2011 Action Items

It’s nearly the middle of January, so these resolutions are a little late.  I made a conscious decision to Stay Off The Blog in December so I could take a proper vacation.  This past fall, I took on a number of projects at home and at the office that was pulling me in too many directions, so going off the grid for a while was good for the soul and mind. (For what it’s worth, I visited family in Palm Springs, California for 2 1/2 weeks.)

Here are a few New Year’s Action Items I’ve been mulling over these past few weeks.   I don’t want to call them resolutions because I don’t want to resolve to do these things so much as I want to do them:

  • Develop better work plans. My colleague in Saskatchewan, Brian Dewar, has some good advice on this one: making (and owning!) a plan can make all the difference on the job.  I’ve taken his thoughts and modified them to fit my own game plan.  I believe it’s vital to think about the long term, but it’s important to be nimble about these things, too.  Don’t let one part of your work overwhelm all of your goals.  And, always be prepared to congratulate yourself for the little victories – you’ll never make it through the week if you don’t find ways to pat yourself on the back for the little things you do.
  • Redefine my position’s role and duty within the organization. My work in instructional technologies this year is largely task-oriented.  I was asked to join a team because of my ability to create online learning objects and because I have a wealth of experience in reference and research services.  My place of work has been working with instructional technologies for many years now, but we’re at a stage where it’s time to redefine our online strategy. I may be on a short-term contract with Dal Libraries, but I wholly believe that what the organization needs right now is not a mechanic (as my colleague has nicely put it) but an engineer.  I’ve held roundtables within the library so we can openly discuss what our success are, what our failures have been, and how we can go forward.  A big part of the winter term will be to develop a plan the library can take forward.
  • Learn more about librarianship. I’ve worked in academic support services for five years and have studied LIS for two years, but there’s still much to learn.  I’m aware of so many issues that affect our profession, but I’m hardly an expert. I intend to spend more time studying pedagogy instead of just talking about it, and involving myself with collections and access instead of just watching colleagues discuss it at reference meetings.
  • Write more about librarianship. Even in our profession, which is made up largely of practitioners instead of academics, we hear the phrase, “publish or perish.”  However, I’m not worried too much about publishing right now. Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous that new professionals have the expectation – and burden – of publishing put on them.  It is my professional opinion that new professionals should spend as much time on praxis as they can.  We need to learn what we’re great at doing before we can teach others about it. However, this won’t stop me from writing on this blog.  I’ve made plans to lay down my opinions on things twice a week, and I hope you might find the time to write back and tell me where you think I’m wrong or what you think I should more of.
  • Talk more about librarianship. I have two speaking engagements lined up this winter and spring, with another proposal to be vetted by an organizing committee.  I’m making a point to speak and be heard in venues that are informal and collaborative (which is similar to blogging, in my mind).  This January, I will present on screencasting in education at PodCamp Halifax 2011, and this spring I’ll take part on an IT panel at the Canadian Library Association 2011 conference, also in Halifax.
  • Build communities.  I’ve been floating around an idea for a long time to build either an online LIS blogging community that shares tags and categories or to build an online magazine/portal that can do for LIS what Open Letters Monthly can do for literature and literary criticism.  (In fact, I originally bought thezeds.com because I saw its potential as an LIS brand, even if it doesn’t reference librarianship in its SEO.)  We’ll see if anything happens – stay tuned for possible calls to action on this front.

Happy 2011, all.   I’ll see you on the interweb and in real life.


Strategy, Tactics, and Rapid Cognition in the Library

Ed.Note.  Brian Dewar, the librarian at Luther College High School in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, returns this week and asks if we can be over-managed and if it can affect our productivity.  What do you think?  Let us know..


I was talking to one of my friends the other day, who complimented my productivity at work. I like being complimented, so I felt a little fuzzy inside. But I started to wonder: why am I being productive? I spent the week thinking about it, and I have a theory.  I want to play with that thought a little bit, and frame it within my pet subject – the military.

Strategy, tactics, and rapid cognition.

One of my favourite authors, Thomas E. Ricks, often talks about strategy and tactics. Ricks defines strategy as goal-setting – hopefully producing a clear definition of the results you’re trying to achieve. Tactics, on the other hand, are the tools you use to accomplish those goals. He stresses that with a good strategy, bad tactics will fix themselves because they produce results that undermine the goal. On the other hand, with bad strategy, even the best tactics can be refined forever, but they will ultimately remain unsuccessful, and bad things happen.

Last week, I talked a bit about my strategy at work. But what was I going to do about tactics? And then I remembered Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, author of the revered work The Tipping Point, speaks at length of a wargame scenario in his bestselling work, Blink. In this scenario, a Red side fought a Blue side.

The Blue Team: feed the system

What the sides stood for isn’t really important – what is important is how they went about running their organizations. The Blue side had an enormous amount of computational power at its side. It had rubrics, metrics, standard operating procedures, spreadsheets, and meetings. Lots of meetings. It developed its own lingo of acronyms that was incomprehensible to any outsider. It believed it could ‘out-compute’ the opposition by taking the relevant issues and feeding them into a spreadsheet which in turn would tell them the proper course of action.

The Red side took a different approach. The commander of those forces decided to be ‘in command, and out of control’ – he gave his sub-commanders an objective (“attack the navy,” “maintain communications,” etc) but left it up to them about how they would accomplish their goals.

