Library as Tümmler: Party hard! Work hard?

Posted by jlubans on October 31, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

I first picked up on the term tümmler from a delightful off-Broadway play this summer. In the play – set prior to his international fame - Danny Kay winces when told by his agent – soon to be his wife – that she has found a great job for him, as a tümmler at a Catskills resort. The job is to keep the guests happy, to be “on” all the time, a sort of social director, roving comedian and jester, all in one. Not exactly the nightly headliner.
As it happened, one of my bed time readings on that same New York visit happened to be the "What happened to studying?" story by Keith O’Brien in the Boston Globe.
He suggests what we, in the library, and the admissions office and parents like to believe: “It is a fundamental part of college education: the idea that young people don’t just learn from lectures, but on their own, holed up in the library with books and, perhaps, a trusty yellow highlighter.”
Unfortunately, Mr. O’Brien shatters our rose-colored glasses: “You won’t hear this from the admissions office, but college students are cracking the books less and less.”
O’Brien explores recent longitudinal research studies and reveals that: “the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours”. Yes, a ten-hour per week drop-off. It does seem the much vaunted campus adage is now only half true: Play Hard! Study Hard?

O’Brien barely mentions library use, but as I read his article, I found myself wondering about the library’s role in this precipitous decline. How are we dealing with it? Starting in the 90s, I exposed a rapid downward escalation in the numbers of students served at the reference desk. The library I worked at was not unique in this finding. It was national. I attributed this phenomenon to stand-alone CD databases, the rise of the Internet search engine, and the WWW. Now, I wonder if the ever-diminishing hours students lucubrate (see the illustration below) was and is an influential factor in non-use of the library.

When, after much wincing and gnashing of teeth, academic librarians finally admitted to the precipitous drop off in library use, they engineered a variety of programs to shore up the customer head count. It proved to be a bonanza for a few architectural firms, particularly those that could convince provosts and presidents that the library was the intellectual emblem of the university’s “brand”, and one that visitors should see and be dazzled by. Overnight, many libraries acquired a country club look, with comfortable furniture and calming club colors – a few would disparage these decorator schemes as more funeral home than classic hotel lobby, but what did they know! The library did become an inviting place – not that it wasn’t inviting enough already for many students of a scholarly bent happy to sit in wooden chairs at wood tables.
So, in our new roles of "user experience director" and jolly-up-the-customer tümmler we jettisoned our food and drink bans and introduced coffee bars, pastry shops, pizza and chicken wing delivery, game nights, movie nights, poetry slams, media centers, around the clock hours, upholstered furniture (for study and sleeping) and the Computer Commons. The last does attract large numbers – free computers and high-speed connections have a tendency to do that. How successful have we been as entertainment directors? Some libraries indicate increases in books borrowed, users served and questions asked. Many are silent.

Well, seven decades ago, Harvie Branscomb envisioned an entirely different role for the library, one that partnered with the teaching faculty in getting students to use more books.*

I was initially drawn to Mr. Branscomb’s “Teaching with Books” because of his un-mincing of words about how the library had been duped into doing what was a classroom teacher’s housekeeping: reserve reading. In a perversion of the library’s admirable core value of Service, we became reserve reading room wardens, and acquired all of the frustrations therein, semester in, semester out. We gave up first floor library real estate, more than a few staff, and part of our collections to serve, in uncertain ways, the artificially induced demand for reserve reading.
Too often we became unwitting scapegoats. I recall being on the end of a speakerphone with an exalted professor who claimed the library had lost his list of reserve readings. The truth was he had never sent it in, but I am sure the students in his office whom he was impressing with his tough talk were nodding about how the library had once again screwed up!
When teachers failed to tell us of new assignments or when they simply forgot to send over lists of new readings, or when a back-busting list of 300 labor law state document readings showed up two days before the start of the semester, guess who got the blame for the delay?
And, in pre-e-reserve days, when users got into tugging matches about which borrower had dibs on a single copy of a wanted reading, we got to be the referee. To this day, even in an era of e-reserves, the unhappy and unclear relationships among teachers, librarians and students continue.

Branscomb was 20-20 in his vision of “Wasted resources in reserves" and the “unclear purpose of assigned readings”. When he asked professors and librarians, he failed to get conclusive answers to his questions: Were reserves essential to the course? or Were they not essential? (P. 57) In his survey of colleges and reserve reading he concluded there was much more ambiguity than certainty about reserve reading. And, many reserve readings were untouched all semester long. Branscomb's studies showed that about half of all reserve items were never used.

