Scale Matters

By Kate Sheehan |

It’s hard not to make new friends at library conferences. This is doubly true in Boston, a city that redefines the term “lost.” The unofficial activity of ALA Midwinter 2010 seemed to be standing on a corner, smartphone in hand, trying to align the map on the screen with the streets (please note: I used to live in Boston, and think it’s a great place. Still, I accidentally went to the airport one morning on my way to the convention center). Post-conference, lots of folks are blogging about the great people they met, either through serendipity or at meet-ups, and I’m reminded that the power of conferences almost always stems from the people who attend. 

I’ve been jokingly referring to my time at Midwinter as “a weekend spent talking to angry librarians,” though I think “angry” is too strong a word. I noticed a pervasive sense of frustration among the people I spoke with, many of whom expressed some professional exasperation with their jobs, the profession as a whole, or both. Everyone I spoke to was passionately committed to their patrons, to librarianship, to libraries, but all felt they were swimming upstream in some way or another.

On my most optimistic days, I like to think librarianship is a big pie. While I don’t think a library can be all things to all people, I think it is possible to serve, for example, patrons who want a quiet place to read and patrons who want a community center where they can meet and talk. Likewise, I’d like to think that this is a profession where everyone can have their pie and eat it, too.

The consistent thread that wound through all of the conversations I had and stories told at the excellent “Set Sail for Fail” mini unconference (held in ALA’s terrific new conference space, the Networking Uncommons) was agility. The librarians I spoke to felt that they were being held back by outdated bureaucracy designed for the 20th century, not the 21st. They wanted to try new things, fail a lot, learn fast and keep evolving, not fill out a form in triplicate and start a committee.

Lest you think this is a story about new, hip librarians against stodgy, bun-wielding traditionalists, I’m going to return to the pie. Shouldn’t there be enough library pie to go around? We can’t run an organization (or maintain a profession) if we’re all trend-hunting social media junkies. We need the collection development experts, the local history buffs, the genealogists, the metadata engineers. In fact, these are not mutually exclusive groups, though we often discuss trends in the profession as if they are.

As the conference wore on, I started to think about the frustration I was hearing as a problem of agility, which to some extent still creates two groups: agile librarians and stuck in their ways ruining it for the rest of us librarians. I am uncomfortable with the “let’s rumble” dynamics of that dichotomy and I think it overlooks the fact that no one likes a lot of red tape. I started to see this issue as a question of scale.  






Librarianship is a meticulous profession. While cataloging is the obvious choice for a joke about alphabetical spice racks and color-coded sock drawers, public service librarians are rewarded at the micro level for obsessive thoroughness. Reference librarians all have stories of chasing after patrons with just one more source, continuing to search long after the patron has left, and the reference interview that somehow turned into an interrogation. At the micro level, leaving no rock unturned is a valued and encouraged methodology.

At the macro level, it falls apart. While attention to detail still matters, the return on investment changes. Exercising some care and spending extra time with a patron or in the actual implementation of a technology pays off. But spending months researching a trend before acting on it ensures that we’ll never meet our users where they are.

Librarianship (like many things) doesn’t scale evenly. Methodologies, practices, and theoretical structures that work for the individual librarian interacting with a patron, working with a book, or managing a project don’t work as guiding principles for trying new services, technologies, or programs. In some ways, technology is immaterial, but it becomes relevant because it more frequently gets defined as “new.” Adding, say, a new database is perceived as low-risk because it seems to be a known quantity, but offering mobile services gets more scrutiny because it’s different.

Databases are expensive and underused, but offer content that has long been seen as crucial to our services. Mobile services are emerging in libraries, and they too can be expensive and underused. It’s easy to dismiss something with low usage as something librarians don’t need to try out. But there is value in growing with a technology. My personal experience with IM reference, at more than one library, was that the low initial volume allowed librarians to learn the cadences and rhythms of IM and made us better able to serve our users when the service became standard and volume picked up.

Professionally, librarians have excelled at finding ways to side-step thinking trapped at the micro-level. Blogs, twitter, and even Flickr have given a voice to those who want to share their ideas and engage with their colleagues. Unconferences supplement the long timeline of conference presentations. In the broader profession, we’re figuring out ways to scale our thinking. But if my (admittedly biased and unscientific) sampling of librarians in Boston is any indication, we’re still applying micro-level thinking to macro-level issues in our libraries.

We’re stuck with enough of our red tape. Many of us work within larger organizations and institutions and have intensive bureaucratic processes imposed on us. I have yet to meet a librarian who thinks they don’t spend quite enough time filling out forms. But no one I spoke to in Boston had complaints about paperwork, just about the mindset of their colleagues, who were focused with laser precision at the micro-level.

As any one of those librarians who spent time staring at the tiny map glowing in their hand as they tried to figure out if they could walk from Newbury Street to the Convention Center in fifteen minutes can tell you: scale matters.

If you want to hear more of Kate's analysis of the Midwinter Meeting, be sure to register for our TechTrends: Midwinter 2010 Webinar, where Kate will be part of our expert panel. Register at