Mind the gap

When I had been with OCLC for a few months, I was asked to do a keynote presentation to the biannual JISC/CNI conference. The topic was the difference between US and UK library environments. A topic I was not especially prepared for ;-)

I thought I would frame discussion with some more general remarks. I asked the library if they had anything available which would provide some starting points. They were helpful; most of what came back were books aimed at business travelers. These provided occasionally interesting comment, but frequently fell back on the stereotypical and archaic.

They did not really get at what I wanted; I did have a quick look for some more academic materials but did not turn up anything digestible in the small amount of time I had.

I recently came across Brit-think, Ameri-think: a transatlantic survival guide [Aamazon] [Worldcat] by Jane Walmsley, a US-born journalist who has married an English man and is a long-time resident of the UK. In her preface, she notes:

The longer I stay, the more aware I become that we are very different peoples, grown far apart since 1776. I submit that the so-called special relationship between Britain and America is now one part history and one part wishful thinking. Sure, Yanks love London, and Brits watch Friends, and everybody eats at McDonald's, but that's not the point. We have developed separate attitudes and aspirations, which I classify as Brit-think and Ameri-think.
The book is light in tone: it is humorous cultural generalization. It covers a range of topics and is, I think, often insightful. That said, I also often resisted what she said, or disagreed with her emphasis. Perhaps that is inevitable with any reader!

The leitmotif of the book is a schematic and necessarily reductive distinction between an individualistic i-think that she feels is characteristic of the US, and a more collective we-think that she feels characterizes the UK (although she mostly talks about England, and even then appears mostly to be influenced by London). This is not a political distinction, although it is manifest in political preferences.

Of course, the book's strengths (humorous cultural generalization) are also its faults (humorous cultural generalization). It avoids, for example, attitudes to race and immigration, or to social welfare, and it is in danger of trivializing or ignoring deep differences. Attitudes to religion or patriotism come to mind.

I enjoyed reading it, although I felt she was rather unfair to what she calls the 'brits', overemphasizing their resistance to change and inaction. Again, others will have different reactions.

Nevertheless, I thought it a very valuable read. It focuses on differences in culture and values, differences not always apparent to the tourist or in intermittent business exchanges. But these differences are much more important than surface issues like which fork to use or whether business casual is acceptable dress.

Update: links to Amazon, Worldcat, Identities inserted/amended.

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