Branscomb revealed – in several cases - that when teachers did not use assigned reading, student use of the general collections went dramatically upward, 40 – 50%. The students took out many more books. As we have known for many years, faculty assignments drive library use. But, very likely that increased use that Branscomb found came with a price – faculty involvement with students, reading and commenting on drafts and completed term papers and the time consuming necessity of guiding students through their self-learning discoveries.
O’Brien spells out many reasons for the decline of studying – Internet, extra curricular activities, social media, but the one that rings truest is that there’s been a power shift between faculty and students – if you leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone. O'Brien: "Instead of a dynamic where a professor sets standards and students try to meet them, the more common scenario these days, ..., is one in which both sides hope to do as little as possible." Grade inflation is one indicator of this shift, as are the fear inducing “Rate My Professor” web sites. Because faculty may no longer have the time to teach like they should or once did, the students have less reason to study. Remember, these students are not failing, they are regarded by most as succeeding.

Ithaka's Kate Wittenberg relayed to me the findings of a recent anthropological study about how students study. Researchers followed students while they completed writing assignments. One assignment was to find and discuss recent writing about an economic theory. Some students went only as far as J-STOR, not a current source. When they handed in the paper, the professor gave out A minuses. Not a C or a D for using an inappropriate resource, rather a grade just short of a stand alone A.

In light of the decreased time spend studying, along with grade inflation, Kate is less concerned with how this relates to their jobs than she is with what it may mean for the rest of their lives; a life of reality (vast waster-land) programming, endless hours of You Tube and Facebook updates, Second life living. Lives largely empty of meaning.

Is this irreversible? I have seen enough collaboration between bright librarians and dedicated professors to know that students can be held to high standards and can be taught to write well in many disciplines. Some of these students learn that there are many more resources beyond the Internet, they rub shoulders with books and discover a serendipitous experience, they learn. Those students that are immature, acquire an awareness that there are indeed higher standards and they tuck away vague concepts, authors and book titles for a later time – perhaps decades away - to reflect on who they are and why they are here and what beauty is.

Copyright Boston Globe, 2010.


*Harvie Branscomb, Teaching with Books: A Study of College Libraries, Chicago: ALA 1940 239 pp.

Committing to Magic

Posted by jlubans on October 24, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

It was fortuitous that only a week after leading a workshop in Atlanta on work place coaching – in which I mentioned the peer coaching of the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra*, (pictured above) - I was able to attend a rehearsal by a student orchestra (minus a conductor) coached by a musician from Orpheus!

Martha Caplin, Orpheus violinist, would coach an evening rehearsal of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, "Scottish," by the Manhattan School of Music student orchestra.

While still early, I was one of the last to get to the John C. Borden Auditorium, the School’s main performance space with its over 800 seats. The 25-30 musicians for the Bach piece were already there, either in the seats just below the elevated stage or up on the stage, tuning their instruments. All the energetic droning and sawing suggested to me that the group was wound up and ready to go.

Liz Mahler, the Orpheus coordinator (and a Juilliard graduate violinist), introduced me to Martha. Martha was in a pink bolero jacket – a half smock style and emanated an immediate friendliness, a kindliness approaching what I would call at evening’s end a motherly-ness or the loving ambiance of a favorite aunt.

Liz let me know the orchestra is zeroing in on its Friday performance, three days away! Instead of working a full semester at learning how to select the music, take responsibility for rehearsal and for performance, this student orchestra started at full speed, two weeks ago!

With only two more rehearsals after tonight for their three-piece performance, Liz cautioned me that Martha would intervene more than might be expected in a self managed rehearsal. I wondered how much she would revert to the conductor/leader model.

Unusually, as they began the Bach piece, all the violins were standing, 6 or 8 players in all. When I asked Liz why, she said the standing was unique to this piece, kind of like having multiple soloists.

(As the first bars of Bach’s music filled the hall, I made a note in my journal: “How nice to be here!” My relief probably was in large part due to the bother of getting to NYC; the first few notes of the music were indeed exhilarating and made it all worthwhile.)

To my untrained ear, the students seem to hurry their way through the Bach piece. And, there was no eye contact, each player focused on his or her paper score.

As promised, Martha steps in – in a gentle way. “OK”, says Martha, her violin in hand. “Your tempo is OK; remember this is an overture; you want to let the audience hear what is coming, but your playing should not have a feeling of anxiety." Use “bigger beats”. “Big, big beats”, she demonstrates with her arms, gesturing from her toes up. “(It’s) different from rushing through, rushing ahead. You are right about the enthusiasm (in the music) Yes! BUT, Ahh. Wait for it, the ahhhh for the audience.”

She demonstrates with her violin, light, advises, “listen to the brass”, be in touch all the time." “Already better.”

Martha uses both “adjusting" and "reinforcing" statements” – the ones I talked about in my workshop – to good effect. Her criticism is well balanced, with more pats on the back than asking the players to modify a sound or tempo. Students respond to her, engage with her. There’s a growing comfort, an easy willingness to try stuff, to adjust toward what Martha is telling them she is hearing.

Martha’s now up on stage, alongside the second violin in the middle, playing. Then, back in the center aisle out front of the stage, keeping time, swaying with hands and arms.