By the end of the first three days of the exercise, the Red team had completely routed the Blue.

Why did this happen?

Gladwell explains the Red team’s success as the theory of rapid cognition. By allowing the Red team commanders a large degree of personal freedom, they could trust their instincts and utilize their personal experience to inform their decisions. The result was that they made better decisions, faster, and more cheaply. They could react much more rapidly to changing conditions.

Paul van Riper, the commander of the Red team. Not exactly what you'd expect someone who encourages improvisation to look like.

Alternatively, the Blue side was slowed down by meetings, spreadsheets, and other tools of management. The Blue commanders’ own reactions and intuitions became discounted by the system. The ultimate result was an overwhelming victory for the Red side, not because they possessed the better commanders or that they had the superior force – they didn’t – but because the management style allowed the Red commanders to make better use of what they did have.

So, back to my original question – what is allowing me to be productive?

Basically, I exist in a black hole of oversight.  Basically, my boss is pretty laissez-faire. He (and my coworkers!) don’t care how I do anything, so long as the library is better for it. I don’t particularly care how I do anything,so long as it helps the library.  Generally, my strategies are good, and my tactics will work themselves out. Justifying myself would slow down and muddle my thoughts. Will I make some mistakes? Darn tootin’. I spend most of my Thursdays fixing one. That’s ok, though. It won’t happen again and my intuition will become more attuned for the next time. But realistically, had I spent my time on the planning, justifying, and presenting, there’s no guarantee I would have done any better and it’s entirely possible I’d have done something worse. Strenuous planning doesn’t necessarily lead to success – just ask the Blue team.

Of course, taking it too far in the opposite direction would be disastrous. I get that. Nobody wants a commando cataloguer. But my point is this: don’t be afraid to shoot from the hip every now and again, maybe even as often as possible. As much as I like to complain about library school (and believe you me, I do like to complain), you do emerge from school with a notion of how things ought to be. We’ve got instincts. We know when we see an opportunity, or when something’s out of whack. Your first instinct is probably the right course of action. Don’t let it get lost in a bureaucratic shuffle.

What do you think?  Would trusting your instincts be more advantageous and lead to more productive and happier librarians? Or, does the process of meetings, proposals and presentations provide a valuable safeguard against rogue librarians bent on bibliographic anarchy?

Brian Dewar is the Librarian at Luther College High School in Regina. He enjoys boxing, baking, and biking.

Managing Terror

Ed.Note.  I’m real excited by this post.   This week, a good friend and colleague, Brian Dewar, of Luther College High School in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, gives us some advice on taking on a new position when you’re a brand new librarian.  Look for more posts by Brian in the weeks to come.


I’m Brian Dewar, and I recently took a job managing a library at a private high school in Regina. After some initial reservations (not the least of which was confronting an inherent – and unfounded – prejudice against high school libraries), I pursued the opportunity. What I found once I got to Regina was surprising: no OPAC or ILS, circulation was exclusively done via cards, students and teachers were regularly circulating library materials outside of a controlled system, and the collection had not been properly organized for some time. Needless to say, upon finding my library in this state, I was intimidated by the enormity of the tasks and my morale was low.

Managing Terror

If you were anything like me, you did not emerge from library school brimming with confidence. I had a vague idea of how things are, a notion of how things should be, and no idea whatever about how to get from here to there. There were (and honestly, still are,) a lot of unknowns in my library. And there’s no denying it – unknowns are scary. But it’s not really the unknowns themselves that are frightening, it’s the implication of powerlessness that comes with them. It’s incredibly difficult to solve problems that you don’t understand and can’t define. So to regain a sense of control, I needed to answer these questions:

  • What are this library’s problems?
  • How can I solve them?
  • In what order do they need to be solved?

I decided that I needed library infrastructure in order to accomplish anything in my library in terms of outreach, collection-building, or research support. Developing this foundation has included surveying the collection to determine the capacity an ILS would need to have, researching available systems and matching those systems to the library’s needs, buying the system, and then inputting all of the cataloguing data into the system. After I finish accomplishing these tasks, I can begin to build the collections in earnest, and then use those resources to aid students.

The basic strategy of:

Acquire and utilize an ILS ==> Begin to rebuild the collection, using the newly acquired infrastructure ==> Use those newfound resources to educate and perform outreach for students

has enabled me to move from the terrified position of helplessness that I felt on my first day. I now have a benchmark against which to weigh any action – I can ask myself, “is doing this thing going to further my goals? Does it follow the order of the plan?” Being able to ask myself those questions allows me to filter the sheer amount of things that need to be done into more manageable, discrete segments. Would I like to be teaching a mandatory anti-plagiarism course for students caught cheating? I’d love to – but I haven’t advanced to that part of the plan yet. These things have been prioritized, and the plan must be respected in order to have any value at all.

So, for any other new librarians out there: making a plan alleviated my anxiety in a new position. While admittedly I have more autonomy than most, within the constraints of any job, making (and owning!) a plan can make all the difference. Speaking personally, too, I’m so much happier knowing that it’s my plan that I’m carrying out. And because of that control, my morale couldn’t be higher.

Brian Dewar is the Librarian at Luther College High School in Regina. He enjoys boxing, baking, and biking.