience with it, thus keeping experience with a superior procedure [i.e. steam] inadequate to make it rewarding to use.” By the early 20th century, sail had foundered; steam took over. Shore concluded that “incremental change lands you on the rocks” and that sail’s response to steam was an act of hubris.

Shore, as I interpret his slides, is looking for another path forward, something different than incremental movement. Borrowing from the work of John Seely Brown, Shore posits the belief that a) “the challenges we face are both fundamental and substantial,” b) our new normal is a state of “constant dis-equilibrium,” and c) “our ways of working, ways of creating value, and ways of innovating must be reframed.” Shore finds the path forward in the concepts of “disagreement deficit” and “being wrong” developed by Kathryn Schulz in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.

Disagreement deficit, as defined by Schulz and expounded by Shore, is a condition in which “people are naturally hesitant to disagree with those around them.” This condition goes further: “We not only believe what those around us believe, but we even see things as those around us see them.” In this deficit condition “our communities expose us to disproportionate support for our own ideas, shield us from the disagreement of outsiders, cause us to disregard whatever outside disagreement we do encounter, and quash the development of disagreement from within.” To be wrong is to wander. According to Schulz,

To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves. Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.

Shore, taking his cue from Schulz, is saying it is all right to disagree, to be wrong. It is an adventure. Part of the adventure, within an organization, is to protect those who disagree and to allow the uncomfortable questions to surface: “Why can’t we do it this way?” “What is the worst thing that could happen if we try this?” “Our scholars learn from experiments—often more from unsuccessful ones—can we experiment with this idea?”

My takeaway from this reexamination of competencies is this: As we look at retrofitting expectations or redefining the reality of special collections professionals, we need to look and listen to those who disagree with us, to ask uncomfortable questions, be comfortable in our wrongness, and not be afraid of the journey. Where do we disagree? What experiments have we cooked up or are in play? Have we really spent enough time examining and learning from our failures? These, and others, are difficult questions to ask, especially when other entities are asking—on any number of fronts—for accountability or efficiency. Have we got the guts to do the hard things, to take the risk, to wander, be disagreeable or wrong? Do we have eyes and ears attuned to what we might not want to see or hear?

Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Road with Sherlock Holmes

This past October one of our Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collections attended the premiere of “The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes” at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland. I was very pleased she could attend, especially as I was unable to travel west due to a previous engagement at the annual conference of the Minnesota Library Association. In February I had the opportunity to attend the second opening of the exhibit in Columbus, Ohio. It was a chance to see a dream realized. For the past three years I have worked with the team from Exhibits Development Group and Geoffrey Curley and Associates as a collections consultant to the project. My trip to the opening in Columbus was the first opportunity for me to see the final results of our work, and to follow Mr. Holmes across country in a tale Conan Doyle might have entitled “The Adventure of the International Exhibition.”

Even before the formal opening at OMSI, the show generated some “buzz” on social media. On the GeekDad blog senior editor Jonathan Liu wrote: “Today is the opening of the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes, a fantastic exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon. If you’re a fan of the good detective in any of his incarnations, this is an exhibit worth seeing. I got a sneak peek at the show yesterday, but I’ll definitely want to come back again with my family…” His post featured an image of one of our Hound manuscript leaves, one of the gems in the show. BBC American noted: “If you’re anywhere near Oregon over the next month, and you’re one of the growing army of fans of any of the various interpretations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories—who collectively should go by the name deductionists, by rights—there’s a treat coming your way.”

Excitement over the BBC/PBS Season Three television premiere of “Sherlock” fueled further interest in the Portland exhibition. Entertainment Weekly featured actor Benedict Cumberbatch on its cover along with an article by Clark Collis, “Mad About Sherlock.” The exhibition enjoyed a very successful opening run through early January. After its closing, staff prepared to move the exhibition to its second manifestation at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio. I followed this transit with interest, trailing trucks and crates with my arrival in the Buckeye state in early February. I was there to participate in a media preview and VIP reception before the second opening of this extraordinary exhibit.

I arrived in Columbus on the heels of an eleven-inch snow storm. City workers dug through drifts and plowed streets as I settled into my hotel room across from the state capitol. On Thursday morning I walked the short distance to COSI, where I met Jaclyn Reynolds, Public Relations and Social Media Manager for COSI. Prior to my trip, Jaclyn and I discussed my participation in the media preview. An on-camera interview was set up with the local Fox television affiliate for their morning show, “Good Day Columbus.” On my arrival, Jaclyn introduced me to reporter Dana Turtle, who clued me in to what segments of the exhibition we’d be talking about on camera. These included displays related to the two television shows, “Sherlock” and “Elementary;” the Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law movies; items from the Collections (original artwork, books, and ephemera); and, finally, a crime scene recreated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Unfortunately, there were some technical problems during broadcast (we were near the end of the exhibition and the long length of cable needed to support the camera and audio were not quite up to the task; blame it on Moriarty!). Our segment did go out on the airwaves, but was not used later on the web.

