Conflict Negotiation and Library Leadership

In my travels in and out of the LIS community, I try to pay special attention to various attitudes regarding supervisory and management roles. Personally, I like a rather democratic culture in which participation is encouraged and all voices are considered. Still, a cursory look around the LIS blogosphere reveals that these attitudes differ considerably from person to person. Different strokes, right? And so I’ve been moved lately to revisit some literature on collaboration and management styles and sift through some notes I’ve made on the topic, with particular focus on readings from Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman’s The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups and Roger Fisher’s Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not In Charge, two fairly popular titles from which I’ve taken numerous cues.

Garmston’s “Adaptive School” is a philosophical framework for meeting the challenges of today while helping prepare leaders for the potential hazards of tomorrow. At the heart of an adaptive environment are collaboration, participation, and reciprocation. There is much more to collaboration than holding meetings and discussions for the sake of holding meetings and discussions. Conferences and all collaborative groups should practice certain behaviors and roles in order to achieve maximal production and efficiency.

Still, collaboration can breed conflict. Among the most compelling elements of The Adaptive School is the way it incorporates conflict negotiation. Garmston and, to some extent, Fisher, illustrate ways in which conflict is born, can escalate or be remedied, and can be productive. Librarians in and out of supervisory roles could certainly take some cues from the authors in preparation for the inevitable clashes that occur among colleagues. Garmston gives five different definitions of conflict. While one or two of these strike me as somewhat empty, if not just plain silly, I would agree, in principle, with his third definition, in which “conflict draws attention to both dimensions [danger and opportunity]… Opportunities emerge when issues and possible solutions remain the focus of disagreement.”

Many people have been citizens of what Garmston terms a counterfeit community. The primary goal of the counterfeit is to get along with one another. Some people are unable to maintain healthy working relationships due largely to stress and circumstance, rather than opposing personalities. That same pressure and stress may bring others in a group together. They may will themselves to find a clique and keep it tight. I’ve been a member of this type of group–one based on a mutual understanding that, given neither autonomy, nor authority, it’s very convenient to create a small, exclusive team that makes conflict avoidance a high-level priority.

In healthier professional environments, many practices proposed in The Adaptive School can be applied to create a much more open, more pliable culture, fit to deal with conflict as defined above. In Chapter 9, it seems the authors have attempted to address every situation of tension or crisis of even the most remote potential. Learning to “fight gracefully” is not just a compelling topic, but an essential skill. For many, it’s natural and perfectly sensible to always avoid conflict. But understanding that conflict does happen and is often unavoidable is more sensible and far more realistic. I tend to concur with Garmston that there is plainly such a thing as healthy disagreement–that there can be benefits to conflict. I might term this concept something like productive disagreement. Disagreement is meant to display opposing perspectives, which can certainly end in a stalemate. But the points of contention and argument can also prove illuminating to the participants and lead to more effective outcomes and more productive meetings and discussions.

Garmston suggests that conflict is, in fact, necessary for a community to function at peak level–that there is inherent value in negotiating productive conflict over conflict avoidance. Sometimes it’s preferable to circumvent conflict whenever possible–put a band aid on it and go back to work. But we have to know that the quick fix is neither permanent, nor totally healthful. As Garmston suggests, it’s just as important to understand the inevitability of conflict as it is to know how to deal with conflict. We must always be prepared for conflict because, sooner or later, personalities, needs, and wants will collide.

To take the concept of inevitability of conflict a step further, I’d suggest that we must also keep in mind that conflict cannot always be remedied. Sometimes, opposing participants may have to accept a stalemate, or compromise. However, in preparation for conflict, we must know that some fires cannot and will not be extinguished. In such cases, it’s often in the best interest of both team and dissident to part ways. And while it’s essential to understand that dissident doesn’t necessarily equal malcontent, groups simply do not have the time or energy to spend on mending seemingly unsalvageable relationships. After all, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Speaking of insanity, the graduate classroom is another interesting study. Given opportunities to operate as a team member and to participate in provocative group discourse, I’ve learned a number of things about human nature as it relates to adult students. While different people think and act differently, it’s important to note that very similar people may also have sharply opposite views and attitudes regarding specific topics and philosophies. They have contrastive motivations and react differently to stimuli. I’ve found the psychological culture of the graduate LIS classroom is vastly more complex and tenuous than I would have imagined. Perhaps it stands to reason that collaborative groups in the library environment operate in a similar culture—that different minds and personalities commonly clash where some people might never see the potential for conflict. Moving forward, it should move us all to be aware of the existence of these differences and the possibilities they imply and to be ready to negotiate conflict in situations that, on the surface, may seem thoroughly benign.

