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Neutrality is anything but

“We watch people dragged away and sucker-punched at rallies as they clumsily try to be an early-warning system for what they fear lies ahead.” — Unwittingly prophetic me, March, 2016.

Sheet cake photo by Flickr user Glane23. CC by 2.0

Sometime after last November, I realized something very strange was happening with my clothes. My slacks had suddenly shrunk, even if I hadn’t washed them. After months of struggling to keep myself buttoned into my clothes, I gave up and purchased slacks and jeans one size larger. I call them my T***p Pants.

This post is about two things. It is about the lessons librarians are learning in this frightening era about the nuances and qualifications shadowing our deepest core values–an era so scary that quite a few of us, as Tina Fey observed, have acquired T***p Pants. And it’s also some advice, take it or leave it, on how to “be” in this era.

I suspect many librarians have had the same thoughts I have been sharing with a close circle of colleagues. Most librarians take pride in our commitment to free speech. We see ourselves as open to all viewpoints. But in today’s new normal, we have seen that even we have limits.

This week, the ACRL Board of Directors put out a statement condemning the violence in Charlottesville. That was the easy part. The Board then stated, “ACRL is unwavering in its long-standing commitment to free exchange of different viewpoints, but what happened in Charlottesville was not that; instead, it was terrorism masquerading as free expression.”

You can look at what happened in Charlottesville and say there was violence “from many sides,” some of it committed by “very fine people” who just happen to be Nazis surrounded by their own private militia of heavily-armed white nationalists. Or you can look at Charlottesville and see terrorism masquerading as free expression, where triumphant hordes descended upon a small university town under the guise of protecting some lame-ass statue of an American traitor, erected sixty years after the end of the Civil War, not coincidentally during a very busy era for the Klan. Decent people know the real reason the Nazis were in Charlottesville: to tell us they are empowered and emboldened by our highest elected leader.

There is no middle ground. You can’t look at Charlottesville and see everyday people innocently exercising First Amendment rights.

As I and many others have argued for some time now, libraries are not neutral.  Barbara Fister argues, “we stand for both intellectual freedom and against bigotry and hate, which means some freedoms are not countenanced.” She goes on to observe, “we don’t have all the answers, but some answers are wrong.”

It goes to say that if some answers are wrong, so are some actions. In these extraordinary times, I found myself for the first time ever thinking the ACLU had gone too far; that there is a difference between an unpopular stand, and a stand that is morally unjustifiable. So I was relieved when the national ACLU concurred with its three Northern California chapters that “if white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”

But I was also sad, because once again, our innocence has been punctured and our values qualified. Every asterisk we put after “free speech” is painful. It may be necessary and important pain, but it is painful all the same. Many librarians are big-hearted people who like to think that our doors are open to everyone and that all viewpoints are welcome, and that enough good ideas, applied frequently, will change people. And that is actually very true, in many cases, and if I didn’t think it was true I would conclude I was in the wrong profession.

But we can’t change people who don’t want to be changed. Listen to this edition of The Daily, a podcast from the New York Times, where American fascists plan their activities. These are not people who are open to reason. As David Lankes wrote, “there are times when a community must face the fact that parts of that community are simply antithetical to the ultimate mission of a library.”

We urgently need to be as one voice as a profession around these issues. I was around for–was part of–the “filtering wars” of the 1990s, when libraries grappled with the implications of the Internet bringing all kinds of content into libraries, which also challenged our core values. When you’re hand-selecting the materials you share with your users, you can pretend you’re open to all points of view. The Internet challenged that pretense, and we struggled and fought, and were sometimes divided by opportunistic outsiders.

We are fortunate to have strong ALA leadership this year. The ALA Board and President came up swinging on Tuesday with an excellent presser that stated unequivocally that “the vile and racist actions and messages of the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville are in stark opposition to the ALA’s core values,” a statement that (in the tradition of ensuring chapters speak first) followed a strong statement from our Virginia state association.  ARL also chimed in with a stemwinder of a statement.  I’m sure we’ll see more.

But ALA’s statement also describes the mammoth horns of the library dilemma. As I wrote colleagues, “My problem is I want to say I believe in free speech and yet every cell in my body resists the idea that we publicly support white supremacy by giving it space in our meeting rooms.” If you are in a library institution that has very little likelihood of exposure to this or similar crises, the answers can seem easy, and our work appears done. But for more vulnerable libraries, it is crucial that we are ready to speak with one voice, and that we be there for those libraries when they need us. How we get there is the big question.

I opened this post with an anecdote about my T***p pants, and I’ll wrap it up with a concern. It is so easy on social media to leap in to condemn, criticize, and pick apart ideas. Take this white guy, in an Internet rag, the week after the election, chastising people for not doing enough.  You know what’s not enough? Sitting on Twitter bitching about other people not doing enough. This week, Siva Vaidhyanathan posted a spirited defense of a Tina Fey skit where she addressed the stress and anxiety of these political times.  Siva is in the center of the storm, which gives him the authority to state an opinion about a sketch about Charlottesville. I thought Fey’s skit was insightful on many fronts. It addressed the humming anxiety women have felt since last November (if not earlier). It was–repeatedly–slyly critical of inaction: “love is love, Colin.” It even had a Ru Paul joke. A lot of people thought it was funny, but then the usual critics came out to call it naive, racist, un-funny, un-woke, advocating passivity, whatever.

We are in volatile times, and there are provocateurs from outside, but also from inside. Think. Breathe. Step away from the keyboard. Take a walk. Get to know the mute button in Twitter and the unfollow feature in Facebook. Pull yourself together and think about what you’re reading, and what you’re planning to say. Interrogate your thinking, your motives, your reactions.

I’ve read posts by librarians deriding their peers for creating subject guides on Charlottesville, saying instead we should be punching Nazis. Get a grip. First off, in real life, that scenario is unlikely to transpire. You, buried in that back cubicle in that library department, behind three layers of doors, are not encountering a Nazi any time soon, and if you did, I recommend fleeing, because that wackdoodle is likely accompanied by a trigger-happy militiaman carrying a loaded gun. (There is an entire discussion to be had about whether violence to violence is the politically astute response, but that’s for another day.) Second, most librarians understand that their everyday responses to what is going on in the world are not in and of themselves going to defeat the rise of fascism in America. But we are information specialists and it’s totally wonderful and cool to respond to our modern crisis with information, and we need to be supportive and not go immediately into how we are all failing the world. Give people a positive framework for more action, not scoldings for not doing enough.

In any volatile situation, we need to slow the eff down and ask how we’re being manipulated and to what end; that is a lesson the ACLU just learned the hard way. My colleague Michael Stephens is known for saying, “speak with a human voice.” I love his advice, and I would add, make it the best human voice you have. We need one another, more than we know.

 

MPOW in the here and now

SSU clocktower with UFO and monsters

Sometimes we have monsters and UFOs, but for the most part it’s a great place to work

I have coined a few biblioneologisms in my day, but the one that has had the longest legs is MPOW (My Place of Work), a convenient, mildly-masking shorthand for one’s institution. For the last four years I haven’t had the bandwidth to coin neologisms, let alone write about MPOW*.

This silence could be misconstrued. I love what I do, and I love where I am. I work with a great team on a beautiful campus for a university that is undergoing a lot of good change. We are just wrapping up the first phase of a visioning project to help our large, well-lit building serve its communities well for the decades to come. We’re getting ready to join the other 22 CSU libraries on OneSearch, our first-ever unified library management system. We have brought on some great hires, thrown some great events (the last one featured four Black Panthers talking about their life work — wow!). With a new dean (me) and a changing workforce, we are developing our own personality.

