Archive | Ethics RSS feed for this section

Whistleblowing, Ethics, and Internet Use

18 Mar

UPDATE: Since I’m venturing into potentially controversial territory, I thought it would be a good time to remind my readers that this is my commentary on a situation that occurred in a library in California and not necessarily the opinions of my employer. I will say that I believe we are well-prepared for emergency situations, and their official approach in my view is rational, fair and on the whole, quite solid. Equally, staff are just as responsible in their actions.


A few days ago, there was a news articles I saw via LISNews about a librarian being fired because she called the police on a child porn-watcher against orders from her supervisor. Comments abound in outrage, of course. My first impression on the issue was a “how could they do that?” as well.

But it goes to show that tricky issues require forethought. Here is my final assessment of the issue. Obviously, I do not have the entire facts on this case, so I can only take the media’s report at face value. Nor am I a lawyer, so this is just a layperson’s opinion.

Ought the library have had clear polices on what to do in the case a child pornographer appears? Yes.

Ought a successful library leader have empowered his/her staff to make that phone call? Yes.

Is the library in its rights to fire the librarian who made the phone call? Also yes.

Is it likely that the librarian made an unfortunate ethical mistake? Yes.

To get why I think the way I do, you are going to have to separate the issues of effective management and professional ethics. In an ideal world, we would have bosses who always make the right decisions; who act through common sense; who establish policies and procedures ahead of time to prepare us for the hard situations; and who empower employees to make good decisions when the policies do not cover the situation. But the reality is that this is not always the case. In fact, it is rare. Most of the time we will be working in imperfect organizations. Sometimes the organizations are even outright wrong in their approaches to situations.

But working in an imperfect organization does not make it less important to think through our own decisions. In my view, this employee should have asked herself the following questions before acting:

  • Is there clear evidence of imminent public danger?

Not likely. Watching child porn is a heinous crime and the creation of the porn is absolutely harmful to children. However, it does not put the public in imminent danger. Yes, we do not want these guys on our streets. No, we should not react to the child porn watcher as we do the rapist, robber, or murderer.

  • Is he/she ultimately accountable for the actions of the organization?

No. When the grey areas hit, it is going to be the director who takes the hit for any bad decision of any employee. The director, therefore, has a right to a say in what should happen in this situation.

  • Was she/he absolutely sure that action (such as calling the police) was not going to happen after some review?

It’s hard to assess this without the facts, but I am adding the question because it is important. Just because the manager did not call the police now doesn’t mean that he/she would not make a report to a higher-up who in turn may decide that, yes, the police should be called.

  • Was he/she sure of all the facts in the case?

I’m willing to assume yes, because it does turn out that he/she was right. But my question about imminent danger could be changed significantly if the porn the accused was watching was a live show.

  • Did she have time on her side?

This is the kicker. The librarian had plenty of time to make a report to the police with lots of lovely evidence to show when they came.

In my view, the librarian should have:

  1. Made it clear to her boss that her view is that the police should be called.
  2. Record the incident with as much detail as possible. Recording the identity of the person would even be appropriate so long as the report was not going to be shared.
  3. Make sure that the details of the case make it to the CEO or Director of the library. Give the supervisor a chance to do it first. Then, pass up the report.
  4. Still no action? This is where you consider the whistle-blow. President of the board may work. Or the police. This is not going to be a career-advancing decision.

In the end, I understand that the firing of the employee is being reviewed. I also see this as a good thing. I’m not sure that firing the employee is quite the right disciplinary action, despite that I believe he/she made a mistake. Good management would come up with something more appropriate — although what would depend on a bunch of mitigating factors of which I have no knowledge.

And, in the end, you cannot always assume good management.

The ALA Code is Not Enough: Thoughts and Case Studies on Librarian Ethics

18 Feb

Sarah Houghton-Jan, the illustrious Librarian in Black brought up the issue of ethics in libraries reminding us to post the ALA Code of Ethics on our office walls. She also points to a post by BlogJunction highlighting two other studies

Ethics are extremely important, but I am here to say that a statement of a code is not enough. Statements of Codes were a fad in the 90s when accountability in governments became a serious issue. People wanted quantitative measures and performance standards, where they may have been seeing patronage appointments and bureaucratic privilege. Many such codes exist in wide areas. For example, the Values and Ethics Code for the Canadian Federal Government came out in 2003, as an explanation for various government policies around accountability and public responsibility.

In my view, these codes are much too general to be useful, and really are more a promotion piece for the general public than they are any assurance of actual ethical behavior in the industry. I find practical things to be more useful. That’s why I am going to chat about four different “things ethical.”

