Karen Schneider published an interesting post yesterday under the pithy title The Devil Needs No Advocate. Other than the title, it’s a post that I mostly agree with and it got me thinking about where it’s useful to play the role of critic or devil’s advocate and where it’s not. Because I do think the devil needs an advocate and the role of devil’s advocate is a critically important one at any institution.

Karen writes about the Hayward Public Library that introduced a Netflix-like system for their patrons. So far, it’s been unsuccessful. Does this mean it was a bad idea? Maybe, maybe not. It might not be the right idea for their population. It might just not be marketed well yet. It might be an idea ahead of its time. It might just require some tweaks. I completely agree with Karen when she writes “excellence also requires much behind-scenes sausagemaking and experimentation. This is particularly true for new ideas. It is extremely hard to distinguish good ideas from bad ideas early in the iterative design process.” Sometimes, no matter how well you know your patrons, no matter how much research you do, no matter how much you flog an idea, it can still fail.

When I was a distance learning librarian, I tried out a number of different services that didn’t work out. They seemed like great ideas for our population, they worked well at other institutions, but they just didn’t work out when we implemented them. Sometimes they just required some tweaking and sometimes we had to abandon the idea altogether. We’re dealing with that now with offering online live library instruction sessions for our distance learners. It sounds like a great idea and the students who attend are always blown away by how much they learn, but because it’s optional, we’re getting very low attendance. Does this mean that offering live library instruction for distance learners is a bad idea? No. We just need to figure out what will make students attend. This semester, we gave all online instructors a draft email to send out to their students to encourage them to take advantage of the instruction sessions. I’ve found in the past that it makes a huge difference when a recommendation comes from an instructor rather than from the librarian. So we’ll see next week (when our sessions start) if it worked. And if it didn’t, we’ll keep trying new things and improving the service. One idea I really like from the Web 2.0 world is perpetual beta. Service implementation should always be an iterative process. You can plan and test and plan, but until you put something out there for your patrons, you’ll never know 100% how it will be received. And based on the feedback you get from your patrons, you can make it better.

Karen also points to a snarky follow-up post about the Hayward Public Library from the Annoyed Librarian (who won’t get any link-love from me, so you can just go find the link on Karen’s post) and writes this about him/her:

But none of this bothers the Annoying Librarian, because she’s all about the turd in the punch bowl, the preemptive negativism, the soul-sucking, nasty worldview in which no good deed goes unpunished and They are always against Us. It’s a convenient, lazy perch, particularly when you do it behind the lack of accountability that anonymity provides. It’s good for page views and quick laughs at the expense of whatever idea she’s excoriating at the moment. But it doesn’t make the world a better place. It doesn’t make you a better person, either.

I struggle with this statement. I completely agree with Karen that the Annoyed Librarian’s negativity is in no way productive or helpful. That’s why I don’t read him/her anymore. I don’t like toxic personal attacks. But I do honestly think that people playing the role of devil’s advocate can make the world a better place; that sometimes ideas are not good and the people excited about them are too blinded by tunnel vision to see that. Or sometimes things need to be better thought out and tweaked before implementation. I know that the devil’s advocate is often seen as a kill-joy at libraries. I remember when I first came to Norwich, full of enthusiasm and tunnel vision in equal parts. It drove me crazy that one of my colleagues always questioned every idea I had. He was so negative! Now, I’ve come to find his questioning invaluable. He often sees the potential flaws in an idea I have and anticipates roadblocks I might encounter; things I did not see myself. And now, I’ve become a devil’s advocate in so many situations at work where I see that an idea has not been well-considered. I’m the one asking the annoying questions and bringing up potential issues. And maybe that makes me negative, but I figure I make up for it by spending even more time coming up with and championing ideas.

Yes, there are people who claim to play the role of devil’s advocate, but really they are playing the role of roadblock. Do you know how you can tell the difference? Those people never champion an idea of their own or even champion anyone else’s ideas. They bring nothing constructive to the table. All they ever do is tear down, tear down, tear down. That is being a roadblock, not a devil’s advocate. A devil’s advocate goes into conversations wanting to ensure success; the roadblock just wants to make objections and prove people wrong.

Here’s a great example from my own library of what can happen when you ignore the devil’s advocates. The university’s IT people wanted to move towards having thin clients all over campus. They’d employed a couple at little-used kiosk locations and they worked fine. Next, instead of employing them in one of their own computer labs, they wanted to replace the computers in the library’s reference area and instruction classroom with thin clients. I was strongly against this, not because I have anything against thin clients, but because I know our IT people do not have the experience and skills necessary to manage something like this well. We’d been burned too many times by them in the five years I’d been at the library. I had concerns about how this might impact instruction and really didn’t want the instruction space to be a test-case for this. A bunch of us in the library had questions and concerns and they were never addressed. We simply put our faith in IT that they would address any issues that might come up.

The thin clients were installed this past summer and worked fine at the time since very few people use the library during the summer. As soon as the students came back in August and more than just a couple were on the thin clients at once, things started to go haywire. People couldn’t log into computers, computers were freezing up, we were getting weird error messages, and there was nothing we could do. For the first two months of classes (when library instruction was at its busiest), IT couldn’t figure out how to diagnose or fix the problems we were having. It made it extremely difficult to teach a class of 24 students when sometimes only 7 out of our 12 computers were even working. It also made us look bad to new students — why would they want to study and do their work at a library run this badly? This was not the first impression I wanted to make on new students. We also discovered that students would not be able to stream video on the thin clients, which is awkward considering that we’re planning on purchasing a Films Media Group streaming video package and students won’t be able to use the videos in the library. Sigh…

Sometimes it’s fine to dive into things and tweak and improve as you go along. Offering a Netflix-style model and then changing it or abandoning it is no big deal. But there are certain decisions whose effects are more far-reaching and are less mutable. IT eventually was able to fix the thin clients, but there was really no way out other than waiting for IT to fix it. There was no “well we’ll just buy all new computers” or something. As the Head of Instruction, I felt painted into a corner. There are decisions you can’t back out of, decisions that require significant investments of time and money, decisions that can damage the library’s relationship with its patrons. These are decisions where having a devil’s advocate is critical. I have lots of ideas in an average year and I want my colleagues to beat these ideas to a pulp. I want them to stand up to scrutiny. I want to know what it is that I haven’t considered. I want to be able to defend them. Sure, it sucks to have one’s ideas beaten to a pulp, but it’s necessary, because I know from experience that it’s worse to get caught with your pants down, realizing after implementing a new idea that you hadn’t considered something critical.

So no, I don’t particularly want someone at my library (or in my life) who revels in tearing down ideas, but I’m happy to have devil’s advocates who criticize, question and dissect my ideas in order to create a better product in the end. Maybe Karen and I just define devil’s advocate differently, but I think they’re essential to creating great tools and services for our patrons.