It’s all good… and getting better

The Library was doing well when I arrived, so my job was to revitalize and switch it up. As noted in one of the few posts about MPOW, the libraries in my system were undergoing their own reassessment, and that has absorbed a fair amount of our attention, but we continue to move forward.

Sometimes it’s the little things. You may recall I am unreasonably proud of the automated table of contents I generated for my dissertation, and I also feel that way about MPOW’s slatwall book displays, which in ten areas beautifully market new materials in spaces once occupied by prison-industry bookcases or ugly carpet and unused phones (what were the phones for? Perhaps we will never know).

The slatwall was a small project that was a combination of expertise I brought from other libraries, good teamwork at MPOW, and knowing folks. The central problem was answered quickly by an email to a colleague in my doctoral program (hi, Cindy!) who manages public libraries where I saw the displays I thought would be a good fit. The team selected the locations, a staff member with an eye for design recommended the color, everyone loves it, and the books fly off the shelves. If there is any complaining, it is that we need more slatwall.

Installed slatwall needs to wait until we know if we are moving/removing walls as part of our building improvements. A bigger holdup is that we need to hire an Access Services Manager, and really, anything related to collections needs the insight of a collections librarian.

People… who need people…

But we had failed searches for both these positions… in the case of collections, twice. *cue mournful music* We have filled other positions with great people now doing great things, and are on track to fill more positions, but these two, replacing people who have retired, are frustrating us. The access services position is a managerial role, and the collections librarian is a tenure-track position. Both offer a lot of opportunity.

We are relaunching both searches very soon (I’ll post a brief update when that happens), and here’s my pitch. If you think you might qualify for either position, please apply. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If you know someone who would be a good fit for either position, ask them to apply.

I recently mentored someone who was worried about applying to a position. “Will that library hold it against me if I am not qualified?” The answer is of course not!  (And if they do, well, you dodged that bullet!) I have watched far too many people self-select out of positions they were qualified for (hrrrrmmmm particularly one gender…). Qualification means expertise + capacity + potential. We expect this to be a bit of a stretch to you. If a job is really good, most days will have a “fake it til you make it” quality.

This is also not a “sink or swim” institution. If it ever was, those days are in the dim past, long before I arrived. The climate is positive. People do great things and we do our best to support them. I see our collective responsibility as an organization as to help one another succeed.

Never mind me and my preoccupation with slatwall (think of it as something to keep the dean busy and happy, like a baby with a binky). We are a great team, a great library, on a great campus, and we’re a change-friendly group with a minimum of organizational issues, and I mean it. I have worked enough places to put my hand on a Bible and swear to that. It has typical organizational challenges, and it’s a work in progress… as are we all. The area is crazily expensive, but it’s also really beautiful and so convenient for any lifestyle. You like city? We got city. You like suburb, or ocean, or mountain, or lake? We got that!

Anyway, that’s where I am with MPOW: I’m happy enough, and confident enough, to use this blog post to BEG YOU OH PLEASE HELP US FILL THESE POSITIONS. The people who join us will be glad you did.

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*   Sidebar: the real hilarity of coining neologisms is that quite often someone, generally of a gender I do not identify with, will heatedly object to the term, as happened in 2004 when I coined the term biblioblogosphere. Then, as I noted in that post from 2012, others will defend it. That leads me to believe that creating new words is the linguistic version of lifting one’s hind leg on a tree.

Questions I have been asked about doctoral programs

About six months ago I was visiting another institution when someone said to me, “Oh, I used to read your blog, BACK IN THE DAY.”

Ah yes, back in the day, that Pleistocene era when I wasn’t working on a PhD while holding down a big job and dealing with the rest of life’s shenanigans. So now the PhD is done–I watched my committee sign the signature page, two copies of it, even, before we broke out the champers and celebrated–and here I am again. Not blogging every day, as I did once upon a time, but still freer to put virtual pen to electronic paper as the spirit moves me.

I have a lot to catch up on–for example, I understand there was an election last fall, and I hear it may not have gone my way–but the first order of business is to address the questions I have had from library folk interested in doctoral programs. Note that my advice is not directed at librarians whose goal is to become faculty in LIS programs.

Dropping Back In

One popular question comes from people who had dropped out of doctoral programs. Could they ever be accepted into a program again? I’m proof there is a patron saint for second chances. I spent one semester in a doctoral program in 1995 and dropped out for a variety of reasons–wrong time, wrong place, too many life events happening. At the time, I felt that dropping out was the academic equivalent of You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, but part of higher education is a series of head games, and that was one of them.

The second time around, I had a much clearer idea of what I wanted from a program and what kind of program would work for me, and I had the confluence of good timing and good luck. The advice Tom Galvin gave me in 1999, when Sandy and I were living in Albany and when Tom–a longtime ALA activist and former ALA Exec Director–was teaching at SUNY Albany, still seems sound: you can drop out of one program and still find your path back to a doctorate, just don’t drop out of two programs.

I also have friends who suffered through a semester or two, then decided it wasn’t for them. When I started the program, I remember thinking “I need this Ph.D. because I could never get a job at, for example, X without it.” Then I watched as someone quite accomplished, with no interest in ever pursuing even a second masters, was hired at X. There is no shame in deciding the cost/benefit analysis isn’t there for you–though I learned, through this experience, that I was in the program for other, more sustainable reasons.

Selecting Your Program

I am also asked what program to attend. To that my answer is, unless you are very young and can afford to go into, and hopefully out of, significant amounts of debt, pick the program that is most affordable and allows you to continue working as a professional (though if you are at a point in life when you can afford to take a couple years off and get ‘er done, more power to you). That could be a degree offered by your institution or in cooperation with another institution, or otherwise at least partially subsidized. I remember pointing out to an astonished colleague that the Ed.D. he earned for free (plus many Saturdays of sweat equity) was easily worth $65,000, based on the tuition rate at his institution.

Speaking of which, I get asked about Ph.D. versus Ed.D. This can be a touchy question. My take: follow the most practical and affordable path available to you that gets you the degree you will be satisfied with and that will be the most useful to you in your career. But whether Ed.D. or Ph.D., it’s still more letters after your name than you had before you started.

Where Does It Hurt?

What’s the hardest part of a doctoral program? For me, that was a two-way tie between the semester coursework and the comprehensive exams. The semester work was challenging because it couldn’t be set aside or compartmentalized. The five-day intensives were really seven days for me as I had to fly from the Left Coast to Boston. The coursework had deadlines that couldn’t be put aside during inevitable crises. The second semester was the hardest, for so many reasons, not the least of which is that once I had burned off the initial adrenaline, the finish line seemed impossibly far away; meanwhile, the tedium of balancing school and work was settling in, and I was floundering in alien subjects I was struggling to learn long-distance.

Don’t get me wrong, the coursework was often excellent: managing in a political environment, strategic finance, human resources, and other very practical and interesting topics. But it was a bucket o’ work, and when I called a colleague with a question about chair manufacturers (as one does) and heard she was mired in her second semester, I immediately informed her This Too Shall Pass.

Ah, the comprehensive exams. I would say I shall remember them always, except they destroyed so much of my frontal lobe, that will not be possible. The comps required memorizing piles of citations–authors and years, with salient points–to regurgitate during two four-hour closed-book tests.  I told myself afterwards that the comps helped me synthesize major concepts in grand theory, which is a dubious claim but at least made me feel better about the ordeal.