Side Notes on Garmston and The Adaptive School

I don’t know what comprises Garmston’s affiliation with world cultures, but his allusions to Eastern and African practices and social morays are clever and somewhat absorbing. His use of Akido to illustrate a tenet of the Adaptive School is surprising and borderline fabulous. I can appreciate his decision to seriously consider the basic premises of Akido as they may be applicable to school and business conflict resolution. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed the sample dialog—in one case, the conflict between the school principal and Ralph the maintenance guy. The way the two “dance with the energy” of conflict negotiation may enlighten your sensibilities on the topic. If not, it should, at least, inspire you to read on.

In Chapter 11, Garmston discusses professional communities and interconnectivity. He alludes to Eastern philosophy to illustrate communal connectedness as a principle of the Adaptive School. Connectedness is not a complex concept and can be exceedingly useful where relationships are concerned. Certainly, it poses a challenge for those professionals who are not so willing to be connected, but who prefer to operate autonomously and independently. I’ve long thought that if people could accept interconnectedness, we would all get along much better. Idyllic or bucolic, if we can trust Garmston’s framework, this simple theory may be readily applied to the school and professional communities, as well. It just takes some willingness to understand—to be less defensive and to be willing to be connected.

In the final section of Chapter 11, Garmston goes on to illustrate the communal dance of West African villagers as a metaphor for collaboration. To read the allusion is actually quite satisfying. In fact, I can’t disagree with a word of it. Initially, I believed Garmston could have published this final section by itself. But that really would be understating the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge and perspective on the subjects discussed throughout the text.

Poll: Most Valuable Areas of Study

I suspect no graduate program is without its critics. That can be both good and bad. On one hand, institutional criticism suggests students and new professionals are eager for challenging study in the most relevant applicable areas. Unfortunately, it often suggests that graduate programs are deficient in too many important areas. Perhaps no professional degree is met with as much scrutiny from its own candidates as the graduate library degree. Particularly in the last few years, as the field has negotiated tremendous issues of technological applications, Google, ebooks, and funding crises, current and former library students have created a patchwork of curricular assessment that seems to hang in the ether over Libraryland like a giant storm system. Whether anonymous complaints or constructive collaboration of blogsites like Hack Library School, there seems to be no shortage of suggested alterations to the accepted library school course catalog.

Some areas of knowledge and skill I find particularly useful to current librarians:

  • Social media and public profiles
  • Usability
  • Marketing
  • Programs, partnerships, and outreach
  • Fundamentals of semantic web
  • Instruction
  • Research methods and information evaluation
  • Print and digital collections

There are other great assets, for sure–writing skill, management savvy, special collections, and digital media tools, to name a few. But given the way most programs are currently structured, I’m interested to see what people think are the most valuable areas. Which courses should be required of the MLIS and which should be left to the student’s election?

Changing Roles: Degreed Prototypes

Writing my last post, on changing roles of reference librarians, it occurred to me that I was topically in the same room as degree relevance and deprofessionalization. And while I generally try to stay away from that room, I felt compelled to acknowledge the presence of those looming subjects and apply them to changing and developing librarian roles.

In that last post, a commenter expressed a preference (in all caps) that altered reference positions be filled by librarians, as opposed to non-librarians. Well done. After all, libraries have a responsibility to information literacy, and we can only reasonably expect that responsibility to be fulfilled by librarians. Yet, while this may seem like a no-brainer to you and me, our libraries and our profession are constantly threatened by deprofessionalization, privatization, and a seeming litany of other problematic zations.

In discourse regarding evolving LIS roles, these topics surface almost invariably, and with good reason, particularly in the public sector where funds allocation is ruled by so many circumstances. And if Jeff Trzeciak’s recent presentation at McMaster University is indicative of anything, it’s that professional librarianship faces pressure and scrutiny not only from the outside. Whether the CS degree might obviate the MLIS, the paraprofessional might replace the librarian, or any number of anxieties related to the forced obsolescence of the degreed librarian, there are always concerns when we talk about librarian evolution.

While academic libraries are at the center of the McMaster brush fire, we’re all part of the same profession. As such, we continue to discuss and to adapt and create. The more I see of prototypical librarian roles, the more encouraged I am that public libraries have the right people in place to affect change. In my odd little world, professional librarian roles aren’t outsourced or pushed to non-LIS people. That’s to say nothing of veteran library staff without a library degree or self-avowed shambrarians. There are plenty of non-degreed people who’ve held down reference desks or whole libraries for 10 or 20 years without the “librarian” title. I’m concerned here with job descriptions–altered professional functions and developing positions.

