Sink or swim.

When Brian Matthews of Virginia Tech started talking about vacuums and Roombas in his “Think Like a Startup” article, I felt like giving him a big high-five. Because if businesses (or libraries or schools or lots of other places) that want to be successful, this is exactly how to approach forward motion: it’s not just about building better features; it’s about new processes.

Matthews warns of all of the the ways that the traditional academic library could be dismantled by transferring and outsourcing services to other departments of a university. For example:

  • What if the Office of Research managed campuswide electronic database subscriptions and ondemand access to digital scholarly materials?
  • What if the majority of scholarly information becomes open? Libraries would no longer need to acquire and control access to materials.
  • What if local museums oversaw special collections and preservation? (p. 2)

Maybe I don’t love graduate-level academic research enough, but I didn’t really disagree. [Almost] all of his transfers of domain seemed reasonable to me… Yes, this probably confirms that I’m not really cut out to be an academic librarian in a university at this point (or else I would be more protective of them, maybe?). These are, however, examples of how libraries in general are going to be deemed obsolete and no longer valuable as institutions if the stakeholders don’t step forward to find their new roles.

It starts with attitude. And loving your academic library is not enough. You have to ADVOCATE for it.

Allow me to step up on my soap-box [again].

Last Saturday, I completed my first (and only) triathlon in Pardeeville, Wisconsin. It was a sprint triathlon, so don’t be too impressed: I’m no IronMan. The triathlon was purely a Bucket List thing for me. I HATE SWIMMING. Hate it. I don’t swim well. I would rather pick up dog poop. I hate it that much. Did I mention that I hate swimming? Because I really do hate it.

So in my triathlon, I had to swim a quarter-mile. I was a novice, which meant that I was slow and inexperienced when it comes to triathlons, so they basically give you a head start and don’t mix you in with all the rockstars. I guess, usually, they let the novices have about 10 minutes to get going in the water so they can watch attentively for struggling swimmers (like me) and try to protect them from being trampled (or whatever the word for a water stampede would be). The problem for me was that this time, the head start wasn’t really an actual head start, it was the normal three minute spacing they do between all of the age groups. So soon there were like a hundred strong, fast, young men churning toward me and I was faced with a choice: Panic or not? Sink or swim?

Sink-or-swim is more than just a clever saying, as I can attest. It’s real. And sinking is especially unpleasant in real life because you can die. Or be in agony for a couple minutes until some lifeguard hopefully pulls your panicked self out of the water.

By the way, I swam. It was scary and not pretty, but I made it. In our professional life there are so many strategies to handle a sink-or-swim situation, no matter if you work in a school or a library or a business. The choice is simple–you swim. Hard. You choose to work while you’re at work. You choose to perform your job with an eye for improvement and intentionality. Like Matthews said, you think like a start-up.

You do NOT just show up to collect your paycheck. You do NOT just go through the motions. Yes, I’m talking to you, the one standing by the door with your coat on a minute before closing time. What are we, in middle school, waiting for the bell to ring so that we can rush into the hallway and gossip–you know, where the “important” stuff is? I don’t care if you have a kid to pick up from daycare. Your lack of commitment shows. Yes, family comes first, fine, but other people with families still manage to be professionals and not middle-schoolers.

So contribute. Use your brain. Pay attention. Work together. BE FULLY PRESENT.

Can you tell that I am a Millennial? (I guess I was born on the cusp, but close enough…) I think my rants, which stem from the observation of colleagues early on in my career, are pretty typical of the frustrations that young professionals have been experiencing. Ty Kiisel, in his Forbes article, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme–Millennials in the Workplace” said:

For the most part, the millennial generation is responding to the workforce in the way we’ve trained them to—they question, they challenge and they want to do it better. Sure, sometimes it makes their older colleagues a little uncomfortable. We probably want the same level of respect we gave our bosses—back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. With that said, the challenge for business leaders today is harnessing the talent and drive of the younger workforce to create the products and technology that will change the world. As the times, and the workforce changes, we need to reconsider how we lead people and get work done along with it.

When it comes to libraries, as Lisa Kurt, William Kurt and Ann Medaille put it, “Those libraries that do not adapt to Millennials’ expectations about work and play may find that they are unable to retain talented young librarians” (p. 11).

There are a lot of people out there trying to encourage a giant wake-up call to libraries. I think it’s that movement called Library 2.0… We don’t really want libraries to fail and close. We do want to retain talented young librarians.

Motivated by their creative fervor, start-up librarians are an exuberant bunch. Nurture that exuberance. They are a pivotal asset to your library. Their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and experimental nature might be the key to unlocking the “next big thing” at your library. (Jones, K.)

