The Right Stuff

On the drive to work today, I was thinking about the last couple of blog posts and listening to the radio. The overall point that has been pressed is what the current older generation of librarians have done for the field: the expansion of the total number of libraries, the creation of the modern online catalog, modern shared sources and databases, and other advances in information access and sharing systems. Even with all that, I really can’t get past the haphazard funding models. How could there be so much heavy lifting in one area and inconsistency in another?

During that drive, it hit me: libraries are a lot like NASA

Over the years, NASA has built rockets for taking all sort of payloads into space. They’ve created a re-usable space craft that has served in hundreds of missions. They have constructed a pair of space stations (first Skylab, now the International Space Station). The scientific experiments that are carried out during the missions or on the space stations provided key scientific data that cannot be replicated on Earth. They have put men on the moon, probes and rovers onto other planets, and spacecraft that have exited our solar system for parts unknown. The Hubble Space telescope has returned images from the edges of the expanding universe, a glimpse of the primitive moments of the universe after the Big Bang. It has shown us the wonders of the universe.

But when it comes to funding… well, it’s a mixed bag. It even has its own Wikipedia entry to chart the relative flatness or decline of funding since the 1960’s. But for such a respectable institution that brings scientific advances and greater understandings of Earthly problem through experiments in space, how is it that the funding remains relatively flat? Don’t people see the value and merit of what they do?

And so it is with libraries. I’m preaching to the choir on this one, so I will spare the rehashing of library value. But for all the things that NASA and libraries do on behalf of society, for whatever reason it becomes a hard sell. Overall, both have the same likeability factor. People say that they are provide useful items to society. But when it comes to the funding, there is a disconnect. The talk becomes that the cost is too high, the area of effect is haphazard, and that people simply don’t see the need anymore. And for all the advances and technologies that have been built by NASA engineers, for all the information networks and growth that librarians have built over the years, it can far too easily get set aside when the value is not articulated to those who control the budgets. That’s a serious problem.

Despite my sloppy handling on the Sunday Speculation post, I did receive one answer to the underlying question as to what happened to the political and financial relationships between libraries and their communities. Stephen Abrams wrote:

The simplest answer is that those people and the people/politicians they built the relationship with retired or were voted out of office. These relationships need to be continuously cultivated, evolved and sustained, and worked on through the political process and through association work. As can be noted ad nauseum, many next gen librarians (certainly not all) have abandoned library associations (I have seen the demographic and renewal membership numbers) and, according to research surveys, distrust the political process and vote/participate at very low rates on top of GenX being a small generational cohort. So we’re in a Catch 22. How do we engage the next generation of advocates in library issues?

It’s a good question. I don’t recall anything in the graduate coursework about building and maintaining relationships with funding bodies. Should the MLS programs start addressing this issue through coursework? Within my own state, I’ve seen advocacy sessions offered during the state conference and a single day conference. Should this be something that state associations are doing on a year round basis? There are certainly people within the field who have had tremendous success building these relationships. Should they be tapped as mentors, role models, and consultants for libraries looking to improve their standing?

I’d be interested in seeing how this issue was handled historically and what the profession will do about it at the future. What do you think is the best approach? Should this be something in the core classes at MLS programs? Or is it really something you learn on the job with mentors, conferences, and workshops?


On a related note, I am finding the discrepancy between the number of replies from the Sunday Speculation and the Mea Culpa post rather interesting. I would have thought the idea of competencies and metrics for evaluating members of the profession would have gotten a stronger response. With the number of complaints about the younger generation of librarians that went with some of the replies for the Sunday post, I would have surmised that people had a specific idea of what they wanted a librarian to be able to do in terms of job skills and abilities. For all the insults that were hurled in my direction in regards to being a young librarian, there is a notable silence when it comes to actual expectations. In building this new gilded age of libraries, what are the skills, abilities, and knowledges that young librarians should know and/or look to master?

10 thoughts on “The Right Stuff

  1. Andy, I think your parallel works.

    Both libraries and space exploration are long term investments in a short term fiscal world. As such, they become fair game for funders (read: politicians) who are looking for a relatively painless fix when immediately crucial programs are under fire. Both respond by talking about their short term benefits (jobs in both the scientific and manufacturing sectors in the case of NASA, and help for job seekers and small business in the case of libraries). That short term defense has marginal benefits in terms of dealing with immediate funding threats. Funders believe — with some justification — that both NASA and libraries will ‘always be there’ to take discretionary dollars and move towards long term goods in good times. That makes both extraordinarily vulnerable. It also means that both depend on long standing relationships to get and keep money flowing.

    As to training for survival in that world, I think it needs to be experiential rather than academic. This is one of those places where classes in the ML(I)S program would approach useless; seminars at conferences are better (especially if they get the participants into the offices of decision makers), the bar at the conference is better still (war stories are almost the best teacher) and a career diversion into sales is best. One has to learn to find the buyer’s (note the singular) benefit, not to try to impose a benefit on the person with the checkbook. Politicians sign the front of the check; libraries sign the back of the check. That does much to define their respective roles.