Following my interview I wandered through the exhibit, soaking in as much as I could during my first view of the completed show. It really is quite spectacular! Along the way I caught up with exhibit designer Geoffrey Curley and we reflected on the last three years of work together; it has been a great partnership. From there we moved next door where an English morning tea was set for those attending the media preview. Jaclyn commented that this was the largest group of attendees for such an event. Before the festivities began I had the chance to visit with local members of the Baker Street Irregulars who were present for the preview. The formal part of the event began with remarks from COSI chief executive officer Dr. David Chesebrough, who acknowledged me to the audience and thanked me for being a part of the opening. Chesebrough remarked that “COSI is excited to be the second host of this one-of-a-kind exhibition building on the compelling deductive reasoning of the favorite character, Sherlock Holmes. Guests will be able to immerse themselves into the world of Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street and solve an apparent crime using the deductive thinking Holmes is known for.” His remarks were followed by others from Josh Kessler, COSI Project Manager for the Holmes exhibit; Geoffrey Curley; and Christine Mackin from Time Warner Cable, a major local sponsor. Kessler noted: “The great thing about this exhibition is the mixture of authentic Conan Doyle artifacts, pop culture pieces, and an interactive mystery you can solve in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. The exhibition immerses you in Victorian London and lets you to use the kinds of hands-on forensic science that Holmes himself would have used to solve the case.” Among the media representatives in attendance was a reporter for the New York Times. The show was gaining a national audience.

With the conclusion of formal remarks, attendees were invited to stroll through the exhibition. At the entrance to the show they were greeted by Mr. Holmes, portrayed by local actor John Kuhn. I stationed myself near the 221B sitting room where I had a chance to chat with reporters and have a few photographs taken with Geoffrey and members of the COSI staff. Taking advantage of my tablet and social media, I tweeted comments and photographs on Twitter. Many of these were “re-tweeted” by COSI. Later in the morning I did an on-camera interview with Jaclyn and Doug Buchanan, COSI's Education Programs Marketing Manager. Reporters stayed late into the morning and the preview wound down around noon. Later that day, Ken Gordon from the Columbus Dispatch issued the first print report. “Visitors to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition opening Saturday at COSI Columbus will be invited to help solve a mystery by the great detective himself.” Edward Rothstein from the New York Times published his report on Valentine’s Day.

A second event at COSI occurred Friday evening. This was billed as a VIP/Donor preview and, like the media event, the crowd was larger than many similar events at the museum. Mr. Holmes was once again in attendance, welcoming visitors to the evening’s festivities. Also in attendance were a number of forensic teams from the Columbus Police Department. They contacted the museum the moment they heard that the Holmes exhibition was coming to Columbus and wanted to be a part of the opening. Visitors had the chance to learn about modern forensic procedures and view tools of the trade. After welcoming remarks, attendees were free to explore the exhibition. Over the course of the evening I got caught up in the mystery that threads its way through the various rooms and, with notebook in hand, made my way through the various stations, gathering clues along the way.

My congratulations to everyone associated with the exhibition, notably Amy Noble Seitz and her staff at Exhibits Development Group; Geoffrey M. Curley and Cynthia Brown from GMC+A; and all the staff it was my privilege to meet at COSI, especially Jaclyn Reynolds and Josh Kessler. What began in creative sparks of conversation and a working title of Sherlock Holmes: The Science of Deduction has morphed into an engaging, educational, and entertaining production in The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes. I look forward to attending many more openings as the show makes its way across country and, perhaps, beyond our shores.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Retrofit 4: For the Love of Money

This is my fourth “thinking out loud” installment in preparation for the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

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By most accounts, state support for higher education is dwindling. In part, this has been a state response to the recession and weak economy. James Hilton noted in a talk to Minnesota library staff that “our institutions face profound and existential change. As a society, we are redefining our beliefs about the purposes of higher education and our conceptions of what it means to be ‘educated.’ Along the way, we are changing beliefs about who/how to pay for public education.”

According to the American Council on Education (ACE):

Despite steadily growing student demand for higher education since the mid-1970s, state fiscal investment in higher education has been in retreat in the states since about 1980. In fact, it is headed for zero. Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others. Public higher education is gradually being privatized.

My state, Minnesota, is characterized by the ACE as one of the “biggest losers.”

Minnesota has reduced its higher education investment by 55.8 percent…. Extending the trend since 1980 into the future, state funding for higher education will reach zero in 2037. But another extrapolation hits zero in 2032.

The National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) paints a similar picture, while suggesting different solutions. “Tighter state resources, rising costs, high tuition rates and other factors make the current model of financing public higher education unsustainable.” In a recent report The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicated that Minnesota’s change in spending per student, adjusted for inflation, between fiscal years 2008 and 2013 was a negative 30.4%.

I’ll be retired by the time we reach the zero point. But my granddaughters will be in college. Will my state support their education in any way? Or will the entire burden fall to them and their parents? I’m not optimistic. The Atlantic recently published an article, “The Myth of Working Your Way Through College,” that opened with these words: “The economic cards are stacked such that today’s average college student, without support from financial aid and family resources, would need to complete 48 hours of minimum-wage work a week to pay for his (sic) courses—a feat that would require superhuman endurance, or maybe a time machine.”

The University of Minnesota Law School is currently engaged in a fundraising campaign “to ensure the future of the Law School's high-quality education and service to the profession and the larger community” regardless of how the state decides to fund higher education. Their goal is $70 million; they are 90% of the way there.

Throughout most of the Law School's history, the state of Minnesota heavily subsidized the cost of a legal education. But that funding has declined steadily over recent years. State support now represents only a very small fraction of the Law School's total budget, and that fraction is directed entirely to the Law Library, a resource we share with the University and broader community. In recent years, several other top public law schools that faced dwindling state funding made the move to financial self-sufficiency. Now the Law School is making that transition—to funding based almost entirely on tuition and philanthropy. A successful campaign will enable us to continue and expand on our agenda of excellence.

