Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change; a review

Crawford, Walt. Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change. A Cites & Insight Book, 2007.

I read this book last Wednesday – Friday. In many ways it was like curling up with an old friend. I had read versions of some of the chapters and smaller sections in Cites & Insights, perhaps some of the ideas on Walt at Random, and had read many of the posts from which the citations come in their original form. That said, there was still plenty new here along with the previous disparate ideas being tied together into a coherent whole.

Audience

The audience for this book is anyone interested in the strength—present and future—of libraries; public, academic, school and special. The book definitely belongs in every library that supports an LIS school. Quite possibly, it belongs in every library.

Public libraries with the means to do so might consider providing copies to their board members. Libraries (of any sort) with enough staff to do so could consider having a reading/discussion group around it. Staff in libraries too small to do so can certainly find value in it. That is, there is value for anyone interested in libraries in these times of rapid change. [Although rapid change has probably always been the case in libraries—for the last 150 years anyway.]

But it’s self-published blog, er, stuff!

Let me try and counter one possible objection right now. Some folks may be prejudiced due to the fact that this is a self-published, print-on-demand book. That is simply silly; especially in this case. Crawford is well aware that this was an experiment from the start (16). I, for one, think it is a successful book, but only Walt Crawford can determine if it is a successful experiment.

Walt Crawford is one of the highest cited authors in the LIS literature for the period 1994-2004 based on a study recently cited in College & Research Libraries. I have no doubt this would be the same if one were to shift a few years either way. Assuming that there is some valid reason why he is one of the highest cited authors in our field, it should not matter whether this book is self-published or not. Clearly, many have found value in his writings.

A second possible objection is that the majority of sources cited are from blogs. Oh my gosh! From what? While I, myself, am sometimes critical of the biblioblogosphere, this book would serve as a valuable introduction to library and library-related blogs for the vast majority of librarians who are unaware of them or, at least, uninvolved with them. While we sometimes seem to be speaking only to ourselves, there is much of value being said out here. Sometimes we even manage to have a conversation. No matter where these conversations happen, library staff need to be involved in them. This book is one possible entry into them.

Reviewer qualifications, or lack thereof

In a couple of ways, I am not really suited to review this book. This does not mean that I am unentitled to an opinion or that I cannot find value in it. My situation only means that others may be better situated to comment on its primary value. So be it.

There are many ways to interact with this book, and diverse messages to take from it, as well as different uses in which to put it. As I said, much of this material is not new to me. But the overall structure and coherence is. I found that valuable. I have no idea how the book will strike those not currently involved in the biblioblogosphere. I can only hope that they will follow the author’s advice and follow some of these conversations in full.

The other reason, besides my closeness to much of the material, for my being poorly qualified to review this book is that I am currently in no real position to recommend or implement much of anything that might lead to balance in “my library.”

This is not to imply that I am voiceless or powerless in my job. That would be to greatly misspeak on my part. My student status does not lead to a total neutering. [And both the author and I claimed the audience is anyone who cares about libraries.] I only mean to imply that I have had a limited amount of time to understand the workings of “my library.” In fact, the question immediately arises, “What exactly is my library?” On one hand, it is pretty much the entirety of the whole UIUC Libraries. On the other, that is simply silly. I cannot know much about the whole thing and, in fact, know little about much of it. At best probably, I can look within Content Access Management (cataloging and more). Even that, though, is far larger than my gaze at the moment.

In other words, it is easy for me to read this book because I do not have any real needs to address at the moment. I can merrily read along at a good clip and think, “Great question! Could raise some interesting answers, in practice.” And so on. But I don’t have to answer any of them right now. And that is the hard job. In other words, if you need this book then it ought to take you a lot longer to “read” it than I took.

“Negatives”

Let me point out a couple faults before I get into the book proper. The index is not the best, although I have seen worse. The author has asked that I take him to task for it, but I’m not sure I can. So far I have had little need to use the index and although I have been trained to evaluate indexes (or indices, if you prefer) I don’t see the need to get all empirical here. I have a feeling that there may be some folks who did not get all of their citations indexed. I could be wrong but it seems like Steve Oberg/Family Man Librarian had more than one mention. There are others that seem as if they should have more index entries possibly.

As I said on my own blog as I was reading the book:

My only small gripe (so far) is that while the UI Current LIS Clips does show up in the index, neither Sue Searing or Karla Stover Lucht do, although they do in the text (54). Of course, if I didn’t know these folks personally I probably would not be looking them up. A very small gripe, though.

This was the comment which caused the author to suggest that a reviewer ought to take him to task for the index.

The only other issue with the book that I found is that chapter 11 is poorly edited in spots; although these are all minor issues and do not detract from one’s understanding at all. They are generally small formatting issues: lack of a subsection heading being bolded, a footnote not being superscripted, etc. Again, very minor detractions. Has anyone read any book from MIT Press lately? Now there is some poor editing!

Content

This book is, thankfully, not a self-help book. [Of course, that whole category is an oxymoron. How can a book help itself?]

There are no easy answers here. There are some easy questions; but only a few. Most of the questions are more middling to hard if you actually need to answer them. And if you need a consensus answer then just shift a little more to the hard end.