A number of students in my program helped me with comps. My favorite memory is of colleague Gary Shaffer, who called me from what sounded like a windswept city corner to offer his advice. I kept hearing this crinkling sound. The crinkling became louder. “Always have your cards with you,” Gary said. He had brought a sound prop: the bag of index cards he used to constantly drill himself. I committed myself to continuous study until done, helped by partnering with my colleague Chuck in long-distance comps prep. We didn’t study together, but we compared timelines and kept one another apprised of our progress. You can survive a doctoral program without a study buddy, but whew, is it easier if you have one.

Comps were an area where I started with old tech–good old paper index cards–and then asked myself, is this how it’s done these days? After research, I moved on to electronic flashcards through Quizlet. When I wasn’t flipping through text cards on my phone, iPad, or computer, I was listening to the cards on my phone during my run or while driving around running errands.

Writing != Not Writing

So about that dissertation. It was a humongous amount of work, but the qualifying paper that preceded it and the coursework and instruction in producing dissertation-quality research gave me the research design skills I needed to pull it off. Once I had the data gathered, it was just a lot of writing. This, I can do. Not everyone can. Writing is two things (well, writing is many things, but we’ll stick with two for now): it is a skill, and it is a discipline. If you do not have those two things, writing will be a third thing: impossible.

Here is my method. It’s simple. You schedule yourself, you show up, and you write. You do not talk about how you are going to write, unless you are actually going to write. You do not tweet that you are writing (because then you are tweeting, not writing). You do not do other things and feel guilty because you are not writing. (If you do other things, embrace them fully.)

I would write write write write write, at the same chair at the same desk (really, a CostCo folding table) facing the same wall with the same prompts secured to the wall with painter’s tape that on warm days would loosen, requiring me to crawl under my “desk” to retrieve the scattered papers, which on many days was pretty much my only form of exercise. Then I would write write write write write some more, on weekends, holiday breaks, and the occasional “dissercation day,” as I referred to vacation days set aside for this purpose.

Dissercation Days had the added value that  I was very conscious I was using vacation time to write, so I didn’t procrastinate–though in general I find procrastinating at my desk a poor use of time; if I’m going to procrastinate, let me at least get some fresh air.

People will advise you when and how to write. A couple weekends ago I was rereading Stephen King’s On Writing–now that I can read real books again–in which King recommends writing every day. If that works for you, great. What worked for me was using weekends, holidays, or vacation days; writing early in the day, often starting as early as 4 am; taking a short exercise break or powering through until mid-afternoon; and then stopping no later than 4 pm, many times more like 2 pm if I hadn’t stopped by then.

When I tried to write on weekday mornings, work would distract me. Not actual tasks, but the thought of work. It would creep into my brain and then I would feel the urgent need to see if the building consultant had replied to my email or if I had the agenda ready for the program and marketing meeting. It also takes me about an hour to get into a writing groove, so by the time the words were flowing it was time to get ready for work. As for evenings, a friend of mine observed that I’m a lark, not an owl. The muse flees me by mid-afternoon. (This also meant I saved the more chore-like tasks of writing for the afternoon.) The key is to find your own groove and stick to it. If your groove isn’t working, maybe it’s not your groove after all.

Do not take off too much time between writing sessions. I had to do that a couple of times for six to eight weeks each time, during life events such as household moves and so on, and it took some revisiting to reacquaint myself with my writing (which was Stephen King’s main, and excellent, point in his recommendation to write daily). Even when I was writing on a regular basis I often spent at least an hour at the start of the weekend rereading my writing from page 1 to ensure that my most recent writing had a coherent flow of reasoning and narrative and that the writing for that day would be its logical descendant.

Another universal piece of advice is to turn off the technology. I see people tweeting “I’m writing my dissertation right now” and I think, no you aren’t. I used a Mac app called Howler timer to give me writing sieges of 45, 60, 75, or 90 minutes, depending on my degree of focus for that day, during which all interruptions–email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.–were turned off. Twitter and Facebook became snack breaks, though I timed those snacks as well. I had favorite Pandora stations to keep me company and drown out ambient noise, and many, many cups of herbal tea.

Technology Will Save Us All

A few technical notes about technology and doctoral programs. With the exception of the constant allure of social networks and work email, it’s a good thing. I used Kahn Academy and online flash cards to study for the math portion of the GRE.  As noted earlier, I used Quizlet for my comps, in part because this very inexpensive program not only allowed me to create digital flashcards but also read them aloud to me on my iPhone while I exercised or ran errands. I conducted interviews using FaceTime with an inexpensive plug-in, Call Recorder, that effortlessly produced digital recordings, from which the audio files could be easily split out. I then emailed the audio files to Valerie, my transcriptionist, who lives several thousand miles away but always felt as if she were in the next room, swiftly and flawlessly producing transcripts. I used Dedoose, a cloud-based analytical product, to mark up the narratives, and with the justifiable paranoia of any doctoral student, exported the output to multiple secure online locations.

I dimly recall life before such technology, but cannot fathom operating in such a world again, or how much longer some of the tasks would have taken.  I spent some solid coin on things like paying a transcriptionist, but when I watch friends struggling to transcribe their own recordings, I have no regrets.

There are parts of my dissertation I am exceptionally proud of, but I admit particular pride for my automatically-generated table of contents, just one of many skills I learned through YouTube (spoiler alert: the challenge is not marking up the text, it’s changing the styles to match your requirements. Word could really use a style set called Just Times Roman Please). And of course, there were various library catalogs and databases, and hundreds of e-journals to plumb, activity I accomplished as far away from your typical “library discovery layer” as possible. You can take Google Scholar away from me when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

I also plowed through a lot of print books, and many times had to do backflips to get the book in that format. Journal articles work great in e-format (though I do have a leaning paper pillar of printed journal articles left over from comps review and classes). Books, not so much. I needed to have five to fifteen books simultaneously open during a writing session, something ebooks are lame at.  I don’t get romantic about the smell of paper blah blah blah, but when I’m writing, I need my tools in the most immediately accessible format possible, and for me that is digital for articles and paper for books.

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Your cohort can be very important,  and indeed I remember all of them with fondness but one with particular gratitude. Nevertheless, you alone will cross the finish line. I was unnerved when one member of our cohort dropped out after the first semester, but I shouldn’t have been. Doctoral student attrition happens throughout the academy, no less so in LibraryLand. Like the military, or marriage, you really have no idea what it’s like until you’re in it, and it’s not for everyone.

It should be noted that the program I graduated from has graduated, or will graduate, nearly all of the students who made it past the first two semesters, which in turn is most of the people who entered the program in its short but glorious life–another question you should investigate while looking at programs. It turned out that for a variety of reasons that made sense, the cohort I was in was the last for this particular doctoral program. That added a certain pressure since each class was the last one to ever be offered, but it also encouraged me to keep my eyes on the prize. I also, very significantly, had a very supportive committee, and most critically, I fully believed they wanted me to succeed. I also had a very supportive spouse, with whom I racked up an infinity of backlogged honey-dos and I-owe-you-for-this promises.

Regarding success and failure, at the beginning of the program, I asked if anyone had ever failed out of the program. The answer was no, everyone who left self-selected. I later asked the same question regarding comps: had anyone failed comps? The answer was that a student or two had retaken a section of comps in order to pass, but no one had completely failed (and you got one do-over if that happened). These were crucial questions for me. It also helped me to reflect on students who had bigger jobs, or were also raising kids, or otherwise were generally worse off than me in the distraction department. If so-and-so, with the big Ivy League job, or so-and-so, with the tiny infant, could do it, couldn’t I? (There is a fallacy inherent here that more prestigious schools are harder to administer, but it is a fallacy that comforted me many a day.)

