The Illusion of Unity

Over the weekend, I was hanging out with Pete Bromberg who was gracious enough to help me fine tune (read: completely untangle) my forthcoming presentation for CIL 2012. In chitchatting on various things, one of the topics that came up was the lack of unity in libraries and librarians in dealing with some of the challenges of the profession (with eBooks being the latest of these issues). Pete asked a very cogent question that has stuck with me: how much unity can there be in the librarian profession when the issues, communities, politics, and challenges are generally hyperlocal?

As much as I’d like to imagine that there are universal challenges to libraries, this conversation has got me rethinking the prevalence of such a position. The funding matters around my library system are not the same as the local colleges nor the school libraries or even some of the libraries within the county who are not part of the system. The same could be argued for the communities served by each of these respective entities and the governmental and social politics surrounding them. While the terms “budgets” and “funding” played out on the headlines within New Jersey during the state cuts of 2010, I would say that you could plot out a map where fiscally devastated libraries bordered counties or municipalities with ones that were not touched. It’s easy to rally around stopping state budget cuts as a common platform, but an unequal impact is going to skew participation when some people are fighting for their livelihoods and others are not.

Pulling back to the state level, the vicious budget fights in states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, and now California are simply not universal in their aspects. Yes, it is about state funding to libraries, but it is also what that state funding actually does. The absolute dependence of rural libraries in Ohio for funding is not the same fight as saving literacy programs in California. I’m sure that given enough time (and alcohol) that certain similarities could be determined, but even then the political reality and demographics of Ohio do not match that of California.

So when it comes to a national level, how much of a unified voice can a national organization like the ALA be? This is not to say that it is completely ineffective; the Washington office provides the lobbying support that is necessary to get legislation tweaked in order to serve broad library interests. However, when it comes to dealing with the Big Six or Elsevier, the effectiveness levels becomes extraordinarily wonky. While the reaction to the HarperCollins eBook limit was overwhelming, it was also extremely nuanced across thousands of public. Some libraries boycotted, some restricted their purchasing, others stayed the course with the idea of monitoring usage, and still others didn’t care because they weren’t buying eBooks anyway. While I was in a chorus of people calling for decisive action against this abomination, the boots-on-the-ground reality is that it was still a individual institutional decision happening at the local level in direct relation to the community, politics, and finances. I know that there were people who agreed with such action philosophically; however, their responsibility was still to their constituency. I would say that the same sort of calculation comes into play whether you are talking about academic access to serials (and possibly why the ‘serials crisis’ lumbers on like a drunk on a pub crawl), funding for school libraries, or any number of issues that entail a widespread librarian consensus. The hyperlocal nature of decision making will always trump the national level, try as we may. It’s just the way it is.

To be clear, I’m not walking back what I said in my Big Tent Librarianship piece. I can still see the similarities in principles and values that I feel are a common thread in the profession. I have experienced it through my participation in groups like the Library Society of the World, the ALA Think Tank, and other cross type groups. There is certainly a sense of community that exists, but I believe it rapidly loses cohesion as it scales up. All politics is local, as the saying goes, and so are the decisions and stances of the library.

If anything, this re-thinking would bring me some sort of peace to where I felt frustration at the apparent inability to effectively organize and take action on anything but the most dire of threats to the profession. There’s just too many variables in play for each library location, too many cogs in the machine to create a consistent front against the less-than-lethal challenges. In coming to a conclusion as such, I find peace in trying not to constantly move the mountains. Perhaps this just means that my writing as well as others who are of a similar mindset is more urgent and important in terms of our tone and content. In reaching out to you the reader, we seek to make the changes on the local level that we cannot on the grand scale.

Unity in principles? We have. Unity in practice? Well, that’s another story.

7 thoughts on “The Illusion of Unity

  1. Great post and clear insight, Andy. However, I find this depressing. While I can understand how many will feel at peace to focus on changes that can happen rather than steer the course of a behemoth that actually doesn’t exist, isn’t this fractured state still hold back the profession? While I agree that many issues that can be changed and dealt with happen on a local level, I also see it as tens of thousands of loose strands that individually do not have as much strength while being separated.

    So I guess in this case you need many local leaders rather than one supreme leader. But is this profession made up more of leaders or followers?

  2. A shifitng perspective is what is needed, it seems to me. Otherwise it all seems so pointless. There are many common interests and issues faced by all libraries as well as ones that are unique to specific libraries. Being able to juggle multiple mindsets is necessary. If we only focus on where we are different, then it is becomes a matter of divide and conquer, and we are all left in a weak position.

