It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true: one of the most consistent aspects of life is that it is always changing. This is true everywhere, be it personally or professionally. Despite this, people and organizations are terrible at dealing with and managing change. I’ve been though a great deal of change over the last several months. I started a new job where most of my responsibilities deal directly with change.The organization itself is also going through a great deal of change, of which my work is only a portion. I think my position is not that uncommon. More and more young librarians [Editor’s Note: or even not so young.] are being asked to breathe fresh life into organizations, spearhead efforts to modernize services, or be all around agents of change (just don’t ever actually use this term). The good news is that while change management is difficult, it is entirely possible to do so successfully without previous experience.
Nobody likes change. That’s something I’m sure you’ve heard before and I’m sure you’ll hear it again. I think this is especially true of the library world. Libraries were traditionally, and sometimes still are, viewed as a storehouse of knowledge. This thinking runs deep and is constantly reinforced. That means you will hear ‘Because that’s how we’ve always done it’ echoed through libraries everywhere, at an alarming rate. It’s an easy habit to fall into, more so during a time when the very future of libraries is uncertain at best. I tend to come at this from the opposite view. If you are engaged in a process or policy that’s only justification is that it’s always been that way, I can’t think of a better reason to set said policy on fire, and use the flames as a guiding light toward a new and better future.
It is possible to document, record, and preserve the past while still being forward thinking. Unfortunately, that means change management in libraries will require a bit more work than in any other environment. You can see this play out in perhaps the most basic of library functions: collection weeding. All too often hands are rung about what should be weeded and people outside the library don’t understand why the library doesn’t just keep all the books forever and ever. That book has a history and unfortunately, to make room for the space to create new history, that book might just need to be tossed. Or better yet, set it on fire.
So you are tasked with making changes, where do you start? The first thing to keep in mind is that you cannot be an expert in everything. This is another one of the issues that makes change in the library world so difficult. In many ways we are a profession of generalists and, while individuals develop expertise in particular areas, our profession is simply too broad to be able to know everything. There is always going to be someone who knows more or has more experience or has been at an institution longer. Acknowledge this fact, remind yourself of this fact, but move past it. Getting caught in this web leads to paralysis and ultimately will result in failure. What you’ve done is opened the door for those who have always done something to continue to do it that way. This is something I still struggle with, but by continuously engaging my colleagues and asking questions I have been able to tap into their expertise and also create a forum where problems and concerns can be addressed. It’s going to be difficult, but by putting in the work you will gain the respect of your colleagues and start to develop expertise of your own.
The active asking of questions is also helpful for identifying areas where further change can take place. People are well aware of the pain points of their jobs and will gladly let you know. Sometimes these can be fixed, sometimes the fix would require more work than it would reduce, but maintaining an open dialog about these things helps shepard along the change process. When people know someone is listening, they themselves will start to listen as well.
And what of that person who truly hates change and will resist it every chance possible? These are the times where the work leading up to the change is so valuable. That the change was vetted and approved by management is crucial. Sometimes the ultimate last resort is to point out that it’s going to happen regardless. This is where it can be difficult to stand up to those who have more experience or expertise. But it is vital to remain unwavering; I have experienced situations where I wasn’t entirely sure that the change was the right course of action but I had to bury those feelings and refocus on what I knew would be the gains of the change. This is where it is important to constantly remind people of the benefits or gains of the changes being made. Loss aversion is a common occurrence and it is really easy for people to focus on one or two minor losses while ignoring potential gains. You might have to sound like a broken record, but constantly reinforcing those gains will pay off.
As we come to the end, it’s important to point out how crucial endings are for change to be successful. At some point, the past needs to be behind us. This is why I favor a scorched earth, burn everything to the ground approach. When you take away the ability to fall back you force people to make the change. That can cause increased resistance but it can also really jumpstart change. So question everything, abandon that which doesn’t work or is inefficient. Envision a better way and work backwards to get there. But more than anything, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi.
Michael is the Collections Services Project Manager at Northwestern University. He holds a BA in Political Science from DePaul University and received his MLIS from Dominican University. He tweets at @michaelrperry6 and can be found on Google+here. This is his second post for Letters to a Young Librarian; the first was “Overlook Opportunities and Missed Connections” (back in the very early days of the blog).