Onward

I am asked what I will “do” with my Ph.D. In higher education, a doctorate is the expected degree for administrators, and indeed, the news of my successful doctoral defense was met with comments such as “welcome to the club.” So, mission accomplished. Also, I have a job I love, but having better marketability is never a bad idea, particularly in a political moment that can best be described as volatile and unpredictable. I can consult. I can teach (yes, I already could teach, but now more fancy-pants). I could make a reservation at a swanky bistro under the name Dr. Oatmeal and only half of that would be a fabrication. The world is my oyster!

Frankly, I did not enter the program with the idea that I would gain skills and develop the ability to conduct doctoral-quality research (I was really shooting for the fancy six-sided tam), but that happened and I am pondering what to do with this expertise. I already have the joy of being pedantic, if only quietly to myself. Don’t tell me you are writing a “case study” unless it has the elements of a case study not to mention the components of any true research design. Otherwise it’s just anecdata. And of course, when it comes to owning the area of LGTBQ leadership in higher education, I am totally M.C. Hammer: u can’t touch this!

I would not mind being part of the solution for addressing the dubious quality of so much LIS “research.” LibraryLand needs more programs such as the Institute for Research Design in Librarianship to address the sorry fact that basic knowledge of the fundamentals of producing industry-appropriate research is in most cases not required for a masters degree in library science, which at least for academic librarianship, given the student learning objectives we claim to support, is absurd. I also want to write a book, probably continuing the work I have been doing with documenting the working experiences of LGBTQ librarians. But first I need to sort and purge my home office, revisit places such as Hogwarts and Narnia, and catch up on some of those honey-dos and I-owe-you-for-this promises. And buy a six-sided tam.

A scholar’s pool of tears, Part 2: The pre in preprint means not done yet

Half-bakedNote, for two more days, January 10 and 11, you (as in all of you) have free access to my article, To be real: Antecedents and consequences of sexual identity disclosure by academic library directors. Then it drops behind a paywall and sits there for a year.

When I wrote Part 1 of this blog post in late September, I had keen ambitions of concluding this two-part series by discussing “the intricacies of navigating the liminal world of OA that is not born OA; the OA advocacy happening in my world; and the implications of the publishing environment scholars now work in.”

Since then, the world, and my priorities have changed. My goals are to prevent nuclear winter and lead our library to its first significant building upgrades since it opened close to 20 years ago. But at some point I said on Twitter, in response to a conversation about posting preprints, that I would explain why I won’t post a preprint of To be real. And the answer is very simple: because what qualifies as a preprint for Elsevier is a draft of the final product that presents my writing before I incorporated significant stylistic guidance from the second reviewer, and that’s not a version of the article I want people to read.

In the pre-Elsevier draft, as noted before, my research is present, but it is overshadowed by clumsy style decisions that Reviewer 2 presented far more politely than the following summary suggests: quotations that were too brief; rushing into the next thought without adequately closing out the previous thought; failure to loop back to link the literature review to the discussion; overlooking a chance to address the underlying meaning of this research; and a boggy conclusion. A crucial piece of advice from Reviewer 2 was to use pseudonyms or labels to make the participants more real.

All of this advice led to a final product, the one I have chosen to show the world. That’s really all there is to it. It would be better for the world if my article were in an open access publication, but regardless of where it is published, I as the author choose to share what I know is my best work, not my work in progress.

The OA world–all sides of it, including those arguing against OA–has some loud, confident voices with plenty of “shoulds,” such as the guy (and so many loud OA voices are male) who on a discussion list excoriated an author who was selling self-published books on Amazon by saying “people who value open access should praise those scholars who do and scorn those scholars who don’t.” There’s an encouraging appproach! Then there are the loud voices announcing the death of OA when a journal’s submissions drop, followed by the people who declare all repositories are Potemkin villages, and let’s not forget the fellow who curates a directory of predatory OA journals that is routinely cited as an example of what’s wrong with scholarly publishing.

I keep saying, the scholarly-industrial complex is broken. I’m beyond proud that the Council of Library Deans for the California State University–my 22 peers–voted to encourage and advocate for open access publishing in the CSU system. I’m also excited that my library has its first scholarly communications librarian who is going to bat on open access and open educational resources and all other things open–a position that in consultation with the library faculty I prioritized as our first hire in a series of retirement/moving-on faculty hires. But none of that translates to sharing work I consider unfinished.

We need to fix things in scholarly publishing and there is no easy, or single, path. And there are many other things happening in the world right now. I respect every author’s decision about what they will share with the world and when and how they will share it. As for my decision–you have it here.

With a pin and a prayer

“The KKK-endorsed president-elect of the United States just appointed a white nationalist to his cabinet and has promised to deport or incarcerate two to three million undocumented immigrants as soon as he’s inaugurated, but here’s what the left is arguing about: safety pins.” — Heather Dockray, Mashable

2016-11-12-12-16-23-copy

Pin display.

On Sunday I did something I haven’t done in almost a decade. I intentionally avoided Twitter for 24 hours because it was starting to feel like what a witty colleague refers to as a “circular firing squad.”

A year ago almost to the day, after blocking two alt-righters whose racist comments I didn’t want to read,  I had experienced being showered with hundreds of virulent Tweets. But even that didn’t drive me off Twitter, even though the anti-Semitism, which I had never experienced before, was particularly disturbing (the rest was pro forma: ugly, dyke, etc.).

No, what drove me off Twitter to focus on other parts of my life for a day was a series of tweets from various people scoffing at the appropriateness of wearing safety pins in a show of solidarity with people made more vulnerable by the election of He Who Shall Not Be Named and setting higher and higher bars for what an appropriate response looks like.

Never mind that such well-respected groups as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which just might know a thing or two about activism, had promoted the idea, or that the safety pin idea has honorable origins, coming  from England in the wake of Brexit as a gesture toward their immigrant populations. Never mind that I have spent four years conducting doctoral-level research into the significance of signaling sexual identity, so maybe, just maybe I know something about the value of representation, just a tiny bit?

Losing feels awful, particularly this loss, but it should not become our Donner Pass.

The previous afternoon, I had been moved to tears when I realized the local crafts and sewing store was almost out of safety pins. As I put two packets of #3 safety pins in my basket (safety pins have standard sizes, it turns out, and #3 is, by gum, the largest), I saw a couple conferring quietly in the aisle, and realized they were on the same errand. It doesn’t matter if I was wrong about the reason for the rush on safety pins, though I’ve been sewing for almost 50 years, and I’ve never seen a notions section cleaned out like that before. What matters is the first law of motion and how anything, however small, even the size of a pin, can be the unbalancing force that sets us into action.

All of us need to find that unbalancing force. For me, the safety pin is a lot like prayer (or, insert your favorite means of meditation). People sometimes say “prayer changes things” as if there were some trickster God who could magically reverse tragedy if you asked the right way. I believe that the true power of prayer is that it changes me and my relationship to the world. Prayer humbles me and it gives me strength and perspective. It reminds me that we are all responsible for one another. It is preparation. It is why Sandy and I say grace at every meal, however briefly.

