As one who entered college in 1966 and experienced the sixties from the front lines, I sometimes wonder how I got to be so old and stodgy. I particularly think of this when I pass plate glass windows while walking on the street and glimpse my reflection in them. Who is that gray-haired old broad in the window? It’s always a shock, despite the fact that I’ve been gray-haired for a very long time, and demonstrably growing old at the same rate as everyone else.
I’m sure some people reading this are laughing at the self-characterization “stodgy,” given that in some quarters I know I’m thought of as a very radical library ex-cataloger with unfortunate tendencies to disparage the status quo and suggest outlandish changes to how things are done in libraries. I suppose I use the “stodgy” bit to suggest that it isn’t necessarily the case that I believe we have to throw out everything we’ve done in the past in pursuit of new approaches. I do a lot of evangelizing on this point, both because I think it makes change less frightening, and because I believe we know a lot more than we think we do about what needs to change, we just have trouble separating that knowledge from the familiar and comforting packages we know so well. We’ve been distributing our knowledge in those packages for a long time, and it’s human nature to stick with what we know when we’re challenged. After all, in our early days as a species, we learned to eat the familiar stuff because we knew it wouldn’t kill us. Those who preferred the new and unfamiliar invariably ran into trouble, and often failed to pass on their genes. Our genes come from the people who knew that the new stuff could kill you.
My own experience with change has been a mixed bag, certainly. When I was in college I worked for the campus radio station (I was a TV-Radio major). Because I had radio experience in high school, I got a “job” immediately in my freshman year, doing a program called “Dinner Date” which utilized only a certain narrow set of recordings (then on vinyl only, of course). I was supposed to play only instrumentals in the genre that we now refer to as “elevator music.” I tried, in vain, to shift the playlist a bit over to slightly jazzier stuff, bossa nova, and suchlike, but that didn’t go over very well with the then powers-that-were. (I should point out that in those days women weren’t allowed to read news because our voices didn’t have the proper authority—but that’s another story). The mission of the show was to provide quiet background music for people who might be eating their dinner, the music also interspersed (and this was not explicit, but we all got it) with a sexy female voice to keep people coming back. This was an interesting time to be doing educational radio–which was what we were supposed to be doing–before NPR and public radio, when there was a distinct boundary being maintained between commercial and non-commercial radio which didn’t have anything to do with the presence or lack of advertising. Rock and roll, which was what we all wanted to play instead of the classical music leavened with a bit of folk, jazz and elevator music on the side, was not allowed.
Our Music Director at that stage, in charge of our quite extensive library of recordings, was a fellow who rather blindly followed the practices of the past, and as part of his job he reviewed all new records that flowed in on the gravy train of freebies provided by record companies. As he reviewed, with the use of a sharp tool, he rendered unplayable all those tracks unsuitable for the mission of the station at that time. After his tenure, a real musician became the Music Director, and he put a stop to that practice, but in the meantime, the station and its music collection was permanently disabled. When the station began to change (it’s now an NPR station specializing in Jazz) their collection of recordings was almost unusable. (Now that I think of it, this strategy reminds me of the practices I railed against in my early days at Cornell, where catalogers were told to delete MARC fields that the library then had no use for, which subsequently had to be laboriously re-done when fashions changed.)
I’ve been reading Karen Coyle’s “Understanding the Semantic Web: Bibliographic Data and Metadata,” (Library Technology Reports, Jan. 2010) both because I want to comment on it more fully in this space and because I’m preparing for a class I’m teaching in the Spring quarter at the University of Washington (more about that later). Since I loaned my paper copy to Jon and won’t get it back until Friday, I’ve been limited so far to reading the first chapter, “Library Data in a Modern Context,” which is available online, and includes in its closing paragraph the following:
“The need to change does not mean that what you are doing is wrong. Instead, it often means that something in your environment has changed, something that you cannot control.”
This strikes me as a critically important point. Looking back I can see that much of our conversation about what is happening in our environment, and what needs to be part of our change strategy, is being heard as blame: “You’re doing this all wrong.” And that’s simply not true—if you don’t believe me that where we are makes perfect sense if you understand the ‘why’ of it, read that first chapter. Karen has a wonderful way of explaining things (one that I envy, I have to say), and she does a great job in taking the reader from the nineteenth century and Panizzi to the present day, and it all hangs together. It’s clear that we’ve been responding appropriately to the change in user needs and technology, and I for one think we can do it again, once we move beyond the blame game.
I get a lot of questions about how and when this change will happen—nobody really wants to be on the bleeding edge of some of this, nor to they want to be left behind, but the effect of all the strategic planning seems to be that we are all teetering on the verge of some tipping point we can’t quite see clearly. “What’s it going to take?” they ask, and I have to be honest, I don’t know. Maybe the smartest thing would be to just declare that we’ve passed that tipping point and stop waiting for somebody else to take the first plunge. Maybe if we could get everyone to read Karen’s report (the printed version can be ordered from ALA directly), as well as to look for the February issue, which will also be Karen’s work, we’ll have the courage to make a move in the right direction. Hope springs eternal (and perhaps that’s the ‘drug’ referred to in the title!).