1. Do Not Put Library Values Before Core Human Values

The most important values in library service have nothing to do with libraries. If you want to be ethical, you ought to be the sorts of things that make a good doctor, lawyer, accountant or whatever. In this order, these are the values you should aspire to:

  • Integrity — Your word is your bond. You do what you say you are going to do and it matters to you lots when projects do not come through they way they should.
  • Honesty — You do not lie, even when it hurts.
  • Accountability — You take responsibility for what happens under your watch, and refrain from the blame game when the results do not come through (yes, even if some jerk didn’t do what they said they would do). Then, you take the appropriate actions to fix those problems if you can.
  • Compassion — You never behave as an automaton. Rules and policies often do cause harm to some at the benefit to others — you see your job as making the harm as little as possible when this happens (eg. when the library fines happen to cause serious financial grief, you do everything within the bounds of library policy to lessen the impact this has on your patrons).

Librarians and Library Associations are so often focussed on their status as professions that they miss the core points related to any public service. Be good first; be a good librarian second.

2. Ethics is Hard: The Case of the Justified Whistle-blower

Sometimes, the most obvious right thing to do is, in retrospect the absolute worst thing to do. The most serious example I can think of is the issue of whistle blowing in the public service. [NB: this case is entirely fictional and any reference to real persons is coincidental].

Say you discover that a high-ranking manager is purposely giving out jobs to family members and no one appears to be doing anything about it. This sounds like a case where someone ought to provide a quick tip off to that favorite investigative reporter, so they can get to the bottom of this heinous practice. It’s the ethical thing to do after all, isn’t it?

Well, actually, no it isn’t. While sometimes necessary, and cases like Watergate and the Sponsorship Scandal make it appear heroic, whistle-blowing often puts the interests of the whistle-blower waaaaay ahead of the public interest, which is a core no-no in ethical terms.

The main reason is this: for institutions to provide good, a trust among elected officials who make policies and the hired bureaucrats who have to implement them needs to be strong. A media feeding-frenzy on nepotism in libraries would have a serious impact on that trust, causing distortions in policy that cost the public much more than the simple act of nepotism ever would. In short, your selfish act (see below for why it is selfish) ends up costing patrons access to information, which if you really think about costs lots in terms of health, education and general well-being.

Whistle-blowing can be the only way out of a situation, but it should never be the first option. You should only whistle-blow under the following conditions:

  • You have the facts very straight, with objective, concrete evidence to prove it.
  • The top official (the CEO or director) knows about the problem and has done nothing.
  • The problem is of a very serious, life-threatening nature and the impacts are imminent (ie. there isn’t any time to resolve the problem).
  • A more broad understanding of the problem would not result in a logical understanding of why the problem is the way it is.

In short, whistle-blowing should only be done when there is no other way out. Finally, if you do have to whistle-blow, you ought to do it under these conditions:

  • the information ought to go to the person or group who could most effectively deal with the problem (almost never the media). In this case, the manila envelop might go to the a library board member, the city HR administrator or the police, depending on the circumstances (again, assuming that the CEO/Director knows the problem exists and has done nothing).
  • think about your motives for blowing the whistle. Do you really want to stop the nepotism, or do you just want to see that high-horse manager with egg on his/her face?
  • whistle-blowing is almost never a career-making move, even when it’s justified. Even Deep Throat, the Watergate informant, remained in hiding until well into his old age.

This is all to say that the first action that comes to mind may not be the most ethical action after all.   Forget Blink, you have to think before acting.

Ethics Hurts

(Again, this case study is entirely fictional. If I seem to be describing anyone, it’s a coincidence. Besides, the people I work with are all perfect anyway.)

The media is full of former employees and/or customers who accuse institutions of heinous acts and yet ethics tends to suggest that institutions are not allowed to defend themselves. You may be accused of all kinds of things that are untrue, so much that it would be very tempting to demonstrate in clear terms why that employee or customer came to dislike you so much.

Appearance and reality are definitely two different things, and librarians being the committed-to-truth sorts of people they are may want to breach confidentiality to reduce the amount of gump out there. But the important thing to remember is the “put your own interests behind the public interest” piece.

Ethics are Contradictory

If you haven’t already figured it out, I have already said “honesty” and “integrity” are the most important values on one side of my mouth, and on the other side said “don’t rat on your boss” or “don’t tell the truth about that disgruntled patron.”

That’s the reason why I think ethical codes are so problematic. Honesty and Integrity ought to be the default settings for your behavior, but sometimes you have to change those settings to suit the circumstances.  Perhaps the 5th and most important value is this:

  • Alertness — the mind is constantly open and aware of both the small details and the big picture.

The ethical person may even be aspiring toward divinity in this regard. That might be very theocratic of me, but from where do we get “goodness” if our imaginations cannot perceive an “ultimate goodness.”