When I woke up November 9, I made one tiny prayer: “get me through this day.” As prayers go, that was more like a #1 safety pin, but (echoing a beautiful story shared on Facebook by Sarah Einstein) sometimes that tiny pin is exactly what we need. Then I dried my eyes and blew my nose, got up, made my cuppa joe, went to work early, and before 9 am had sent a message to my library, which you can read at the end of this post.

All day I heard from people: “That was beautiful.” “That was important.” “I needed that.” Just yesterday, a woman in another department leaned forward and said, “thank you.” Because there are things I am good at and things I am not good at, but as a writer, one of my strengths is speaking into a terrible silence.

I am not saying this message is nearly enough. But it was one small important thing I could do, and if I could do this one thing, I could do other things. Nobody says safety pins are “enough,” in the same way that nobody with any lick of common sense would substitute prayer for professional healthcare. Nobody says starting with kindness is enough (to bring up another idea I saw belittled). But horrible things happen in a world without it.

Yesterday there was yet another boatload of scary and sad news. First I heard of a white nationalist appointed to a key position in the White House, surely the monitory canary of the effluvia about to spew from that mine. Then there was the death of Gwen Ifill, one of the class acts of our era. Next I read a memo cautioning DACA students about overseas travel that scared the bejeezus out of me on behalf of these kids.

I walked around all day with my Number 3 Safety Pin on my lapel, and no one noticed. Nobody except me. It felt like a small prayer on my chest, across from my beating heart.


Memo sent to all-library, 8:59 am, November 9, 2016

I spent early morning today wrapping my head around what to say, because not saying anything in this historic moment feels like a lapse in leadership, and yet what I say needs to be framed in what we do as a library, not political positions.
 
I came to this profession decades ago with an activist agenda, believing that information changes lives, and I do not believe libraries operate from positions of neutrality. As a white person, able-bodied, with full citizenship, I know privilege and live it every day. As a woman, a lesbian, and someone of Jewish heritage, I have seen the other side of that coin. I operate in that dual world, one of privilege and one of other-ness, and it drives my leadership agenda.
 
I believe in advocating for all libraries—including ours—because libraries change lives.  I know we make a difference for our users, and I appreciate every one of you who take every opportunity to be a voice for the role our library plays in helping our users succeed and in creating lifelong learners. I remember with pride the strong stances we have taken—from exhibiting the politically powerful photography of John LeBaron, to the Amache exhibit and the reception where I watched students listening to Dr. Sakaki speak truth to power and share her own history. I marveled at the turnout we have seen for our Pan y Cafes and how thrilled our Latino/a communities were to have their identities embraced and upheld. I have watched books fly off our special displays for GLBT Month, the Sonoma County Reads display, and the Latino/a display. So much we have done, so much we will do.
 
As we look toward the future, I ask us to recommit to taking care of one another, to do everything within our power to preserve the dignity of ourselves and our users, and to provide refuge and support social justice. Let us keep building OUR wall, our activist agenda of information, knowledge, and empowerment. Help our library continue to be a citadel defending our users against ignorance and hate, and providing hope and support for the undocumented, the different, and the oppressed.
 
In 1980 I listened to a concession speech. The stakes were not as high as this election, but I still felt sad and defeated. Then the candidate spoke words I committed to memory. “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
 
I am doubling down on my leadership of this library. I feel a commitment as I have never felt before. I celebrate what we do, our users, our history, our services, and yes, especially, our future. 
 
In the meantime, at the [front desk], find donut holes for all: those of us in the library, and those who walk through our doors. Let their sweetness stand for all we do for everyone. Let their whimsy stand for regaining our optimism. Let their abundance stand for our radical hospitality.  Let their ephemeral nature help us move past this morning, and onward.
 
Yes we can! , se pueda!
 

 

A scholar’s pool of tears, Part 1

This is Part 1 of the origin story of the following scholarly article. In this blog post I review how this article was produced and accepted for publication, and why I chose a non-OA journal.

Schneider, K.G. (in press). To Be Real: Antecedents and Consequences of Sexual Identity Disclosure by Academic Library Directors, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Available online 13 August 2016, ISSN 0099-1333, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2016.06.018.

Chapter 1: Somehow, I write this thing

To be Real is a heavily-remastered version of the qualifying paper I wrote for the doctoral program I’m in. This article was a hurdle I had to pass on the way to becoming a doctoral candidate in a program, now ended, for organizational leadership in libraries (officially called Managerial Leadership in the Information Professions). This program has produced PhDs at the leadership level now working in executive roles in dozens of library organizations, and I look forward to donning the tam that will invest me in their ranks.

To be Real was just one hurdle before I could begin working on my dissertation (now in progress). Some of you are now itching to tell me that “the best dissertation is a done dissertation,” or that “the most important page is the one with the signatures on it.” O.k., consider it said. Also insert any joke you like about the quality of dissertations; I’ve heard it. In the end, I still need to produce a redoubtable piece of original scholarship that meets the expectations of my program and my committee.  Now let’s move on.

There were other milestones in the program. I needed to stump through two years of classes, including 6 residential intensives in Boston or other East Coast locations; a heavy reading schedule; coursework, also known as endless hours flailing at a keyboard; a $500 moving violation incurred when I was headed to SFO to fly to Boston for my second semester and wearily zombied through a right turn without stopping; about 30 red Sharpie Ultra Fine Point markers (aka RPOD, or Red Pens of Death); and my “comps,” which were two four-hour closed-book exams requiring copious quantities of memorization, a feat at any age, no comment on what that meant for me.

What has kept me going is a mixture of pride, stubbornness, encouragement from others, good executive skills, and a keen interest in the topic. I have also benefited from the advantage of what is known in life course theory as the principle of time and place. (Note how I can no longer just say “I had lucky timing.” Hopefully, with a good intervention team, I can be deprogrammed post-dissertation.)

To be real, known as the “680” (for its course number), was not the first or the second, but my third attempt at producing scholarly research on the path to my doctorate. The first two efforts were technically solid, featuring all the structural elements of a good research paper. But the more I learned, the more I felt they were topically dubious, and I issued cease-and-desists after they made it through the IRB process.

Yes, I picked the topics, then watched myself outgrow them, which was a good process in itself. It was hard to wave goodbye to the earlier projects, but the value of earning an MFA in writing is that I don’t feel bad about discarding weak work. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” is my battle cry.

Once my committee accepted To be real, I began developing my doctoral topic, which builds on the work in this dissertation but goes into bold new areas–or so I comfort myself when I am spending lovely early-autumn weekend days analyzing 900 minutes of interviews and drafting chapters. I defended my topic to my committee, then squired my dissertation proposal through institutional review, and kaboom! I was finally ABD.

At several key points in my proposal, I cite To be Real, which was gathering metaphorical dust in a metaphorical drawer in my real-world office. Rather than have my dissertation lean at key points on an unpublished paper, my ever-patient dissertation advisor suggested that I actually try publishing To be Real. Frankly, as I trudged through milestones toward the doctorate while balancing huge day jobs and Life Issues, I had entirely forgotten this was something I should do.

Chapter 2, In which I seek publication

Publish my research–what a positively brill idea! I asked someone whose insights I deeply respect where I should send it, and was given a list of six LIS journals  to consider for the first round. Yes, that’s how I made the first cut, which is similar to how I have determined where to send literary essays: by referrals from people I trust.

From that list of peer-reviewed LIS journals, the key factors I considered were:

  1. Prestige of the publication
  2. How much work I had to do to have my paper considered for publication
  3. How likely it was my article would be published before I finished my dissertation
  4. Open access was a plus, but not a requirement.

