v31#6 Epistemology — Building Relationships

by | Feb 28, 2020 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  T. Scott Plutchak  (Librarian, Epistemologist, Birmingham, Alabama) 
http://tscott.typepad.com

“Why is Nonai still having meetings if he’s retired?”  That’s Josie, the 14 year old granddaughter, downstairs talking to Lynn.  I’m up in my study getting ready for another Zoom call.  Despite being retired I’m still involved with a few scholcom projects and there’s a meeting for one or another of them every week or so.  I’m in my comfy chair with a fresh cup of coffee. I do a quick check of the lights to make sure the lamp isn’t reflecting too brightly off my bald head.  

Zoom’s the platform of choice these days, at least among the people that I’m working with.  It’s efficient, easy to learn, has enough features to make managing a meeting easy. I’ve gone through several different platforms in the years since “teleconferencing” came to mean something more than straining to listen to a disembodied voice or two coming through a speakerphone in the middle of a conference table.

When videoconferencing systems first emerged, the hype was that they’d replace physical meetings.  No more flying from one city to another, dealing with cabs and hotels and expensive conference food.  Techno-hype is always like that. That’s why we no longer have movie theaters or radio or live orchestral performances or printed books.  The new technologies have replaced all of those things. Right.

When the breathless predictions die down we start to sort out what the new technologies can do better and what the old ones still have the advantage of.  History proceeds, as it always does, in a wobbling spiral, never in a straight line.  

Despite the ease and efficiency of online meetings, nobody suggests anymore that in-person conferences are going away.  As Alice Meadows pointed out recently, there seem to be more all the time.1  It turns out there is something irreplaceable about getting people together in person.

The Charleston Conference is a splendid example of that.  Bigger every year, overstuffed and unwieldy, tantalizing, energizing, and exhausting, it occupies a singular spot in the lives of thousands of the people who care deeply about the roles that librarians and publishers and the people working for the various vendors play.  I had an excellent reason for missing the conference this year, but it’s the one professional meeting that I expect to keep attending. There are relationships that I’ve built there that have had an indelible impact on me, and it’s for maintaining those relationships and building new ones that it remains important to me, retirement notwithstanding.

The Medical Library Association’s annual conference held pride of place in my professional life for over twenty years, but it’s quite a different sort of affair.  Health sciences librarianship comprises a wide array of settings and roles, but the MLA meeting is inevitably narrower in scope than Charleston.  It’s a place for librarians to confer and consult and further relationships with others who are fundamentally like them, who share, to a considerable degree, a similar outlook.  The vendors and publishers stay in the exhibit hall while the librarians sit in presentations and workshops and committee meetings populated entirely by other librarians.

At Charleston, by contrast, I’m often mingling with people who occupy very different roles in my professional world and have very different perspectives.  In one of the first presentations I ever gave at Charleston I was bitingly critical of a policy on retracted publications that had been developed by Elsevier.  The first person to raise his hand during the Q&A introduced himself and said, “I’m the person who wrote that policy.”  We had a tense (and I’m sure quite entertaining) five minute exchange where I was forced to defend my criticism while he did more explanation of how the policy came to be, acknowledging that it was a work in progress.

That was Michael Mabe, who went on to lead the STM Association.  He and I became friends and Michael opened many doors leading to other relationships with dedicated professionals who helped me broaden my vision.  This wouldn’t have happened on a webinar.

Where relationship building at conferences has often occurred is the hotel lobby bar, but that illustrious tradition is fading.  I was in Savannah recently to see some friends who were attending a regional conference. We were sitting in the bar after the welcome reception.  There was a gaggle of librarians down at one end, but no other conference attendees in sight. One of us commented that in years past the place would’ve been full.  People would’ve come out after the reception for one more over-priced drink with their friends and in the process been introduced to other folks they hadn’t known or known well and relationships would’ve been forged and furthered.  I’d been noticing the same absences for the past few years. Where is everybody? Surely they’ve not all gone back to their rooms already. Someone astutely pointed out that in the age of social media it’s easy to find more interesting local watering holes and text a few friends to find places to meet up.  Tweet out the location. The hotel bar isn’t required as a central gathering place anymore. That same relationship building is going on, but in more hospitable surroundings with cheaper drinks. 