And if that’s the case, then I ought to add one more value: humility.   Ethics might be the very humbling process of trying to be as good as a god.  Like I said, ethics is difficult.

Swimming the Web

12 Feb

I am a great fan of Judy Blume.   So much so that I have started reading her books (somewhat prematurely) to my four-year-old son.   The most recent entry is Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great.  It was timely, since my four-year-old is now learning to swim.

If you don’t know the book, then suffice it to say that a major part of storyline involves a young girl who is dragged kicking, screaming and punching to swimming lessons.   More importantly, it highlights how water can instill extreme and irrational fear in a person; and extreme pride when this fear is overcome.

I get asked about Internet Safety alot too.   One of the things I cover, fairly flippantly is that in order to protect their children from the risks on the Internet, parents have to learn about technology.   Now, I realize that swimming may be the most important analogy.    If you want to protect your children from drowning, you ought to 1) know how to swim yourself  2) teach your children to swim well and/or 3) force them to take swimming lessons.  Why wouldn’t we see the same being done for Internet Safety?

Of course, there are fairly specific differences here.   Beaches have life guards to protect young people from drowning, and drowning is a much, much more likely cause of harm or death in young people than anything having to do with Internet safety.   Libraries cannot expect governments to put the kinds of resources into Internet safety as they do for swimming lessons.

On the other hand, school libraries, public libraries and I daresay, even academic libraries have a role here.   The trick is that we may or may not be seen as the source for training in online safety.   And a series of moral lessons on the hazards of online surfing is not likely to attract a lot of attention.

Perhaps we ought to say, “if you have kids, and surfing the web isn’t your thing, you ought to at least know how to swim the web.”   After that, we should offer technology training focussed on the ability of parents to understand what the web does, how people connect on the web, and what, if anything, they can do to prevent anything from cyber-bullying, to media-stereotyping, to having the RIAA go after them.

Here are some potential modules for the training:

  • What’s free and what’s not on the web (copyright and creative commons)
  • Surfing with your clothes on (privacy and attention-getting on the web)
  • Going from digital to real life (how to meet safely meet an online friend in the real world)
  • Walking the Troll Bridge (discussing controversial issues online)
  • Internet Ninjistu (maintaining anonymity on the web)

But, most importantly, libraries need strategies to encourage parents to swim on the web.   They need to take a little water in their lungs to keep their kids safe.   Yes, on the web you may encounter ads that will promise to enhance various body parts.  You may even find porn or violence (although it’s a bit harder to find that stuff if you are not looking for it).   The point is, as adults, parents ought to be able to cope with these issues — particularly if their kids are using it.

The Life-Path of a Librarian

8 Feb

Steve, Iris, Rikhei & others are going through some kind of meme on why they are librarians. I think self-reflection is great. In fact, when I started this blog, that’s what I intended to do — take opportunities to look at the library world in ways that might reflect “others” in the world. This blog is my way of pretending I am not myself for a bit so I can look at what I do in a new light.

But to say I am pretending not to be myself is a little untrue as well, because I am a contrary person. I do not like to do things the way everyone else does them. That’s why I’m taking this meme and running with it in my own way. So instead of offering why I became a librarian, I am going to imagine a life-path that could very well produce a librarian. Kind of like a 30 second biography.

Librarians :

  • as babies. . . had parents who were less-than-skilled at “peek-a-boo.” That’s why they had to turn to books to get that “it’s gone — no it’s back!” sensation. Every turn of a book, of course, is a game of peek-a-boo!
  • as early schoolers . . . had someone in their life with the guts to give them a book that might offend their parents. Beowulf at six was my big entry into that world. All that blood and gore really showed me that there was a world my parents (and any other authority figures) could not take away from me.
  • at about 10 years of age . . . found a corner of the library where they could laugh and giggle to their friends about all the books with a 613.907 Dewey number (PDF warning). (They would share that “super secret” corner and the Dewey number with their peers of course).
  • as a pre-teen. . . never received “secret admirer” letters because all potential anonymous love interests knew they could figure them out [no, it's not because librarians are too geeky to be admired].
  • as a teen. . . pretended to read Dostoevski, Trollope, Derrida etc. simply to expose their friends to the fact that these folks exist.
  • before they graduated high school . . . changed from sciences, to arts, to business, back to sciences, and was confused by the idea that anything resembling a specialization in these fields existed.
  • in college. . . confounded profs in discussions by injecting sources of information that the prof never heard of before.
  • before graduating . . . realized that specializing in a particular field was a) going to drive them insane and b) not going to get them a good paying job.
  • in library school . . . reminded themselves “this is temporary hell before getting to a rewarding job.”
  • before graduating . . . forgot most of what they learned in library school (not realizing that this was probably a good thing), but found someone who convinced them that they belong in the profession .
  • in their first job . . . practiced remaining calm, courteous and friendly in front of a mirror while pretending to be abused Hamburger Hill style.
  • by six months . . . after having one of the following happen to them, felt emphatically that they were meant for this job:
    • teen patrons saying hello out of a library context
    • helped someone through a serious health information inquiry
    • got a procrastinating student through a project due next weekend
    • found a weird object to classify and got it fixed nice and easy-like
    • saw a navigation issue with the website and found a logical way to fix it
  • by 2 years . . . learned something they ought to have learned in library school.
  • by 5 years . . . laughed at a library student who was worried about their library school grades.
  • on their first management job . . . started to see the reasons for all those crazy policies that got made in the previous 5 years.
  • yesterday . . . thought about why they became a librarian and pretty much decided “yeah, what Steve, Iris and Rikhei said.”