You might be surprised to learn how much #2 and #3 drove my decision-making. At least for the first round of submissions, I rejected journals that require authors to reformat citations from APA to another citation schema simply to submit a paper for consideration. No other principle was at stake than “I do not have the time for this.” Nevertheless, learning that some journals do indeed require this investment of personal effort on a highly speculative venture made me greatly sympathetic to the thousands of tenure-track librarians jumping through hoops of fire to try to get at least an in-press citation in time to show scholarly production in their annual review.

Also, time was of the essence, since I wanted the article to at least be accepted before my dissertation was finished, and I’m a writing banshee these days, trying to get ‘er done. We all at least nominally subscribe to the myth of scrupulously avoiding simultaneous submissions to multiple journals. Indeed, I was faithful to this practice simply because I didn’t have the bandwidth to submit to more than one journal at a time. But that ruled out journals that might take a couple of years to reject my article, let alone accept it.

I was open to paying subvention fees (the cost to make an article Gold OA), noting that they ranged from $1100 to $2500 for the journals I was considering–something that would be prohibitive on a junior faculty’s salary. In the same vein, I would have paid an author’s fee to publish in an OA journal that used that funding model. But not everyone has that kind of scratch.

In any event, the paper went out to the first journal on the list, and very quickly I heard back from the editor with feedback from two reviewers. The paper was accepted, provided I made some changes. I hadn’t planned on being accepted by the first journal I submitted to, but to paraphrase Yogi Berra, I saw a fork in the road, and I took it.

Chapter 3: In which I encounter the peer review process

Yet another advantage of having gone through an MFA program is understanding that Anne Lamott’s writing about “shitty first drafts” is an artful understatement; for most of my writing, I can only tell if a piece is a keeper by the fifth or so draft, if that.

I had faith in my research, and my paper had all the right components, well-executed, but I questioned my writing. It felt turgid, dense, and remote–characteristics belying its subject matter or the very interesting interviews that were its primary data. I know good writers feel that way pretty much all the time, but I had a persistent sense of unease about my paper, without quite being able to determine what to do about it. It did not help that when I showed it to peers their response was… silence. Above all, I wanted my research not simply to be published, but to be read.

I have written in the past how much I love a good editor. It’s like working with a great hair stylist. You are you, and yet, so much better. With that in mind, we’ll scoot quickly past the feedback from Reviewer 1, a living parody of the peer review process.

You know those jokes about reviewers who blithely object to the research direction on which the paper is based? Yes, Reviewer 1 was that kind of reviewer.  “The authors really only present the viewpoints of those who are ‘out.'” I don’t even know how to respond to that, other than to say that’s my area of research. Reviewer 1 also ruminated aloud–painfully, considering this person lives and breathes among us in higher education–that he or she did not understand the term “antecedent.” (The “antecedent and consequences” framework is classic and well-understood in qualitative research; and in any event, the word “antecedent” is hardly obscure.) And so on.

If Reviewer 2 had been like Reviewer 1, I would have pushed on to another journal. There is a difference between knowing that my work needs improvement and radically redesigning a valid and important research project from the ground up based on reviewers’ whims, nor was there a middle ground where I could have simultaneously satisfied Reviewer 1 and Reviewer 2. As much as I wanted to publish To be Real in a timely manner, my career wasn’t hanging on the balance if I didn’t.

But Reviewer 2 not only respected my research direction, but  also provided some of the best writing feedback I have received since, indeed, the MFA program–advice that I fully believe not only improved this paper tenfold, but is helping my dissertation. In close to 1,000 words, Reviewer 2 commented on the value and quality of my research, but gently advised me: to use pseudonyms or labels for the research participants; to extend quotations more fully; and to do a better job of summing up paragraphs and linking the findings to the literature review (“divergence and convergence”). Reviewer 2 ever so delicately observed that the conclusion had “too much context” and that all that blurbage (my term, not the reviewers) blurred the main points. There was more, all of it worthwhile.

I summarized Reviewer 2’s advice, taped it to the wall over my desk, and got to work. Indeed, once I labeled participants (Leader A, Leader B, etc.) and extended their quotations, I felt vastly better about my article. Doing this moved my writing from being an over-long jumble of “data analysis” to a paper about real people and their lived experiences. Following the other recommendations from Reviewer 2–expand, chop, link, add, tighten, clarify; Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!–also improved the paper to the point where I no longer felt apologetic about inflicting it on the scholarly canon.

Several more editorial go-rounds quickly followed, largely related to citations and formatting. The editors were fast, good, and clear, and when we had moments of confusion, we quickly came to agreement. In the last go-round, with a burst of adrenaline I looked up every single citation in my article and found that five had the wrong pagination; each one of these errors, for the record, was mine alone. Correcting these errors felt like a victory lap.

I then tried to follow the guidance for green OA, and the reason this blog post doesn’t link to the author’s final corrected proof, and indeed the reason I broke this post in two, is that three weeks and two days after the first of three help desk inquiries with very pleasant people, I’m still not entirely sure which document version To be Real that represents.

Part 2 of A Scholar’s Pool of Tears will have a link to the author’s final corrected proof of To be Real and will discuss the intricacies of navigating the liminal world of OA that is not born OA; the OA advocacy happening in my world; and the implications of the publishing environment scholars now work in.

Leadership by the Numbers

No really, the math isn’t that hard.

In late April–a month into the last quarter of our fiscal year–I was presenting at a statewide deans’ council on a major proposal (the short version: tightening up our “loose federation”) when the emails started arriving. In minutes, everything changed. Suddenly I was in the middle of Fiscalpocalypse 2016, a crisis the diameter of Jupiter.

For the next five weeks, I lived and breathed the Fiscalpocalypse. Suddenly thrust by necessity into the role of chief fiscal analyst, I began running report after report (not without a lot of coaching and encouragement from other financial analysts), pushing hard to find the real answers to basic questions: how much do we have, what are our obligations, what do we need to keep or cut, and what contractual obligations am I able to commit to.

It’s what I did at 4 a.m., 9 p.m., weekends, holidays, every spare moment. I had a lot of spare moments because the stress of this situation bore down on me like the atmospheric pressure on Venus. Sleep was scarce and troubled. Reading anything unrelated to the issue was impossible; staring at pages, all I saw were numbers. Even half-hour walks or visits to the YMCA found me absentmindedly going through the motions while my brain churned ceaselessly, yammering through multiple scenarios, combing through formulae for clues. The clues were important, because I needed to know how we got to Fiscalpocalypse 2016 so I would understand how to get us out of it.

It was not entirely unanticipated. Once you start asking, “Do we need an audit?” you already know the answer. And the system worked, because there was a “catch” from above that resulted in those emails and in my temporarily expanding my portfolio to include budget analyst. But actual situations have jagged edges missing from anticipation of the same, and those edges hurt.

Nevertheless, there came a Sunday afternoon when I felt profound relief washing over me, releasing the muscles in my back and neck until I felt myself uncurl and sit fully upright for the first time since the crisis began. I went for a walk, and was able to listen to a podcast and enjoy the flowers. I had dinner, and tasted the food. I slept the night through. I woke up and felt, to use that great expression, like my old self. I greeted old self warmly. She was missed.

It wasn’t that the situation was better. It was rather grim. It was that finally, I knew exactly what was going on. And note, I didn’t “feel” or “believe” I knew what was going on; I knew it. Because the thing about numbers is that most of the time, if you have confidence, experience, and are handy with basic arithmetic, as long as your data are credible, you can manage a budget for any institution smaller than say, the Air Force.