  2. Andy, answers to your 2 questions: 1) Funding…this one is simple from the public library perspective. One word…trustees. The library profession has never recognized the importance of strong boards of trustees. In fact trustees are looked askance because they are not “professionals.” Librarians asking for money is pathetic. Can you say “self interest?” Trustees asking for money pays dividends. Can you say “building a better community.” 2) Young librarians…this depends. Some library lifers want you guys to earn your stripes before you start telling us how to run the world. That’s just not the nature of youth. I say be unruly. Ask the type of challenging questions you ask on this blog, Andy. Be impatient, be demanding. You can always blame this on youthful indiscretion. The motto of my generation in the sixties was you can’t trust anyone over 30. How’s that for generational disrespect? Andy, please don’t flinch. You need to let Andy be Andy. You are the best thing to happen to library literature in a long, long time. Be bold. That’s what youth is for. I love your blog.

  3. When I finish this post, I will be going to the funeral of a woman who, before I came to this community, was on the library board for sixteen years and its chair for twelve. She was a town doctor’s daughter who came to live on a rural farm. She brought the “doctor’s daughter” sense of assurance (or entitlement) to the community. She terrified at least three mayors and innumerable Councils into supporting libraries (and schools). She was one of those formidable women who shaped suburban/rural communities in the latter half of the 20th century. She was driven to make things happen and she did. (On the other hand, shortly after I arrived here, we had a lunch at which I received her blessing, but we agreed that it was probably a good thing that we weren’t teamed up as director and chair. We would never have agreed who should be calling the signals and that would have been a bad thing for the system.)

    Rest well, Margaret.

  4. We had a grant writing component of my conservation and preservation course, and enjoyed it so much several of us petitioned our instructor (who worked at the National Archives and thus on the sending and receiving end of grants) to turn her lectures into a more formal presentation. She declined because she didn’t have time, but it was very useful and I wish we had more of it.

    Also, our student association had money budgeted in previous years for a grant writing workshop that never happened.

  5. I can’t speak for all MLIS programs, but the coursework at San Jose State does require all students to take a class on Management which covers that basics of how various libraries are funded and what administrative actions are necessary to maintain and (hopefully) increase those levels of funding. There are additional courses on grant writing, financial management, etc. that are more targeted toward specific library types.

    I certainly believe that it should be part of MLIS coursework, and where possible, it’s own course. Finances are tricky enough for many people (even bookish ones), but navigating the political landscape of funding is even trickier and perhaps more treacherous. But there is only so far that course work can lead us. Each library is unique, not only based on its type (academic vs. school, etc.), but also based on its location (state, city, country), its principle source of funding (taxes vs. endowments), and its particular political environment (Santa Barbara vs. Los Angeles). So most of what many people learn about funding, at least what is directly applicable, can only be learned on the job.

    Which leads me to your question about why libraries (and NASA) don’t get comfortable levels of funding: because it’s not about how beneficial you are to society. One thing I’ve learned in my 3 years at an academic library is that people rarely (almost never) give out of altruism. They give because they foresee a particular return on their investment, either monetary or in reputation. They give because they want their name attached to a shiny new toy (which is also one reason we can raise hundreds of thousands for new construction but zilch for a new database that costs a fraction of the price). They give because they want to DO something.

    At the same time, funding is also about manipulating emotions. People don’t give because it’s “the right thing to do.” They give because someone pulled on their heartstrings or tickled their ego. Don’t misunderstand me though, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s just politics. But I’m saying this in order to show that you can’t learn this in a classroom (well, maybe in law school 😉 ). You have to learn it on the showroom floor.

  6. Of course, grant preparation/fundraising is only one form of advocacy. The fact that it, and those other forms of advocacy, tend to be lacking in MLS education makes me an advocate for a combo MLS/MPA – Master’s in Library Science and Master’s of Public Administration. I have several friends doing the dual degree at the University of Washington (MLS at the iSchool and MPA at the Evans School of Public Affairs) and they often speak of what a nice fit the two are.

    Further research (see:, second half of the post) into other school’s programs convinced me further, and it’s a goal I hope to attain someday.

  7. Should the MLS programs start addressing this issue through coursework? Within my own state, I’ve seen advocacy sessions offered during the state conference and a single day conference. Should this be something that state associations are doing on a year round basis? There are certainly people within the field who have had tremendous success building these relationships. Should they be tapped as mentors, role models, and consultants for libraries looking to improve their standing?

    I think you’ve talked about entrepreneurship, and you’ve talked about big tent librarianship: maybe you should find those mentors and start lashing together some tent poles.

  8. Kate I think the MLS and MPA combined degree makes A LOT of sense. So much of the MLS coursework seems like busy work.

    As I said in the other thread, what the field of librarianship is missing in my opinion is leadership. I meet a lot of meek, nervous and socially inept librarians. I thought that was just a cliche (and yes, it is) and yet on Saturday I met THREE! There is no way these people had the skills to engage their community of users or local politicians or the digital natives.

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  10. My management course was taught by an acting library director with both an MLS and an MPA and it was incredibly practical and useful.

    (I really think the idea of using full-time tenured faculty for non-theory classes is over-rated.)

    I’m glad it was an optional course, however. Management is one of those things that an amazingly high number of librarians insist they’re violently allergic to. And my MLS program was full of whiners as it was, so adding them to that class against their will would have just destroyed it for the rest of us. Also the downside to mandatory hands-on cataloging courses.

    The course that I did take against my will but now agree with my advisor should be mandatory is bibliographic instruction. Not least because even more of us end up forced into that role than end up as managers. In fact, we had a few people auditing the course who had graduated a few years prior but had just been assigned at their libraries (and not all the same library) to start teaching.

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