Responding to rapid change: an interview with Callan Bignoli and Lauren Stara

In the face of shifting circumstances and an ever-widening constellation of challenges, plotting a sustainable way forward for libraries depends upon recommitting ourselves to our underlying values, such as customer service and community-building, while fostering the improvements that change makes possible. Noted speakers and library consultants Callan Bignoli and Lauren Stara offer a holistic framework for setting or resetting strategic priorities in their new book Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience Approach. In this interview, they discuss the current and future difficulties related to the pandemic, how they practice self-care in these stressful times, and their advice for libraries as we look ahead to the next few years. 

First, congrats on the book! I’m sure that when you first agreed to write a book about rapid change, you never could have pictured the challenges that exploded in 2020 and continue to affect us now. Did that require you to recalibrate your approach to writing and revising the book?

a photo of authors Callan Bignoli and Lauren StaraCallan Bignoli: The idea for the book initially came together in the summer of 2019, and yes, the rapid changes we initially had in mind were nowhere near the level of what 2020 presented. We did make some significant edits to our draft as we were wrapping it up right around the time when lockdown in the U.S. began. It seemed disingenuous and inaccurate to publish a book in 2020 with no mention of COVID-19, especially given its impacts on the library world.

Lauren Stara: We talked about it and decided that our core tenet of flexibility in services, spaces, and philosophy holds true and is even more important during a time of crisis such as this, so we were confident that our basic message was still valid.

Callan Bignoli: With deeply held values and user needs aligned with library goals and services, we can withstand much of what the changing world throws at us. We just need to remain creative, flexible, and open to what the library can be. A friend of mine said this during the beginning of the pandemic and I keep coming back to it to center my own approach: "The library isn't closed; it's just somewhere else right now."

You reiterate again and again that change is disruptive but can also be an incredible force for good. What are a few of your favorite real-world examples of that?

Lauren Stara: I again reference the global pandemic—I think many of the innovations that were forced on us in the last year will continue after COVID-19 is a memory. In particular, the way libraries and librarians embraced digital platforms was long overdue. Videoconferencing has made it possible for a huge number of people to continue working while staying safe at home. We’ve been talking about easy videoconferencing for decades, but the technology has now come into its own and has been embraced by a large percentage of the population. From my perspective of facility and space design, I believe curbside services are here to stay—it is far too convenient and popular for the public to let go of it after this. We have to incorporate this as well as more outdoor programming spaces into our libraries.

Callan Bignoli: This is kind of a weird one, but what the heck. My hometown in upstate New York was devastated by historic floods again and again between 2006-2011. One of the businesses that was destroyed during that time was a movie theater, part of a large national chain. When the theater was being rebuilt, the chain decided to prototype its new reclining chairs there, which were a huge success and started to pop up at theaters across the country. It was a very small silver lining to be sure, but it was a nice surprise for the community, solidly in "flyover country," to be "the first" with any new development like that.

Having to navigate constant change can lead straight to burnout. What are some personal techniques for self-care that you find helpful?

Callan Bignoli: The main things that restore me are exercise (in particular, long walks right now so I don't spend my entire life inside my apartment or the library), reading, and listening to music. I think everyone has to define what works for themselves, but I'll throw out one broadly applicable piece of advice, too. Turn off your work email/Slack/etc. notifications as soon as your workday is done. Don't set an example of responding to communications from work at times when you should be relaxing. This is more important than ever in a time when those of us working remotely are contending with a total context collapse between work and home life.

Lauren Stara: I believe that keeping a regular schedule as much as possible is important. Building in regular exercise and eating habits are essential. Having a few trusted colleagues that you can vent with is also great. Talking about work with family and friends is fine but having people who understand the issues and can validate you or play devil’s advocate, reminding you that there’s another side to the story, helps to ground you in reality.

book cover for Responding to Rapid Change in Libraries: A User Experience ApproachThinking about sustainability and flexibility, and the reverberating effects of the pandemic, what advice do you have for libraries as we look ahead to the next few years?

Lauren Stara: We are at a real turning point for libraries. When things get back to some semblance of “normal,” it would be easy to put it all behind us and return to the same old practices and routines. On the other hand, we can use this time as a springboard to a whole new version of librarianship, with a more flexible and user-centered approach. Before reinstating business as usual, think about whether or not each service and practice is relevant and necessary. We’ve added a lot of new services in the last year, and I firmly believe that we can’t just keep adding more and more to our plates. The public and our funders need to understand that doing more with less is not an option.

Callan Bignoli: I like this question because it's not asking for predictions! The main advice I have for libraries is that it's long past time for us to realign our stated values with our actual practice. Two main examples of this come to mind: if we are truly defenders of patron privacy, we need to hold our vendors to higher standards of accountability and to push back on surveilling technologies that have sprung up in response to COVID (such as proctoring software and productivity-monitoring tech in the workplace). If we truly believe in access and inclusion for all, we need to 1) frame our arguments for intellectual freedom within a social responsibility context and with attention paid to power imbalances, and 2) commit to diversity and inclusion efforts in a way that isn't just making or signing onto affirmative statements, but instead challenging and holding ourselves accountable for actions that have undermined those efforts. To quote a recent call for proposals from the Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship, "[T]he 'growing chasm between our stated values and practices' is 'ultimately alienating library workers.'"

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