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Declaration of In(ter)dependence
July 5, 2012 - 11:08pm

“The library is a growing organism.”
         S. R. Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science, 1931

As I write this, I am having a rare off-the-grid moment, looking over my laptop at a view that reminds me of the coast of Maine except that it doesn’t smell like the sea and there are no tidal pools full of sea urchins and starfish. But the North Shore of Lake Superior is, like Maine, a country of pointed firs, and interlaced among the conifers are the white trunks of birch trees. The hillside bristles with them rather starkly, because many of them have lost their crown of whispering leaves. There have been years of drought and too many beetles. Climate change could be partly responsible – the average temperatures have risen in recent years – but there’s no way to know how much of this die-off is a sinister omen or just normal forest succession; it’s entirely natural that nothing stays the same.

dead birchThough I don’t have a wifi connection on my computer, I have been able to catch a couple of bars on my phone, enough to read an interesting blog post by Mark Kille riffing off something I wrote earlier on the curious way that library organizations tend not to honor the intellectual freedom we library folk claim to care about. I argued that shared governance is a valuable and ethical model for getting work done in libraries, a claim Mark finds tempting but unrealistic. I also read an interesting series on library leadership by Jenica Rogers and a mordant, yet curiously inspiring cry from the Library Loon. (In fact, I can vouch for the fact that loons have a haunting and mournful cry.) Today I have also been seeing celebratory tweets about the European Parliament voting down a very bad treaty designed to please intellectual property owners by wrapping the Internet in barbed wire, followed by alarmed tweets about our Linksys routers suddenly installing surveillance software to protect intellectual property from all of us potential thieves. All of this is tumbling around in my head, along with the puzzle of a forest of bone-white dead birch trees.

I know, I should turn this thing off and enjoy the breeze and that lovely view of the distant horizon where the lake ends and the sky begins. But first, I need to get a couple of ideas out. They are irritating me, like pebbles in my shoe.

First, a reckless claim: nobody owns knowledge. It’s there for the finding. We might be lucky enough to discover it. (Hello, Higgs boson, it’s about time you showed yourself!) But making a discovery does not make it ours. Oh, I know this is wildly oversimplified; we can build things, invent things, combine chemicals and put a patent on the results. But on the whole, I think it’s a terrible mistake to think anyone can own a piece of knowledge and share it only with those who pay to get a peek. (It’s not that different in the arts, as Jonathan Lethem has argued brilliantly, but for now I’m going to focus on the kind of knowledge academics discover and share.) Knowledge is a common good, and we who work with it need to protect it as a commons. If we treat our findings as individual property, if we fail to respect what we discover as part of a complex ecosystem too important to muck up through parceling it out into bits of property ringed round with fences, we run the risk of killing it.

Second, libraries as organizations and cultural institutions are a part of this ecosystem. They are in a state of change – always. We aren’t always sure which of the changes we’re dealing with are warnings of a catastrophe in the making, a sign that things have gone horribly wrong, or natural succession. We need to watch out for unnatural disasters as we tend our libraries as a commons maintained for the sharing and discovery of knowledge, a place where knowledge is defended from enclosure and exploitation. To do this work, I believe self-governance is a better model than the managerial/administrative model under which almost all libraries operate. I think we should operate as citizens of a republic of knowledge, with a vested interest in its preservation, not more or less industrious workers being organized by leaders for maximum productivity.

Mark finds my vision too idealistic, and I can understand why. Too often in libraries with fashionably flat organization charts, there’s no mechanism to keep us working well together, which is often called "accountability" but it's not a word I'm fond of. When consensus isn’t reached the default position is to do nothing. Some people work hard, and others work very little or do things that make everyone who’s trying to get something done have to stop to repair the damage. With those problems in mind, he asks “do librarians need a boss?”

Well, since the problems he describes are common in libraries with bosses, and there are too few libraries practicing self-governance to draw conclusions about their effectiveness, I am not sure that’s the right question. Perhaps another way to put it is “do people who work in libraries need to find a way to work together more effectively?” The simple answer, of course, is “yes!” But what’s getting in the way?

Mark has four good ideas: everyone needs to feel the work the organization does is important, but no individual can be so important that she or he is irreplaceable. Someone has to have the ability to make a decision when there’s a deadlock, and the organization has to be made up of people willing and able to do the necessary work, even if that means ejecting from the community those who aren’t (or to put it bluntly, firing them). This last bit is so hard for library bosses they often let people stay until retirement to avoid doing it. One of the Loon’s recurring complaints is that libraries needing to do new things will hire one sacrificial victim and ask that person to do all the new things, setting the new hire and all those things up for failure, while everyone else carries on doing things that are no longer particularly necessary or effective.

I still feel that sharing the work, sharing the concern for the overall health of the knowledge ecosystem, sharing the responsibility to sort out which changes are natural and healthy and which are unnatural disasters, is the best way to go.  We need to have just enough of a structural framework in libraries to be able to move forward when we get stuck.  We need to welcome new talent and provide the right environment for it to flourish. We need to trust one another enough to call each other out when needed; that’s critical to effective self-governance. The freedom we need is not individual freedom, but rather public liberties granted so that we can protect and nourish public knowledge.

I’m an optimist by nature. I work with smart people who care about the work we do together. I’m worried about corporations’ efforts to protect their traditional business practices by treating the stuff they have traditionally distributed as their exclusive legal property and everyone else as potential thieves, but I am also thrilled by the recent gains made toward open access. I want the way I work with others in my organization to reflect the values we hold in common. Do we need bosses? Do we need leaders to make decisions for us and hold us to account? Yes and no. I think we all should be involved equally in our common future, which means we must all do those things. In the world of knowledge, independence for those who work with knowledge seems intrinsically necessary for healthy interdependence.

And with that little koan, I will turn off my computer and enjoy the view.


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