The University’s Carlson School of Management is in a similar situation. In a 2012 interview the school’s new dean, Sri Zaheer, made this observation:

As of last year, state funding for our school was 3.5 percent of our total budget. We’ve had, for all intents and purposes, to live, breathe, and think like a private school. We have a proposal to charge a tuition surcharge to our undergraduate [business] students, and that plan is close to being finalized. Our student body has grown 20 percent or more in the past four or five years, but we haven’t been able to [expand] our tenure-track faculty. Any tuition surcharge we collect from the undergraduate program will be dedicated to hiring new faculty.

In seeking approval for our current university budget, administrators and regents agreed to a two-year freeze on in-state tuition in exchange for increased funding from the state. It is a high-tuition, high-aid model that increases graduate, professional, and out-of-state tuition along with fees and room/board costs. First-year resident law students expected to see their tuition rise by nine percent. We no longer have a professional library school on campus; it was swept away in financial crises of the 1980s. Were it still in existence, I wonder how long it could survive under today’s constraints.

Let’s bring this back to the concerns of special collections professionals. What does the future hold, given the bleak landscape of state funding for higher education? What do these numbers tell us, if anything? Are there different concerns for public versus private institutions? Here are a few more questions to consider:

• Will dwindling state support mean less public money for acquisitions or staffing?
• Are we in the process of privatizing library operations?
• If state-funded acquisitions money decreases, will we be more reliant on gift funds or endowments to make up the difference?
• If so, would this reliance necessitate more time spent in fundraising and donor cultivation?
• Or do we care about the difference and simply purchase less for the collections?
• Will there be any new money for new staff, or will we rely on capturing funds from vacant positions and re-craft or re-design job descriptions as needed?
• Will there be greater pressure to develop and gain acceptance of grant proposals to cover part-time or short-term staffing as part of an externally funded project?
• How will preservation/digitization programmatic efforts hold up as state contributions shrink? (Or were the majority of these projects/programs always funded by external grants?)
• Will older staff feel pressured to consider early or phased retirement? (And are we opening ourselves up to possible age discrimination lawsuits?)
• How might increases in undergraduate student aid packages translate, if at all, in the number or quality of student assistants we employ?
• Does the model of adjunct faculty, translated onto a library stage, mean the use of lower-paid, project- or function-specific personnel to sustain library operations? Or has the plight of adjuncts created such bad press that libraries don’t want to go there?

There are more questions. This is just a sample occasioned by the specter of diminished state support.

There are a number of other haphazard thoughts, issues, or ideas floating around my mind that have some bearing on our panel topic; all are connected to expectations or realities. State funding is one piece of that randomosity. Stand by for more.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


“It is an amazing thing that the English, who have the reputation of being a practical nation, never saw the danger to why they were exposed. For many years they had been spending nearly a hundred millions a year upon their army and their fleet….Yet when the day of trial came, all this imposing force was of no use whatever, and might as well have not existed.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Danger!” (The Strand Magazine, July 1914)

This opening quotation comes from a thought-provoking short story by Doyle, one I had not read before, and with nothing whatsoever to do with Sherlock Holmes. Instead, on the eve of what we now know as the First World War, Doyle took up his pen to warn fellow citizens of a possible danger to his country. This danger was the submarine, and its use in unrestricted warfare on merchant marine fleets carrying goods—primarily foodstuffs—to the United Kingdom.

Doyle’s plot is contemporary and straightforward. A small country, Norland, finds itself in a dispute with Great Britain over colonial boundaries. Events escalate over the deaths of two missionaries, presumably from the United Kingdom. The British, eager to protect their empire, issue an ultimatum, which expires in forty-eight hours. Norland’s King and Foreign Minister are ready to surrender and accept the British terms. However, Admiral Horli of the Norland navy and Captain Sirius, commander of a small submarine fleet of eight vessels, have other designs. They put their plan to the King and Minister, who, on hearing it, accept. The main Norland fleet will “be gathered under the forts of Blankenberg,” presumably the capital city, “and be protected from attack by booms and piles.” As Captain Sirius (the narrator of this tale) later relates,

I need not trouble you by telling you the measures which were taken at Blankenberg, since, as you are aware, the fortress and the entire fleet were destroyed by the British within a week of the declaration of war. I will confine myself to my own plans, which had so glorious and final a result. The fame of my eight submarines…have spread through the world to such an extent that people have begun to think that there was something peculiar in their form and capabilities. This is not so.

What follows is the Captain’s account, running over the next month, from early April to early May, in an unidentified year, but clearly placed in the near future. “I am not here to tell you the incidents of the war, but to explain my own part in it, which had such a decisive effect upon the result.”

I will spare you the details, and try not to spoil the story, except to note that Doyle wrote this fictional account with a distinct purpose in mind: to warn his country of impending doom and to offer possible solutions. It was not the submarine, in and of itself, that was the danger. Rather, it was what this, or other instruments of war could do to starve his country into submission, or, as he wrote in a concluding imaginary leader in the Times, to explain “the meaning and lessons” of this tale: “Had we endured this humiliation at the hands of any of the first-class Powers it would certainly have entailed the loss of all our Crown Colonies and tropical possessions, besides the payment of a huge indemnity.” Doyle never explicitly identified who he believed an enemy power might be, but he came close in identifying the Norland cause with that of Germany, in a scene where the Captain’s submarine surfaces in the English Channel.