Facegoat? Criminal Investigations in Canada and Social Networking

11 Jan

The Internet and the court of law have long been at odds in Canada — for a lot of things, but in particular for publication bans coming from court cases. A most recent example has been demonstrated through this article in the cbc, that I noticed via Library Boy and has since been discussed by my blogging compatriots David Fiander, Connie Crosby and others on the Uncontrolled Vocabulary(#25) podcast (Go about 13/16ths of the way to the end of the podcast).

Those who lived in Toronto (as I have) during the early 90s would remember the story of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka and the subsequent trial that included a publication ban that was variously violated on the internet, in particular by US publications that perhaps felt the ban was a violation of their 1st amendment rights.

The important thing to remember is that publication bans are only temporary and exist primarily to ensure that offenders get a fair trial. Juries in Canada are not sequestered as they are in the states and they can be unduly influenced by media reports and other publications, particularly ones that are biased as the ones on facebook appeared to be.

The question that comes to my mind and seems to appear in the mind of my colleagues is whether Facebook marks a particular shift from the way publications violated these bans 10 years ago. Is Facebook responsible for new ways of violations, or is it just a scapegoat for law enforcers who appear unable to keep up with the changing ways that people express themselves on the internet.

My reaction is still that of questioning. I cannot say I have a decision here, although I certainly have my biases toward social networking and against what I perceive as a chronically over-reactive response from law enforcers. That said, I do have some bullet points about what I think the key differences may be:

  • Young people see technology as a way of life. They seem to relate posting photographs on facebook as hardly different from typical schoolground gossip.
  • Graphic media appears to make a difference. Not only can someone make a hasty accusation using someone’s name, they can also post their picture, or a movie of them, making the identification even more stark.
  • Victims and perpetrators alike may already have a prominent online presence: that makes finding photographs and videos even easier than in the past.
  • The audience is just that much larger.
  • In Canada, Facebook gets alot of attention — perhaps for good reason. [Aside: Notice how my hometown has a per capita search rate that is larger (by a good amount) than the rest of the world. Put Facebook alongside "fiddle" and "lobsters" as key search terms in Halifax.]
  • Youth violence in general is a key political issue in Canada, and approaches to this issue are key dividing points. In a minority government winning the “battle of difference” is very important as the Harper government looks for a majority and the opposition parties look to topple.
  • Facebook has been accused of other improprieties in Canada, including productivity loss, resulting in a ban for Ontario staff, not being able to deal with alleged defamers, and, of course, the recent privacy problems with their advertising platform.
  • Unlike the internet, enforcers will have to sign-up for Facebook accounts to find indiscretions. Surfing the net to find child pornographers is one thing, but creating a persona to do go after seemingly minor crimes is another. Think about it, you get one of those “is this really a friend?” friend requests and a few months later, you are on the line for a minor indiscretion your made that just happened to be posted by a clueless acquaintance. There is definitely something to be said about the police having to walk on eggshells in a Facebook environment.

In the end, there is alot of educating that needs to be done about behaviors online. Cyberbullying, copyright infringement and now, obstruction of justice, are all things that people may do with realizing the consequences until they unwittingly end up in court themselves. Public librarians especially, you have a responsibility to act on this one.

In With the New; In With the New.

8 Jan

Ten more ideas about how I can make my life better, in libraries and elsewhere:

  •  Plan an unconference — somewhere, somehow.

The field needs more unconferences, and I’d like to host/organize one for local librarians this year — probably in the summer sometime.

  •  More controlled and productive computer time.

No, this has nothing to do with social software.   I just found that the end of last year turned my computer into a television/gaming system.    I have nothing against gaming or entertainment, it’s just that my kids are growing up, and I definitely want to spend more time focussed on friends, family and physical fun.

  • Two good books a month.