Most of us can do arithmetic; the confidence will come with experience. What has struck me repeatedly across my twenty-plus years in libraries is the dearth of experience: too many library professionals go much too long in their careers before they participate in managing budgets. By budgets, I don’t mean a small chunk of money set aside for spending on books, not that this isn’t a good place to start. I mean the whole solar system: salaries, materials, operations. Even in private institutions where most regular salaries are kept confidential, two out of three of those planets should be available to up and coming professionals.

It’s good practice to have other eyes on your numbers (which I do), but I will be frank and say that across the years, particularly at jobs in smaller institutions, it’s been up to me to pretty much manage the beans on my own. I was accountable for each bean and it was assumed I would “make book,” and without really thinking about it, I did that (I guess because I had to do that in the Air Force, and I didn’t think about it much there either).

And what I know about numbers is they are impervious to emotion. I can cry my eyes out, and the numbers don’t get bigger or smaller. I can fume and rant, and they stay just as they are. I can wander the halls with a tragic face, and when I come back, the numbers are exactly as I left them. It’s something I like about numbers, at least the sort of numbers we deal with in library budgets: in this crazy malleable fungible mutable world, numbers just ARE.

(Now, this rule applies internally. It does not apply to outside forces who may indeed may have multiple interpretations of fiscal policies that have significant impact on allocations and so on. I’m referring to the paper sack of money a library administrator sits on and manages.)

Here is a pattern from my career: I arrive at an institution, I get hands-on with a budget (either a big chunk assigned to me, or the whole thing), and I unearth the bugs. It could be approval plans someone forgot about, mindlessly siphoning money every year though nobody needs those resources any more. (For a long while, I could count on finding forgotten  microfilm subscriptions.) It could be a personnel line or another item from another department erroneously appearing in my ledger. These things really happened at different institutions, and they weren’t a big deal. In each case I found myself earning the respect of the financial folks because they saw I wasn’t queasy about budgets and I wasn’t afraid to dig in and do the work.

But for a lot of library people, for a major portion of their career, the bulk of the budget is a distant drumbeat. There is enough money or not enough or suddenly some left over, and that’s what they know. Nor are they pushed, or push themselves, to learn the basic skills they need to manage money. I consider my Excel skills modest, but I have seen library professionals in fairly important positions unable to do basic tasks such as filtering, subtotaling, and linking formulas.  Far too many times I have looked at a spreadsheet where X+ Y is a hand-keyed sum that does not equal the sum of X + Y, or where a number sits without explanation: what is it, and where did it come from? Some of the scariest documents I have ever seen in my career were annual fiscal forecasts, purportedly ledger-based, created in Microsoft. Effing. Word.

And let’s not discuss how many library organizations have been stricken with accounting fraud that happened because one person in an organization had exclusive control of the money and the executive just didn’t “do math.” When “Father Knows Best,” watch out.

People, these are LIBRARY BUDGETS. I remember someone telling me our budget was complex and I said no, the federal budget is complex, we don’t have enough money to be complex. Library budgets don’t require understanding credit default swaps or synthetic CDOs. Even if you have more than one fund (and we do) and even if those funds can change from year to year (and that’s true as well), and of course everything goes up in cost all the time: in the end, to quote a Wendy’s commercial that was a mantra of logistics management during my time in the Air Force, parts is parts.

A lot of fiscal literacy boils down to being willing to look at the numbers logically and head-on. Not emotionally, not with “oh but I don’t do math,” not with a pernicious disinterest in the source of life (and that’s what money is to a library), but just pulling out those skills that got you through fourth grade.

Once upon a time long ago, in a galaxy far away, I spent two days in a conversation that went like the following. Assume the usual facts about FTEs (full time equivalents); there are no tricks or hidden exceptions in this example, and let me give you this crucial factoid: the number this is based on is $144,000.

Person A: How many student worker FTE did we have last year?

Person B: 2.6.

Me: No way.

Person B: 2.6.

Person A. I don’t really know anything about this.

Me: Arrgh! There’s no way! (Opens calculator, just in case fourth-grade math skills had vanished) How could student workers make this much?

Person B: It’s annualized.

(Note use of jargon to try to deflect inquiry. Of course FTE is based on an annual calculation, but it’s not “annualized,” though I do consider student workers a good investment, in the more general sense.)

For the next two days, I kept saying “no way,” because anyone with basic math sense knows that student workers don’t earn that much; even if you don’t know the rate of pay, you know, from a quick scribble on that scratchpad you keep in the front of your skull right above your eyeballs, that 144,000 divided by 2.6 would result in a salary of ca. $55,000 a year. That’s before you factor in more insider baseball knowledge, such as the size of the library and student headcount so on. It’s like when grocery store eggs shot up in price last year and I thought holy moley, a dollar-plus an egg? I didn’t need to pull out a calculator to know something strange had happened to the price of eggs. In the end, I was tolerated, not believed, by Person B.  I hope Person A has since nurtured at least a soupcon of mathematical curiosity.

But anyway, back to the present tense. Fiscalpocalypse 2016 isn’t over, but it’s under control. At MPOW, the plane is no longer flying into the side of the mountain; it now has excellent airspeed and heading, and my hand is firmly on the throttle. It’s a smaller plane, but I know what it is made of, from its nose cone to its flamethrowers to its empennage, and I will trade in a large, bloblike uncertainty hurtling who knows where for a trim but crisp certainty with a functioning GPS any day. I’m where I need to be in relation to knowing our finances, not just for the moment but the future, and I make sure key people know the deets, too. This is how I run things now, as I have elsewhere. Yes, we will be hiring a budget analyst, and I look forward to firing myself from my role as CFO (though not from my responsibility to know what is going on). But if there is one good thing to come out of this, it is the opportunity for me to dig deep into the financials and get to truly know the source of life for all we do. War is not peace, numbers do not cry or pout, and blessedly, parts is parts.

Margin of error

dogwhistleI just had a wonderful stroke of luck that bailed me out of a big ole boneheaded error I made yesterday. It is the kind of error that I have a certain notoriety for — not all the time, just once in a while, when I am on overload and stop reading email all the way through, forget to review checklists, and otherwise put myself in a dangerous position with decision-making. The stroke of luck was due to someone who had a solid sixth sense that something was not quite right.

This error reminded me of my most illustrious “did not read the memo” gaffe, which I share here for the first time ever.

At my last university, I was invited to participate in a university president’s inauguration ceremony and quickly scanned the invitational email. Wear regalia and process to a stage? Sounds easy enough! Ok, on to the next problem!

But after we were seated (on a large, brightly-lit stage facing audience of oh, several hundred), I gradually realized that everyone else on stage was getting up one by one, and giving a speech. My hands started trembling. I had no speech. I looked out into the audience. There were the other library people, gazing calmly at their fearless leader. I mean, if anyone likes to give a speech and can knock one out of the park, it would be me, right? The woman who has presented seventy-bazillion times?

My mouth turned to ancient parchment and I could feel cold perspiration wending its way down my torso. I suspect if you had been able to see my eyes, they would have been two fully-dilated orbs in my panicked face. I could feel the hair on my head whitening.

Out of about two dozen people on stage, I could see that I was scheduled to go next to last. The speakers walked to the podium one by one. What to do, what to do?

