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?