When we rose, a large steamer flying the German flag was within half a mile of us. It was the North German Lloyd Altona, from New York to Bremen. I raised our whole hull and dipped our flag to her. It was amusing to see the amazement of her people at what they must have regarded as our unparalleled impudence in those English-swept waters. They cheered us heartily, and the tricolor flag was dipped in greeting as they went roaring past us.

Doyle’s proposals, given voice in the imagined Times leader, included: reformation of agriculture and trade policies to provide “sufficient food to at least keep life in her [Britain’s] population;” construction of “two double-lined railways under the Channel” to facilitate movement of goods and, presumably, armies; and “the building of large fleets of merchant submarines for the carriage of food.” Clearly, Doyle’s major concern was with having enough food to feed the nation during hostile times.

He didn’t have long to wait, or see his concerns come to life. A month after Doyle’s piece was published in The Strand his country was at war. In February 1915 German U-boats began attacking commercial targets. Three months later, in early May, the British passenger liner Lusitania was sunk, resulting in the loss of 1,153 passengers and crew, 128 of them American. German naval activities continued to ramp up until January 1917 when Germany formally announced the use of unrestricted submarine warfare.

I am not an expert on British agriculture or trade policies, so I do not know what impact Doyle’s story had on government policies concerning food or commerce during the war. It is interesting to note that The Strand saw fit to publish reactions to Doyle’s tale from “a number of naval experts” including seven British admirals. The longest response came from Mr. Fred T. Jane, founding editor of the long-running series of standard reference books on warships and aircraft, e.g. Jane’s Fighting Ships. As for Doyle’s support for a tunnel under the English Channel—an idea first suggested in 1802—it would take another eighty years before “the Chunnel” opened to rail traffic.

Why am I interested in Doyle’s tale? In part, my curiosity comes because I have always had an interest in “The Great War” or “The war to end all wars.” My grandfather, Joel Johnson, was in the 54th Pioneer Infantry Regiment and spent two years in France and Germany. I have a spent artillery shell he brought back from the war, with “Verdun” scrolled across the top. Beyond familial interest, we’re coming up on the centennial commemoration of the opening of the war. Over the next eight weeks I’ll be preparing an exhibit, in collaboration with Christopher Cardozo, of photochroms that document a vanished European landscape. Most, if not all, of the images will be of a European countryside that disappeared or was altered as a result of the war. The exhibit may also include items from our World War One pamphlet collection and posters from the time. One of the books I hope to read in the next few months is Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. It came highly recommended from a friend and reader of these notes. I’m sure there are other titles you might recommend. I might also suggest a number of posts by Chris Gehrz on his blog, The Pietist Schoolman. Chris taught a course at Bethel University on the war and led a group of students to Europe to visit a number of the sites.

Doyle’s tale triggered a number of other questions, none of which I can answer, but worth thinking about all the same. We all face dangers of one kind or another. How will we respond?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Retrofit 3: C-I-C, C-L-I…M-O-U-S-E

This is my third “thinking out loud” installment in preparation for the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

* * * * *

My last post ended with a few basic and not very earth-shattering observations: our professional future (corporate and individual) is partially shaped by organizations external to our host institutions; other forces or movements also shape our future; and none of this is necessarily a bad thing. As an example, I highlighted the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) involvement with the RBMS guidelines on competencies for special collections professionals.

This trite conclusion, however, engendered questions with—I hope you might agree—a little more heft: Where is the balance (or tension) between individual professional expectations and corporate or administrative or institutional or external expectations? Who gets to be part of the conversation that determines or influences a balance point? Does such a balance point exist? (Which perhaps begs another question: Where—or what—constitutes a tipping point?) How many of our expectations and realities do we get to create (or at least have a say in their creation)? How many expectations are imposed from above or beyond, wherever (and whatever) “above” or “beyond” might be? Are we able to perform the core functions of our position or is something—The Next Big Thing—continually crowding in, begging for attention and completion?

I’m not ready to attempt an answer to any of these questions. For the moment I’ll let them hang there, like so many damp pieces on a clothes line. We’ll come back to them later.

In the meantime, I want to explore another relationship between my position, my library, and the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, aka The Big Ten.* According to its website: “For more than half a century, these world-class research institutions have advanced their academic missions, generated unique opportunities for students and faculty, and served the common good by sharing expertise, leveraging campus resources, and collaborating on innovative programs. Governed and funded by the Provosts of the member universities, CIC mandates are coordinated by a staff from its Champaign, Illinois headquarters.” Please note that governance and funding resides with the provosts, that is, with administrators.

References to ARL or the CIC (or pick your favorite organizational acronym) should not be interpreted as administrator or institution bashing in the course of these ruminations. Rather, it is simply my way of trying to identify centers of power and influence that bear on the seminar’s fundamental questions of retrofitting expectations or redefining reality in view of a future professional existence. The questions I raise are ontological questions, i.e. of being and becoming. (I will admit, however, to having some fun, at institutional expense, riffing on the Mickey Mouse theme for the title of this post: “Who's the leader of the club | That's made for you and me…”).

