Monday, January 30, 2012

We didn't start the fire

I've been doing a lot of ruminating since "The Great Librarian Massacre" the week before last (kudos to someone at Daily Kos for picking up the story even if they completely missed the fact that my post title was meant to be a tongue in cheek homage to Bob Darnton's seminal history treatise The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History), especially concerning the role that social media-- mainly Twitter-- played in the dissemination of information that day. After a spirited conversation with a colleague I began to worry that our tweeting had only thrown gasoline on the fire, or even worse, had actually sparked the blaze in the first place. For wasn't it true that the whole brouhaha begin when someone claimed on Twitter that we'd all been effectively fired? Had we Harvard library folk not been livetweeting the Town Hall Meetings on the #hlth hashtag, it would not have been nearly as easy for the conversation to spin out of control amid a concerned global audience of librarians, higher ed trend watchers, and both boosters and detractors of the World's Greatest University. Or so the reasoning goes.

Even though I am a firm proponent of Living Out Loud and one of those annoying Information Should Be Free kind of evangelists, I'm not averse to a little soul-searching about the disruptive nature of new technologies. From the so-called Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement, Twitter has been blamed for facilitating revolution across the globe, so it's not all that surprising that social media is providing a voice during a period of radical transformation here at the Harvard Library. As these things tend to happen, our perfect "social media shitstorm" started out innocently enough, and use of the #hlth was even encouraged by library administrators as a mechanism by which the Town Hall proceedings could be shared with colleagues who could not attend one of the three meetings (the 9am meeting was also livestreamed online on a publicly accessible website). Was this an example of misunderstanding the viral reach of Twitter, or did the Powers That Be simply believe that the content of their meetings was not nearly as controversial as it turned out to be?

I would argue that it was a little of both. Although I was not personally in attendance at last week's community meeting with our Executive Director and Senior Associate Provost-- the first meeting between administrators and staff since the Town Hall Meetings-- having spoken to people who were there and reading the tweets of those who covered the event, it's clear that there is still a disconnect between perceptions and reality between library staff and the highest echelons about just how much of a disaster the January 19th meetings were. Many of my colleagues who went expected some token fence-mending only to be disappointed, so it will be very interesting to see if there are any PR course corrections during the run-up to the next set of Town Hall Meetings in February, especially now that the HUCTW has weighed in about not having been notified in advance of the key points in the Transition Team's presentation and labor activists have already picketed the exterior of Harvard Library administrators' offices.

As far as Twitter itself is concerned, certainly nothing that Harvard has done via social media channels to date would have prepared administrators either for the speed at which information about the Town Hall Meetings traveled or the vehemence of the response from the library world and beyond. But that is not an excuse for not being prepared at least for the possibility that such a viral event might occur and engaging the backchannel with reliable information once all Hell had indeed broken loose. And yet the Harvard Library Twitter account was idle throughout the entire day, and moreover continues to be silent (its last tweet was on December 7th of last year). Ironically, those of us who were livetweeting the meetings quickly found ourselves scrambling to combat the rampant misinformation that others were spreading in the absence of any official Twitter presence!

It is my understanding that the library administration is currently reexamining its communications policies from the ground up, which is welcome news, but even the best-formulated policy will never adequately address the messy turbulence of social media. Nor would we be in a better situation if those of us who had been livetweeting the Town Hall Meetings had not shared information and our outrage on #hlth. Word would still have broken out among the library community, only it would have been even more riddled with rumors and falsehoods than the Twitter stream itself. An open communications channel may invite those with an ax to grind and other anonymous online agents provocateur, but I believe that transparency will always carry the day on its own merits. Despite the initial fear and subsequent controversy, look at the myriad discussions that have been inspired by our Town Hall Meetings.

I have always argued quite passionately with my colleagues that whether or not the Harvard Library regards the rest of the library world when it thinks, plans, or acts, the rest of the world is always watching us. The events of the past few weeks have vindicated my belief, and suggest that librarians and library staff everywhere consider themselves stakeholders in our Library Transition-- a humbling, terrifying, wonderful thought. I still believe that we are capable of transforming our great but centuries-old library system into a model research library for the 21st century and beyond, but this requires engagement and a willingness to lead from our administration as much as it demands patience, enthusiasm, and optimism from the rest of us.


Chris Bourg said...

Fantastic post Tom ... although I may not forgive you for inserting Billy Joel into my head on a Monday morning.

Sebastian said...

Great post! The silence from the upper echelons is very puzzling.

In the absence of information, information will be created.

Rebecca said...

Well stated Tom, I'll offer Kenny Loggin's "Keep the Fire Bright" as encouragement to my friends and former colleagues.