She cautions a second time about the anxiety. Then, “Way better”. I can see a concurrent agreement among the players. Now the clarinetist's eyes are in contact with others.

Martha is back on stage, walking in their midst.

She further sets them at ease, describes that their rushing, even running, through the piece, may result in missing, forgetting a nuance, An, “Oh, shit”…moment (Much laughter) of what might have been had we taken it slower. She asks them for “more air, more delighted-ness” in the playing.
Martha moves with the music, displays her fondness for it. Now, a high thumbs up for the group.

A cellist player is out in auditorium, listening. He stops the group and gives feedback to the group.

Another student violinist goes into the auditorium to hear, encourages them to play “like with the knees” to simulate the movement in the playing, the feeling in the music.

“OK”, even I can pick up the added richness to the music by the students' slowing down. More violinist feedback from out front. Martha: “Really good, sounds great.”

There are now six 6 players out listening to the collective sound, “lovely.”
Lots of discussion now, peer coaching going on in every direction.

Martha talks a bit about different ways of playing this piece, two styles; she prefers them to make a “commitment to magic” Martha demonstrates on her violin what THAT sounds like.

I’m picking up layers of sound, as the students fine-tune their instrumental groups. A coming together.

A touch of anxiety reasserts. “Bach, trust him”, encourages Martha. “Listen to the trumpet”. It's silvery smooth sound, glides above the orchestra.

More discussion among the players, only a few do not say anything. In general, highly participatory. “Just try it a bit,” Martha promotes experimentation.
The timpanist speaks up. (A first in my observing rehearsals for several years!) Martha tells whom to listen to for the sound in a particular segment. “Listen to the cello.” “Getting better, just trust it.”

The extra players for the Mendelssohn piece are coming in now. Different students coming in – checking their cell phones instead of talking to each other.

This is a larger musical piece; the winds and brass will be on risers. Tuning up again. There’s a new concertmaster and the person who was the 1st violin in the Bach is now a second fiddle. Martha is side by side with them. Her mannerisms, her gestures, are always encouraging the students, welcoming them to try out something different, to push themselves, Martha’s coaching is more about showing, suggesting, than about telling, directing.

These students want to be coached by someone like Martha. By someone who knows what she is doing. And, they listen to each other!

The orchestra is now double. It starts to play, Martha is gesturing, more up, be involved. (Now it’s slow, draggy). A “dreamy” sequence someone calls it. Soporific, too, I note.

“More subtle” asks Martha. In her feedback, Martha alludes to the sensation of a “heart warming up”.

She asks for more listeners in audience, promoting and prompting their individual roles in giving feedback, being proactive – after all there is no musical director, no conductor to tell them. The winds speak up. There are as many as 4-6 listeners in audience.

The concertmaster acknowledges the 3rd violin, out on the wing of the orchestra. Martha plays alongside the concertmaster, walks over to the winds, side by side. and plays alongside the satellite player on the wing.
Martha models the tempo, tone, and gives them all a reminder about the time – they have until 9:30PM.

She asks, “What do you want to do?” They decide.

Martha tells the brass when to kick in. She stands next to them. “Let’s see what happens. Try it out.” She is a coach/leader, very much in the middle, alongside other leaders. She inspires conversations with her and among other musicians. She demonstrates - quickly always with minimum airtime – no speeches or historical lectures about the music. There’s time and space for peer coaching to take place.

*In chapter 17: “Peer Coaching for the New Library”
of LfM, I elaborate on my “take-aways” from observing several student orchestras learning to play without a conductor. In summary, I saw these as essential elements for the orchestra’s success, and by extension, for the success of any self-managing group:

Collective listening
Time management
Delegation of responsibility
Being prepared
Being proactive
Communication – talking - giving feedback

A Conceptual Companion?

Posted by jlubans on October 17, 2010  •  Leave comment (1)

My book, Leading from the Middle, may soon have a conceptual "companion". While not formally related to LfM, a proposed compilation, entitled Managing in the Middle, is taking shape. This self-designated "grab and go” volume, edited by Robert Farrell and Kenneth Schlesinger, will be all about what it is like managing at the center of the library organization, the locus where real work gets done. Their deadline for contributions is November 1, 2010. Contact them at:


Posted by jlubans on October 06, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

If you can read Croatian, then you might take a look at the latest number of the Croatian Library Association News. Prof. Dorja Mucnjak of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences Library in Zagreb interviewed me in September, 2010 about my "post-departmental library" concept I spoke about at a meeting in Zagreb almost a year ago.


Some background on this lovely logos from Prof. Mucnjak: This script is glagolitic alphabet, old croatian script. Those mentioned letters stand for:

H for Hrvatsko (Croatian)
K for knjiznicarsko (Library/librarian)
D for drustvo (Association)

So now you know Croatian!