A number of collaborative projects exist within the CIC. One of these is the Center for Library Initiatives (CLI), staffed by a director, deputy director, project manager, and office manager. The CLI “focuses on three objectives—optimizing student and faculty access to the combined resources of our libraries; maximizing cost, time, and space savings; and supporting a collaborative environment where library staff can work together to solve their mutual problems.” Key projects for the CLI include: the CIC/HathiTrust Digital Repository, Google Book Search Project, Shared Print Repository, Consortial Licensing, Scholarly Communication, and Reciprocal Library Borrowing.

In 2009, Big Ten special collections librarians met in Chicago. The last time this group gathered was in 1993. Five years ago the major topics of conversation revolved around “how can we expose our collections better in the Midwest,” identifying “strategies to bring researchers to the Midwest,” and “showing off riches and promoting the Big Ten brand.” The vehicles to make this happen included the Google Books and HathiTrust projects, along with development of a shared print repository. At the 2009 meeting, representatives (primarily directors of special collections) shared major campus issues; many of these were common across institutions: budget constraints, hiring restrictions or freezes, merging units/departments/libraries, moves, space planning, renovation projects, and space constraints. In the last five years there have been perhaps two or three conference calls between special collections directors about priorities or potential collaborations, but nothing substantive has happened. It seems safe to say that such spotty meetings or conversations are indicative of corporate interest—i.e. CIC provosts or university librarians—in special collections over the past two decades.

CIC-CLI Director Mark Sandler provided an overview of goals in the most recent issue of the CLI electronic newsletter. In other words, he provided a status report. I’ll not spend any time criticizing Sandler except to note that I found some of his comments condescending—hardly the kind of esprit de corps one wishes to develop in a collaborative universe. What is important to note—and to ask—is where special collections, or libraries writ large, fit into current CIC thinking. Sandler wrote:

…I’m likely not doing justice to the breadth, depth, or significance of the collaborative work going on in the CIC offices and across our universities, but cataloging the accomplishments of CIC collaboration is not really my point here. Rather, I’m writing this in the new year to remind myself, the CLI team, and all of our wonderful CIC libraries/librarians that the goals of libraries can’t only be about libraries. Our library goals should be about advancing the interests of our campuses, higher education as a global institution, and the aspirations of scholars—both young and old—everywhere….

Within the CIC, our greatest strength in the CLI is that we work in close proximity to a broad array of campus concerns, aspirations, and opportunities. We see the future of libraries as inextricably linked to the success of these broader campus collaborations; collaborations about improving student learning outcomes, diversifying our university communities, enriching the research portfolios of our faculty, strengthening campus leadership, making our universities more cost-effective, or making athletic participation safer.

For those who work in grand libraries, with their grand reading rooms and atria, it’s easy to look up at the high vaulted ceilings and mistake them for the sky. In other words, the goals of our campuses, states, and regions are not about libraries per se, but, rather, are about student success, impactful research, creative and uplifting works of art, world-changing invention, life-saving medicine, economic advancement, and social justice. Our work in libraries, and in the CIC-CLI, is to figure out how libraries connect to, support, and advance these larger goals. And, if we do manage to figure that out, we should next be thinking long and hard about how we convey our role—our value-add—to partners, funders and the beneficiaries of our work.

This is the universe in which I work and move and have my being. If I’m interested in retrofitting my expectations around the reality defined by the Big Ten, then it looks to me like I’ll need to focus on “student success, impactful research, creative and uplifting works of art, world-changing invention, life-saving medicine, economic advancement, and social justice,” or to put it more succinctly, to advance “the interests of our campuses, higher education as a global institution, and the aspirations of scholars—both young and old—everywhere.” Sure. No problem.

Of course, this begs another question: who calls the tune for the Big Ten? Or do they dance to their own tune?

*CIC member universities include: University of Chicago, University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of Iowa, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Retrofit 2: Building on Competencies

This is the second installment in the development of my thinking on the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

* * * * *

In the first installment I argued that the popular image of a special collections librarian was a red herring; that it should be discarded in favor of an examination of professional competencies; and that this was the proper base for comparing if “the reality of the work we do” resembles “our visions of the profession when we started.” However, even here I find myself crashing against the rocks. The comparison does not work, at least in my own mind, because I cannot remember what my vision was (or might have been) of the special collections profession before I started work in the field. I’m not sure I had a vision of the special collections profession twenty-eight years ago—when I stepped into my first archival job following a mixed six year career as an instructional services/reference librarian, library director, and medical librarian—except some ill-conceived and romantic notions, received in graduate school, that the reading rooms of special collections or rare books libraries were the closest I would ever come to a “holy of holies.”

What I do remember quite clearly was:
a) the institution that hired me wanted to step up their game; they previously employed retired faculty as archivists; they wanted a professional presence and I was their identified candidate;
b) the archivist from a local research university who served as a consultant to the search committee objected to my hiring because I came from the library world, with limited training or experience in archival practice;
c) my graduate training in archival management and practice came from two people: a former President/Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, and a long-time, active member of the SAA; and,
d) I spent the first year—of what ended up a twelve year stint—convincing the archivist/consultant that I was up to snuff for the position. This was my initial vision of the archival/special collections slice of the profession: proving my worth.