I want to start tracing my reading just like Jessamyn does.   It’s been a good start though.   I just finished Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms, which is a great book and the first of the Sword of Honor trilogy.

  • 12 Beers (or other favored beverage) for 12 Librarians

Librarians deserve a beer.   12 librarians will get a beer from me.

  • More blogging, but with more citations and reading to go with it.

One of the most satisfying posts from my point of view was my review of Margaret Somerville’s The Ethical Imagination.    I disagree with many points that the book makes, I truly felt that Somerville gets a bad rap around town undeservedly for her views on same-sex marriage.   Further, I am glad Somerville is out there with the guts to say the unpopular thing that she believes needs to be said.   True ethics may just about the opposite of being popular, in my view.

Anyway, even though my online survey (there’s going to be a results post soon!) has suggested that book reviews are not really a priority for my audience, you’ll just have to accept my indulgences here, ‘k?

  •  More fiction/poetry writing, published or not.

I used to love writing fiction and poetry.   I even won the Clare Murray Fooshee poetry prize (first place) once.    I’d like to get back to some of that.   It was a great hobby and it brings back my memories of the rec.arts.poems usenet group (which, like many usenet groups, is a mere shadow of its former glorious self).

  • Pare down the social with social.

Libraries weed books that have lost their relevance over time.   I think I need to think about the relevance of my “friends” and look at doing some serious weeding as well.   Of course, I mean “friends” as in “Facebook friends,” which, in the end, can be likened to a reference source more than it can to a “real” friend.

If you can be of use to me, information-wise, I’ll read your blog.   If I can be of use to you, read mine.   If we have some mutual co-sharing thing going on, you will make my Twitter list.   And, honestly, I’m just about finished with Facebook.

  •  Less money waste.

It’s crazy how the local coffee shop will just eat away at my wallet.   And for what?   It’s not like there is a ton of nutrition there — and it’s not like I couldn’t just drink water.   That’s all money that could go to my kids’ RESPs or some of my favorite charities.

  • No gifts please, and clutter-free-me!

Another one that is just wasteful.    Please, no gifts.   None — except maybe a book I don’t have, or a donation to a charity in my name.

I do not want anything that will end up in a landfill within a year.   I do not want to pay to store stuff that I never use.  Whenever Big Brothers, Big Sisters asks me if we have any used clothing, furniture or appliances to give them, I will say “yes.”

  •  Increase my code-fu.

It’s coming along, and I want to learn more.   At this stage, however, it’s about doing — developing skills versus learning syntax.

That’s 10 and that’s enough.   I look forward to re-visiting this list next year to see how well I did/didn’t do.

What’s on your self-improvement list?

Kids Help Phone Cyberbullying Report

2 Jan

There have been lots of exciting things happening in my life these days, which means I have backlog of the things I would most like to write about.    Expect January to be busier with my blog than December was.

But, to tide you over until then, I think these Kids Help Phone reports are invaluable to any public librarian.   In particular, I was interested in the one on cyberbullying.   I don’t know about other librarians out there, but I always find it hard to find the balance the messages out there about Internet Safety.   Some want to block/filter everything, others want to abdicate all responsibility to the parents.  This report was an interesting reality check on what the real risks are and how teens/young people feel about them.   I think it has alot of insight on how parents, teachers and librarians can ensure that the Internet remain a positive short and long-term experience for kids.

I also felt that their discussion group is excellent for gathering perspective on what concerns teens and how they experience the world around them (also what they think of adults).

Will Universal Accessibility at Libraries Even Be Possible in 10 Years?

25 Oct

Libraries pride themselves on their ability to provide access for all.   We do not care how much money you have, what you look like or what you choose to have for breakfast — you can access information for free, most times.

In comes the Internet and the world of information becomes even more free.     Then all the value added provided by Web 2.0 tools.    And computers are getting cheaper as well, so we’re looking at a golden age for technology.

Then we look at what we can do for accessibility.   Ideally, we should offer accessibility software on all public access terminals.  You should be able to go to terminal, click a button and have the screen sized the way you like without difficulty.   Alternately, if you have no vision at all, you should be able to press a button and have a piece of software tell you what is on the screen.   Sounds like common sense, right?    It does to me.   Text-to-speech software has been around for quite a while actually, the production costs should be minimal.

But what does it cost really to make this happen?    Well, let’s use the industry standards — and by this I mean the products that are most supported by the agencies that provide services to people with low or no vision:  Zoomtext, Jaws and Kurzveil 1000.   Now first, I’ll admit I’m going to use retail prices — institutions can sometimes swing a deal with companies when they order in bunches.   But put it this way:  take the cost of your current PC, include a computer desk and chair, maybe an education license for a productivity package like Word, then triple it.   That money might provide a station with the minimum accessibility using the industry standard software.    Add the equivalent of that new number and you might be able to include a Braille embosser in the mix.

