May 22, 2022

Lessons From the River, #1: Indecision is a Decision

In the late 1970s I was primarily guiding on the Stanislaus River — the famous “Camp Nine” stretch. This was nine miles of some of the best Class III whitewater in the state, if not the nation. At one point it winds past a nearly 1,000 foot cliff of gray-green limestone rock. Oak and madrone trees dot the river bank amidst dry grass, manzanita and poison oak. Sandy beaches and great campsites were plentiful, and a creek three miles down from put-in provided an excellent swimming and lunch location.

This was all before it was dammed and flooded by a reservoir, which is another story. Read this book if you’re interested.

When you learn to be a river guide you learn that the two biggest things to avoid are flipping the boat (turning it upside and dumping everyone in the water) and “wrapping” the boat. In a “wrap”, the boat literally wraps itself around a rock and is trapped there by the downstream water pressure.

On this stretch is a rapid called WidowMaker. The entrance to the rapid sends you directly toward a huge boulder that you must miss. You can always go left of this rock, but at the right water level there is a really sweet little channel to the right. If you hit this right, the boat slides between the boulder and a rock wall on shore and it really impresses the passengers. However, there must be enough water or else you could get lodged there.

The problem is that you can’t get a good look at the channel until you drop into the rapid, which means you must decide right away whether you are going to take the channel to the right or not. As an inexperienced guide in my first season I made the mistake of hesitating. The result was that the boat came up sideways against the rock and was wrapped (see photo).

That day I learned the important lesson that doing nothing can be a decision. Also that sometimes it really doesn’t matter what you decide so long as you decide and act.

So let’s bring this around to libraries. Although most of our decisions are not of the variety I describe above, it is still possible to delay a decision until it is too late to matter. Also, if you’re agonizing over a choice between two decent alternatives, perhaps you shouldn’t be agonizing at all. The important thing might be to just get on with it. For some decisions at least, forging ahead can be a lot more effective than wasting time considering trivial differences between paths.


Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. I’m really enjoying your lessons from the river so far. This particular lesson is one that I think I should have printed on a poster and hang it up in my office. It can be so easy to wait, hoping that the decision will be made for you, or will become easier. But even waiting to decide IS a decision, with consequences of its own.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of this series.

  2. Thanks, Laura, I hope you are half as interested to read them as I am to write them. I like the idea of revisiting the lessons and how I learned them. Also in making them relevant to libraries today.