A professional environment laced with “proving one’s worth” is not a place I want to inhabit if we’re going to talk about redefining our reality. Neither is a romanticized impression of a rare book reading room as “sacred space” useful to me in examining the question of a future identity. I still believe that an examination of competencies is worthwhile; it helps inform both expectations and realities. But here, too, I’m feeling blocked. This sense of obstruction comes from the competencies themselves (approved by the ACRL Board in 2008). They are a set of guidelines developed by RBMS, i.e. they are in some ways “home-grown,” sprouting up from our own constructs and understandings of what it means to be a special collections professional.*

At the same time, the guidelines provide another clue, another approach for viewing expectations or realities: an examination of external motives or stimuli coming from beyond the institutional confines of special collections. Here is where the administrative voice sounds on stage, where administrators enter the conversation, and where questions are posed. My immediate concern is with the impetus for the guidelines on competencies, especially in the role played by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), a body constituted almost entirely of administrators (although the Task Force on Special Collections included some practitioners).

ARL participation is unequivocal. The background section of the introduction on competencies notes:

Over the past decade, a number of factors have focused attention on special collections and the professional skills, academic credentials, and personal qualities needed for a successful career in special collections librarianship. In 2001 the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) established a Task Force on Special Collections to further an agenda to maximize the full potential of special collections. Its charge included, “Define core competencies among special collection librarians and create training opportunities.” In 2003 the ARL Board of Directors endorsed the statement “Research Libraries and the Commitment to Special Collections,” which described special collections as “one of the critical identifiers of a research library” and affirmed the “critical role” played by special collections in fulfilling the mission of research libraries.

At that time, ARL directors also perceived a significant shortage of candidates ready to take on the responsibilities of administrative positions to be filled in the coming decade. The ARL Task Force consequently identified recruitment, training, and continuing education as high priorities on its agenda. A white paper prepared by the Task Force, entitled “Education and Training for Careers in Special Collections,” surveyed recent changes in professional education for special collections professionals and identified a number of new programs and initiatives emerging to meet recruitment and training needs. The white paper reiterated the importance of articulating competencies required by special collections librarians and acknowledged that education and training opportunities are needed at all career levels.

This background narrative also provides broader observations relevant to our RBMS seminar.

These developments reflect profound changes in the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of special collections librarians. The changes parallel those in research librarianship generally and are chiefly the result of evolving information technologies. But they affect special collections most especially because special collections professionals work in increasingly diverse environments and carry an unusual variety of responsibilities. Individual career paths differ greatly. There is an expanding range of formats in collections, including three-dimensional artifacts and audio, visual, and digital materials. The audiences for our collections and services have grown to include students at all levels and members of the general public of all ages and backgrounds, both onsite and online. Although special collections have always encompassed both technical and public services work and professional assignments are often of broad scope, the digital environment integrates these areas more fully: instruction and outreach efforts require technical skills, and metadata librarians must have a keen understanding of users’ needs and preferences. Special collections librarians cannot succeed without effective collaboration with faculty and library colleagues. At the same time, expertise is now required in areas such as rights management and fundraising.

Beyond ARL’s role in stimulating creation of the RBMS guidelines, I’m interested in looking at other external forces, from organizations outside our individual libraries/institutions that mold or influence our expectations and realities. In my case, one organization I will attend to is the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (aka The Big Ten).

The basic point I am trying to make is this: our professional future (corporately and individually) is partially shaped by organizations external to our host institutions. Other forces or movements—societal, economic, political, technological, etc.—also shape our future. There is nothing new here. And this may not be a bad thing. What may be new, or at least provokes a question, is this: where is the balance? Who calls the shots? How many of our expectations and realities do we get to create (or at least have a say in their creation) and how many are imposed from above or beyond, wherever (and whatever) “above” or “beyond” might be? How often do our individual professional development goals come in conflict, competition or tension with institutional, consortial, or extra-academic goals? Are we able to perform the core functions of our position or is something administratively new and urgent continually crowding in, begging for attention (and completion)? Is the curator-scholar a creature of the past, left aside in favor of a rush to The Next Big Thing?

* * * * *

I find myself reading old issues of RBML, looking and listening for a past voice—a usable past—that will inform our present and future discussions. Perhaps I’m also looking for an earlier vision of the profession, wondering if any part of that vision is still relevant. I live in hope.

*Members of the Task Force on Core Competencies for Special Collections Professionals included: Kathryn Beam, chair (University of Michigan), Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress), Jackie Dooley (UC Irvine), Hjordis Halvorson (Newberry Library), Kris Kiesling (University of Minnesota), Beverly Lynch (UCLA), Margaret Nichols (Cornell), Alice Schreyer (University of Chicago), and Dan Slive (William Reese Company).

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sir Arthur and the Olympic Games

The Sherlock Holmes Collections publishes a quarterly newsletter for Friends of the Holmes Collections. On a regular basis we publish articles focusing on items held in the collection (or found elsewhere in the University Libraries) that bear on Mr. Holmes or his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that were published fifty or one hundred years ago. Once or twice a year I create a new list of books or periodical articles to consider for our “50 Years Ago” and “100 Years Ago” columns and share this list with our volunteer newsletter editor and Friends president. They meet with me nearly every week to plan the next issue of the newsletter or discuss other matters related to the collections. This last Monday, during our weekly meeting, we came across a short piece written by Sir Arthur and published a century ago that was timely and too good to pass up.

