30 August 2007

Resignation : Redux

I was a bit passionate the other day, talking about why I'm resigning from the library world. The post stirred a lot of responses, both as comments but also as personal emails and IM's. I feel I need to clarify a few things so that people really understand what I'm trying to say. I realize that far too often I'm being unclear, using sarcasm, dark humor and Norwegian mentality, when really what is needed is clarity.

But first ; thanks! Thank you to all those people who have written me, most of you strangers that feel my pain and share my sentiments. I'm a bit overwhelmed by it all, because, frankly, I thought I was quite alone in this. I knew about a few people in drips and drabs that agrees with some of my views on all things library related, but most of them were also happy to keep up the long, dwindling battle it is to change such a huge culture. I've received mail from people from all around the world, and I feel honored that you took the time to pass on some words of encouragement. It's meant a lot to me.

Secondly, I need to explain why I've taken this resignation path. I've got three little kids (7 years, 4 years and 2 months), a wonderful wife, and a ball-crazy dog. They are the most important things in the world to me, and I will do anything for them, anything to make them happy. And the truth is that I'm not a happy daddy and a father these days. I'm quite an emotional guy, and yes, my work-life does affect my emotions into my private life. I'm becoming more and more grumpy, impatient and depressed. And I've decided that this madness has got to stop.

Anyways, on to more specifics. As with all things, there's always more than one reason for why something happens, and in my case there's specifically two ;
  1. The current open discussion
  2. Internal workings at my own library
Let's have a look at each one ;

The current open discussion

The current open discussion refers to the various online media where librarians and interests talk about all things library related. My participation is mostly in the NGC4LIB mailing-list, a list of amazing and wonderful people. Even the ones that I disagree with the most are actually really nice and smart.

What, exactly, is it that we're talking about? Some days it's hard to understand what the discussions really are all about, because we're really talking about such a broad sweeping domain that's almost as large as all human understanding and its integration with our cultural institutions and ideals. We peck at the corner of MARC, or tickle the notion of what a book is, or poke fun at epistemology, or ... any little thing we can think of. Almost no subject doesn't fit the "library world." So. What are we talking about?

When we indeed dig into the more philosophical side of things we have huge discussions where most people agree. Then we get into the whole design of those ideas, and we split into various interest groups. And then we start talking implementation, and then things really break apart. But all of this is actually ok; it's fine to disagree, to spar with each other, suss it out.

But it's all online. It's all talk. It's not going anywhere. The mailing-list is a collection of dreamers and thinkers, people who'd like to change things but rarely have the opportunity to do so. Sure, there might be dribbles of influence dripping off here to other places, but it's small potatoes compared to what, in my opinion, the library need. And what it needs is serious leadership by people who understand what to do and have got the balls to do it. I think librarians are far to nice to each other to make big decisions that carry any influx of controversy.

I hear stories from the distant past of the library world where those people indeed made those decisions, people who had an impact far outside the library world, and librarians were united to solve some really big problems. Lately, not so much. Lately, not much at all. Lately, it's all about money and resources. Lately, it's all about fear.


Yeah, that word needs a line on its own. Librarians are afraid ; they do not understand what the next thing to hit the library world is going to be, and rightly so. I don't know either. None of us know, really, except that technology will have something to do with it. There's fear in everything I'm involved with, be it a new system, a small application, or - dammit! - just a change of color on a web page. How can we change the system with so many fearsome creatures?

Someone smart recently told me ;
*That* may be the fear that modern technologies (such as those you promote) create in many librarians: being redundant and no longer needed. So, in a sense, you may be feeling what some of your hearers feel, though in a different context.
And he's right, of course, but what many don't realize is that they'll lose their jobs unless we can find new ways to keep them. I understand perfectly well what the library does best ; librarians. I'm not here to make technology replace librarians. I'm trying to find ways to find work for librarians that no one else involved in technology can do as good.

All the way up until today the worlds knowledge and credo were kept through the ages in libraries. No other concept has done more for the human intellectual evolvement than us. And now we stand at the threshold where the foundation of those concepts - the written word on pieces of (mostly) paper - are extremely brittle. There's no point in denying it ; The book is dying as the opus of knowledge. More and more they'll be known as a physical archive interesting mostly to specialists, and will no longer be the keepers of current and / or mainstream knowledge. All of that will be given to computers, databases, websites, companies. Books won't die completely, of course, but they will not be as important. Give it 10, 20 30 years.

Books will not be as important.

Then why are we still obsessing with books? Why are we cramming other media into a meta data format designed for books? Why aren't we seriously creating relationships between our books and the media? Why are we even still thinking in terms of books? I'll tell you why ; because we got so damn many of them, stacks and stacks of them, and if we don't promote our books, then what are we? What are we without books?