Clearly, assistive technologies are not gaining the same value to the consumer that the rest of the industry is enabling.    Faced with choices about hard numbers, libraries offering free public internet access try to be accommodating by having special accessible stations to provide the same access to people with visual impairments that the rest of us take for granted.  Of course, while appreciated, these stations can be less than appealing, since they single out persons with disabilities as in need of “special” stations, when in fact this does not have to be the case.

Singled-out Demand Equals Overpriced Equipment

In fact, it is this “single-out” factor that enables such exorbitant prices for these products.    If we all demanded that our operating systems had screen-sizers and readers as part of the suite and refused to buy the products without them, they would be available universally for perhaps only a little more than what we pay now for them.

But a “singled-out” software line for persons with disabilities creates a market where the price elasticity of demand is very low.   For those of you who were not tortured through microeconomics like I was, elasticity of demand refers to the impact a change in price has on the quantity of demand for a product.   A highly elastic product means that a small change in price will cause a large change in the quantity of demand for a product.   Products with elastic demand tend to have satisfactory alternatives.  Take for instance apples and pears.   If the price of apples goes up, people may just choose to buy pears instead.   That means the quantity of demand for apples goes way down with the change in price.

Not so with software to support accessibility.   Despite the price, the quantity of demand for the products is likely to remain pretty stable.   Why?   Because there are no viable alternatives.   If you want to access the internet, you have to buy the software.   That means that suppliers have no incentive to reduce their price.   If they raise the price, the quantity of demand for the product stays the same and they make more money.   If they lower the price the quantity of demand stays the same as well, and the supplier makes less money.   There’s no reason to reduce the price, so why would you bother — especially when the added money perhaps can help you build a better product and stay ahead of the competition?

Now you may say that there are government grants available for accessible stations, right?    No doubt the intention is fabulous and who could blame libraries for wanting to take advantage of these services?   But there is a bigger picture here.  Remember — we are dealing with inelastic products here.   Adding money to the accessibility software demand pile will artificially increase the overall demand for the product — which in turn will artificially increase the price of the software even more!   In the end, there’ll be more software out there, but the demand will be stratified — those who get the grants will have the software while those who do not will not.

In short, there are broad societal issues associated with the accessibility problem, and I haven’t even begun to discuss accessibility as it relates to website design.   It seems hopeless — what can libraries do?   Here are some things:

  • Look at open source — For instance Ubuntu offers a screen reader as part of the package.     If you offer an Ubuntu station, you very likely are also offering an assistive technology station — except without ever calling it that.    While there is a lot of work to be done in this realm still, I think libraries should start thinking about offering Ubuntu and then letting the linux community know about the experience.     If you are interested in Daisy readers, you may also like to hear that there is a product called AMIS that will read Daisy format on a Windows platform.
  • Partner with community groups so to insist that all OEM software includes a viable and easy-to-use accessibility system, including a one-click screen resizer and a screen reader.
  • Try your best to make existing accessibility stations seem the same as any other station.
  • Fulfill your obligations for free access, but do not forget about the big picture.   We can “should” at each other until the cows come home, but the reality is that our budgets are limited enough already.   We cannot afford to dump money into products with such high margins.   We need to start innovating our own ways to serve our visually impaired clients if we truly want to maintain our reputation of offering “Access for All.”
  • Look carefully at the development of surface technology (ironically, low accessibility warning for the link).   There is a lot of potential here for low vision clients.
  • As much as ethically and technically possible, refuse to purchase any product unless it is accessible for everyone.   The more we consider accessibility a “special” add-in, the more the costs of “specialness” get born on those with disabilities.

A Serendipitous 12 hours.

17 Oct

This is kind of like the “day in the life of” except it is a “night in the life of.” I can’t remember the times, but consider that most of this stuff happened between 8pm last night (Tuesday) until I posted the final blog post today.

