Friday, October 07, 2011

Gordon Ramsay's Library Nightmares

When left to my own devices, I like to watch either BBC America or the Food Network. One of my guiltiest pleasures is Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, a series on the BBC where the celebrated chef with the foul mouth and ill temper visits a restaurant teetering on the brink of closure and attempts to rescue their operations with expert advice and tough love. Although Chef Ramsay does not shy away from yelling and dropping the f-bomb when warranted (when you see the condition of some of these kitchens you'll curse as well), he is first and foremost a mentoring figure in this show, which may come as a surprise to those who only know him from reality cooking competition Hell's Kitchen on the Fox Network.

No matter how short his fuse, Gordon knows the restaurant industry inside and out, and if he sees so much as a spark of life in an establishment, no matter how beleaguered, he will move heaven and earth to kindle it so as to give the proprietors the best possible odds of success moving forward. The Food Network now has a similar show, Restaurant Impossible, in which Robert Irvine, another U.K. chef, stages similar eatery interventions. I find both shows to be eminently watchable, and will easily surrender my afternoon or evening if either network is running them back to back. Not only do I find the human drama compelling in and of itself, but I think the challenges that people face in the food service industry are almost identical to those facing libraries today.

What are these challenges? After dedicating myself to way too many hours of informal "research" on the living room couch, I've decided that every episode of Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant Impossible can be boiled down to the following three themes:

1. Unlearning dysfunction

2. Embracing passion

3. Committing to change

Let's look at each in the context of the show(s), then how it can be applied to librarianship...

1. Unlearning dysfunction. When Chef Ramsay or Irvine (for simplicity's sake we will just call him 'Chef' from here on in) arrives on the scene, the first thing he does is experience a typical service at that restaurant, both as a diner then as an observer in the kitchen. Only then will he give his honest, often scathing assessment of the establishment's operations. Usually the restaurant in question is failing because somewhere along the line it embraced a critical mass of dysfunctional processes, which Chef will proceed to unpack and identify, one by one. No workplace chooses dysfunction willingly, but it is uncanny how easily dysfunctional processes can become enshrined as "the way we've always done things" and therefore off-limits to critique or change. Nor does dysfunction spontaneously occur from out the void- instead, it is the net result of received wisdom and questionable assumptions which may very well have been true at some point in the organization's history but are no longer valid.

For example, when I took over my ILL office we were still fulfilling article requests by photocopying the pages in question then scanning them through a document feeder. Despite the fact that most of our peers had long since moved over to an all-digital workflow for these kinds of requests, my initial pleas to acquire a new scanner were rebuffed on the grounds that our copy and scan method was more efficient. While this may have been true when the workflow was decided upon some ten years ago, faster scanners and software that could automate the fulfillment process had since come onto the market that disproved the underlying assumption that "digital = slower." In my case it took some detailed time studies and the fortuitous intervention of another administrator to make my case and get that scanner, proving that the hardest dysfunction of all to overcome is the one that once made perfect sense.

2. Embracing passion. Another constant which emerges from the myriad failing restaurants featured in both shows is that there is either no passion left among the owners and workers or that there was none to begin with. A kitchen that is bereft of passion might as well shutter its doors permanently, as even if all of the underlying dysfunction can be rooted out and eliminated the service will lack the very soul it needs in order not just to survive but to prosper. Usually the midpoint of each episode will feature Chef sitting down with either the owner or the head chef and trying to remind them of why they got mixed up in the food service business in the first place. Once that spark is successfully kindled, it is possible to start talking about things like excellence in service, attention to detail, and a focus on quality, with the goal of providing an overall first-rate dining experience, but without passion these things are all just empty words and phrases.

The same is manifestly true for libraries. I'm sure many of us have had the good fortune at one point in our careers to have worked in a library where a genuine passion for sharing knowledge and championing intellectual freedom- what I like to call "the delightful absurdity of librarianship"- was fully embraced. The idea of working in such an environment is what lured me into library school and down the path of becoming professional librarians, in hopes that someday I might be able to nurture a similar oasis of my own. Working in a library should be a joy so infectious that even the members of your staff who are just in it for the steady paycheck can't help but smile and laugh along with everyone else. When we fall short of this ideal is it because of all of those external pressures that have always been there to some varying extent, or is it because your workplace does not cultivate and embrace a passion for librarianship?

3. Committing to change. Diagnosing the problem is often the easiest part of these restaurant shows, especially when the establishments have obviously gone so far down the wrong path. Even if Chef is able to help a kitchen crew rediscover their passion, the food service industry is still no cakewalk, such that it is all too easy to fall back into the old dysfunction or embrace new bad habits as a form of compromise. One of the things that Gordon Ramsay does in his Kitchen Nightmares is pay a follow-up visit to the same restaurant a few months or even a year later to see if his mentoring and advice were taken to heart. Although sometimes the places embrace Chef's wisdom without reservation, most of the time there's been at least a little bit backsliding on the restaurant's part. Even the successful establishments are not immune to this- in fact, success can often lead to complaisance and renewed temptation to cut corners.

Genuine commitment to change isn't just hard, but an ongoing challenge. Assuming that you are serious about questioning your fundamental assumptions and getting your staff to embrace a passion for their work, it's still all too easy to default to dysfunctional behavior, especially when the chips are down. Back to my example of scanning ILL articles, even after I had secured the new hardware and software it was a constant battle with my staff not to panic when we felt overwhelmed by the learning curve of an all-digital workflow. Instead of running back to the old copy and scan workflow when things got busy, I played the part of cheerleader and encouraged staff and students to tough it out until the new way of doing things was as comfortable as the old. The result was better service for our patrons, better care and handling of our library materials, better use of natural resources (not to mention saving us a boatload in paper and toner costs!), and a more enjoyable experience for our students, who instead of passively photocopying articles were now actively engaged in tweaking the image quality as they scanned so that they took a genuine pride in their work. Whereas before we practically had to force student workers to do photocopying duty, working at the scanner became the most popular student activity in our office!

It's too bad that there is no library equivalent to restaurant reality programming, because I think many library workplaces would in fact benefit from a Gordon Ramsay-style intervention. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to get a free consultation from a giant in the resource sharing community, who offered some valuable constructive criticism about improving our workflows and making the office a better overall place to work. Even though I considered his advice to be friendly, I have to admit that you need to have a thick skin about opening your operations up to such scrutiny, as the natural impulse is to defend even the most indisputably dysfunctional of policies and procedures. That being said, I wouldn't have traded his visit for the world, for even during the uncomfortable bits I was learning more than I could have possibly picked up through any other means of evaluation.

The library world needs its very own Gordon Ramsay, though perhaps with less swearing. Any volunteers out there?

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