What would it look like?

Here’s an exercise.

Try to imagine a library that does not care about its users.

What would it look like?

Let’s say that it’s an academic library on a large, urban campus, that serves tens of thousands of students.

What kind of library would it be if it didn’t care about those students?

It might look like this.

There would be no consequences. It wouldn’t really matter what the library did, or if it did it well. The library would have vague statements about its mission and goals, but there would be no measurable outcomes associated with any of the library’s spaces, services, or collections. This would include the library’s multimillion-dollar budget, which would only have a single budget code, so there would be no way to itemize how the library spends its funds. If you ask where the money comes from and how the budget is determined, someone will laugh and say, “Oh, that number is written down in a drawer somewhere.”

There would be no consequences for leaving obscenely large amounts of money unspent, year after year. Unused budget funds would be put into an ongoing, never-ending renovation that leaves the building in a constant state of uncertainty, chaos, physical disarray, and distracting noise. New spaces would be built without description, purpose, or plans to staff them. The library would celebrate the “substantial completion” of the renovation, complete with a ribbon-cutting and replica cake made of fondant, and then the renovation would continue for another year.

There would be no consequences for employees, whose low performance would never be punished and whose outstanding performance would never be rewarded. Non-tenure track library faculty would be employed continuously without appointment letters or contracts. Salaried employees would come and go as they please, sometimes being late to meetings in the afternoon because they simply hadn’t come to work yet that day. Instruction librarians would be late to classes, leaving students and course faculty waiting. The instruction scheduler would be baffled by Microsoft Outlook and its calendaring system; they would assign classes incorrectly, neglect to send instruction confirmations, and humiliate the teaching team. The scholarly communication librarian would hate Open Access. Public services staff would really prefer to work in the back of the library. Instruction librarians would be afraid of speaking to large groups. Collection development librarians would look at crumbling books and say smugly, “A worn collection is a used collection.” Student workers, without supervision or guidance, would ride skateboards through the staff area.

There would be no consequences for not having a faculty handbook, for not following the established rules of shared governance, and for deliberately violating by-laws. Decisions would be made based on an e-mail someone sent once, or how things were done last year, or  something someone overheard in a meeting. Promotions would be given based on individual employees and their needs and desires, rather than the goals of the organization (there are no measurable goals, anyway). Knowledge management would be practically non-existent, with documents scattered between a shared drive, an intranet, and cloud-based software. Policies and procedures would refer to individuals by name, rather than by their position or role.

The university responsible for this library wouldn’t particularly care who was in charge of it, and would leave interim leadership in place for years. Interim reporting lines would cascade as mid-level management left the organization, so employees would be in “continuity of operations” plans indefinitely. The university would open and close a search for a Library Director, declaring none of the candidates “viable” because they do not meet the requirements of the rank of Full Professor. Nevermind, of course, that no one in the library has ever been promoted to Full Professor, and nevermind that only three of the library’s two dozen faculty are tenured or tenure-track. Nevermind that what the library really needs is an effective manager, not a scholar.

If this library didn’t care about students, they might or might not keep any data about how the library is used, and if such data were recorded, it probably wouldn’t be regularly reported or used to make decisions in any way. The library’s operating hours and its services would be available randomly at the whims of the library, whenever it felt like staffing things, whenever employees were available. On-boarding for new hires would be random and haphazard. There would be no orientations or procedures or checklists or training manuals. There would be no quality checks to see if things were being done well because who would decide what that looks like?

Who is actually in charge? Look at the staff directory, it says vacant.

If this library didn’t care about students, it wouldn’t keep them safe. Intoxicated people would interrupt instruction sessions and refuse to leave the classroom. People would camp in the building overnight. Security guards would gently nudge sleepers, then let them fall back asleep. It’s understandable, of course, that the library would be a popular place for anyone seeking refuge-the library is the only building on campus where community members cannot be trespassed. Students would leave the library, complaining about these safety issues, and study somewhere else.

If this library didn’t care about students, it would be impossible to retain faculty and staff who do care about them. Those people will get angry and exhausted. New hires would be undermined and sabotaged. Competent employees would be labeled as “over-ambitious.” People would leave this library, choosing lower-paying jobs, longer commutes, positions outside of libraries, expensive cross-country moves, or outright unemployment, simply to get away from the dysfunction.

The turnover rate would be high, but the remaining employees would tell themselves it’s somehow normal. “That person really wanted to get back into public libraries,” they would say. Or, “Their spouse got a new job out-of-state, so they had to go.” Some people stay just long enough to get a better job title to put on their CV, a reward for putting in their time, and then they would move on, too.

So the leftovers would settle in, determined to outlast all of the perky people with new ideas, and wait. What is there to lose? There are no consequences, anyway.

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Featured image by NeONBRAND