And while the profession is flavored with people who question the necessity of a master’s program in library science, I find their arguments largely counterintuitive. New professional librarian roles should be performed by people who function with the unique perspective and particular knowledge base of the degreed librarian. Again, no matter the myriad services our institutions offer, at the end of the day, we’ve got to be sure we’re serving information literacy.

As expectations of libraries change, it’s natural that the expertise and functions of the degreed librarian will change synchronously. The MLIS is the minimal requirement and should be regarded as such. Its sustained relevance and its value to developing librarian positions is the onus of library school administrators. They’re smart people. I trust them.

Anatomy of a Trick

If you haven’t seen it yet, have a look at the “Anatomy of a Librarian” graphic from

Insomuch as it’s a representation of what librarians are all about, this graphic is not necessarily worth getting all bent out of shape about. Yet it is cause for some concern regarding the bigger picture. Many LIS people, including PC Sweeney and Stephen Abram, are poking at the thing with sticks to see what it is and whether it’s alive. And with good reason.

My concern with this graphic is not one of misrepresentation. I’m sure some research (possibly unscientific) was done to corroborate the list of librarians’ interests. And while many librarians’ salaries haven’t yet approached the halfway mark, the average here surely includes salaries of library staff in large metropolitan areas where costs of living are reflected and where funding has long been relatively safeguarded. In the City of Chicago, it doesn’t take a public librarian a decade to reach $60K. Notable is the fine print beneath the salary stat. The disclaimer states that the average salary is specific to librarians with ALA-accredited degrees, while I suspect many of the online library programs supported here don’t enjoy ALA accreditation.

For the most part, I’m fine with the infographic’s content. It’s rather benign in and of itself. My primary concern regarding this graphic and any graphic of this kind is with its intent and its potential effects. This graphic wasn’t created by a library entity. It’s a corporate graphic created for, a website paid to sell online degree programs. While some universities associated with the site are fully accredited ones like Northwestern and USC, most are for-profit schools. I’ll assume the general differences among for-profit schools, nonprofit private schools and public universities are common knowledge and leave dishonest recruiting practices and accreditation shortcomings for another post.

Purely as a persuasive advertisement for online degree programs, this stylized graphic supports for-profit LIS degree programs using misleading information to market potentially empty degrees to an already-flooded market. And that’s a problem. Clever word choice also skirts the issue of the greying profession. The ad states that “a large number of librarians are likely to retire in the coming decade.” The operative word here is decade. Ten years is a long time. Historically, it also takes a nation a long time to recover from prolonged recessions. So unless our government gets us out of the financial sewer we’re currently in, that large number of librarians may not be enjoying retirement until the second half of that decade.

My advice is to the target demographic–the potential students who may be swayed by this kind of ad: be vigilant. For-profit schools serve a niche market. For various reasons, many people don’t make the cut at public and private universities or can’t procure tuition funds. For-profit schools get you the money and put you in a seat. Do your homework about for-profit degrees, online schools, accreditation, and employment markets. It’s awfully difficult to pay back an expensive student loan when you’re at the bottom of the heap in a frozen market.

Will Blog for Food

In his post, “A New chapter for our Unwinders Management Book – Evaluating Candidates from their Internet Profile”, Will Manley raises some compelling questions regarding jobseekers on social media sites and blogs. Hiring managers are sure to perceive elements of a candidate’s public profile differently. Some, as Will suggests, may attribute varying degrees of conceit, narcissism, or calculation to a candidate’s activity on social media sites and as a blogger.

What Will wants to gauge is how people in Libraryland consider or would consider candidates’ social profiles when scouting resumes. Do you weigh social profiles heavily, lightly, or not at all? Given the opportunity, I would incorporate all available elements of social profiles into my evaluation of the candidate. And why not? Depending upon the information not veiled by privacy settings, a cursory look at a Facebook page or tweet compilation may expose character flaws or suggest endearing traits. What a candidate makes available for public viewing may also indicate her familiarity with social profiles and her ability to manipulate privacy settings, knowledge that all new reference and programming librarians should probably have.

More to the point, I’ve been thinking lately about recruiting practices in situations where new LIS graduates are competing with experienced librarians for jobs. The rookie librarian may have the experience of internship or volunteering or may have no practical library experience at all. She has her MLS, her relevant work experience and tech skills, and her vision. But vision isn’t tangible and won’t be much help to a discriminating department head or hiring manager. Unless, of course, she lays it out in writing–on a blog.

