Librarians: We’re killing innovation with bureaucracy

Librarians: We’re killing innovation with bureaucracy

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure to speak as part of the SSP Librarian Focus Group in Washington DC. It’s organized annually to allow society publishers to pick the brains of a small panel of librarians, and this year we were asked to share what we thought were libraries’ single biggest challenge and single biggest advantage.

It’s likely that the session organizers wanted me to address challenges/advantages within scholarly communication. But I had a much broader context in mind.

To me, librarians’ biggest advantage is that we’re innovating for the public good and not for the sake of shareholders. And academic libraries’ biggest challenge? Our bureaucracy prevents us from getting shit done.

Where we’re winning: innovation for the public good

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It’s easy to look around and see where we’re supporting innovation for the public good. My favorite example of this is the Library Freedom Project. Inspired primarily by community organizing tactics and small enough of an organization to be very agile, LFP is responsible for inspiring the famous Tor exit relay that Lebanon Public Library launched this year, encouraging libraries worldwide to support digital privacy via a number of actionable steps, and scaling privacy education for library patrons–training the trainers, in workshops run by bona fide privacy experts.

More established/traditional organizations are doing their part, too. Library-based “platinum” OA publishing options are increasingly popping up, making it free for authors to publish (and for readers to read). And libraries are largely to thank for the success of Open Library of the Humanities, in that they’re funding the hell out of the researcher-founded project, making it sustainable in the long-term.

We’re also collaboratively developing open source systems like Kuali OLE and Hydra, doing a lot of the hard work of creating awesome content management systems that we give away for free, so those among us without the resources can leverage our expertise.

In a way, the OA and OSS examples are the most interesting, because they are working from within the system. And in that, they face the most challenges due to libraries’ horrible love affair with bureaucracy.

Where we’re killing ourselves: bureaucracy

Turf wars are an unfortunate side effect of academic libraries’ bureaucracy
Turf wars are an unfortunate side effect of academic libraries’ bureaucracy

I’ve been amazed at the stark differences between working in academic libraryland and working for publishers and metrics startups.

I now work for a company whose parent organization has scores of departments and thousands of employees worldwide, yet it’s easier for me to “get shit done” on a daily basis than when I worked at a university library with less than ten departments and only several hundred employees.

Here are some of the examples of barriers that I (or others, speaking anonymously) have encountered in academic libraries:

  • Attending strategic planning pre-meetings where we planned out what to talk about at the “official” meeting.
  • Participating in strategic planning exercises (countless meetings, twenty-plus hours spent researching and collaborating on planning docs, etc), only to have those exercises ignored because it didn’t quite fit into the vision that senior managers had in mind when they asked us to plan.
  • Being rebuked by fellow staff for attempting to build relationships with a department that didn’t have anyone serving its needs, because it “wasn’t [my] place” (speaking plainly, I infringed upon someone else’s disciplinary turf).
  • Getting disciplined for pursuing a prestigious grant opportunity with faculty members–one that had a great deal of promise and the buy-in of department heads who previously hadn’t considered the library a “research partner”–simply because “the right people” (AKA library administrators) weren’t named as co-PIs on the grant.
  • Not being able to influence purchasing decisions (beyond approving faculty’s requests)–not even for the best reason in the world. (“We don’t have a dedicated data repository, but we won’t consider trialling Figshare for Institutions? And we don’t have a reason not to? OK, great.”) No “rank and file” librarians seemed to have this power, not even colleagues who had 30 years’ worth of seniority. If you weren’t a faculty member or at least an associate dean, you were not listened to.

Working within this system is frustrating, to say the least. Especially as a millennial (not to stereotype, but we have a lot less tolerance for bureaucracy than previous generations).

What’s the point of perpetuating systems that get in the way of fulfilling our higher purpose(s) as librarians? Should we really accept that “that’s just the way it is” when you work for such a large organization? Or should we be brave enough to reinvent our organizations, instead?

As it stands now, some of the most motivated and intelligent people I know have left (or are thinking about leaving) academic libraries altogether because of the bureaucratic culture. When you run these people out of your library, you’re often left only with the burnt out and disenfranchised or, in some cases, the “I’m just waiting for retirement” people. Both groups are difficult to motivate towards doing awesome work.

You know who comforts me, though? My former boss at UMass Amherst Libraries, Marilyn Billings. That there are Marilyns in the world makes me know that all hope is not lost.

Marilyn Billings (second from left) along with her scholcomm proteges :)
Marilyn Billings (second from left) along with her scholcomm proteges 🙂

Marilyn works within a large, bureaucratic system, as did her former boss, Director of Libraries Jay Schaefer. And yet Marilyn is what I affectionately call an “Idea Tornado”, constantly experimenting, always with the support of Jay. I was but a lowly “resident” when I worked at UMass, but I got the sense that it was Jay’s support–and Marilyn’s unflagging enthusiasm and love for serving our profession’s higher goals–that made Marilyn’s work so successful.

We have to have support for innovation among the higher ranks in order to actually innovate. We can’t just wave our hands around and say things like “MVP” and “iteration” for innovation to happen. We have to have library deans and supervisors who aren’t afraid of failure, of wasting time and money, of occasionally fucking things up royally. We have to have a long-term vision, for sure, but we need to take our culture of strategically planning things to death and burn it all down.

Until we do, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to academic libraries. I want to keep on innovating for the public good, you see, and have a low tolerance for bureaucracy. In the meantime, I’ll be leaving academic libraries in the capable hands of the Marilyns of the world.

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