Librarians Do Not Know What Policy Is.

I am a big fan of Michael Stephens as, I am sure, lots of people are. He is daring, an definite expert in the coolest library field right now (technology & Web 2.0), and enticingly controversial.

He values the profession in a way turns him immediately into an agenda setter. If you do not know what Michael Stephens has said about librarianship, I daresay you do not know much new in the professional at all.

One thing Michael likes to do is post example photographs of Library 2.0 and non-Library 2.0 library signs. The latest one is Your Attention Please, showing a library that chose to charge $6 per hour or fraction-of-an-hour for out-of-towners to use the Internet on their machines. Another recent pet-phrase is that libraries are often in danger of creating a “culture of no.” A discussion has now carried a response from the library director who cites Herb White,

“What ARE the core functions of a public library and how can we meet them?” “When do we realize that libraries can’t be everything to everybody and, as Herb White has suggested, we learn to say a firm “NO!”

The tragedy here is that, for once, Michael Stephens has disappointed me for not going far enough. The “Culture of NO” meme is bad, if only because it seeks to highlight miscomings. It fails to point out that, the opposite view, a “Culture of YES” is also bad. Then there is polarization — some think libraries should limit their scope, while others think they should expand beyond the horizons. This argument is fairly pointless, and frankly it implies an extremely poor way of making decisions in libraries.

So, what is the problem in my view? It is quite simple, but so widespread that I have to shout it out.


This, of course, is a generalization. Some librarians do understand what policy is. But I venture to say that most do not. And given the role of libraries in the community, I would say an 85% policy understanding success rate in librarians would still be tragic.

“So, Ryan — you smarty pants.” You say, “What is Policy?”

Well, from my MPA days, two definitions come to mind. 1) Policy is what Governments (and agencies) choose to do or not do. 2) Policy is a decision about decisions. Policies are definitely NOT rules, although rules may be applied to implement a policy.

Effective policy, however, is even more specific. Here are Ryan’s 8 Values to Be Said About Policies:

  1. Policies are not boundaries. They are enablers. They let you do things you could not before. They coordinate and empower staff to make decisions with precision. Ineffective policies back everyone into a corner.
  2. Reactions are almost never effective policies. Effective policies anticipate needs and social change using clear information gathering, followed by bold intuition. Although predicting the future is never easy, any city or town in the US ought to be able to predict an increase in tourism when the greenback shrinks by double-digit percentages.
  3. Policies do not need to be written down to be effective. They exist in the conventions of work. A quick frown from a boss when an employee has a chat with a friend at the desk suggests policy in a way that a “no talking with friends” policy never could. It also offers some flexibility that a written down policy does not.
  4. Policies are made more effective when public servants practice their responsibility to “speak truth to power.” Board members have the last say, but public servant ought to be very transparent about all likely consequences of their decisions.
  5. Effective policies do not exist until after someone has sat down and asked (often) “What is the real problem here?” “Tourists are using our computers” is not a real problem. “The Library’s role in economic development is changing” is. For example, a reduced US dollar implies increased economic growth from tourism and exports. What will libraries in the US do to respond to these changing demands?
  6. Effective policies look at the trends and reactions to change in all industries, not just other libraries.
  7. Most policies are best when kept as guidelines. There are exceptions. Two major ones include 1) a policy created to comply with law and 2) a policy created to enforce a core library value (eg. a confidentiality policy).
  8. Policies are subject to review at all times.

That’s what I have so far. They will be subject to review, of course. I think they can be summarized in Ryan’s four-fold path to effective policy: 1) ((Think + Do Homework) * 10), 2) Evaluate Alternatives, 3) Make a Decision, 4) State Your Case.

In the end, though this entry is just another “we didn’t learn what we needed to in Library Schools.”   “Write a policy” was what I was told, and I was expected to understand what I was doing.   Sheesh!

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