  1. I logged onto Meebo for fun.
  2. I chatted with Amanda Etches-Johnson. Mostly, to tell her some feedback I received from a co-worker who saw her presentation at Access.
  3. I asked her for help in speaking to Medical librarians, because I expect to be doing that when CHLA comes to Halifax.
  4. Amanda mentioned that her audience really enjoyed playing with an online screencasting software. It turns out that a co-worker of mine just started using Captivate, and I was thinking about whether or not I needed to put in a request for myself.
  5. I found the screencast-o-matic software to be pretty easy to use, so I create a test screencast to show people on the Halifax Public Libraries Learning 2.0 blog. The topic was adding an RSS feed to Google Reader.
  6. While I was doing the screencast, I saw a blog post by Helene Blowers about Michael “The Machine is Us/ing UsWesch‘s latest video about the information revolution. And then another one, which is just as interesting about what students are thinking.
  7. I posted the screencast late last night.
  8. I watched the movies.
  9. This morning, I asked a co-worker to look at the screencast. He is technically more competent than I am, but he didn’t have his Java plug-in updated, which caused some interfacing issues for him. Fortunately, he knows enough about Java to upgrade the plug-in and see the cast. Goes to show how important architecture still is, even for website administrators.
  10. The co-worker with Captivate dropped by and I showed him the screencast I made.
  11. Jeremy later came into my office and told me, “oh yeah — I forgot to mention that there’s a product out there called Wink that available for free, but creates Flash films instead of Java. You might want to check it out. It’s not Web 2.0 though.”
  12. I thought that the screencast is an interesting artifact showing serendipity happening to me via Web 2.0.
  13. Lunchtime came along and I decided to post this experience.

I can’t explain how many times that this sort of thing would have happened to me after I decided to login to a collaborative tool, whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Meebo Rooms, any number of Web 2.0 websites.

There are serious learning benefits coming from Web 2.0 — most of the time I don’t even realize it. This time I did — probably because I managed to record my information discovery in a screencast.

And when those medical librarians ask me what they can do to convince their IT departments that these tools are important, I may just tell them about this experience. I don’t know if it will work — but it might just affirm their suspicions that, yes, stringent policies blocking Internet sites for so-called “productivity benefits” is just wrong.

Not only did I learn a heckofalot in just 12 hours. I shared that information with a potential 400 staff and, hopefully, another potential 400 people who read my blog regularly. Loss of productivity my big patootey!

What Can Organizational Structure do for User-centred Change?

14 Oct

 

Designing an organization is not something that managers should take on without a good deal of thought. Unfortunately, the coverage of organizational design in library management courses is often simplified to a toying around with two organizational dichotomies: flat or hierarchical; centralized or decentralized. The impression you get from such a surface understanding of design is that organizations are like play-doh and can be squished and pulled at will.

Organizational Design (OD) is a strategic device. You do it to make your organization more competitive in whatever environment you face. As a strategic device, it ought to be the slave to a strategy — a full-scale plan that covers everything from the values the organization will hold dear, its mission, including the sorts of goals, objectives and actions it will undertake to accomplish it’s mission.

With Library 2.0 advocates calling for radical change in organizations, I fear that libraries could take on organizational design as a symbollic gesture toward more inclusivity, rather than as a strategic maneuver to improve service. For instance, I think frustration over the departmental silos that come with traditional matrix organization structures will cause library leaders to call for “flat” structures, without considering the devil in the details that automatically come with complex organizations.

Flatness in organizational structure is not an end-goal. It achieves certain things that may indeed be desirable. But not without rather considerable costs. There are reasons why hierarchy exists in large organizations and have existed for a long time. If hierarchy did not have its benefits, most currently thriving organizations would not have survived as long as they have.

Here are a few benefits of hierarchical structures:

  • The Division of Labor

Adam Smith and his fellow Utilitarians could be the reason why Western civilization is as rich as it is. You can harp against capitalism all you want, but clearly, the advancement of commerce helped societies uncover major secrets about fulfilling human needs with limited resources. One of the more famous secrets is the division of labor — namely, that when group specialize on particular aspects of the production process, the overall result is much more efficient.This still rings true for libraries. My library does not want me handling the finances. Nor do they want me cataloguing. We have people who know that much better than I do.

  • Comparative Advantage

In theory, the Director/CEO is the organization’s most competent individual. (Yes, I know, in theory.) The problem is, there is only so much a single CEO can do. That’s why he/she hires others to help. Even if a co-worker only performs at 75% of the CEO, it’s still better that 175% is getting done, instead of just 100%.

But there’s more. Comparative advantage tells us that opportunity cost needs to be considered as well. If you have your highly competent CEO busy doing mundane clerical work, your organization is losing the opportunity to have him/her busy engaging city leaders, influencing officials, and making high-level decisions about the workplace. So, you assign your 75% person to the less important task, focusing your high-level employees on high-value areas. Flatter structures tend to mix this advantage up, engaging less proficient individuals in high value areas, resulting in poorer results overall.

  • Avoiding Micromanaging

By having leaders with powers to make decisions, you can avoid micromanagement in organizations. While individual leaders may choose to be micromanagers (which is not a very desirable trait anyway), a hierarchical structure will make it difficult for a director to be looking over the shoulders of his/her employees. Flat organizations can turn into “micromanaged by the CEO” organizations.

