Monday, July 28, 2008

Old And In The Way

Old and in the way
That's what I heard him say
They used to heed the words he said
But that was yesterday
Coal will turn to gray

And youth will fade away

They'll never care about you

Cause you're old and in the way

Complete Song Lyrics
Performance by the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience

I’m not a Green Bay Packers fan, as anyone who is a regular reader would know from my irrational exuberance over the Giants. But I’ve been taken with the Brett Favre debacle, tragic in its utter predictability, the superstar athlete who decides to step away from the game only to find a few months later that there is really nothing else to fill the void and he wants to keep playing. We’ve seen the story again and again. In Favre’s case, the Packers were favored in the NFL Championship Game, played at home under extreme frigid conditions. His own performance was less than stellar in the second half. Then, in overtime, he threw the fatal interception that lead up to the game winning field goal by the Giants. Obviously, that was a bitterly disappointing way to end the season for Favre, a sour note indeed.

Favre was said to have retired for the right reasons. He had performed at a very high level last season so physically he clearly could still play. But mentally he couldn’t handle the guff and, more importantly, he was no longer able to make the total commitment to win the Superbowl, knowing how hard it would be to achieve that outcome and how much it would take to get there. All of this sounds right and convincing, but perhaps a bit too calculating. We know that one shouldn’t make decisions of this sort when emotional. Wasn’t the hurt from the devastating loss six weeks earlier still with him? Would he make the same choice if allowed enough time for that pain to abate entirely?

Professional sport is a business, one that continues whether its star players retire or not. Favre had a professional responsibility to notify the Packers of his intensions so they could make plans to assure continuity of the team’s performance. Unfortunately, the timeframe in which to discharge this notification requirement didn’t allow Favre ample enough time to make the retirement decision in an entirely dispassionate frame of mind. In the meantime between when Favre announced his retirement and now, the Packers made the business decision to commit to Favre’s former backup as the next starting quarterback. So when Favre started to make inquiries about playing again, naturally that triggered some uncomfortable conversations, with really playing out this soap opera to the max. Wouldn’t it be nice if these sort of issues could be resolved quietly rather than online?

Partly because Favre’s beard is grizzled and mine is too, partly because I’ve been thinking about this issue of wanting to be useful and productive as I get older but finding it harder to do (see my previous post), and partly for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit, I started to think about the album and the song Old And In The Way, which explains my subject lines and the links at the top of this post. But in spite of those connections, on closer thought the Favre situation doesn’t really fit. Had he indicated he was willing to return this past March, he’d almost certainly be the Packers starting quarterback now. His teammates wanted him back, some said as much in the article about his retirement, even if the wishes of senior management on that score were a little murkier. For the situation to really fit, the person has to want to stay, yet feel he is being pushed out by those in authority. One example that fits is given in this interview with Joel Klein the Chancellor for the NYC Schools, where he talks about getting rid of more senior teachers if, based on the performance measures his office is establishing, they are no longer up to snuff. It was a point on which I thought Klein’s view weak in an otherwise quite interesting session.

I found another example from a surprising source, the Taiga Forum Provocative Statements. Look, in particular, at statement number 8. It is unmistakable in its meaning, although it couches its conclusion in language that suggests voluntary separation on the part of the traditional Librarians who, implicitly, will choose to either retire or find other work on their own accord. It is not my goal to defend the work that these traditional Librarians do now. But I did take offense at the idea that these people should be discarded since they are no longer useful. So I thought I’d do a little provoking of my own in return.

Note first that faculty have been getting older, meaning either that some fairly senior people enter the professoriate late in their career or, more likely, that senior faculty who’ve been around for quite some time are nevertheless not likely to retire. They have tenure and if in reasonably good health why not continue to work in their lifelong occupation? Some Librarians are faculty too. So the wishful thinking in Provocative Statement 8 aside, the average age of Librarians is likely to be increasing too, largely for the same reason as for faculty.

