Resilience vs. Sustainability

I have a guest post up at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, on the concepts of resilience and sustainability for libraries.

If you don’t know Lead Pipe, it’s a terrific blog edited by a great group of folks.  The posts are substantial and peer-reviewed, and always thought-provoking.  It’s definitely a good blog to put on your RSS feed (if it’s not already there.)

Many thanks to Eric Frierson for soliciting the post, and to Eric, Kim Leeder, and Nicholas Schiller for their review and edits.

 

Woman in her garden.

Image: Woman in her garden, Virgin Islands.  Library of Congress.

Street Books

I recently did an interview with Street Books librarian Laura Moulton, who runs a free bike-powered library for people who live outside.

Good news update:  the original project was funded by a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant, but Laura just announced that it will live on past the term of the grant, which was due to end in early September.  Based on the enthusiastic response she’s gotten, from both patrons and donors, this is an idea whose time has come.  There’s someone in Seattle interested in starting a Street Books library there, and who knows where else?

You can read the full interview here.

Once I had a kid who’d torn it up a little because it was his 21st birthday, and he told me so.  He was pretty swaggery and belligerent.  I asked him what he liked and he said Che Guevara.  The next week he came back and asked for that, not really even looking at me.  I said yes, here it is, and it blew his mind.  I saw him again and waved to him when I was biking home on Saturday, and he waved back.  It’s a pretty cool thing.

 

laura moulton with the street books cart

The ivory tower and the street

My academic library is in an area of Portland, OR that’s starting to transition.  Many of our closest neighbors are missions, shelters, and other social services, and there are plenty of folks who sleep on the sidewalks and under the bridges.  On the other hand, the library is in a beautifully restored 19th-century block of warehouses, along with the rest of the University of Oregon in Portland–and a handful of creative, financial, and other firms.  Next door to us is the brand-new headquarters of Mercy Corps, a major international aid agency. And going in across the street is the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, renovating yet another of the old neighborhood buildings.

A little further down the street, an artist, writer, and activist named Laura Moulton has set up a project called Street Books, providing a free library service to people who live outside.  With funding from Oregon’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, Laura’s repurposed a snazzy, vintage-looking delivery bicycle to hold about 50 books and a card catalog.  She keeps regular hours–two shifts a week in two different locations–and checks her books out without due dates or home addresses required.  She gets them back, too.

Reading a little about the project on Laura’s site, and passing by her setup as she’s working, has made me reflect a little on some of the most basic values that underlie what we do in all libraries.  Here’s the CLA’s list of “Our Values.”  I like the first one in particular.

We believe that libraries and the principles of intellectual freedom and free universal access to information are key components of an open and democratic society.

Diversity is a major strength of our Association.

An informed and knowledgeable membership is central in achieving library and information policy goals.

Effective advocacy is based upon understanding the social, cultural, political and historical contexts in which libraries and information services function.

Laura’s project walks the talk–whether you call it art or librarianship, or something else completely.  I’ll be trying to take a little of her style and substance into the work I do in my library.  Maybe you can too?

street books logo

Cross-posted at Re: Generations, a blog for Canadian academic librarians.

Resilience vs. sustainability

I work with architecture and design students, and I have a strong interest in understanding some of what they do.  Sometimes this means I get to take a class in a related field–this term I took one in urban planning.  The topic was sustainable cities, which is a pretty fascinating one when you consider how quickly our world is urbanizing, and how this affects poverty, ecology, energy use, and a zillion other factors.

One idea that came up early in our conversations was resilience vs. sustainability.  These are both complex notions, but I’ll boil them down to what I took away.  Basically, a sustainability model supposes that we can create or find ways to live on the planet that don’t deplete more than they give.  In other words, we can keep things going without fundamentally altering our relationship to the world.  A resilience model says that we’ve already altered the planet beyond certain tipping points.  We’ve changed the ground rules–the temperature, the acidity, the fertility, the habitat, whatever–and now we have to focus on finding ways to live with those changes.  There’s no going back.

I find it really interesting to apply a resilience model of thinking to libraries.  Resilience emphasizes adaptability, the ability of an organism or organization to change itself to survive in new circumstances.  Libraries and librarians have for some time been dealing with major, destabilizing changes in our environment.  Gillian recently posted a Call to Arms that speaks to these changes, I think.  Print texts are ceding ground to digital, traditional service models aren’t reaching new users, the skills we learned in our MLIS degrees may not be the ones we need in our jobs.  It can be overwhelming, especially for librarians who have been in the profession for a while and are used to seeing things a certain way.

Thinking about ourselves and our libraries in terms of resilience might help us feel more in control of our situation.  It means we’d have to accept that we’ve passed certain tipping points, and that may not be easy or fun to do.  But if we can do it, then we may be able to start thinking in terms of our own ability to adapt in meaningful ways.  Change is happening all around us–serious change, world-shaking change.  As a species, we have some serious decisions to make about how we deal with that change.

