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The Devil Needs No Advocate

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"

I was teaching a library-science class about a decade ago when a student snaked her hand into the air.

“You know how no good deed goes unpunished?” she asked.

“No,” I said, and continued lecturing.

I knew where she was going with that question, because I knew her from another context, where she was the self-designated killjoy who approached every project confident of its failure–which, for the record, is an excellent way to ensure failure happens. She’s the one who will ask, “Just to play Devil’s advocate”–as if Satan needed any help.

And we have all sat in meetings where this person  dwelled ad infinitum on every possible thing that could go wrong with a good idea that hadn’t even been launched, or itemized in exquisite detail the inevitable failings of any good idea in progress. There have been times when I have been this person (and will be again in the future), and for this I humbly repent.

I was reminded of this moment recently when I read the (relatively mild) commentary on an article in Library Journal, “Netflix-inspired Pilot Program for Borrowing in California Library Languishes,” and then, reluctantly, prodded from a Tweet, turned my eyes to this post by the Annoying Librarian (yes, I know that’s not her real fake name). It was at that moment I realized why I loathe her: because I’ve suffered her kith and kin at nearly every library job I’ve ever had.

Which leads into a response I’ve wanted to post for a while about what directors do for a living.

In my last post about my concerns about eBooks and the traditional lending model, a commenter said something I’ve heard many times in different guises: “I think the problem lies in the fact that a lot of librarians and admin don’t really know shit about eBooks. Admin’s role has changed from less about being the guardian of the library to more of a fundraiser/politician role.”

I’m not singling out Justin, but I have wanted to respond to his comment for over a month, and the Netflix-lending posts only fueled my desire to do so.

If I have to point to my professionally challenges for the year ahead, it is all about fundraising and politics. I realize it’s awfully cute that I work in such a small library that I end up washing dishes, hanging pictures, and (teeth gritted) cataloging books.  I  am also tech-savvy enough that my staff don’t have to get out the flannel board and hand puppets to have a conversation with me about eBooks, and I bet that is a relief to them. (Though we are also fortunate to have a true geek on board in charge of library systems–an unusually strong resource for a tiny library–and we are also all tech-literate, which is no coincidence, either.)

But I don’t have a list posted to my wall about the tech issues I need to grasp over the next year. Instead, my wall features my professional goals, blown up in type large enough to read from my desk, and they are all related to my “fundraiser/political role.”  In fact, looking over the last 14 months, and at the year ahead, all of my successes, my challenges, and my successes-in-progress directly relate to that role. It’s my job, the one I was hired to do.

Our biggest challenge in libraries right now is about how we position ourselves within the stakeholder/funding process, and much of that has to do with strategic communications. I strive for this not only through direction (I have a strategic-communications document, though that’s an understatement, because nearly everything I have done in the past year relates back to how we communicate) but also, I hope, through example. I recently faced a daunting challenge that for a while had me very frustrated. But I chose to face this challenge with a positive face forward every single day, to stay on message and upbeat, and to turn it into a win for the library.

My director peers who don’t entirely understand eBooks can be forgiven. They have a daunting job these days: to keep libraries positioned.

I realize not all admins are approachable, have an interest in information technology, or want to know. But if there’s something absolutely crucial your “admin” needs to know, you have a responsibility to make every effort to find a way to share this knowledge with them. If the “admins” don’t know “shit” about eBooks, it’s the job of those who do to find a way to communicate crucial facts to them: just what they need to know, and no more than that, and in a manner in which the information can be quickly absorbed.

So now, back to Hayward Public Library. Here we have a director trying something new, and then being transparent that it hasn’t worked out yet.  I found it interesting that this story made Library Journal at all (slow week?), but at that point it was inevitable that AL would begin shouting.

If there’s one thing writing has taught me, it is that shitty first drafts are a necessary part of the process, and that second, third, and fourth drafts aren’t much better. In fact, as a writer, I have to bite back the snark when someone says, “Oh yes, I’ve been meaning to write a story one of these days,” as if good literature were something banged out in a single session on a stray weekend afternoon, and not something extracted through exhausting, nausea-generating iterations (cue Jack Nicholson in The Shining, typing the same sentence over and over and OVER).  It’s understandable; excellence appears effortlessness.

But excellence also requires much behind-scenes sausagemaking and experimentation. This is particularly true for new ideas. It is extremely hard to distinguish good ideas from bad ideas early in the iterative design process (and that goes for everything from writing and homebrewing to designing library buildings). Sometimes the goal is right, but the method needs rethinking. Sometimes the goal itself needs rethinking. And sometimes a good idea just needs time, timing, and tweaking to triumph. You will just not know until you’ve put some effort into it for a while.

It can be heartbreaking to walk away from an idea you’ve poured work into, but it’s part of the process. The significantly harder part of any idea is believing in it before it’s fully-baked, when the effort to make it happen outstrips the apparent payoff, and you feel the impatience of others, hear the negative voices, sniff the faint odor of doubt. That’s the point where you need to have faith in things unseen.

But none of this bothers the Annoying Librarian, because she’s all about the turd in the punch bowl, the preemptive negativism, the soul-sucking, nasty worldview in which no good deed goes unpunished and They are always against Us. It’s a convenient, lazy perch, particularly when you do it behind the lack of accountability that  anonymity provides. It’s good for page views and quick laughs at the expense of whatever idea she’s excoriating at the moment. But it doesn’t make the world a better place. It doesn’t make you a better person, either.

I forced myself to view the Annoying Librarian’s site once more before ending this post, and she’s true to form: there she is saying “I hate to say I told you so.” The facts don’t matter; it’s just another instance where she correlates something she doesn’t like with failure, however tenuous the connection.

Thing is, AL doesn’t hate to say she told us so, not one bit (any more than anyone using that expression feels that way). Like the Dementors, she keens for the moment of destruction; she loves failure more than the creative spark of life itself.  Devil’s advocate? She’s his liege.

I don’t know if Hayward has found the right solution yet. But they tried something new, were up front about it, and are clearly interested in positioning the library for the future. The director seems less interested in the mechanics of this particular approach than addressing the root problems that led to this experiment.

He’s on his game. I’m trying to be on mine. You do your part, too, whether it’s reaching a little harder to explain to your boss about eBooks, thinking twice before you make that negative comment or laugh at a cheap shot, or forcing yourself to go into your next meeting with the most positive spin on things you can muster (you may be surprised at how good you feel when you do this). We have a lot of work to do, those of us who care fiercely about libraries, and we need all the help–and faith–we can get.

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