Amen, Kyle Jones. I just think it’s sad that we have to say this kind of stuff out loud. Over and over. I guess there will be a certain point that we might look at a sinking library (or school or business or whatever) and we will have to just shrug our shoulders and say, “We tried to warn you. You could have listened. We were trying to help.”

Personally, I plan on swimming. Even if it’s hard sometimes and I hate it. It’s the best thing for me. And when it’s over, you look back and say, “Yeah! I did that! And I’m kind of proud of myself now too!”

Is what you see really what you get? I hope so…

David Weinberger starts out Chapter 5 of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, entitled “The Hyperlinked Organization,” with the words: Business sounds different these days. I thought, “Yeah, it really does!” as he went on to explain how things have evolved from “Fort business” into the hyperlinked organization. I was feeling very positive and upbeat about the potential of the future and how lucky we are to rid ourselves of the old “business pharaohs [who] build their pyramidal organizations out of fear of human fallibility; they’re afraid of being exposed as frightened little boys, fallible and uncertain.”

We are seeing, then, a realignment of loyalties, from resting comfortably in the assumed paternalism of Fort Business to an aggressive devotion to making life better for customers. The business isn’t a machine anymore, it’s a resource I alone and we together can use to make a customer happy.

Yes! It seems we really have wised up. Most quality workers I know would agree, simply because it is the “right” thing to do. You know—work while you’re at work. In other words, take care of business. This makes me happy!

Weinberger also talked about information and understanding:

We don’t need more information. We don’t need better information. We don’t need automatically filtered and summarized information. We need understanding. We desperately want to understand what’s going on in our business, in our markets. And understanding is not more or higher information…

…Here’s another example. I worked at a company that tanked for lots of good reasons. When a bunch of us ex-employees get together, some of us say that it was because the product got too inbred and complex; others say that Marketing failed to predict the platforms the software would have to run on; others say that the management team was too focused on new products and ignored the bread and butter. None of us tell the same story. And that means that we, as a group, don’t understand what happened.

I went through a nasty breakup a few years ago that left me reeling. We ultimately reconciled, but truthfully, I had no idea what happened. I still don’t, actually. I don’t think he does either (even though it was his idea to split.) I mean, we were both there, and obviously contributed to the mess, just like in Weinberger’s failed company, but the connections never got made. While we may have learned from some of our mistakes, the drama of the failure also left some marks.

I think that happens in business too. As workers, when we are burned by a situation, we are automatically just a little gun-shy. I’m not referring to committing the errors that Weinberger applauds as useful and necessary to ferret out the new ideas. I’m talking about getting spanked because you have put yourself out there as counter-cultural in the enthusiastic and optimistic way that has been so encouraged by this incoming era of the hyperlinked organization.

We often use the phrase “knowledge is power” to make it seem that hierarchically granted power is justifiable. In most hierarchies, however, knowledge isn’t power, it’s a weapon. Being right advances you and being wrong is a defeat. That sucks.

You can see the politics of “being right” throughout most organizations. People win arguments — and thus secure their position in the hierarchy — through the cutting remark, through megatonnage of evidence, through agreeing with industry consultants, and through the smug refusal to ever admit being wrong.

Unfortunately, as Weinberger described the politics of “being right,” it made me consider the sad truth that there are still a lot of those “kings of the fort” left out there who would be threatened and hostile toward the idea of relinquishing their power and control. The only thing is, you don’t always know you’ve run into one of these people until you’ve stepped on their toes. It’s gotten better, but it’s left me cautious.

This is where I diverge from Weinberger when he basically says: It’s coming and we’re going to be better off for going down that road. I want to be as positive as he is about it—it would be so cool to always be allowed to use my “real voice” at work.

If the work environment within an organization such as a library is to become more transparent, it only makes sense that, externally, being honest with users and the community is ideal tool. It’s an opportunity to endear yourself as an organization to them: to show that you have their interests and needs at heart and in your mind as you are making decisions or planning new services. Casey and Stephens, in their article, “The transparent library: Living out loud” in Library Journal , say it best: “Your public, your customers, expect it and will hold you to it.”

It’s nice to think that you can control the outflow of information and discussion, but the truth is, you can’t. Those days are gone. Staffers talk to customers, and customers talk to customers. It’s no longer possible to control a solitary message from one central location…

…Remember, if you don’t participate in the story, it will be told without you.

Here, Casey and Stephens (from “The transparent library: Library 2.0.” in Library Journal) remind us, as Weinberger did, that the way we need to approach the organizations we work in is changing. I agree, but I think we all need to tread with care.