Professionally, ecologically, politically, and in all other ways–isn’t it empowering to start from an assumption that we’re resilient and adaptable?  Doesn’t that make the outlook seem better, no matter how disruptive the changes we face?

This post was originally made at Re:Generations.

Sobering thoughts on higher ed

n+1 has some pretty disquieting thoughts about higher education, student loan debt, and the changing profile of university campuses, both for- and greenback dollarnon-profit.  Author Malcolm Harris compares the spiraling costs of federally-backed student loans to the housing bubble that just blew up in our faces.  He writes:

The result [of increasing student loans] is over $800 billion in outstanding student debt, over 30 percent of it securitized, and the federal government directly or indirectly on the hook for almost all of it.

Yowch.  Of particular interest, if you happen to be or know someone with student debts or probable future student debts, is Harris’s overview of how higher ed has shifted to a corporate-ized model over the last forty years or so.  Tuition costs have exploded, which means students take on more debt–but there’s less and less assurance that when they graduate they’ll have a job at all, much less a job allowing them to pay off $50,000 while also establishing a household and a life.  At the same time, high-cost university courses are more likely than ever to be taught by adjuncts or graduate students, who are paid little and have no job security.

And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges. A bigger administration also consumes a larger portion of available funds, so it’s unsurprising that budget shares for instruction and student services have dipped over the past fifteen years.

Double yowch.  And:

If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.

Triple yowch.

In today’s Oregonian (our newspaper around these parts) was a piece about a bipartisan state bill (HB 2732) that was just passed, requiring high school students to apply to university, the military, or an apprenticeship program before they can receive their high school diploma.  There’s no requirement that people actually follow through (although an application to enlist in the military seems potentially binding to me) but the bill is on its way to the Senate.  No word on whether the state will put any more money into actually funding degrees for those students who are accepted.

Image: Burlington County National Greenback Labor Ticket, courtesy Cornell University Collection of Political Americana

Professional future tense.

It’s been a controversial week or two for academic libraries–at least in the American blogosphere.  Here in Oregon, Mount Hood Community College just pink-slipped all three of its full-time faculty librarians, in the midst of a budget crisis and possible faculty strike.  Elsewhere, McMaster University’s chief librarian, Jeff Trzeciak, gave a presentation at Penn State that suggested he won’t be hiring many librarians in future.  Instead, he’ll be looking for people with subject PhDs and technology training–and will be taking librarians out of undergraduate classrooms and supervisory positions, to focus their attention on faculty research consultations.  This has ruffled some feathers in lots of places.

These two things raise important issues with immediate implications for our profession (and in some cases, our livelihoods.)  They bear your consideration–you librarians, you library students.  This is our shared corner of the world, and there’s no question that it’s changing around us.

I think we can agree that we aren’t served by nostalgizing our bygone professional past — maintaining that because once we learned library penmanship and catalog card stitching and print index consultation, that we must continue to learn and teach and do those things  Of course not, right?  No one would suggest such a thing.  The world has changed.  We don’t have any of that stuff anymore.

But neither is it useful to nostalgize our immediate professional past — to maintain that because academic librarians have for many years served at reference desks, that we must continue to do so in the same way.  Or that because we’ve taught one-shot research methods classes for years, that we should continue to do so, absent a demonstrated need.  That might be a little harder to swallow, because those things are closer to where we live now.  Many of us started out in jobs that included those kinds of responsibilities, and many of our jobs still do include them.

That’s fine if our institutions work that way–if we have a busy reference desk and instructors asking for us to teach.  In many places, we do.  In those places, the model of the immediate professional past is still working fine.  It’s the model of the professional present, and probably the model of the future, at least for a while.

In other places that model is faltering, because the traffic at our reference desk is slowing down or instructors aren’t asking for our help, or some other factor is affecting how we do our business.  Those are the places where our future is really starting to blossom.  That’s where we need our leaders to think carefully and humanely about the best disbursement of the vast financial, social, and intellectual investment we’ve made in our libraries over the last hundred years or so.

I respect Jeff Trzeciak’s spirit of innovation, and his willingness to dig in and do the hard work of changing academic libraries.  I don’t entirely share his vision — at least, what I know of it.  I don’t know what to say about the situation at Mount Hood Community College, because I don’t know the behind-the-scenes, but I can hardly imagine a scenario that justifies the sudden firing of an entire professional library staff.

I do think we’re becoming a more digital institution, in a more digital society.  I don’t think we should cut people loose (students, staff, or faculty) on the way to getting there.  I think major upheavals take their toll on organizations–on morale, productivity, even direction.  I think sometimes, in some ways, they’re still warranted.  I think they should be balanced with a plan for more gradual change that takes into account human nature and the persistence of habits and ideas — our own and our patrons’. I think that’s what we might call wisdom, and it balances what we might call energy.

I think change will look different in every library, and that’s a good thing.  A diverse ecosystem is a healthy, resilient ecosystem.  I think the future of our profession, and of the informed and responsible citizenry it supports, is literally in our hands.  I think we should be paying attention and talking to each other, across all barriers and divides.  What do you think?

Crossposted at Re: Generation.