By Meredith Farkas | November 11, 2005
My mother tells me that I was terrible about sharing when I was a little girl. My toys were MY toys. I would lick cookies so that no one would ask to have a bite. My dad even has video footage of me at age three grabbing my book away from my best friend Bonnie. But at some point I learned to share, though I still wouldn’t recommend anyone coming between me and cookies. We all learned to share as children; share crayons, books, and other possessions. But did we learn to share ideas? Not really. Our papers were usually shared only with our teacher, not with our fellow students. In some classes we were explicitly told not to collaborate and share ideas on individual projects. In academia, yes, there is scholarly dialogue, but there’s also competition. In the quest for tenure, it is very good to be the only expert in certain subjects; to be indispensible. The first time I ever really got a taste of a culture that was passionate about information-sharing (and not just paying lip-service to the idea) was when I got involved in the blogosphere.
Sharing is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately at work. All I want to do is share ideas all day and I want to create new ways that will enable us to share ideas in a better way. If something I know can help someone else, I’m thrilled to be able to help. I was so excited when the Dean of the Online Graduate Program asked if I’d teach him about wikis so that they could use one for collaborative document editing. Today he e-mailed me to ask about developing a blog to share news internally. Hot! I would rather empower a person with technology skills so that they can do things for themselves than have them in a position of dependence where they constantly have to ask me for help.
But I’ve noticed that academia is not that way. It seems like at a lot of schools, the IT department controls every technology choice. Rather than educating faculty members on how to create wikis and blogs and use other cool technologies in the classroom, they keep faculty on a tight leash. And maybe there’s a very good reason for that. Maybe faculty can’t be trusted because they’ll only screw everything up. But that hasn’t been my experience yet. I’m in a weird position of being a librarian and a techie and a person who is supposed to serve the needs of the Online Graduate Program. As a Distance Learning Librarian, my job really isn’t all that different than what the people in academic computing do (other than doing reference and instruction work). They create tutorials and build websites. So do I. I am constantly questioning what the boundaries of my job are. The folks in the Online Graduate Program know that I know a lot about social software, so they often ask my advice on things. They’ve also asked me to do some tech-related projects and presentations for them. This has caused some friction between me and IT, especially because I am providing faculty with the tools to create their own stuff (blogs and wikis). And some people don’t like that. I really don’t know what to do about that. Should I just not do what I was hired to do? Should I play dumb? Should I refuse to tell people about wikis when asked? The President of the University believes that every employee’s talents should be used to their fullest. What if my “talents” help one group of people but piss off another? I don’t want to step on people’s toes, but I also don’t want to feel like I can’t do my job.
So it’s interesting to see the dichotomy in academia. Libraries are all about sharing, but it doesn’t seem to come so naturally in the rest of academia. Some people seem threatened by the idea of everyone having the same skills as they have. They would rather be experts than share their skills. I guess academia is all about boundaries. Hence the whole tenure issue with librarians. It’s important to be in the club, because otherwise you won’t be entitled to the same access to information. The culture seems to create a caste system with information haves and have-nots. It’s all just goofy to me.
I went to a Vermont Academic Library Summit yesterday where we discussed the possibility of developing some consortial activities. In the morning the speakers (all members of other consortia) talked about consortial borrowing (walk-in ILL) and collective negotiations for databases. In the afternoon, we separated into eight breakout groups to discuss three things that we think are most important to do as a group and what first steps we would take to make it happen. Obviously the two issues discussed in the morning were important to all of the groups. Something that was also brought up by many of the groups was continuing education and skill-sharing. Most of the libraries in Vermont are quite small. With about 2,000 students, Norwich is considered a mid-sized university in Vermont. Some schools have only 3 librarians who have to run an entire academic library! Obviously, academic librarians in Vermont must wear many hats and they may not necessarily have the skills to do everything they’d like to do. There are libraries in Vermont with no online catalog or databases and no one who knows about technology. Only one of the libraries in the state has a preservationist. On the positive side, we all have different skills and different areas of expertise. Maybe we could share those skills. Perhaps I could help people at one library set up a blog and they could help us with our information literacy tutorials. We could pool our training budgets and bring in more experts who can help us with the issues we are all concerned about. We are much more powerful together than we are separately. So I was thrilled when I heard people suggesting building an online community where we could share information and offer up our skills to other libraries in the area. Someone even suggested a wiki (and it wasn’t me!). After Thanksgiving, I think I’m going to set up a wiki for the Vermont academic library community. I think we need an online space where we can keep the conversation going. It’s great to have these conferences where we get all excited about the things we could do. But people get back to their jobs and the hundreds of e-mails in their inboxes and collaboration gets lost in the shuffle of the day-to-day. Even though consortial activity would benefit us all, it’s hard to mobilize people to do the work to make it happen. So maybe a wiki would keep the ideas in people’s minds. At least I hope so.
How do we get people to share? It’s not quite so easy as it was in Kindergarden, is it? And putting a wiki up and asking people to share isn’t going to get to the heart of the problem — the culture. Dave Pollard has some interesting ideas about why people don’t share information and how to change that in the business environment. A lot of his observations are generalizable to any organization. I’d be interested in hearing anyone else’s suggestions for how to get past the psychological and cultural barriers to information and skill sharing, or how I should deal with the weirdness of my position at my job.