Next, as the world seems to be turning upside down in terms of addressing the issues tied to the dual problems of increasingly scarce petroleum and the need to retard carbon emissions to reduce Global Warming, it may seem that we can afford to put human resource issues on the back burner, a less immediate problem that we can turn to when we figure these other ones out. But that’s wrong. Life expectancy has been going up for some time. But, more importantly, conditional life expectancy once we reach 65 has also been going up. According to this table from the Center for Disease Control, if I make it to 65 years of age then, based on the results from 2005, I should expect to live more than 17 additional years and if I happen to make it to 75 then I should expect to live almost 11 years beyond that. Do we really want mature adults to stop working early in their lives because their current skills are not in high demand? Isn’t it incumbent on us to find creative ways for bright and willing people to retool so they can continue to contribute? That’s not in the Taiga Provocative Statements, quite the contrary is there in place. But I assume that’s an act of omission. If the issue were considered head on, how would the Taiga Forum folks come down on this point?

Third, and this point I made in my critique of the ACRL Report from a year ago, how can Librarians on their own define a new world of service that is user driven yet without involving the users in the definition? (It makes sense to me that the Taiga Forum Steering Committee is itself comprised entirely of of Library “Insiders” but don’t their recommendations need to be validated in some way by Library “Outsiders” and in a manner where the latter are not captured by the former.)

Then I began to ask myself what might actually be a testable proposition. Does “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks” rule in the Library world, in spite of my protestations because as statement 8 implies you need to be young and vigorous to keep up both with the technology and the changing culture? Or might we design some imaginative program for redeploying and retooling more senior Librarians in such a way that they are invigorated by and productive at their new work?

With that I began to think through what such a program would look like. I quickly came to the realization that I don’t know enough to design such a program in any detail, but I am armed with the conviction from my previous piece that much of the new Library work should be in the form of consulting and preferably in intensive and ongoing projects that develop a substantial personal aspect to them so that the Librarian becomes a core member of the project team rather than in a more anonymous reference role, with the idea that these projects won’t just be a place for the Librarians to showcase their existing skills but also a place to learn in situ and thereby become expert in areas for which there is at least a local demand for the skill set, Also the project must be done in such a way to differentiate what the Librarians bring to the table as compared to Graduate Students in the discipline, who might have more subject matter expertise, but are likely much less knowledgeable about archival, bibliographic, scholarly communication, and other Library issues which are the Librarians’ bread and butter.

How would such projects come into being? Suppose on an annual basis the Campus ran a competition where faculty and perhaps groups of students too are invited to submit proposals where a modest amount of cash might be awarded as well but the principal goal would be to allocate Librarian time (and perhaps other support provider time such as learning technologist time) to the projects. The projects could pertain to any academic function, whether teaching, research, or service. The idea would be to be broad as possible in acceptable scope so as to let the users define the need. Then the awards would be made on a competitive basis by a committee of students, faculty, and librarians, based on the merits of the proposals. Some members of this committee might be designated to perform a “whip” function to ensure the proposals are well written and to eliminate silly errors that might doom an otherwise intriguing proposal. The winners of the competition would then be obligated to pursue their proposal as best as they can and from time to time write progress reports that talk about the project itself and about the Librarian contribution to it. The award committee might also do focus groups with the project winners some time into the projects to get a sense of whether there are lessons to be learned that cut across many of the projects. And then these results would be published on the competition’s Web site, so as to inform future rounds of the competition.

Undoubtedly there is a big risk in going this route, namely that in identifying there are Librarians to be allocated for consultation through such a competition, one is implicitly identifying places where the Library budget can be cut, at least in the minds of those who see the above mentioned projects as a low value proposition. So to make something like this work there would have to be assurances obtained ahead of time that funding for these Librarian lines would not be cut, at least for several years so the hypothesis testing on whether this use might be a productive use of Librarian time, particularly as the Librarian matures.

Of course, doing this is apt to mean there are fewer lines for the type of work that the Taiga Forum envisioned when constructing their Provocative Points. But what is the alternative? If one were to develop a full life cycle model for a Librarian, what will one with 10, 15, 20 years or more past the MLS be doing? Is being a Librarian a good stepping stone toward some other type of employment? If not, and if there is built in obsolescence in the MLS by nature of the work Librarians in the future will be doing, how does it all add up career-wise?

Old yet earning pay
That's what I wished they’d say
They used to heed the words he said
And still do that today
Coal will turn to gray
And youth will fade away
Yet contributing and learning

So supporting his own way

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