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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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  1. Henderhouse wrote:

    I can no other answer make, but, thanks, and thanks. – William Shakespeare

    I am so glad that a library thinker/writer of your caliber has addressed this issue.

    At the risk of sounding negative myself, I wonder it librarians are going to “snark” and “annoy” ourselves right out of existence. Let’s try and founder and try again? Let’s look at what’s working well? Let’s celebrate? What do we have to lose (or in a more positive statement: what do we have to gain?)

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  2. Henderhouse wrote:

    Oops…sorry for the random question marks in comment above. Meant to be declarative, not interrogative. But you knew what I meant, right!

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Jenica wrote:

    Thank you, Karen. Just thank you.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Right? I mean, right! :-)

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  5. sharon wrote:

    I thought I was the only one who calls him/her the Annoying Librarian!

    In my role as technology librarian, it’ part of my job to think about all the ways that things can go wrong, and all the possible scenarios that we might encounter. For example, with the new youth computer system, how will we handle guest passes? How long will each session be, and how many sessions per day will we allow? What will we do if a kid doesn’t have his library card and doesn’t know the number? Etc., etc., etc. I know this turn of mind often makes me sound like Little Miss Negativity, but that’s not it at all. Anticipating problems in advance is the best way to avoid them.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Permalink
  6. Louise Ratliff wrote:

    Hi Karen, Thanks for the post! I think your commentary also relates to RDA and the RDA Toolkit for catalogers. I sense that implementing the FRBR model is extremely difficult, will take many tries, and ultimately can provide better discovery and access. The process, however, is fraught with peril, and nay-sayers abound. We shall see what evolves, but if we don’t try new approaches, we will be stuck in the present, and for libraries that could be problematic indeed.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  7. Sharon, most of those aren’t really “the way that things can go wrong” — they are just the details of any public procedure, including necessary contingencies.

    But I would add, in any situation, it’s also part of your job to reflect on how things can go right, where the marketing opportunities are, where the big “win” is for the library, the unexpected benefits you hadn’t earlier seen, etc. If you focus only on the stumbly situations, you’ll miss the leadership opportunity to think creatively about using these new services to further the library’s goals.

    Finally, there’s a time/place/manner issue involved here. Consider the timing of your input. Is it when ideas are freeflowing and people are excited? Or is it after the initial flush, when people have had some time to enjoy the moment of a good idea? How you present these ideas matters as well. Is it with an and/and openness? What a great idea, here’s how we can make it work, here’s what to watch out for?

    I make these comments because you mention sounding like “Little Miss Negativity.” Is that something you feel about how you present information, and/or do others say it about you? If either is true, then maybe you need to revisit how you present the helpful information you’re sharing. I’ve known many good tech types who really meant the very best for their library and yet didn’t come off that way. Just a thought.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink
  8. Louise, I’ve encountered librarians who were… well, hysterical about RDA. I imported an RDA record into our ILS. Wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world (looks much better in WorldCat) but I’m wondering, if they use up all their energy on resistance, how will they make it better? My only issue with RDA is that if it’s going to cause any effort at the local level it’s a questionable ROI.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  9. Andy Havens wrote:

    Great post title.

    Oh, and the post is excellent, too. ;-)

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  10. Thanks, Andy — and Happy New Year!

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  11. Mary wrote:

    Very well said, and it definitely needs to be said. It is always easier to shoot holes in good ideas than to go through the work of exploring and implementing them. Thank you!

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  12. Shawn wrote:

    Thank you Karen! Now, how to get the folks at MPOW who *need* to read this to, well, read this…

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  13. Dead on.

    While I think there are always room for a good critique, too often I read someone’s article or blog entry and think, “For all the time they spent tearing it down, they could have built a better system.”

    Bravo, Karen!

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  14. Michelle wrote:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. You have to be willing to fail and try new things. Sometimes the obvious outcome isn’t what you get, or you find a way around it. We live with problems everyday. Who’s to say this new set of problems won’t be worth the benefits of a better system/tool, whatever? For the “I told you so”s out there, all I have to say is “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” and “Haters gonna hate.”

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  15. Royce Kitts wrote:

    It was nice reading this and reminding myself that I don’t have to be so negative about library stuff. It has a been a tough past couple of years for some of us who have been struggling to keep our libraries properly funded. It is tough to operate in a system where for every thing you want to add, something has to be taken away.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  16. suzi w. wrote:

    I love what you say here about writing.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  17. svkaszynski wrote:

    great use of the term “sausagemaking”.

