Stephen Abram – a 2nd perspective

My colleague Greg Jennings also attended the Stephen Abram talk on Monday 17th – and I thought his perspective was really interesting. Greg gave me permission to post this on my blog.
For those of you who are interested I have written a response to the lecture focusing on the points that stood out for me.

During the lecture I took notes and have some text in quotation marks listed below. These are not verbatim quotes from Stephen Abram, but more as I heard/interpreted his words. After each “quote” I have included some clarifications/thoughts.

“Librarians live in a glass box” – The point Stephen is making is that there is sometimes difficulty moving up the career ladder, yet we’re also protective of our own positions.

“We’re not about books, we’re about what you do with them.” – When asked to think about Libraries, books do get a large mention, but surely we are more than warehouses for books. How do we communicate that effectively? When at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I have often been asked where I work. When I say “A Library” the first thing comedians say is always related to ‘Shushing’ or asking people to be quiet. Perhaps this demonstrates how long it was since these comedians went to the Library, or perhaps we have to communicate more effectively about what exactly it is that we offer.

Stephen did say that we should not “hide the magic” of what Librarians do. Let people know that “We’re not about protecting books, we’re about protecting reading.”

“Never start a sentence with ‘I can’t imagine.’” – As Librarians we have to use our imaginations, so we can bring about scalable and sustainable improvements.

“You cannot motivate people, you can only create an environment for people to motivate themselves.”

Stephen went on to make a point about change. The word we always use is change, and perhaps it is not always the most inspiring word to use. We could instead replace the word change with renewal, renaissance, or revolution. Change, particularly within organisations, can have negative connotations.

There was mention of having flexibility within Library budgets to implement different approaches/ideas. An example was given where money was set aside in a Library’s budget and should someone have a feasible scheme in mind, they were allocated some money to launch a pilot.

“Libraries can be the scaffolding on the education continuum from High School to University.” – I have sometimes asked myself how some students have survived University for years without using the Library. It used to be a rhetorical question that was often answered with silent scepticism, but now I actually want to know. How have they survived this long without the Library? and how can we better support and engage those students?

Google was mentioned. How do we differentiate/prove that a Library literature search is better than Google? It may be obvious to Librarians, but perhaps we should make Library users aware of a few points. Eg. If you are using a product/service for free (ie. Google) then you are not the customer, you’re the product, or the fact that your search results (with Library databases) will not be skewed by your browsing history or census data, and there are no sales pitches, just the information you requested.

“Librarians like to study things to death, so much so that we forget that death was not our original goal.” – Don’t overthink it. Devise, implement and refine. Nothing is set in stone, ideas can be ironed out over time. We could wait until our ideas are perfect but then we will be implementing ideas designed to meet the needs of a previous time… That being said, I do like a good plan.

On this point Stephen added “Sometimes there can be too much respect for tradition, while neglecting to curate the future.” I take this to mean that just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean it is the best way. The point here (in my opinion) is about building upon successes, preserving what is relevant, and re-evaluating whether processes are still fit for purpose.

All in all, it was time well spent and if you get a chance to attend a lecture/talk/meeting with Stephen Abram I would certainly recommend it.





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