I’ve been thinking a lot lately about finding a balance between honoring history and promoting change. Then I read a post by Kendra entitled “The tension between ‘memory’ and ‘complacency'” where she talks about the struggle to find “the balance between memory/history and change/innovation in my library community.” She says that while it’s important to remember why a decision was made and what was going on at the time, it’s not an excuse to avoid making changes that will provide value now.

A lot of times, providing detailed explanations for the past seems to not really provide excuses, but sort of muddy the waters. It’s hard, as somebody who wants to see change and innovation, to hear a long account of the past without thinking that the teller implicitly thinks it should still sort of be that way.

I agree that it’s valuable to know why a decision was made originally — sometimes there was a very good reason and knowing that offers a perspective that we may not have originally considered. More times than not, at my library, none of us know why the decision was originally made. I think that lack of institutional memory sometimes helps us up a great deal in our ability to push changes forward. Maybe we all need a bit of institutional amnesia at times. 😉

Norwich University is steeped in history. When I graduated from Wesleyan, I knew next to nothing about its history. Students at Norwich know the history of Norwich. They are steeped in it from Day 1. There are classes on Norwich History and assignments where students have to research certain aspects of the history of Norwich in the archives and museum. Students here, especially in the Corps of Cadets, feel a part of a tradition. And that not only connects students to Norwich while they’re here, but it connects the alums to the University long after they’ve graduated. And many of those alums have taken very good care of the University, financially, over the years.

Our library is very change-oriented, but there is definitely a hesitance to change anything that feels like it might not be in keeping with the Norwich tradition or that involves getting rid of something that’s been around a long time.

Right now, we’re looking at making changes to our reference desk. It’s big, bulky and not at all conducive to having a true research consultation or allowing the student to “drive” our computer. We sit at the desk and the student has no choice but to stand. We want a space that feels collaborative. A space where students can be at eye-level with us and can sit if they’re working on something more in-depth. We want it to be less bunker-like and more inviting.

But then there’s that history thing. The desk has been in the library since it was built. It even has a plaque with the name of an alum on it. Our Head of Reference is very hesitant to get rid of the desk, because she doesn’t want to make anyone angry. So we’re looking at modifying it, but no modification to the existing desk will really give us what we’re looking for. It’ll be a bit better, but I have a hard time seeing the point of spending a lot of money on “a bit better” when we could probably spend a similar sum and get just what we want.

I completely understand that we need to be cognizant and respectful of things that represent Norwich’s history and things that the alums might be attached to. They are stakeholders too. But are they really attached to a reference desk? And wouldn’t most alums be happy to see a change that would improve services to current students? I honestly don’t have the answer to that. Nor do my colleagues.

I’m sure other libraries also struggle with making decisions that might anger older and loyal members of their population or that represent a major break with tradition. I think the key is to keep asking questions and take nothing for granted. What was the reason for doing it this way in the first place? Is there really a good reason to keep this the way it is? Do the people we think care about this really care? We always think we know our populations, and more often than not, we’re dead wrong. And that not only applies to the reasons to avoid change; it also applies to the reasons (and the way we want) to change. My colleagues and I don’t entirely agree on what this new reference desk should look like and each of us are so sure we’re right. My feeling is that we should ask the students. Do they want to stand at a 42″ desk? Sit at a 30″ desk? Have both options available? We each have our own biases.

Sometimes it’s not about change vs. history. Sometimes it’s all in our heads. Sometimes it’s just about figuring out what your stakeholders really want and care about. And, yes, sometimes the wants of stakeholders will conflict, but I think we spend a lot of time debating things that might just be non-issues if we actually asked our users.