Friday, April 25, 2008

Is Your Library Trapped in a 'Phantom Zone' ?

About a year ago David Lee King posted his change the unchangeable rant. I believe that there are many libraries and library leaders out there trying to change their organizations. However, too many are doing so while maintaining the same organizational structures and paradigms they have used for the last half century.

As I talk to many librarians on this topic it simply seems to me that too many libraries are stuck in a 'Phantom Zone', like that in Superman comics. In the 1978 movie, Jor-El supervises the conviction of three criminals caught attempting to overthrow the planet's government. The dome of the planet's capital city opens and an extra-dimensional pyramid - the Phantom Zone - tumbles out of the sky and absorbs the three criminals into an eternity in dimensional limbo through space.

Many of the cultural rules that exist in libraries today are based on the traditional functions that libraries perform including buying, processing, and organizing materials as well as providing services at a desk within a building. The degree of change that the staff embraces, from incremental to radical, leads to a modification or replacement of these rules. The organizational tension between the agents of change and the agents of the status quo become apparent since staff generally has a tendency toward the routine while external influences on the structure create a need for disruption of those routines.

In his 1996 book Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within, Robert E. Quinn discusses how deep change differs from incremental change in that it requires new ways of thinking and behaving. Deep change is a major movement and is discontinuous with the past and generally irreversible. It distorts existing patterns and involves risk taking.

In the 2003 article Resistance to Change in Libraries: Application of Communication Theories (Access depends on your local license), Sharon Gray Weiner applies this to libraries:
"Discontinuous change means that there is no previous experience, no model of the process, and no consensus about how change should be handled. It invalidates the rules and assumptions that determine an organization's operating procedures. Technology is an important source of discontinuous change. Disintermediation is a concept that has arisen in relation to information technology and institutional change. It means the obsolescence of all institutions that function as intermediaries. Institutions are seen as encumbering and static, imposing an outdated order, and existing only to resist change and to postpone their own demise."

This is not a new idea being presented to libraries. In fact, Charles Lowry wrote about this approach nearly a decade ago.

To meet today's challenge of continuous change simply requires the mobilization of all library staff through the creation and support for a continuous learning environment as well as a real engagement in organizational problem solving. A library that is encouraged and accepts change will result in an organization that is closer to Ranganathan's "the library is a growing organism" and characterized by adaptation and evolution.

There is a way out of the library Phantom Zone, but it requires a significant cultural shift that needs to be started from the top down and supported from the bottom up. A library organization that is not challenged and chooses to resist environmental/cultural change will result in one that maintains traditional service activities. It will also experience growing tensions as the expectations and the need to change results in an increasing amount of internal conflict.

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1 comment:

sprylibrarian said...

I have been trying to determine what work environments like this would be called. The “Phantom Zone” is the perfect fit for the necessary change that needs to take place in a lot of organizations. The generation we are providing for in academic libraries today have many different expectations than those students 20 years ago. Which they should- we have different formats (and more diverse staff). What strikes me the most is the assumption that changing libraries and losing desks or physical space is assumed to mean a loss in jobs. Why would librarians (and others) assume that because we are shifting our roles it means we will be obsolete? We need to continue to learn and be ahead of the curve, giving our students and faculty what they want-not stuck in what the theory of the field should give. I have enjoyed reading your post about the “Phantom Zone”.