In 1914—ten years before the first Winter Olympic Games—Heath, Cranton & Ousely, Ltd. of Fleet Lane, London published a book by Frederick Annesley Michael (F. A. M.) Webster entitled The Evolution of the Olympic Games, 1829 B.C.—1914 A.D. Webster—a javelin champion, Olympic coach, and author—was the honorary secretary of the Amateur Field Events Association. He recruited the President of this same organization, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to write a preface to the book. The introduction was written by His Grace the Duke of Somerset, Chairman of the British Olympic Council. (If this sounds a bit like Chariots of Fire, there is a connection: Webster knew and worked with Evelyn Aubrey Montague who ran steeplechase in the 1924 Paris Olympics—and who was depicted in the movie by actor Nicholas Farrell.)

Webster had a number of motives for writing this book. One senses some frustration and an awareness of the sun possibly setting on the British Empire. It also carries a ring of familiarity to our ears, with concerns about national stature and well-being. In the Author’s Preface Webster stated:

It is only since our dismal failure at Stockholm in 1912 that the Modern Olympic Games have aroused any vital interest in the mind of the “man in the street,” and even then it has been a mere passing feeling of shame that we should fall so low as to be beaten by even the lesser European nations, who for generations past have been our pupils in all sporting pastimes…. My desire, in offering this book to the public, is that a better understanding of the Olympic movement may be acquired and a greater interest in athletics generated in the minds of the rising generation….While our youths prefer to watch rather than to practise the rough old games which first gave us the brave and devil-may-care spirit which has won us possessions the wide world over, it will be a courageous or a very foolish man who will maintain that the bull-dog breed is sound as of yore, in the days of the prize-ring and wrestling-booth.

Sir Arthur, also an athlete of some repute—he played cricket, tended goal for the Portsmouth football (soccer) club, and introduced skiing to the British public—followed Webster’s lead with his own observations on national pride and sport. British athletics historian Peter Lovesey wrote about “Conan Doyle’s Olympic Crusade” and paints this picture of Sir Arthur’s involvement:

In 1910 he [Doyle] accepted the presidency of the English Amateur Field Events Association. Britain’s preoccupation with the more glamorous track events had left the nation far behind the USA and the Nordic countries in jumping and throwing. Britain’s showing in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912, a mere two individual gold medals and five in team sports, came as a shock to a nation that had dominated in the previous century. To quote F.A.M.Webster, “a perfect wave of popular indignation swept over the country, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle . . . had his attention drawn to the position.” Conan Doyle’s own account tells us that in the early summer of 1912 Lord Northcliffe sent him a telegram “which let me in for about as much trouble as any communication which I have ever received.” Northcliffe (who in 1908 had raised nearly £12,000 to bail out the London Olympic Games) said Conan Doyle was the one man in Great Britain who could rally round the discordant parties and achieve a united effort to restore the nation’s Olympic status.

Conan Doyle was a strong patriot. It is often assumed he received his knighthood because of his literary success, but Sherlock Holmes had nothing to do with it. The honour was given mainly in recognition of the writer’s much-translated booklet, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct, a British response to international criticisms of the nation’s role in the Boer War.

Writing from his home at Crowborough in Sussex, Doyle congratulated Webster on this determination to raise Olympic awareness.

I sincerely hope that your efforts will bear fruit, and that we shall make a better showing in the future as compared with the best of other countries. We know that we have the material. There is no falling off there. I think the human machine is at its best in these Islands. But we have got into the way of doing things rather less thoroughly than they might be done, and that is the point that wants strengthening.

Conan Doyle also discussed another side to the Olympic movement, one often criticized or ignored: the role of money. He also had his eye on a rising power to the West.

It is a very deplorable thing that we were not able to raise the money which would have made athletics more democratic, and put the means of practising them within the reach of the bulk of the people. We tried hard and failed. The result is that we build on a much narrower base than the United States, which has twenty athletic clubs to our one, and widespread municipal facilities by which every man has a chance of finding out his own capacities. This country is full of great sprinters and shot-putters who never dream of their own powers, and have no possible chance of developing them.

In Doylean fashion, the creator of Holmes laid down some lines of action.

We sorely need also some methodical inspection of our public-school athletes, to put them on the right lines and save wasted or misapplied effort. I know how much you, Flaxman, and others have done in this direction; but no man who has his own work to do can spare the time which is needed for such a task. What you have done is, however, remarkable, and in 1916, when we shall have some national heart-searchings, your conscience at least will be at ease.

Other, more painful heart-searchings would come with World War One; the 1916 Olympics never occurred. The Flaxman Doyle referred to was Alfred Edward Flaxman, British track and field star who competed in the 1908 Olympic games. Flaxman died during the war, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His remains were never recovered. Sir Arthur shared an Olympic moment with Flaxman at the 1908 games: the now legendary contest known as “Dorando’s marathon.” But that is a tale for another time (or you can read Peter Lovesey’s account of the event and Doyle’s connection with it).

As you watch the Winter Olympics, remember Sir Arthur, his interest in skiing, and the support he lent to the Olympic movement.

(This post also appears on "Primary Sourcery," the blog of the Archives and Special Collections Department for the University of Minnesota Libraries.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Retrofit 1: Starting With Pieces

Like Sir Saul Enderby, chief of British intelligence MI6 in le CarrĂ©’s Smiley’s People, I can be “thick.” I sometimes need to plot things out, building a thought or idea step by step as if constructing a Euclidean geometric proof. Such is the case as I consider my contributions to a panel discussion/seminar slated for late June, part of the Rare Books and Manuscript Section (RBMS) preconference in Las Vegas. The preliminary description for the seminar — with the title “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?” — reads:

Does the popular image of the special collections librarian match what professionals now find in their jobs? Fundamental changes in librarianship and academia are impacting departments and their staffs. New economic and technological realities are reshaping the demands of the communities we serve – both patron and employer. The reality of the work we do may not resemble our visions of the profession when we started. Today’s professional needs a new understanding of expectations and opportunities in order to succeed. This moderated “fishbowl” discussion will put questions to two library administrators and two professionals in order to clarify their expectations and goals. The seminar will aim to provide strategies for building a successful career in a changing field.