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  18. sharon wrote:

    K., thanks for the feedback. That particular conversation was just between me and the director, and I wanted to get those scenarios out in the open before the folks who staff the youth desk bumped into them.

    But your point is well-taken. We techies do tend to be pessimists–it’s one of the hazards of the job. (I used to test software for mission-critical systems.) The presentation to the staff will be much more positive, because in truth I am very optimistic about the new system, and very happy to be getting the old Windows machines out of there.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  19. Thank you, Karen. I kind of love you for this post. You absolutely nailed why I detest the AL: s/he is a lazy, petty thinker who revels in things going badly. Who needs that kind of crap?

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  20. Sharon, then you are truly cool beans. The director does need a preemptive heads-up on what’s entailed in making things work right. For one thing, it’s the arsenal when the you-know-whos say “I bet you haven’t even thought through _____.” Our tech person is great at the deets too.

    The one thing I’d suggest is allowing yourself a moment or two to speculate on unexpected success. IT tends to be the land of emergency (it’s why I made a point of visiting IT when I first got here “just to say hi”–because their first encounter with departments is usually mid-crisis). Sneak in a moment of blue-skying. Then go back to all those crucial deets us admins are so lame at. :-)

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  21. @Joshua I love you too man. :-) The answer is none of us need it. I’m reading “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” and it really strikes home how we have a natural tendency to gravitate toward the negative. We have to fight that in ourselves. Optimism is a learned behavior and a conscious decision (q.v. Viktor Frankl, C.S. Lewis, etc.). It takes work.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  22. Rosario Garza wrote:

    I am jumping for joy (figuratively)! Thank you for saying what many of us feel. If we don’t try new services, etc., we’ll never move forward. Sean is to be commended for having the courage to try a new model.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  23. Lori Reed wrote:

    OK so Karen I can safely cross you off the list of suspects, right? :)

    Thank you for writing this. Another one knocked out of the ballpark. What makes me sick is that the Annoying Librarian is often cited as one of the most popularly read library blogs and is listed in many “must read blog” lists.

    I don’t come to the web to read or hear snark like this. I come for inspiration. Maybe if the recession and cutbacks to libraries offer us anything it will be that people who are toxic to the profession will leave. We need more people who are inspirational and love libraries not drones who complain with nothing new to say.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  24. sharon wrote:

    “the land of emergency”

    Love that! I’ve learned more during emergencies than when everything is working smoothly. That’s why we call them Learning Experiences.

    Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  25. Wendy Newman wrote:

    You have nailed it in this immensely powerful piece. Thanks for making my day, Karen.

    Friday, December 31, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  26. t wrote:

    perfect meal for archvists, too. great post.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink
  27. Sarah wrote:

    I think there is a huge perception gap and it’s growing wider all of the time. I’ve found this editorial by John Berry to be spot-on:
    LJ 5/15/10

    There is ALWAYS another side to the story. For every frustrated director, there are dozens of frustrated staff.

    Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  28. Steph wrote:

    Thanks – as a fellow director it’s so nice to read this. The cognitive load of negativity can cripple us if we let it!

    This year I saw the movie Happy Go-Lucky (the one with Suzy Hawkins) for the first time and I wondered what it was I loved about it. It finally dawned on me that it was just a simple movie about a woman who gave herself permission to be happy, despite the many invitations to anger or depression she kept encountering. A beautiful thing…

    Friday, January 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  29. Cheryl Gould wrote:

    Hurray Karen. There is so much in the business/leadership/happiness/self-help/neuroscience literature about learning from experience and staying positive and how crucial it is to learning and innovation and relationships. It truly makes one sick to think as the AL does. Great to hear the direction you’re going and the sentiments of those that have commented.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  30. Someone teasingly called me “Pollyanna-ish” the other day and I was very proud of that. I haven’t always been in that place in other jobs, and you know, it feels good. Those happydorphins just keep flowing.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. You Told Us *Nothing* « Agnostic, Maybe on Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    [...] must give credit for some inspiration for this post to Karen Schnieder and her post, The Devil Needs No Advocate. In my opinion, it’s a ‘must read’ [...]

  2. [...] Schneider published an interesting post yesterday under the pithy title The Devil Needs No Advocate. Other than the title, it’s a post that I mostly agree with and it got me thinking about [...]

  3. PL 1/11 « Plinius on Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 5:53 am

    [...] I am teaching in a leadership programme at the doctorate level. The quotes below – from Karen – are aimed at [...]

  4. [...] enjoyed both Karen Schneider’s post and Meredith Farkas’ follow-up post about devil’s advocates. They talk about new ideas [...]

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