Breathe. What tools did I have at hand? Breathe. I have a small paper program for the inauguration. Breathe. What is going on with the speeches? Breathe. Observation: the speeches are mostly too long. Breathe. Try to still my hands. Notice that the audience is getting restless. Breathe. Smile out at the audience. Breathe.

It was my turn–a turn that for once in my life came far too quickly. I walked to the podium, looked out at the audience, and smiled. I slowly unfolded the small program and frowned at it for a moment as if it were my speaking notes while I mentally rehearsed the two or three points I would make. I began with a joke about not wanting to speak too long. Other words, now forgotten, ensued, as I winged it onstage. I could hear laughter and appreciative rustling, though I was so anxious my vision was too blurred to see past the lectern for the next two or three minutes. I summed up my speech by noting that the university, like our library, was small and mighty, a joke which if you know me has a visual cue as well.

As soon as I was outside, I owned up that mistake to my team. Not to brag about getting through a disastrous mistake unscathed (well, maybe a little), but also to fully claim my error. This situation was awful and funny and educational, all at once. It was about my strengths, but also about my weaknesses. I believe I slept 14 hours that night. It became part of our library lore.

There were many clues that I was in the vulnerability zone for error yesterday. Distraction, overflowing email, too many simultaneous “channels”; I had even remarked the previous week that I was trying hard, but sometimes not succeeding, at not responding to email messages while I was in a face-to-face meeting.  The people I was interacting with were equally busy and besides, it wasn’t their job to see that the conditions for making major errors had become highly favorable. That was my job, as the senior mechanic in charge of this project, and I wasn’t doing it.  Clues abounded, but as my overload factor increased, I missed them — a classic case of being unaware that I was unaware. And I ignored the checklist sitting in front of me just waiting to help me, if only I would let it do so.

I had excellent training in the Air Force about the value of using checklists, and I have touted their use in libraries. People often need convincing that checklists work and that checklists are not an indication that they are somehow dumb or stupid for not being able to extemporize major tasks, even though there is a preponderance of evidence underscoring their utility. In aircraft maintenance, failure to follow checklists could, and sometimes did, cost lives; even when lives were not at stake, failure to follow checklists sometimes led to expensive errors. And yes, for yesterday’s mistake, there was a perfectly reasonable checklist, but I didn’t review it. Just as there were email messages I didn’t read all the way through, and just as I didn’t catch that I wasn’t shifting my attention to where it needed to be.

As I reflected today about awareness, checklists, and stumbling toward errors, I looked outward and thought, this is what this presidential campaign feels like to me. There are cues and signs swirling around us, and an abundance of complementary cautionary tales spanning the entire history of human civilization. Anger, vulgarity, and veiled hints at violence abound. The standards for public discourse have declined to the point where children are admonished not to listen to possible future leaders. We worry, with half a mind, that what looked like a lame but forgettable joke a few months back is simultaneously surfacing and fomenting an ugliness that has been burbling under the body politic for some time now. We watch people dragged away and sucker-punched at rallies as they clumsily try to be an early-warning system for what they fear lies ahead. We have all learned what “dog-whistle” means–and yet as the coded words and actions fly around us, we still do not understand why this is happening. We sit on this stage, programs wadded in our sweating hands, watching and watched by the restive audience until our vision blurs; and we do not have a checklist, but we do have our sixth sense.

Change is a hurricane or a door

2016-02-28 15.03.50

California Poppy, taken after last week’s lush rain

My formative years as a librarian were in library systems that built themselves around the concept of aggregated strength through collective action. (If you’re thinking that sounds socialist, take heed that this concept could easily describe the armed forces.)

That concept has a very weak toehold in California, across all systems. Yes, there are some shared systems and some resource-sharing and “power of this and that” and whatnot, but colleagues I know who can compare California with states with strong “systems” self-identification agree that for whatever reason, it’s different here.

Now fast-forward to early last year, when as a newly-minted CSU library dean I smoothed my starched pinafore, straightened the bow in my hair, and marched into my first statewide meeting, only to be corrected when I referred to our library “system” that the 23 state university libraries are actually a “loose federation.”

There are long-term ramifications to being a “loose federation” that are publicly available to anyone who cares to find them. To quote my doctoral cohort buddy Chuck, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” (Ben Franklin may or may not have said that, but Chuck says it a lot.) But more interesting to me is that not long before I arrived, our loose federation came together on a momentous decision that puts us on a path to systemhood by agreeing that the 23 libraries, currently independently licensing a mishmosh of library management systems from varied vendors, would move to a single system, prophetically named the ULMS (Unified Library Management System).

In all fairness, this isn’t the first collective effort of the Loose Federation. We stand on the shoulders of Biblio-Giants, which in my case is particularly helpful since it means I can see the projector screen even when taller deans are in front of me. We have a common core of e-resources that are centrally funded and brokered. In times past, there have been joint statements, strategic plans, and so on. It is because of our ancestors we can at least think of ourselves as a Loose Federation, versus 23 libraries doing their own thang.

I’m part of a committee that is deeply involved in the process to identify and answer key questions related to resource sharing. It is possible… just a wee possible… that it might have been good to ask some of these questions, if not before agreeing to move to a unified system, at least within the context of the vendor selection, but that’s spilled milk.

As we deepen the questions we pose and study the data for our answers, it’s increasingly evident that there’s a critical difference between agreeing we will provide all libraries a garden-variety database we would all license anyway versus agreeing that we’re going to move to a centralized system. This is one of those movies where two people go on a date and then find themselves married, except it’s biblio-polygamy, and most of us are opposed to polygamy on the practical ground that multiple spouses sounds exhaustingly complicated, like having more than two cats, and when you add librarians to the mix it sounds even scarier.

First, we’re losing local control to a central office, so we need to design and practice governance at a scale we haven’t experienced before. The central office needs our guidance (and they are the first to say that). We no longer have the luxury of having weak or strong governance years. We need to be always on our game. And the communication across and among the 23 libraries needs to be top-notch.

Second, the new system simultaneously provides opportunities and limitations. For example — the example I’m most intimate with — we will have the capacity to share resources among the 23 libraries as we have never done before. We’ve done it with physical books, but in a work-around-y, hodgepodge  manner, and we haven’t done it with e-resources. That opportunity/limitation opens many doors and poses many questions. The smartest folks are either thrilled or alarmed by this because they see a future where our physical and electronic library collections are managed and shared on a massive scale.

The thrilled-or-alarmed crowd also understands (at least I think they do) that some of the most keenly-desired wishes of the resource-sharing community can–in some cases, will need to–come to fruition. I particularly relished the moment earlier this week where I spoke with an expert who noted a particular limitation that would make most interlibrary loan department heads I know of faint for joy, because it would frog-march us to the Promised Land of standardized loan policies, where we would all have to–are you sitting down? Do you have smelling salts pressed to your nose?–agree on how long a borrower at another library could check out a book. (As Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in standardized resource-sharing loan policies, but standardized resource-sharing loan policies are very interested in you.”) And that’s just one teensy finding that has surfaced.

There are many more ramifications of this system move; most, I believe, will be good. But what I am also being reminded of is that change is a hurricane or a door. The people who expected this to be like things always were, except maybe a little less expensive and labor-intensive, are now spinning in the eye of the hurricane, wondering what hit them. The people who saw this as leading to opportunities both seen and unseen are slowly (not without pain, but with keen anticipation) opening a massive door to our future.

Channeling Winston

This is a very short post intended to test the theme I’m using (veryplaintext) but the title was inspired by a thought I tweeted the other night: