ACRL was a terrific conference experience for me. Not only did I get to see a lot of good friends and have a lot of deep conversations with other instruction coordinators, but I got so much out of the vast majority of sessions I went to. I will freely admit that the conference was overly instruction-heavy, but for me, that’s not actually a bad thing, as I came back to work with a lot of ideas for teaching, assessing and managing our instruction program!
I really enjoyed the DIY session that the In the Library with the Lead Pipe authors facilitated (From the Periphery into the Mainstream: Library DIY Culture(s) and the Academy). Instead of having a panel of “sages on the stage” tell us what DIY means to libraries and what we all should do to encourage it at our own libraries, they opened up the floor for the audience to share their thoughts and experiences. Given the topic, I thought it was a great idea, since assuming any sort of ownership of the label would be anti-DIY. A lot of the people I talked to who left the session mentioned coming out feeling energized (even a library administrator talked about how much energy there was in the room). It was a great prelude to Henry Rollins’ keynote, since he is the ultimate DIY-er. I came out of it feeling very good about our profession. It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day of librarianship, so we need reminders from time to time that there are lots of people in this profession who are passionate, enthusiastic and who want to create disruptive change.
I think if you ask a group of people what DIY means within librarianship, you’ll get a lot of different answers. And I saw a lot of different ideas of DIY in the discussion at ACRL. Even in the post from In the Library with the Lead Pipe that introduced the DIY idea, it was clear that the authors didn’t share the same vision. When I think of DIY, I first think of it more from a user perspective; the notion of unobtrusively supporting patrons in doing the things they want to do rather than expecting them to ask for help or want everything to be mediated. If I look at it internally within our profession, I see DIY in librarianship as a leveling of the playing field between expert and amateur (or inexperienced and experienced) and being about doing awesome things outside of traditional hierarchies, boundaries, etc. I had no position in ALA or Information Today, but I created conference wikis for ALA Annual 2005 and Computers in Libraries 2006 that allowed everyone to benefit from the wisdom of everyone else. I wasn’t on a committee or sponsored by an agency when I brought together four other fantastic librarians and created Five Weeks to a Social Library, a totally free online learning experience about social media using social media, which became a model for some future online learning initiatives. Much like Henry Rollins, when people tell me “you can’t” that’s exactly what I want to do. So when someone says, with respect to creating a model for online learning, “if you think you can just throw together a few pieces of technology and get things to work differently you are deluding yourselves,” my first thought is “challenge accepted, lady.” I never called what I was doing DIY. It’s just how I operate.
I admire greatly my friends who are willing to work within traditional hierarchies like ALA to get things done and make things better from within. In terms of my service-type work, I was always too impatient. There have been moments where my goals have aligned with those of professional organizations — when I created an ALA Unconference for Jim Rettig’s presidency and right now when I’m building a mentoring program for the Oregon Library Association — but, for the most part, if it’s going to take years of rising in the ranks and building influence to get things done, I’m not game. In my daily work, I’m more willing to put in the time to build relationships and influence, but even that’s something that was hard for me to grow accustomed to early on in my academic career. It was my work as a subject liaison that helped me appreciate what good things can come from slowly cultivating relationships and demonstrating competence. I find that the most meaningful instructional innovations come from years of trust-building, slow steps, and waiting for opportunities to arise. I wish I could see my way to viewing ALA or ACRL committee work in the same light, but I just can’t.
Anyone who has read this blog for more than a couple of years probably knows about my aversion for labels (transliteracy, Library 2.0, etc.). So Brian Matthews’ post about DIY vs. Startup thinking criticizing the session and the In the Library With the Lead Pipe blog post on DIY really rubbed me the wrong way. It was especially frustrating to see how much Brian misrepresented (at least in my opinion) both the session and the notions of DIY that came out of the session. Had I not been at the session, I would have thought, from Brian’s post, that the session was a bunch of librarians who think they have all the answers, care more about their own ego than their users, and are not willing to work within their libraries to come up with concrete solutions whining about how much their libraries suck and should change or go away. That was not at all the tenor of the conversation from my perspective and I honestly think that what people were describing as DIY, sounded a lot like Brian’s “start-up thinking.” Brian can use terms like destruction vs. disruption to try and make them seem different, but if you actually look at what creative destruction is, it sounds a whole heck of a lot like the result of disruptive innovation in most cases (Clayton Christensen, who coined the term disruptive innovation talks about it in this video). Again, it’s semantics. Most of the people at the presentation were talking about finding space to make innovative projects happen within traditional libraries. Sounds a whole lot like the challenge of disruptive innovation to me, where it’s difficult to find space for creating innovative new services (or markets) when there is a focus on the core functions (or markets) of the business.
There were people at the DIY session who were talking about destruction or rebellion, but it wasn’t the totality or even the majority of the conversation (I can only think of two people in the session who really used that sort of rhetoric, but my memory is by no means photographic). I think most people were looking to find creative ways to do innovative things within traditional hierarchies. Brian might be able to find fault in the DIY blog post, but not so much in the conversations that took place in that ACRL conference session.
