Some Library Intentions for 2020

One’s daily work can seem useless in moments of looming geopolitical crisis. I wrote in my journal the other day about some household organization that made me feel more calm that it did feel like shuffling deck chairs on the metaphorical sinking ship. Reading this article yesterday about a family trying to escape the Australian bush fires was a reminder that no matter what the circumstances in which one finds oneself, there are mundane facts of existence. Like the writer of the article, you may have a small child named Julian who likes Paw Patrol (I certainly do), and you will muddle through whatever crisis you are in, and either make it or not. (The author and his family do, of course!)

So when I found myself thinking back on 2019 and thinking to what I wanted to accomplish in 2020, it was hard to put what feels like a series of looming crises to one side and think about what was important in my daily work. In addition, 2019 was for me an extremely complicated year personally. Professionally it was full of exciting firsts. I taught a graduate seminar. I published a book, though the majority of the work related to that took place in 2018.

Yet, the same day I got my copy of the book I got a call with amazing news that nonetheless meant I had to upend my life for about six weeks. This is on-going, and means that 2020 will involve being gone from home for a month, though luckily with more notice this time so I am not doing anything in the spring semester that can’t be put aside for that month. While I wouldn’t call this a crisis by any stretch, it did make me feel much more inclined to focus on what I knew, and what was important. What is important? Well, for me as a librarian, it’s making sure people can do their own piece of all the work that must happen in privacy and security, and that they can get what they need to do that work.

Years ago I did research on our institutional repository and contacted Iranian researchers who cited work from the repository. They were doing research on English literature, and accessing resources from institutional repositories was really the only way they could get the resources they needed for work that wasn’t particularly well supported by their home institutions. Thinking about stories like that keeps me focused on the part of my job where I get to make work open access. That work is important when we need to increase connection between people internationally.

Now that I’ve been at this job for seven years, I have a bunch of calcified practices that need improvement. I have to do a lot, and I never seem to take the time to radically transform some of the infrastructure and methods for keeping all our stuff current and secure. Things are always changing, so it’s hard to ever declare that I’m not doing anything new for the next few months–but I am setting a lot of boundaries around the time I have to be gone, and choosing to spend that time on infrastructure and thinking about the practices associated with that. One major example is privacy. How can we streamline practices to ensure that we don’t have a lot of random old data sitting around? (It will be put in more scholarly terms in the writing that comes out of it.)

Writing is going to be a major focus of the next few months. I did very little writing in 2019, partly due to time, and partly due to needing a break after an intense writing year of 2018. I will slowly workshop some ideas here, and try to rediscover some joy in the practice.

administration change coding library management technology

Lazy Consensus and Libraries

Happy feet
Photo courtesy of Flickr user enggul

Librarians, as a rule, don’t tolerate anarchy well. They like things to be organized and to follow processes. But when it comes to emerging technologies, too much reliance on planning and committees can stifle creativity and delay adoption. The open source software community can offer librarians models for how to make progress on big projects with minimal oversight.

“Lazy consensus” is one such model from which librarians can learn a lot. At the Code4Lib conference in February 2012, Bethany Nowviskie of the University of Virginia Scholar’s Lab encouraged library development teams to embrace this concept in order to create more innovative libraries. (I encourage you to watch a video or read the text of her keynote.) This goes for all sizes and types of academic libraries, whether they have a development staff or just staff with enthusiasm for learning about emerging technologies.

What is lazy consensus?

According to the Apache software foundation:

Lazy Consensus means that when you are convinced that you know what the community would like to see happen you can simply assume that you already have consensus and get on with the work. You don’t have to insist people discuss and/or approve your plan, and you certainly don’t need to call a vote to get approval. You just assume you have the community’s support unless someone says otherwise.
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Nowviskie suggests lazy consensus as a way to cope with an institutional culture where “no” is too often the default answer, since in lazy consensus the default answer is “yes.” If someone doesn’t agree with a proposal, he or she must present and defend an alternative within a reasonable amount of time (usually 72 hours). This ensures that the people who really care about a project have a chance to speak up and make sure the project is going in the right direction. By changing the default answer to YES, we make it easier to move forward on the things we really care about.

When you care about delivering the best possible experience and set of services for your library patrons, you should advocate for ways to make that happen and spend your time thinking about how to make that happen. Nowviskie points out the kinds of environments in which this is likely to thrive. Developers and technologists need time for research and development, “20% time” projects, and freedom to explore new possibilities. Even at small libraries without any development staff, librarians need time to research and understand issues of technology in libraries to make better decisions about the adoption of emerging technologies.

Implementing lazy consensus

Implementing lazy consensus in your library must be done with care. First and foremost, you must be aware of the culture you are in and be respectful of it even as you see room for change and improvement. Coming in the first day at a new job is not the moment to implement this process across the board, but in your own work or your department’s work you can set an example and a precedent. Nowviskie provides a few guidelines for healthy lazy consensus. Emphasize working hard and with integrity while being open and friendly. Keep everyone informed about what you are working on, and keep your mission in mind as the centerpiece of your work. In libraries, this means you must keep public services involved in any project from the earliest possible stages, and always maintain a commitment to maintaining the best possible user experience. When you or your team reliably deliver good results you will show the value in the process.

While default negativity can certainly stifle creativity, default positivity for all ideas can be equally stifling. Jonah Lehrer wrote in a recent New Yorker article article that the evidence shows that traditional brainstorming, where all ideas are presented to a group without criticism, doesn’t work. Creating better ideas requires critiquing wrong assumptions, which in turn helps us examine our own assumptions. In adopting lazy consensus, make sure there is authentic room for debate. Responding to a disagreement about a course of action with reasoned critique and alternate paths is more likely to result in creative ideas, and brings the discussion forward rather than ending it with a “no.”

Librarians know a lot about information and people. The open source software community knows a lot about how to run flexible and transparent organizations. Combining the two can create wonderful experiences for our users.