Narcissistic? Ego-driven? Some tenured LIS bloggers may certainly exhibit those traits in their writing. After all, many use the blog as an engine for professional critique–to share opinions. But when it comes to rookie librarians, I can tell you from experience that Joe Jobseeker’s ego classification rates somewhere between Beta and Omega male. Again, different hiring managers and HR people will perceive each person’s cloud profile differently. Still, most job hunting “tips” lists suggest the inexperienced jobseeker be involved daily in professional discourse, whether advocating on social media sites, commenting on blogs and LinkedIn discussions, or writing a professional blog. Some, like me, write LIS blogs because they want to. They feel compelled to do it. It’s no strike against Judy Jobseeker that she blogs and Nings to exhibit some professional participation. She is calculating only insomuch as she is doing what she was told to do to aid her prospects. Given this, I have to think that the consensus sentiment among hiring managers regarding new librarians with book review blogs or LIS blogs is one of encouragement or, at least, cautious acceptance.

Thoughts on neophytes in the Libraryland job market? We’re always listening. Please share.

Schooled: Peer Review

Nicole Fonsh has raised a discussion at the Hack Library School blog on the subject of peer review in the LIS classroom. Boy, I remember all the fun everyone had sharing papers and absorbing critical comments about their writing. The hot red faces, the nervous hands, the hours of extra reading. Yes sir, like those warm, breezy afternoons of yesteryear in the meadow, I remember those classes with pleasure.

But yesteryear is gone and the two-party practice of assigning papers to be written, submitted for grade, and returned is theoretically geriatric. Studies have shown that multi-age students contextualize and “learn better” when content is shared and interactive.

Several of my library school courses were structured in much the same way as the ones outlined in Nicole’s piece. Email everyone your paper a week in advance of class, read some or all of the peer papers, and be ready for discussion in class. One of these was moderated by John Berry (Library Journal) and was more writing-intensive, while the others were typical LIS courses. Two things I can relate about them:

1. Many LIS students aren’t very good writers and won’t often have much to share in the way of constructive criticism. Therein lies half the dread of peer review. The other half lies with those people, the less-confident writers, who loathe sharing their work with people they presume to be superior thinkers and writers.

2. Although, being a textbook editor, I didn’t usually find these experiences particularly engaging or productive, I know there were many students who were appreciative of the process. Peer review may have shown them ways to improve their writing and the ways they think about intellectual communication.

You can’t always rely on your LIS professors to be expert at judging the quality and content of your written materials. After all, they’re librarians, not Composition instructors. It’s a fortunate student who has the opportunity to share thoughts on library science and receive constructive insight on authorship with a capable peer group.

For Future Reference

In keeping with the theme of LIS curriculum assessment, I decided to pose another question that invariably surfaces whenever I talk with people about requisite and elective course offerings. Should library schools still require a reference course?

Last time I wrote on the subject, I suggested that LIS programs actually require two courses in practical reference. For instance, one course might serve as an overview of electronic reference–comparative database analysis, library-vendor relationships, Internet research, database user instruction, etc. The second requisite course might be an advanced version of the first, an exploration of metadata and retrieval methods, or perhaps a choice among content areas, i.e., sciences, business and law, humanities. This second course may also be writing-intensive, depending upon the expertise of the instructor. Couldn’t hurt, right?

However, there is increasing sentiment in the field that the work of the reference librarian as we know it has changed so significantly that new LIS students should not be required to take a course entirely specific to reference resources. That’s a can of worms I really didn’t want to open in a post about curricula, but I’m not sure we can have a satisfying discussion without a cursory glance at the issue. After all, what greater knowledge base does the emergent librarian bring to the profession than the knowledge base formed in the classroom?

I would not agree that the Internet has altogether obviated the need of reference librarians who actually perform reference. As long as K-12 and college students still use their school libraries for research, the functions of many school and academic reference librarians should remain relatively traditional. And while it’s true that traditional reference in public libraries has been largely supplanted by Internet searching, public librarians still serve multi-age students, and new librarians will have to be versed in information resources of all types and formats. All library professionals, whatever their titles may be, should be conscious of web research ethics and capable of bibliographic assistance.

True that the job description for Reference Librarian is changing in many places, particularly in public libraries where the Internet now rules for the casual information seeker. Many new reference librarians are expected to be not only materials curators, but also content creators. In many libraries, reference librarians are being replaced by people with practice in web design and systems management and varied advanced computer savvy. Others are heavily involved in public relations and marketing, building partnerships and promoting library programs and services in both the physical and online communities.

Yet these changes don’t alter the fact that people still use libraries to seek information. Users come in many different ages, levels of expertise, communicative capabilities, and other demographics. Each have their individual needs for research assistance, just like always, and not everyone can properly serve their interests on the web.

Consider the angles: changes in user expertise, quality of web information vs. quality of database information, changing roles of LIS professionals, etc. What are your thoughts on current modes of reference instruction? How can library schools effectively modify curricula to better serve future professionals?