Where is the River?

As part of an experiment to start a brown bag series among the library staff, we watched Always a River, Somtimes a Library with Rick Anderson. I decided to blog it because, well why not? [My comments are in brackets.]

Rick Anderson
Always a River, Somtimes A Library
Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno

Rick uses a river as the metaphor because rivers may always be changing but they are a permanent part of the landscape. It is a possibility that libraries could marginalize themselves from the people they serve. There is no reason why libraries share this permanence of rivers.His main focus is to get libraries to change the way we think about what we do and then consider what we do in that light. We should be more tolerant of the ways in which people are actually using the library. [I have thought this for a long time and have said over and over: The library does NOT belong to librarians. It belongs to our users. If we approach every policy with this in mind. Oh, the places we could go.]

Rick says there are three aspects of our ideas we should change:

  • less religious and more skeptical about our belief systems – they are not written in the hand of God in stone [amen]
  • Less idealistic and more pragmatic – Can be an obstacle if we can not make decisions based on the REAL world
  • less instructive and more helpful – if they want one thing, give it to them

According to Rick, idealism can be bad because it is hard to find the balance. We are either rule followers or problem solvers and in librarianship, we are too often rule followers. We need to solve more problems and break more rules. Rick also talked about our need to teach broken interfaces. We should not defend a user’s need for instruction based on databases that are so hard to use that they need their own class. We should be taking down the barriers instead. [Rick does make a point to say that we should still be teaching people how to do research. I believe this is a skill that will never go away as people will always be researching in various disciplines.]

Things are not ok in our profession:

  • We blame the patrons for being lazy
  • Fundamental change calls for fundamental change
  • The information marketplace has changed dramatically but we have not
  • We are lecturing our patrons and missing opportunities [to serve]

Ways we are broken

  • Too many rule followers and not enough problem solvers
  • The “teach a man to fish” mentality
  • Teaching databases not skills
  • Too much self-congratulation no progress
  • Libraries are fabulous why should we change

Rick then goes on to talk about the difficulty of the OPAC. [This is a horse everyone likes to beat. Including me!]

Four things we need to do or change:

  • We need to question instead of celebrate our “core values” – Check the relevancy of our values and see if any have morphed – Ex. Patron Confidentiality – we have this value but have not discussed how portals, cookies, etc. effect this
  • Give up on the educator function – “eat your peas librarianship” – [though he is careful to reiterate that we should still teach people how to do research better]
  • Stop talking to ourselves and start talking to our patrons
  • We need to abandon print – Print is a terrible format for research and information distribution. It is good for reading.

If we try to control our patrons, they will go elsewhere. [Libraries have competition and the quicker we become like a nimble business, reacting to the needs of our customers, the quicker we will become more relevant in the lives of our users.]

Strategies for adapting to patron behavior:

  • 3 words: online, online, online
  • Put inertia on our side – How can we trick our patrons into using our services. Libraries should strive to integrate services into the curriculum.
  • Be willing to embrace risk and accept failure – [When we do this, we will become the nimble organization we always wanted to be.]
  • More fish, fewer peas – giving people what they need with little effort on their part – taking down the barriers to information
  • Celebrate efficiency – make it easy
  • Focus on speed to stacks – how fast can we get books on the shelf [If I had a dollar for every book I have ordered in the last year that is actually in the library right now, I would have about five dollars. This needs to change.]

[I do not think that these ideas are as controversail as the program tried to make it, but I do know that many of us are struggling with these ideas in our libraries. I think if we start every conversation with what our patrons want, instead of what is easiest for us, this conversation would be much shorter and much easier.]

–Jane, wants to ride the raft of change

5 thoughts on “Where is the River?

  • June 8, 2006 at 2:26 pm
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    My very first problem was with the metaphor. When were rivers ever permanent? Perhaps we think of them as such because our lifespans are comparatively short, but rivers are certainly not permanent.

    Okay, that’s not necessarily relevant to the discussion, but I had to say it!

  • June 8, 2006 at 3:09 pm
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    And funny because I was thinking the EXACT thing, but kept it to myself. I was actually thinking of a waterfall the whole time and it erodes away its banks…

  • June 9, 2006 at 9:34 am
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    Clarifying the river analogy —

    Hi everyone, and thanks for your comments. Thanks especially to Jane for going to the trouble of summarizing my program! Just to clarify one thing, though: I think there was some confusion about the way I used the river analogy. At the start of my program, I explained that I’d attended a conference that had used “Always a River, Always a Library” as a theme. The point of that theme had been to say that, just like rivers, libraries will always be around (even if they are constantly changing).

    I co-opted the analogy for a different purpose. My point was that not that rivers are permanent-but-changing, but rather that a river is like patron behavior: you (the librarian) can try to control it, but you’ll ultimately fail, and perhaps with disastrous consequences. I also think it’s foolish for us to assume that libraries — as we know them, anyway — are permanent. We CAN disappear, and I think we will if we’re not careful.

    Thanks again!

  • June 9, 2006 at 12:55 pm
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    I should add that I did not take time to explain that in my post, but Rick, thanks for explaining the metaphor a little better. The fact that rivers are always changing really relates it even more strongly to the concept of a changing library.

    It was a great discussion starter. We are having a library-wide talk about the video tomorrow and I have hopes that some people will have been exposed to new things.

    Thanks for making people consider things.

  • June 9, 2006 at 1:13 pm
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    Rick, et al. I knew you’d taken the title from a conference theme–you were pretty clear about that in the video. I just was pointing out that the theme was, for lack of a better word, silly because rivers are not permanent.

    You actually took the theme and made sense of it.

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