We Need to Take the Blinders Off
where is our future? Thousands of mortgage foreclosures! Red ink flowing from all the major financial institutions! This crisis in the financial markets was not the only distressing phenomena affecting millions of people in 2007. We also heard repeated stories of unsafe toys! Scores of offending companies, thousands of recalled toys, hundreds of thousands of parents disturbed and surprised. These two upsetting series of events were major news stories at the end of 2007, and for good reason.
... or good reason. Millions of people were affected in serious ways. Many faced the possibility of losing their homes; others could not get a loan to purchase the home they had planned for. Many others worried about their economic futures as the stock markets teetered and prognosticators talked of a recession. With regard to toys, the likelihood that a plaything could harm one's children sent worried parents in searches through bedrooms and toy chests. With so many of our fellow citizens in jeopardy and with implications for almost all of us, concern and surprise was widespread. Concern-Yes. Surprise-Huh! How could anyone have been surprised by these turns of events? If loans are made to people who have limited ability to pay back, should there be surprise if many don't? Higher rates of return induce mortgage companies to make risky loans with the expectation that the majority of the loans will be paid. A higher failure rate than expected will bring disappointment, but surprise? Similarly with toys. When I found that the workmanship on a toy I bought from a manufacturer in another country was less than what I found in U.S. products, I was surprised and disappointed. I was disappointed that I did not pay more attention. But should I have been surprised? I bought cheap, and I paid for it. Do We Act as Though We Have Blinders On? We often are surprised because we go forward as if we have blinders, as if there are only a few factors to weigh in our decision making. This tendency can cause major disrup-tions in our lives, professional as well as personal. Consider this description of something that might have happened in the 1990s. A public library in a medium-size Midwestern city begins a year with high expectations. It has the support of the city administration, a board with little turnover, a history of involvement without undue influence, and a set of successful programs. With this support in place, adequate budgets are certain, and the library administration and staff comfortably focus on daily operations and program development. Then, upon opening her morning paper the library director sees, "Teens Viewing Pornography in the Public Library." As a controversy develops, community support for the library wanes. If library personnel had foreseen the emergence of this issue in their community and planned without public pressure and the need for immediate action, it is likely that its negative effect could have been reduced. But they did not. They were surprised. But how could they have been surprised? The problem of easy access to pornographic websites had been in the library press and was a topic at ALA conventions. Sound familiar? If this little story does not resurrect a late-1990s bad memory, it is likely that it can remind of a bad situation for which there were overlooked hints before it exploded into the lives of a library's managers-the appearance of a problem followed by, "Why didn't we see this coming?" "How could we not have been ready?" "Why didn't we keep our eyes open?" Yes, why didn't mortgagees think about future higher payments? Why did bankers act as though the collapse of the building bubble predicted for a least a couple of years would not happen? With regard to bankers, the most common answer is greed, which clouded rationality. But how about when we, library managers, fail to pick up clues that are there to be seen? The human condition? Too much concern for the short term, for quick results? Paying too much attention to obvious problems? I don't know why we are periodically surprised when we should not have been, but I know it happens and often has a serious negative effect on a library's success.