Discussion about barriers to change in libraries–fasten your seatbelts!

I almost didn’t publish the post I wrote a few days ago about “What do archivists want?” but now I’m glad I did because of what I’ve been reading over in the biblioblogosphere. I think this post is going to be a bit long and full of links to other blogs, so fasten your seatbelts.

Jill Hurst-Wahl over on Digitization 101 has written some good things lately about using 2.0 technologies in cultural contexts. But after reading her posts, specifically Digital collections & Web 2.0, I was brought back to where I was when I asked the question about what archivists want. I think that most archivists and their managers are aware of the possibilities these new technological capabilities represent. Many probably take advantage of them in other contexts. I don’t think the primary barrier (in the archival world) is ignorance. And I don’t think that the technologies themselves (most of them) are so complex as to be impossible. I think the barriers lie elsewhere; I think they lie (inasmuch as you can generalize about this kind of thing) in the answers to those questions: What do archivists want? What do they fear? What motivates them? How do they measure success? And, to add another, what do their funding sources care about?

I was getting caught up on reading the library blogs when I came across a conversation about a similar subject. I think I saw it first at Librarian in Black:

David Lee King has written an excellent piece entitled “How Can We Change the Unchangeable, or David’s Rant” in which he discusses the elephant in the room with all this wonderful Library 2.0 stuff. (No, not the “inadequate staffing” elephant–that’s the other elephant there in the corner to your left). His elephant is the issue of administrators often blocking change, especially technology changes, and sometimes even those changes that they have requested or initiated.

(As usual, go and read the whole post and the comments to get the whole discussion.)

So, I went and read the original: How Can We Change the Unchangeable, or David’s Rant, and the comments (30 as of today). In short, he gave a talk on change management at the Computers in Libraries conference, and:

First, I asked if attendees had learned something innovative or new at the conference that they’d like to take back to their libraries. Almost everyone raised their hands. Then I followed up with this question: how many will take that cool, innovative idea back to their libraries, and hit a brick wall with administrators when they try to implement that idea. ALMOST EVERYONE RAISED THEIR HANDS.

King then opened a discussion about how this situation can be changed, specifically asking for ideas about:

  • Steps to take to convince administrators that the library world is different than it was in the 1970’s?
  • How to convince administrators that constant change and innovation is good, and that it’s also a necessity in our new millennial world?
  • How can we become change agents in a field that’s apparently not used to changing?

In addition to the comments on his blog, King’s “rant” generated discussion on:

(Caught up yet? I can’t summarize all this.) All this is a fascinating example of the kind of conversation that is possible via blogs, which is a good thing, but, more importantly, what can we take away from this for ourselves? Does all this apply in archives too, or do we have our own twist on the problems? I still think that we who want change must 1) show demonstrable benefits that are relevant to the people we are trying to influence, and 2) must be able to successfully overcome organizational cultures grounded in fear of change and fear of risk.

I know it’s a lot to wrap your brain around, but what do you think? Are we also facing “changing the unchangeable”?

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2 thoughts on “Discussion about barriers to change in libraries–fasten your seatbelts!”

  1. I did presentations on Web 2.0 and Archives Access Systems at the SAA and ACA conferences last summer and was expecting to get some negative comments along the lines of ‘you can’t let the public do that to our archival descriptions/systems/professional practices’. However, I was pleasantly surprise to receive only positive feedback and interest (maybe the cynical curmudgeons were all in different sessions those days 😉

    Rick Prelinger did an excellent webcast last year which addressed some of these concerns. I’ve got a link and a transcript of some of his quotes on my blog, including this comment:
    “There’s something I call ‘archival privilege’…Archives used to be able to decide whom to serve and whose requests to ignore and that’s become dangerous behaviour. We used to try and often succeeded in framing the context in which archival material is used, to impose conditions on re-use, to demand credit for re-use and often to control the means by which archival material is represented and published.”

    However, after researching, presenting and discussing about this topic for the past year and a half with archivists in both North America and the Netherlands, my impression is that archives administration/bureacracy will actually be less of a hurdle (to opening up archives systems to include Web 2.0 technologies) than the technical capacity to enhance existing systems, project funding and copyright will be. In fact, I think copyright is the largest elephant in the herd.


    P.S. Who are you? Not identifying yourself on your blog is so 1.0 😉

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