    With so many outside threats, it does not seem right to only be concerned with your own situation (although it is quite understandable). I realize some librairies are closer to the edge, but if we can’t make a strong case for all libraries, then we can all go down. what happens to one happens to us all. Having worked in several different types of libraries and library settings, i see many commonailities.

    The other thread that you identify in your closing raises a whole other set of issues, which has to do with unity in practice. Increasingly I find in all areas of life, your experience completely depends on who you interact with. I would hope that the unity in principles (which may be an illusion) would create some unity in practice and I wonder why that is not the case (see reference to illusion).

  3. You, Ryan & Nancy have hit the nail on the head.

    IMLS reports that in 2009, total revenue for U.S. public libraries was $11.59 billion. There were nearly 17,000 outlets employing 145,000 FTEs. Add in grant money from large foundations and the support of thousands and thousands of Friends groups … Then add it the revenue and human resources of academic, state and special libraries. We’re talking about an enterprise larger than most commercial behemoths. Heck, it may be larger than some small countries 🙂

    And yet it is weak because of it’s intense fragmentation. It’s got a bunch of small players starting from ground zero on everything, stretched way too thin trying to serve too large a mission, governed by far too many small-fish-in-big-ponds(see below). We can do better.

    The best solution, in my mind, is to form a National Public Library Corporation similar to our public broadcasting outlets. This is a proven structure that has enabled great things by centralizing where it makes sense and maintaining local autonomy where it matters most. This model would work well for libraries, I think, and be the perfect addition to our existing structures. I’ve called NPR-PBS-NPL an unbeatable information trifecta!

    The Buffalo & Erie County Library operates now as a federated system with 37 library buildings run by 23 trustee boards. That includes the 15-member Library Board appointed by the county executive and the mayor of Buffalo, as well as 22 other boards made up of roughly 130 people appointed by local towns and villages.

  4. I’ve come up against this point several times recently, and not yet found a satisfactory answer. I’m assured that in some Nordic countries there is a national system. Books can be borrowed and returned at any library in the county. It will be interesting to see how a national library service rises to the challenge of licensing ebooks.

  5. Pingback: Fragmentation in the library blogosphere « bringyournoise

  6. Richard – I’ve been convinced for awhile there’s no good deal for libraries if eBook business models resemble anything like pBook models. John Cady, Trustee of Roeliff Jansen Community Library in Hillsdale, NY floated an eBook value model in the Feb 15th issue of LJ that I hope gets further attention from all interested parties: authors, publishers, device makers, libraries and patrons. His suggestion to “pay-when-you-read” versus “pay-when-you-publish” could potentially get everyone on the same side to create, discover, promote and make available good content.

    For libraries, it would free them of the conundrums/high costs of “just-in-case” collection development and enable them to focus on becoming discovery zones and promoters of good work. With strong leadership from the NPL, they could position their assets – which no other entity in the value chain has (widespread public trust, intimate embodied connections with people in nearly every city, town and hamlet in America, and trained librarians who know how to find and associate content, do reader’s advisory, etc.) – and the Institution as a valuable player in the broad, emergent content ecosystem. This is something they’ve thus far been unable to do.

    Authors/publishers who create & distribute good material would be highly compensated. They’d have every reason to support libraries who were promoting their content.

    Retailers such as Amazon, Apple and Google could view libraries as competition – though if libraries played it right they could position themselves as “frienemies” and co-exist with the large retailers. This is because they’d be courting and reaching customers who would not otherwise purchase content from the larger retailers. And, if libraries were smart enough to stay out of the device business (a real rat hole for them) they could be seen as helping drive the device business for the large retailers by growing and servicing content consumers.

    Patrons would have a variety of means to access good content. Some would prefer the convenience of acquiring their books and toothpaste in the same place, and the large retailers serve that need well. Others would value the embodied community and personalized context and recommendations libraries are well-suited to provide.

    So it would be a win for everyone … except the purveyors of poor product who benefit now from the inefficiencies and inexplicables of our current distribution systems (as John notes in his description).

    There would be lots of details to work out, for sure. The intense fragmentation and resource disparities within our current library ecosystem mitigate libraries’ ability to engage in meaningful discussion and execute a new model today. It would be possible, however, if the national organization I envision was in place with top-notch leadership and staff to work through the complexities (terms, software, resources, training) on behalf of all libraries.

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