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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.

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