The current open discussion is not going to have an impact on any of these questions. Sure, the topic pop up from time to time, only to be throttled back into that section of all human discourse called "reality", which is a synonym with "can't." And in short, I'm out of breath. I've said what I can say, several times over, and I feel I'm getting on some people's nerves. Some people don't like me to be vocal, not to be so darn passionate about the well-being of human culture and evolvement. "You don't follow protocol." I say things I shouldn't say, certainly things that implies great change. But you can only burn the fire for so long. And my fire is going out.

I've been told many times over that if I want change I've got to do it in my own time, and show people to have them go along with it, that you cannot ask permission to do radical things ; you must do, and then ask forgiveness if you totally screw up. And hey, I believe in that. I've been doing that for a long time. I've been showing off prototypes, discussions, ideas, technology and concepts, all the while watching the rest of the world rush past the library decision makers. The library need so bad to be innovative, but we simply haven't got a culture for it. And so, the groins of human knowledge will be passed from libraries to others. "
Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status." [Laurence J. Peter]

I've enjoyed the mailing-list hugely. Even those I've disagreed with, and sometimes had a skit with, I respect highly. I've never been offended or abused (I don't get offended or abused easily), so rest easy all of you ; it has been a great ride.

Internal workings at my own library

Yes, there's always that. I've been unhappy with things here before, and things are not that different now. In short, the workings here are simply a miniature of the library world problems ; people are too stuck in the status quo to realize it's wishful thinking. 20 years ago you could often hear the phrase "Do you know where the nearest phone is?"

A bit more specific to me is the fact that I'm caught between the sheets of bureaucracy ; My library is a Australian federal library, and federal legislation says you can only hire Australian citizens, and I'm not. (Actually, the same legislation do offer exceptions to this rule, but the library is unwilling to do that. Maybe if I was someone important they might have seen it differently, though, but it is strange given that Canberra has a huge problem finding qualified workers little less specialists, even importing people from abroad. Hmm. Sounds like someone doesn't like me, doesn't it? :) And no, I can't be one either as it requires be to give up my Norwegian citizenship because Norway won't allow dual citizenship, even though my kids can. And no, I'm not ready quit being a Norwegian quite yet.

And so it is ; my work is on a temporary contract basis, which means I have no path to go within the library. I'm temporary fluff, hired to do a job which certainly hasn't got the word "innovate" in it. I'm stuck in a spot where I can't move, talking to people who don't always agree with me.

So my take on all of this is in fact as simple as "I don't fit in." Even if people find what I say to be right, I'm unfortunately one of those who's got little patience for bureaucracy and process management and friggin' PRINCE2 project methodology (!!!) and tons of documenting all the things you haven't done. I just don't work well this way, and so I think the problem really is with me. I used to be a senior consultant, creating truly large-scale systems in small integrated teams, being agile, professional, stable, fast, wham, bang! Man did I have fun, and boy did we create good stuff. Doesn't sound like the library you know, does it?

I'll be around

Yeah, I'll hang around the mailing-lists for a little while. I'm still in love with the library ideals and concepts. I still love books. And maps. And old pictures. And just surfing the catalog. Or snooping in the newspaper reels. Or finding a microfilm, wondering what's on it, what it means, and who did it. Even subject headings and its contextual meaning. I love catalogers. And I love librarians. I just don't love what we're collectively doing with the concept of "library."

I need to bask in technology, finding links between it and the culture we live in, making semantic models which aids anyone who cares about knowledge. Not sure I know where I'll find it, but I'm open to anything. I wish you all the best, I truly, truly do.

P.S. I'm currently looking to Sydney for exciting work, and possibly a move to the north shores of Wollongong where my wife is from [Kiama]. I'm excited about this. I miss the sea, the fresh air, the bustle of culture, organic growth, sub-tropical climate, and green things like trees, grass and bushes.


At Friday, August 31, 2007 3:52:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can sympathize. I was a programmer for close to a decade before becoming a librarian, and am appalled by the attitudes of many librarians. Most seem to feel that they should't have to work hard to learn new skills after getting their MLS.

I suspect that some of this will change when the older generation starts to retire, but the wheels of bureaucracy will still be an issue.

I am lucky to have a director who is excited about new ideas and technologies, and gives me the freedom to experiment. He is definitely the exception to the rule, though.

I have no plans to leave librarianship, but I can empathize with the techies who get fed up and leave.

Good luck to you and your family!

- Jesse

At Friday, August 31, 2007 6:16:00 PM, Blogger  said...

This post has been removed by the author.

At Friday, September 07, 2007 2:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Alexander,

I admire your patience over all these years trying to help secure libraries a future. But some people just are entrenched in their microcosm and refuse to see how the outside world (there is one, yes) operates. From experience with the place I worked in I can only guess how much more you were prepared to fight.

But it is also important to realize that "a man must do what he can do best". To live unhappy for many years is not the way. So I wish you all the best in your quest for a better future. I hope the libraries have not damaged you :-)

At Friday, September 21, 2007 2:26:00 PM, Blogger  said...

Pilgrim, it's +always+ been about money and resources.

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