The Purpose Driven Librarian

What makes a good public librarian? Purpose.

Over cocktails with colleagues last night, I got to thinking a bit deeper about what makes librarians good at their jobs. We discussed several points. The principle quality being a person who puts the community before self. I always say that I’m done doing more than my fair share, but I can’t stop myself from overachieving and striving to make things better for my patrons (and my neighbors).

It very much concerns me when other librarians consistently focus on self first through dedicating excessive time to library organizations. Participation in such groups is a great extracurricular activity, but not at the expense of dedication to one’s job and community. You want to impress me? Tell me a story about someone you impacted today. Because none of this is about you.

Anyone who more readily cites her/his involvement in national or state library organizations before s/he references involvement within their town’s organizations is a HUGE red flag. Instead of bragging about how many hours you’ve spent sitting through library association committee meetings, tell me about how much time you’ve spent sitting through a local organization’s or association’s meetings.

The best hires I’ve had rarely use “I” or “me.” As a profession, we need to get better about encouraging public librarians to be more selfless. In theory we all are, but we don’t always see it. Too many in this profession have tunnel vision toward being a supervisor or director as the end all be all. That’s not a helpful trait for running a productive, effective public service.

No matter what town you serve, your job as a public librarian is to improve the lives of its residents. If you’re career objectives do not align with this, you should consider a switch to the private sector. Only those who are driven to serve the public and put its needs first will truly serve a purpose.

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“Your” Librarian

An incredible thing happened tonight. One of my favorite library trustees and patrons told me that I’m known as “our Chelsea” around the building where she lives.

For someone with a goal to be known as “your librarian” in town, it was magical to hear. I’ve only worked for this community for a little over two years. I still have a long way to go when you consider how many residents have yet to be infected with my doctrine. (Side note: Peter Shankman’s Zombie Loyalists is a must read for anyone with the same goal.)

I want to believe that most public librarians are driven to this profession due to a personal urgency to be of value to a community. But I rarely see it. Yes, we have to deal with unfortunate situations –  mental illness, porn on computers, surprise poop on the floor (not a joke) – on a daily basis. Sometimes you have to turn to wine or you’ll surrender to the dark side. If we make it our personal missions to effect the lives of our patrons, however, the end result provides the perfect balance that will steel us for the frustrating episodes of serving the public.

So it may seem insignificant, but a minor comment like this makes a librarian feel that much more connected to the provided services. And thank you chocolates. We love those.

Revamping a profession

To quote a friend: “I don’t understand why a field that hinges upon continuous information turnover and constant education is being headed by so many people who hate technology and hate learning.”

There does seem to be at least one librarian in every organization for which this is an accurate statement. It really don’t make any sense. Why do these folks choose this industry? To sit around staring at books? As I’ve said before, down with the seat-fillers!

I, for one, love learning. When asked about my knowledge and interest in fundraising today, my first thought was, I can’t wait to research and learn more about effective ways to contribute to major fundraising efforts. Education shouldn’t be intimidating. Those who feel it is are only a hindrance to our profession’s efforts at making lifelong learning an innate process throughout the human experience.

Humans are just animals after all. They can all smell fear. If we continue to allow staff to shy away from their own development as librarians, we’ll scare off those who are gingerly exploring their own educational progress.

To prevent your own decline and to help your colleagues, explore this page developed by the ALA for topics in staff development: http://www.ala.org/tools/atoz/staff-development . Keep learning please. Let’s revamp this situation.

Resilience makes a successful professional

I like to think of myself as a resilient person. Yes, things frustrate me. Often. There are days and even weeks when I want to cash in my chips and go home. But overall, I enjoy my profession and want to succeed–if only for the fact that my job has the capability to help change someone’s life.

Our library, along with hundreds of others across the country, is undergoing rapid changes both physically and in the services we offer. It seems like libraries were stagnant for a bit, and we’re all trying to squeeze in what should have been years of gradual progress.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially for those who have worked in libraries for decades. There’s a natural fear that comes with reassignments and complete job facelifts. None of the demands that library leaders insist on are meant to discourage or force longtime staff out, despite what it may seem.

