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 More times than not, at my library, none of us know why the decision was originally made.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.
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Have you considered if there is a way to re-purpose the desk? That might honor its history by continuing to use it, just not in the same way.
We’ve been discussing the idea of repurposing it for a while, but we can’t find any uses for it nor anyone on campus who would want it. I’m sure we could find someone who would want the wood (an artist perhaps), so it wouldn’t be a total loss.
Have you contacted the alumn’s family to see if a.they want the desk or b. donate money so the plaque can placed on the new desk.
Also don’t forget about meeting Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements with the new desk.
Thanks, Rich. That’s exactly why I have issues with us having just a really tall desk. How could that possibly work for someone in a wheelchair???
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Any possibility of repurposing the desk in place? Use it for displays or student desk space or something else, and install a new, more appropriate reference desk in another location in the library.
We have a traditional reference desk that makes it clear that we work here and people can approach us for help. If a teaching moment comes up, we often pull up another chair and have the patron come around and drive. If we see that the person would have difficulty moving behind the desk, we go over to a free public computer and sit next to them there. It’s simple and works well.
Yes, I hate making other people angry, too. But that’s not a good enough reason to do or not do something. I think that’s a problem in our field. We all want to avoid confrontation. As a result, the aggressive folks who come into our field either find a backwater in which to ply their stock & trade of bullying others or everyone tiptoes around one another & the true issues never get on the table to get resolved.
Neither of these results is good for organizations that have to start living in perpetual beta and neither is good for the field of librarianship.
Have a debate on courses of action with all of the stakeholders involved, trust one another to not take things personally when you disagree on a topic (and ground rules, no one can impeach one another’s integrity or intellectual capacity – we’re all in this together, after all), then make the decision. Concede graciously, if need be, and carry out what is decided on… even when you disagree with the decision.
As Eppo said at ALA a few days ago, be courageous, speak up, just do something!
Is there anything that would keep you from, say, abandoning the desk for a month? This would be on a trial basis, just to see how having no desk might impact your interactions with the students. You could adopt a “roving” model where you wander around a bit and do more assisting students at point of need, just to see how it works out.
You might find that you don’t miss the desk at all, or it might create total panic and confusion, but you won’t really know one way or the other until you try something, right?
I don’t think it would work well for us, but I do like your idea about thinking outside of the box (or desk) and trying out different service models. I know that some of us have tried to do roving reference in the past and it didn’t work well with our population. Not that we got rid of our desk during that time. Our desk is not something we can just get rid of temporarily (it is more like a fortress than a desk), so I don’t think we ever could do a true experiment of life without the desk.