  • Fair Compensation, Merit and Rewards

There are two principles that fall here. 1) If you ask staff to be involved in high-level decision making, you ought to pay them for it. 2) Many staff want to see a natural progression to their career path. Hierarchical structures do help signal that a clear path to advancement exists with the organization, and supports a process for paying people based on the degree of risk, difficulty and intellectual gymnastics required to do the job. Flatter organizations often make the advancement path more ambiguous, perhaps encouraging employees to look elsewhere to advance their careers.

  • Reporting Structures

Once organizations reach a certain size, clear communication becomes essential. Directors do not have time to read 1000s of emails, reports, complaints, comments and memos every day. Hierarchical structures offer some reporting control in large organizations, because a director can get reports from a senior management team, instead of from everyone. Again, this keeps the director focussed on high-level thinking and away from the everyday foibles of library work. Flatter structures can lead to confusion and interruption as “little fires” make their way to the director’s desk.

  • Internal Competition

When structures are set up with departmental silos, departments will compete against each other for access to the budget. That will increase their willingness to perform, and (believe or not) encourage innovation within the departments.

The same works for individuals. When two employees want the same higher level job, they will compete against each other to show they are the best person for the job. This can be an advantage and can encourage increased productivity.

  • Accountability

Hierarchies do tend to tie responsibility to individuals, who in turn are likely to respond to reports of poor performance, embarrassing mistakes, and accusations of unethical behavior. By contrast, flat organizations tend to diffuse responsibility to the group, in extreme cases to the point that no one is responsible for any disasters that happen.

  • Diversity

Hierarchical structures promote diversity. Diversity is essential in organizations. When I put a survey out to staff asking them for their feelings on specific problems or issues, the information I receive is extremely valuable because I get responses from people coming from a wide range of perspectives. Some see customers first-hand. Others are closer to the technical side of things. Even others (such as financial and HR people) have no full understanding about the daily operations of a library and have even more interesting perspectives on what should and should not be done.

Organizational flatness can reduce diversity in organizations because culture can take over, and sound out the dissenting voices.

Is Flatness a Bad Idea?

Flat organizations have their own strengths as well. Since I intend this article as a counter-point to the idea that Organizational Flatness is an ideal structure, I will not cover it in depth. You can probably guess the benefits anyway. Staff can have more stake in the organization’s success, more equal/equitable atmosphere, reduced protectionism among departments and so on. In fact, you could probably take the advantages of the hierarchical structure, take them to extreme and show how a flat structure is more efficient.

In the end, the point of this post is not to say that flatness is bad — just that flatness affords advantages that can help achieve certain strategic goals at the cost of other advantages that may be better for other goals.

Does the Library 2.0 movement suggest a move toward flatter structures? Here are some thoughts.

I think a Library 2.0 future implies the following about organizational structures in public libraries:

  • Web and technical service teams will necessitate more communication among service and technical departments and will grow on the whole. Research and Development will probably merge into this area as well.
  • As electronic media continues to grow and resources get easier to use, circulation departments are going to continue to decrease and/or merge into information services departments, resulting in flatter structures.
  • If laptops continue to get cheaper and wireless gains ground (not guaranteed yet), centralized technical support will diffuse into a more front-lines model. This is because libraries desktop hardware will require less maintenance (just replace the old machines with new ones) and laptop service will require a higher degree of support.
  • Teen and Youth services will continue to be their own “silos” in the long run. The skill sets are too unique to lose in a more diffuse structure.
  • Readers and Reference Services will tend to merge.
  • The roving model will lead to more “team” oriented work on the floor, but specialized services for business, government access and more personalized information management services will require “junior” and “senior” information service roles, similar to those found in Policy shops and consultancies.
  • Collaborative communication models via wikis, blogs, etc. will put a more human face on directors and make it easier for them to give and receive feedback from all levels of staff.
  • The same models will facilitate more cross-departmental communication as well.
  • Human Resources will have to communicate more clearly with technical people as well, since e-Learning (via Web tools and Learning 2.0-ish programs) will be key to future professional development of staff.

In sum, yes I do think the future will find libraries getting flatter as a whole. I say that these changes will probably “tip” somewhere between 2015 & 2020. This will not always be a very friendly process though, since it will involve changes in people’s job descriptions, pay-scale, reporting structures, and perhaps even employment. It is important to remember that change in the workplace is not all good. Many times change in the workplace also means change in home-life as people end up moving, re-skilling, and perhaps even making decisions about their future with the organization. We should be sensitive always to the consequences of change, even if the change is both necessary and inevitable.

Most importantly, we should ensure that due process is paid prior to decision making. Studies have clearly shown that people are more willing to accept, even an unfair distribution of work and pay if there was a fair process behind the decision making process.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,506 other followers