I must have been in a different session than Brian, because I didn’t get that “damn the man” message from the ACRL session. I heard people talking about the challenges some of them face in doing innovative things and working outside of traditional hierarchies, but it didn’t seem to take on a “it’s all our bosses’ fault” tone in my opinion. I think it pushed most of us to think about what it is about the structures in our institutions that keep us from doing things and what can we do about it. I think that people like to believe ULs and AULs have the power to unilaterally change culture, but it’s not true. They can work towards an ideal culture, but culture is all of us, and we all have to buy into a different vision. When I look at the promotion and tenure process at my institution, an AUL or even a UL can argue that DIY-esque projects that benefit the profession or our patrons are as valuable, if not more, than publishing peer-reviewed articles, but promotion and tenure is a faculty-driven process and thus no one individual can change the norms of their institution. AULs and ULs can lead by example and work towards changing norms — by saying yes to DIY-esque ideas and valuing that sort of work — but I personally believe that they have less power, in terms of changing culture, than one might want to believe.
Brian also criticized the DIYers (not sure who they are, maybe everyone at the session who spoke up?) for not having a clear vision for what a library that encouraged this kind of work looked like. But some people did articulate the things that need to change to encourage DIY, including valuing that sort of work in tenure and/or promotion. I really liked that one person mentioned the notion of giving librarians a portion of their time to work on DIY-esque projects. I have been advocating this idea in conference talks for the past five years at least. Google gives their staff 20% of their time to work on pet projects that could benefit Google. This means that people don’t have to ask permission to try and build an application that does x, so long as they are using their 20% time for it. It allows the freedom to create innovation within an organization structured around specific goals. When Google actually looked at the impact of that 20% time, they found that 50% of their products (like Gmail!) were created during that 20% time. I would argue that libraries would see a similar ROI. This is something that AULs and ULs absolutely have control over and I honestly believe that it’s an ideal way to make space for disruptive innovation without actually giving up the core functions and goals of the library/institution.
I guess what bothered me most was the fact that Brian seems to be creating a false dichotomy that simply doesn’t exist from my perspective. It’s an amazing stretch for him to say “DIYers talked a lot about,” in a session where the audience was doing most of the talking and there certainly was nothing that looked at all like a movement or even agreement on what DIY means. So for him to characterize the people in the session as being all about “me” and not about “the user” is offensive. The conversation in the session was largely about us as librarians and how we can make innovative things happen within our organizations. It was introspective. It wasn’t about the content of those innovative things. So for Brian to make it sound like the people in that room weren’t “optimistic”, “committed to pushing the boundaries”, or making “changes from within the system” seems like a major mischaracterization. One of the first things someone said as a way of defining DIY was that it’s about begging for forgiveness rather than asking for permission. If that isn’t a strategy for pushing boundaries and making things happen, I don’t know what is.
There were things I had issues with in the rhetoric of the DIY session and the blog post from Lead Pipe. The notion that there is a “traditional library” and that we need to move away from that is a fallacy. Does every generation think they invented change? Libraries have been changing and adapting and becoming what their communities need for at least the past century (I didn’t take a history of libraries class in library school, so I won’t try to go further back). We have new challenges now and are in a very different information ecosystem, but most libraries are changing (and have been for some time) to meet the changing needs of their communities. I’m not moved in any way by the whole “libraries are doomed!” rhetoric and I always wonder why anyone who really believes that about our profession went to library school in the first place. I don’t always agree with Wayne Bivens-Tatum, but on the notion that change isn’t new, we definitely see eye-to-eye.
I also think that one problem with DIY, which I have experienced myself, is the fact that it’s often unsustainable unless it becomes part of an organization or gets stable funding. Then again, doesn’t that sound just like a startup? How many online tools have you used that disappeared when their creators realized they were not going to be bought by Google? The percentage of DIY projects that are self-sustaining without funding or organizational support is quite small. The longer I’m in the profession, the more my focus has gone toward sustainability, because I just don’t think it’s ethical to create something people will depend on that you have no plan for sustaining.
What I’d be interested in hearing from Brian is how he, as a manager, actually creates a startup culture. As a manager, I’d love to create that sort of environment in my unit, but I can’t see what startup management looks like in a library context. Brian talks a lot about changes in thinking, but how does he encourage that and how does he give his employees the space and (more importantly) the time to think that way? What is he doing differently? It’s been my experience that you can hire awesomely innovative people, but that’s not enough if you aren’t giving them time and opportunities and helping to overcome barriers to their success. A good manager helps their people be successful within their unique institutional culture. It’s very easy to talk about what libraries should be doing or what we could learn from other industries, but really, Brian, what do you do as a manger to create this culture? Or even what does a startup manager look like in a library? Brian could have spoken up at any time during the session and talked about that, because, really, that’s the constructive direction the conversation needed to go when people started talking about institutional barriers.
I honestly hope that the In the Library with the Lead Pipe gang doesn’t try to further define DIY as Brian suggests (I doubt they would given that they didn’t even adopt a stage on the sage approach in their session). Some people who have latched onto a term and made it “theirs” have become so one-note, and spend all their time elucidating and defending “their term” to the point where it becomes more about them and the term than about making libraries better. I’d much rather see the Lead Pipe folks continuing to lead by example with their own brilliant DIY project, which is far more important in terms of inspiring others than being self-appointed keepers of the flame for DIY.
It’s possible (likely?) that my reaction to Brian’s post is colored by my own severe allergy to labels. I think when we get into conversations about semantics when we’re really talking about quite similar concepts and goals, we’ve missed the boat. It shouldn’t be Transliteracy vs. Information Literacy or Startup vs. DIY when the goals are so very similar. How do we work together to create a better future? What we need are suggestions for these librarians who feel stifled in their current jobs or can’t find ways to make DIY or startup behavior happen. How do we harness the energy that was palpable in that session for the good of the profession and our communities?
Image credit: “Sacramento Hacker Lab by IntelFreePress, on Flickr