I don’t believe that anyone is born resilient. While some of us may appear to be tough cookies, most of that hard shell was developed over time. It takes practice to build the character that enables us to say, “Well this is a sh*tty situation, but I will overcome and be stronger for it.”

While searching for some articles to share with a staff member who has shared her concern and frustration with me over the months, I stumbled upon this: http://www.liscareer.com/hourston_resilience.htm

This article gives some great resilience tips :

  • Change happens: bring it on!
  • Relationships and support: ask for help!
  • Perspective: is the glass really half-empty?
  • Be brave! Believe in yourself
  • Know yourself and take care of yourself

Most professionals cannot expect to remain in the same role throughout the duration of their careers. I think it’s easier for young worker-bees like myself to navigate these waters because we expect that. So while older library staff have decades of experience that we can learn from, it is our job to co-mentor by openly practicing and sharing these strategies for accepting change.

So here’s to the many metamorphoses we will all encounter and librarians building the resilience to survive and thrive.

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Libraries Transforming Communities

Here’s a great article with a Q&A from one of the initiative’s participant libraries:

“Turning Outward”: How Well Do You Know Your Community?
Thu, 07/17/2014
Editor’s Note: Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) — an initiative of the American Library Association — seeks to strengthen librarians’ roles as core community leaders and change-agents by sharing tools to help them “turn outward,” an approach developed by the The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. All of these resources are available, free of charge, on the LTC website.
Libraries around the country are already putting the “turning outward” approach to work in their communities. Alice Knapp is director of user services at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, Conn.; in October 2013, she attended a Harwood Public Innovators Lab. Here, Knapp tells ALA about her library’s experience with “turning outward.”…

Earlier this year, I toyed with the idea of submitting our library to take part in this. Unfortunately, the time demands were pretty high. Maybe next year (if it gets continued…). It seems like a great way to redirect the focus of library services for continuity.

Be respectful when using the 1st Amendment, i.e. don’t be a jerk

2014-07-01 09Our library recently installed a 4’x4′ veggie and herb garden. While small, it notates the nutritional benefits of the plants in the garden and gives those without means the opportunity to see and taste fresh produce. We also plan to use the garden as a jumping-off point for healthy eating programming. Obesity is an epidemic and our library is happy to support nutritional education.

One patron apparently disagrees. Following our eNewsletter that included a photo of the new garden, we received a nasty email in response: “Wow… a 16 square foot vegetable and herb garden!   That’s absolutely idiotic.”

I responded by thanking him for the feedback, reasserting the purpose of the garden, and welcoming him to continue giving us feedback so we can effectively serve *every* member of our community. Just because you don’t practice healthy eating or care about the kids in our community, doesn’t mean that you should vehemently insult us.

Being a reference librarian, I naturally looked up who this guy was. Turns out that there are a thousand stereotypes that I could probably say about this patron, but it is not up to me to judge his interests. As librarians, we support all forms of information and education. It’s just a shame that he thinks the library should only align with his beliefs.

The patron has also not responded to my reply. Funny how often people are eager to attack online with sarcasm, but rarely step up to have a legitimate discussion. If it’s a bad idea, tell us why. We’ll listen and adjust if necessary. But we certainly won’t adjust simply because you’re an ass.

[P.S. I’m amazed at how many folks are even more upset than I am about this email. Anywhere from “I can’t believe someone would do that” to “he should be put in the ground.” Cheers to free speech.]

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It’s ok to ask for help

10396270_10152099290792711_2599338314054000022_nOverheard a couple arguing this week in front of me. The guy was saying that they could just use Google and didn’t need to swing by the Reference Desk; the woman disagreed. I told him that it’s true if you’re looking up a phone number or some basic information. If he’s doing research, I reminded him that anyone can publish something online and that my job is to help evaluate the good from the BS.

The man signed onto a computer to search while the woman let me look up information on a medical procedure. Guess who found reliable, relevant information while someone else was still browsing around the .coms?

Yes, accessibility to information has become more widespread, and yes, we’re in a do-it-yourself culture. But at what point will this attitude start to dismantle our ability to form a community?