Am I showing my RBMS hand by thinking out loud here, thus diminishing any impact I might have during the seminar itself? I don’t think so. There is a slight risk of showing my ignorance, thinking foolish thoughts, or getting sidetracked along the way. I’ll take the risk. I need to get my thoughts in order and out in the open (or at least partially in the open), in the hope that someone might offer an interesting or useful comment, link me to an article or blog, or correct me along the way. I don’t want to spoil our Las Vegas gathering by disclosing too much. On the other hand, this exercise might plant a few seeds and put colleagues in a prepared and productive mode (or mood) once we arrive in “Sin City.”

I’m not going to attempt to build my entire argument (or statement, or contribution) in a single post. And I might not post all the parts here, as I pick out the various pieces of this puzzle, play with them, and put them in place. I might, after all, need to maintain some sense of suspense or anticipation as to where I finally land and what the puzzle ultimately looks like.

For starters, perhaps in a pedantic or pedestrian fashion, let me grab the first thread from the seminar’s description: the popular image of the special collections librarian. Is there such a thing? Certainly there’s the stereotypical image of a librarian—a thing (and topic) I abhor and believe unrealistic. So, right at the start, let's abandon this train of thought and all images, words, etc. associated with the stereotype.

The impression of a special collections librarian is more problematic, so let me attempt to get at such an image through the back door, as it were, by looking at archivists. (I will have more to say about the archival profession as I move through the various steps of my proof. Let me at least put a placeholder here for a thought worth pursuing later, one I may or may not agree with (but have heard uttered by others more than once): archivists—at least in the North American context—engaged in a silent coup as they took over RBMS leadership during the last decade, wresting control from bibliophiles.)

Richard J. Cox, in a blog post from 2006 entitled “What Should the Fictional Archivist Look Like?,” asks:

If an archivist were going to write a novel or mystery portraying an archivist or the work of an archives, what would be the difference between what he or she would write and what a professional writer might compose? Mostly, I suppose, the archivist might work hard to avoid the stereotypical features most writers easily resort to in their portrayal. What are those characteristics? They seem to be absent-mindedness, other-worldliness, clumsiness, dustiness, musty odors, awkwardness, and other features suggesting one who is far more comfortable with dead, rather than living, people.

As to this stereotype, Cox observes: "Whatever the reasons, archivists are surrounded, buried in, layers of stereotypes, that they can hardly see their way through. But, still the question might be, what is the ideal way, if there is an ideal way that the archivist might be brought to life in a realistic fashion?"

Does Cox offer as a suitable image, something acceptable to the profession? Not really. Only hints, e.g. through the academic novels of David Lodge, but even here we have a problem as Cox adds another stereotypical image into the mix.

Everyone knows that the great university is still home to many who have no hope of making a living in any other part of the world, adding to the amusement evident in the most recent trend in university administrators’ thinking or rhetoric, to reform their institutions into the corporate model. Assuming that a business is intended to make some degree of financial profit, it is wonderful to envision our splendid group of professors contributing to the profit line. Most experienced academics know that to transform their departments into business would be a sure way of killing their programs in a relatively short time – but the rhetoric and posturing along the way would be fun....

Indeed, a thread to work with here is that so many academic archivists are frustrated academics, people who spend years preparing for a teaching career and life of quiet solitude only to discover there were no jobs or they were, despite opportunities, unemployable as academics for some reason.

If Cox leaves us with hints (skewering administrators along the way), Rachel Alexander provides more, at least in terms of stereotypes. In her “Literature review on the image archives and archivists project in popular culture,” Alexander provides another string of images, including: "middle-aged to elderly..., wearing glasses, and dressing sloppily or primly.... a 'fossilized anachronism who should have been put out to pasture long before....'" More images follow, none of them complimentary. I'll spare you the details. I’m sure readers can point to other articles, blogs, books, films, etc. with popular portrayals of archivists and librarians (who are often lumped together in those depictions). Unfortunately, I am still left with the original question in the seminar description: Does the popular image of the special collections librarian match what professionals now find in their jobs?

I think this is the wrong preliminary question to ask. We should scrap or ignore the popular image. We delude ourselves by thinking about or even briefly considering prevalent impressions. It is navel-gazing at its worst. If we got into this segment of the profession because of some quixotic idea of the scholar-bookman and no one in our graduate educational experience disabused us of our fanciful notions, then our professors are to blame for continuing the stereotype; we’re to blame for swallowing it hook, line, and sinker; and our administrators are to blame by leading us by the nose through poorly written or deceptive job postings (assuming such things exist).

Instead, we should deal with the real image, or at least the one we talk about in terms of professional competencies. It is here that we need to begin, to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and see if we like the reflection. With any luck, and perhaps with a bit of skill and guidance from others wiser than ourselves, we’ll see (or are in the process of seeing) “a professional who gradually achieves such general proficiency over the course of his/her career” and “a sense of community and common identity among special collections professionals” that at the same time helps “others to understand our work.”