v24 #1 Little Red Herrings – Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

by | Mar 16, 2012 | 0 comments

by Mark Y. Herring  (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University)
<[email protected]>

Stop me if you’re heard this one before.  Belshazzar, a king who lived very long time ago, sowed his oats in the worst way and decided to throw a feast honoring, who else, but himself?  So he invites all his friends, otherwise known as claques, and they assemble in his palatially furnished, well, palace.

Kings will be kings, and it all gets a bit out of hand as wine flows freely and scantily clad women dance enticingly.  More wine, more women, more song.  Then, all of the sudden, he sees this disembodied hand.  Did I mention that there had been considerable quantities of wine?  But what really proved the buzz kill, not to mention disarmed all those scantily clad women, was that disembodied hand began to write.  And it wrote the following: mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.

Now this probably doesn’t mean a lot to you or me, perhaps, so suffice it to say that the headless hand told Belshazzar the jig was up and, essentially, GAME OVER.  You can just imagine that it flashed as furiously as any LED “game over” lights could do, complete with braying sounds.

In Belshazzar’s case, the message was from God.  Wow, double buzz kill.  But our “game over” sign is not from God, but Harvard and its recent announcement about the restructuring of its libraries (http://bo.st/A2knM9).  Now it’s clear that Harvard has a god-complex, and certainly there are some who think Harvard is as close to God as you can get this side of heaven.  The old joke is that a Harvard professor was asked in court to give his credentials.  “I’m the so-and-so full professor of something-something,” he replied.  “And is there anyone above that level,” the attorney asked.  The professor responded.  “Yes.  God.”

I’ll leave to you how much credence you put in Harvard, but I do think its library restructuring is extremely important.  The upshot of that plan is a downsizing of librarians.  Going forward, we’re told, the professional librarian workforce will be smaller.  Think about this: the largest and best-funded academic institution in the world is downsizing its librarian workforce.

Does that get your attention?  It did mine.

News of this provoked outrage among librarians all over the country.  Given Harvard’s “semiautonomous” structure, it may take an act of God to get this plan accomplished.  But the rest of us shouldn’t brood about it being done, or how fair the process is or isn’t.  Rather, it might behoove the rest of us still viably employed, to think about what exactly this means for our profession.

I’ll go first.  I for one think it means that the earth is moving under our feet and the sky is tumbling down, words not from God or Harvard, nor a disembodied hand, but Carole King.  While we can spend our time arguing that it isn’t quite so bad as this where we are, or that there are attenuations to be made but these aren’t the right ones, I think our time would be better spent preparing for a future that may well include fewer librarians and more of something else.

Now none of us knows what that something, that tertium quid is, and that’s just the point.  We don’t march into the future so much as we stumble blindly upon it.  The future is one of those maddening things that if you move too fast, people think you’re nuts; if you move too slow, they think you’ve lost touch.  Finding that sweet spot, so to say, is never easy, and many a scryer has been made to appear a fraud by subsequent events.  But we can know something about our future, and it looks like this:  going forward, we’re not likely to see more and more expensive professional help, even though, in the scheme of things, we librarians are not exactly at the top of the food chain when it comes to salary.

The plan, Harvard officials argue, is necessary because the library’s current structure is redundant, unconsolidated, and somewhat digital resistant, or at least slow in that regard.  Costs are being consumed by the hundreds of thousands in everything from duplicate serials to redundant tasks that require two or three professionals doing the same thing but perhaps in different but nearby locations.

Now I have written quite a bit about what I don’t like about our current digital-everthingism, some of it even in these pages.  Unfortunately, my brilliance fell on deaf ears and blind eyes.  It’s a cross to bear, let me tell you.  So, now what?

First, our profession is graying, and we’ve known for at least a decade.  And while we can debate the speed at which this is happening, our ranks are thinning.  It’s probably not too prophetic to say that we’ll be replaced, as we retire, by those who understand the changes taking place and are prepared to do what is necessary.  These folks likely didn’t learn what that is in library school.

Second, we’ve always employed a lot of folks who do similar tasks, and we’ve done tasks that to us seemed important but to our users were not “mission critical.”  When times were flush, it didn’t matter too much.  Now that our financial times have been flushed down the economic toilet with little hope of rebounding, things are changing rapidly, and perhaps overcorrecting as they change.  It’s a habit of pendulums to do this when they sway one way too far: they come back the other way, too far.  But that’s moot.  Librarians may well be slung from that pendulum in its return.

Third, digital-everthingism is pandemic, so if you can’t beat them — and clearly we cannot beat them — you better figure out a sound way to join them.  The answer to this troubling problem isn’t going to be more paid staff to handle tasks that can be consolidated, that appear redundant, or that may need covering only at certain times but not others.

Further, we also have to face up to the unpleasant fact that much — but not all that we do — can be done by intelligent individuals who do not have library degrees (of course, the same could be said about just about any other job that does not involve bloodletting).  We have a choice: hang on to the silos that draw severe and expensive lines in the economic sands between public services and technical services, or we can adjust to the economic times in ways that are innovative and creative, preserving the best about what we do but letting go those things that may not be necessary or have been overtaken by change.

Fourth, and final, for the last three decades librarians have complained mightily about the rising costs of library materials, mainly journals, but we have not been able to effect any long-lasting solution.  The end result has been journal and aggregate databases that range in price from a small diamond ring, to a fully-equipped yacht.  Again, with these flushed economic times, no one is willing to pay for that any more.  When solutions are offered, hysteria reigns supreme from outright resistance, to half-hearted implementation.  Don’t believe me?  Look at our response to possible solutions via ebrary, iPads, e-readers, demand-driven acquisitions, or even SkyRiver.  We can either make the hard changes, or suffer harder changes made by others.  Neither will be pretty, mind you, but the changes we make are certain to be better than those made by others.

It’s easy to protest change, especially the one going on at Harvard (and you know as well as I do it isn’t just there).  Furthermore, change, when it disrupts, reassigns, or remakes people and their livelihoods, always appears severe and even insensitive.  But, unless we as a profession are willing to offer thoughtful, tenable, solutions — even ones that run contrary to what we’ve done for the past fifty years — to these very pressing problems, we will continue to feel the earth move under out feet and the sky come tumbling down, tumbling down.

Or, in other words, we’ll see our own mene, mene, tekel upharsin written right there in plain letters.

And mostly likely LED ones, too, with that absurd braying, to boot.


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