From tech to tome: spanning the gulf

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your Cat 5e!”

No? Okay, sorry.

In case you’re wondering, no, Rapunzel does not have a fifth cat named “E”.

Never mind that. In addition to all the techies that read this blog, there are a fair number of librarians on the other side of the “digital divide” who, in some cases, are trying desperately to reach across and learn more about technology–specifically, technology in libraries. I applaud them because by the very act of reading library blogs, they are doing what many library professionals do not: keeping up. Of course, it takes time to stay abreast of the daily machinations in the biblioblogosphere. I’ve been slacking this past week or so (well, not slacking, but doing my part to get a new branch up and running by March 20th–forgive me if I’ve let my duties here wane) and I just finished slogging through 300+ hits in my reader which were from the past day and a half alone. But it’s worth it.
I try to maintain a balance on my blog between highly technical entries and open, accessible discussion because I think it’s important that non-techies feel welcome and comfortable in technical dialogue. More importantly, I’d like to help those individuals gain a voice when it comes to contributing ideas. The same should be said for the librarians we work with.
One of the persistent problems facing the 21st century library is the culture gap between IT and librarians. Of course, the issue is even more granular than that when you start looking at the differences between the veteran, tenured staff and the newly minted MLSs–many of whom have already undergone the digital immersion but do not yet have a strong voice within their organizations. This culture gap is, in-and-of-itself, not necessarily a problem. Differing ideas and viewpoints make for interesting and enriching dialogue. The problem is that, in most cases, there is no dialogue. That problem has been weighing on my mind of late and I thought that it might be a good idea to brain-dump some ways of spanning the gulf. In an ideal world, these are the things I’d keep in mind as I approached the “other side”.

Get the dialogue started. In order for anything to happen, someone needs to make the first move and approach the other side. This can be as easy as an informal email or chatting in the hallway. In fact, the biggest obstacle may just be the imaginary barriers that have grown up over time. Good fences make good neighbors, right? Not in this case. What’s important is that a dialogue exists that goes beyond the obligatory machinations of daily library routine. Someone needs to talk to someone and get the discussion started. It might as well be you.

Acknowledge the dichotomy. Once you get a dialogue started, it’s important that both sides recognize that there is a problem–or at least a gulf. Hopefully, both sides will agree that there is a disconnect and have a desire to make the situation better. Once that happens, you’ll have some common ground to work with. It’s at this point in the discussion where you might provide some concrete examples of what might be accomplished through a strong multilateral approach.

Make a peace offering. If things have been particularly tense, come to the table with something tangible the other side will benefit from. Not a buy off, but maybe an offer of time or a concession. This may not be necessary, but in some cases, the circumstances may merit coming off a little something.

Make the other party comfortable. Spend some time in advance deciding on language that will not frighten off the other side. Make sure they know that you value their opinions. Keep discussions informal but on-track. The last thing you want to do argue or create a rift, so make sure the other side knows your goal is to bring everyone together. Technology, to the uninitiated, can hold a frightening mystique. A librarian once referred to a wifi antenna as “that zappy thing”–language that betrays the trepidation (if not outright fear) this one individual has when it comes to tech.

Show them you are interested. People at your library may not know that you are interested in what they do. Of course, you genuinely need to be interested, or you’re in need of some introspection. The goal here is to build common ground on which discussion can grow. Tell them specifically what parts of their job you find interesting. Ask questions, take notes, learn. Be honest. Let them know that you are always looking for ways to incorporate technology in the library in ways that are creative, useful and friendly.

Ask them how you can help. Get a sense from them what is bothering them the most. It’s a good idea to ask them outright whether there is anything you or your department can do to make their life easier. If there is, try to get it done quickly and cheerfully. There’s a good chance that something small and easy-to-fix has been bothering them for months. By saying, “Yah, we can fix that today”, you might just illuminate, for both sides, the fact that these types of dialogues do, indeed, have a purpose. I’ve run across many non-techies who have developed magnificently complex processes in order to do very simple tasks. One person cried once I showed her how to do in one step what she had been doing in fifteen for years.

Show them how they can help. Let them know that what they do matters and show them how they can participate in new, interesting, and cutting-edge projects. Show (not tell) them how much their input and work can influence a final product. If possible, illustrate the impact they have already had. In our case, at AADL, many of the staff bloggers have no idea how excellent they make our web site simply by providing a constant stream of quality content. I’m truly proud to be working in the same organization as them, but they probably don’t know it.

Invite them to learn and play. It’s important that staff have the opportunity to get their hands on new technology as it comes out. The idea of letting staff play with technology has been proposed a number of times by a number of people and I agree. Getting people comfortable and excited about technology at the same time is a win-win prospect that will only benefit everyone.

Cross-train. Especially at the entry-level. If we start cross-training our staff when they come in the door, they’ll be inherently more comfortable outside their zone of expertise. I’ve often been stopped by a patron and asked a reference question. I’m certainly no reference librarian, but I made a point of trying to help them if no one else was around. The unknown becomes a lot less frightening once you know even just a little about it. This is especially true with technology, which tends to have a very steep learning curve.

Make plans together. Come up with both blue-sky and concrete plans. Come up with ways that two departments can work together to accomplish something new and exciting. Something that will make all departments involved feel a sense of accomplishment. Non-techies often feel intimidated about asking their techie counterparts if something is feasible. As a techie, you may be able to suggest a solution they didn’t even think possible.

Meet regularly. Agree to have formal or informal discussions on an ongoing basis. This is important. Consistent communication can and will solve most of the problems we find in any organization. It’s important that each department have maintain their own identity and purpose, but there is nothing wrong with those departments letting each other know what they’re up to. This happens somewhat when department heads meet, but there could be some benefit to bringing in other departmental members–maybe rotating them through these meetings so that familiarity is build, not just at the supervisory level. Use social software to interact and keep everyone up-to-date on projects.

I seriously need to go practice what I preach here, and I’m going to make a point of doing that. Of course, every library has its own idiosyncratic internal dynamics. That’s what make any organization unique. I’ve worked in enough for-profit and non-profit organizations to know that many of the fundamental problems faced across the board are not about money, but about people and the synthetic cataracts we paint over our collective eyes in order to insulate the walls of our comfort zones.

[tags]IT Departments, IT, Library, Librarians, Geeks, Communication, Development[/tags]

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