In fact, there may not even be any answers in the book. The answers can only come through an honest look at your library and its communities’ situations. This is not meant to diminish the book’s contents at all. If you actually expected to find the answer(s) in a book then you may well be in the wrong business.

What this book does offer are many of the questions and some thoughts and discussions around those questions that can help you discover the answers for you and your library’s situation. That is the best any book can do. And Balanced Libraries does that quite well.

  • The book is in 6 or so implicit parts. The first part (ch. 1) gives an overview of balance and how the book came about. It also provides an outline for the rest of the book.
  • Part 2 (ch. 2-4) addresses patron-orientation (and not just to the select), library as place, and existing collections and services.
  • Part 3 (ch. 5-8) is on barriers to change: time and energy, generational generalizations, push back from patrons and staff and why it may not just be blind resistance, and naming and shaming.
  • Part 4 (ch. 9-13) covers more positive aspects of change: extension and improvement of existing services and systems, new services, storytelling and conversation (marketing), competition and cooperation, and assessment and relating those successes and failures to the larger library community.
  • Part 5 (ch. 14) is about how the library worker themselves can achieve a healthy balance in their lives. It is hard to have a balanced library without balanced library workers.
  • Part 6 (ch. 15) “Change and Continuity” is the conclusion.

I found this to be a well-balanced book on a theme which cuts across many factors that are impacting libraries and library workers (and their communities) of all sorts today.

Despite my few caveats above as to my qualifications to review this books true usefulness, I think that there are few libraries or library workers who would not benefit from reading this book and thinking about its application to their situations. Perhaps we ought to have a “One City, One Book” type reading and discussion group in the library community centered on this book.

A (small) secondary benefit of this book is that is may introduce many a library worker to some fine writing and conversations that happen here in the biblioblogosphere [and, yes, that is an ugly word!]

I guess I ought to add the disclaimer that I have been quoted in this book. When the author first posted the list of who all were cited I was semi-concerned [C&I 7(4) pdf]. “Oh boy! Did Walt catch me saying something silly?” Well, I’m happy to say that I am quite pleased with what he did use. And even though I may have said something about a few of the topics covered in the book, I am pleased to serve a small purpose in the chapter on terminology, shaming and confrontation. Those topics fit in especially well with my thoughts and concerns with “professionalism.”

Nonetheless, I bought my own copy (as it should be) and just as I expect Walt to tell me when I’m wrong, off-base, silly or whatever I know he expects the same.

Read this book!

Book reviews are not really my thing and I wish I could have written a better one. But at least I think it is balanced, and that seems appropriate.

9 thoughts on “Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change; a review

  1. “Has anyone read any book from MIT Press lately? Now there is some poor editing!”

    I am curious to learn, sir, which MIT Press books you’re referring to (it appears that you’re referring to all of them), and whether you can provide any further details about what made the editing so poor.

  2. Hi, Millicent. Sorry to offend; truly. Clearly that was a generalization and I have no doubt that some MIT Press books are still well edited. But the several dozen that I have read and more that I have looked at over the last five years and dating from about that period are, in my opinion, poorly edited for a press of that stature. I also am aware of a couple handfuls of others who have said the same thing.

    It is possible that I am overvaluing MIT Press’s actual stature, but nonetheless…. Also notice, I did not say horribly edited, but poorly.

    As for examples, I apologize but I am away at a conference and have none at hand. If time allows, I will try to post a couple examples after I return.

    Now, in all fairness, I will also state that there are many other presses that do not do any better. To me, it seems the quality of editing has gone down over the last few years. I also apologize as I realize there are various forms and stages of editing. Mostly, I believe I’m referring to final editing.

  3. P.S. By the by, Mark, you are my mainstay in helping me keeping in touch with LIS during my (hopefully) short hiatus between graduation and employment. Thank you.

  4. Jenn, well, someone said the index was shabbily done. That would be me. I did try to include everyone who’s actually quoted (but may have failed), but otherwise did a pretty minimalist job.

    Fortunately, there seems to be evidence that my own belief–that this book is an easy read–is correct, which makes the mediocre (the kindest word I can use) index less fatal.

    If someone wants to write a snarky review pointing out all the flaws in the book–particularly now that there have been three very kind reviews from three very different sources–I would not only say “be my guest,” I’d say I’d read the review with interest. And, of course, ponder the criticisms if/when there’s a second edition.

  5. Walt, Jenn’s comment was more along the lines of she’d like to get into the work from home (s0rry. my mind went blank) indexing business.

    And what I had meant to mention and then decided didn’t belong in the review was that you (and others) who take the route you did, Walt, to publish this might want to consider either students or folks trying to get started in indexing. Many would do it gratis to get a foot in the door, or perhaps as a practicum or independent study.

    Jenn, I’ll do my best and keep my fingers crossed that it’s a short time, also.

    Back to conferencing…

  6. Walt,

    Sorry! I did not intend any insult. I love indexing, and as Mark said in my defense, it’s what I want to do for a living. Also, I ordered the book so that I could not only read what a good friend has recommended, but to practice my indexing. :)

  7. Pingback: Balance?

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