There’s a similar phenomenon with my granddaughter who, like the majority of her peers, spends a great deal of her time on her phone.  They get criticized for this and while some of the criticism is on point, the concerns that the kids are isolating themselves and not socializing enough is the opposite of true.  I hear her in the guest room when she’s at our house. She’s doing FaceTime with a friend. They’re gossiping, doing homework, making videos, all while keeping a running group chat going with others.  If I’ve a grandparently concern it’d be that there’s too much socializing going on and she doesn’t spend enough time alone with just her own thoughts for company.  But then, I’m an extreme introvert and she, emphatically, is not. Her facility for maintaining relationships digitally is an extension of getting together with her friends in person.  Even when she’s not with them, she’s with them.

When I started working in academic libraries thirty years ago, one of the most important relationships for many librarians was with their subscription agent.  Librarians didn’t deal with many publishers directly. This was before the big deal and months-long haggling over licenses. The subscription agent was the critical intermediary.  You built a long-term relationship with your local account rep and rightly believed they were working on your behalf. The publishers setting prices were shadowy background figures.  You didn’t need to have relationships with them because you established a strong bond of trust with your rep.

The agents had to work just as hard at developing relationships with the publishers as they did with the librarians, but this web started breaking down with licensing and big journal packages.  Elsevier insisted that librarians negotiate with them directly and other publishers followed.  The agents scrambled, trying to take on the role of negotiators for their clients, but they were largely unsuccessful.  The Association of Subscription Agents collapsed and many small firms, particularly European, folded.  Those that remain can still provide an important service when the pricing of a publisher’s offerings is fairly static, but negotiating the big deals and packages that consume so much of the budget requires librarians and publishers to come face-to-face.  And they have no history of relationships to build on. Nothing on which to establish trust. That mistrust between librarians and publishers damages the mission of libraries more than anything else I can think of.  

My granddaughter knows that you can’t build trust relationships without contact IRL.  She and her friends use their screens to extend their relationships. They can widen the circle.  But the close relationships, the trusted relationships, are built in person. Trust is fragile. It can be broken online.  It can’t be repaired there.

When Lynn was a VP with EBSCO, part of her job was to take people like me (a library director) out to dinner.  She’d invited me several times when we were at the same conferences before I said yes.  During that dinner we said not a word about journal acquisitions. Her job wasn’t to sell me something — it was to establish a relationship.  (That our relationship has turned into a 25 year marriage is a tactic she only used once).

There are two major conferences in the US where librarians and publishers come together as equals — Charleston and the annual meeting of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.  Too many librarians still see SSP as a publishers conference, but the leadership has taken great pains to be inclusive of everyone interested in scholarly publishing.  Certainly librarians can benefit from attending and getting involved.

Charleston is a library conference, but it’s not a librarian conference;  a distinction sadly missed by too many of the attendees.  Too many librarians don’t take advantage of the opportunities afforded there to spend more time with publishers outside of the sessions.  There’s a lot of mingling, but still not enough relationship building. There’s a barrier created by that lack of trust.

Many years ago I was one of the panelists for a program that SSP ran every year — a meet the librarians thing.  We were five librarians with an audience of forty or so who worked in publishing.  The Q&A was great, but what stuck with me the most was the conversations over lunch.  It was the first time I’d ever just hung out with publishers. They were passionate. They were curious.  Most importantly, they cared about the same things I did, but their perspective was fascinatingly different.  That lunch changed my life.

Why do we know what we think we know?  How do we unlearn the platitudes that keep us from being creative?  When I stopped thinking of publishers as adversaries and started openly listening, I became better at negotiating with them.  I became better at disagreeing. I became better at solving problems. Better at relating.

The relationships that we build and maintain are the foundation for all of the good work that we manage to do.  Our screens have become an invaluable aid, but the bedrock remains sitting together, breaking bread, sharing a drink, telling our stories, listening.  

Endnotes:

1.  Meadows, Alice.  “Room for one more? (Conference, that is)” The Scholarly Kitchen. December 9, 2019.  https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2019/12/09/room-for-one-more-conference-that-is/

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