Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Rock Stars and Superheroes

"I don't need to be a library rock star- a library superhero will suffice."

This was one of my status updates yesterday on Facebook and Twitter.  For those of you not in on the joke, there's been a lot of back and forth in the library community as to whether or not librarians should strive to be 'rock stars'.  Proponents say that in an age of ever-declining fortunes for institutions such as libraries, librarians need to be larger than life in order to advocate for their future (also, rock stars are cool);  the naysayers, however, counter that such self-aggrandizement may benefit individual librarians but ultimately shifts the focus away from the libraries, their collections, and most importantly the patrons whom they serve.

I am firmly of the opinion that librarians need to bring all of the Awesome they possibly can at this critical juncture for our profession, and if that means turning librarians into the new celebrity chefs so be it-- they can even be hipsters from Brooklyn, as 9 out of 10 Food Network stars inevitably are these days.  And I must admit, the allure of library rockstardom has always captured my imagination as well.  Come on, who wouldn't want to be the Elvis Costello or Amanda "Fucking" Palmer of librarians?  Alas, becoming a library superstar is more difficult than it appears, as library conference budgets aren't quite what they used to be and we're already a fairly prolific community in the blogosphere and elsewhere in cyberspace.

That it is difficult to stand out in a field with such dynamic and thought-provoking company as (just to name a few) Andy Woodworth, Jenica Rogers, Joe Murphy, Amy Buckland, and the incomparable Will Manley should not be a cause for despair, however, but one for celebration*.  If the secret to a good life is keeping good company, then we as librarians should consider ourselves very fortunate, indeed, to have one of the best damned peer groups in any profession I know of.  Besides, even if we can't all be rock stars, we can still be superheroes.

Full disclosure:  I have been wrestling with the issue of job satisfaction for the better part of the last year.  While objectively my position seems to be a perfect fit for my skills, aptitude, and prior experience, I couldn't help but increasingly feel that something important was missing from what I was doing.  Needless to say, this prompted quite a bit of soul-searching, as well as a job search that resulted in a callback and even a second interview.  Though ultimately I did not get the job offer, simply going through the process as far as I did-- both intellectually and emotionally-- finally helped me clarify the root issues that were causing my discontent:

1.  Libraries need managers who will inspire their staff, now more than ever.  Whenever I talk to librarian colleagues and library support staff, either in my own workplace or elsewhere, I can't help but discern a common theme: "This used to be a lot more fun."  You know what?  It still can and should be fun.  Let's face it, librarianship is one of the most absurd occupations under the sun, a vocation that has improbably called scholars, scribes, and cat devotees since the days of Ancient Alexandria (and earlier).  We get to purvey spiritual goods in a material world, with an ecumenical philosophy that puts most organized religions to shame.  Librarianship isn't just a job, it's a way of life.  When we fail to celebrate what makes this profession special, we not only fail our fellow professionals, but those who work for us as well.

2.  Assessment is critical, but it's not a substitute for leadership.  Please don't get me wrong here-- I am in no way, shape, or form against assessment of library services.  My particular field (resource sharing) is particularly awash in data, and I use every tool available at my disposal in order to foster a culture of continuous improvement among my staff and colleagues.  Every librarian should know how to work their mojo with pivot tables in Excel and coax the statistics they need out of a SQL server, and we must do a much better job at training would-be librarians at how to use the data they obtain and present it to various audiences and stakeholder groups so as to obtain the maximum desired effect.  Even the best-derived numbers cannot possibly prepare you for the unknown, however, and retreating behind wall after wall of metrics is just a nerdier way of circling the wagons.  Sometimes leaps of faith are called for-- assessment may get you to the precipice and may even tell you how far you need to go to get to the other side, but leadership is what you need to get your organization to actually make that jump.

3.  Librarianship is about listening, sharing, and helping--  i.e., being a superhero.  Not too long ago I did something I haven't done in ages:  I opened up my Gmail folder containing all of the ILL listserv posts I was automatically archiving and never reading.  In the process of getting caught up  I noticed that someone was asking for assistance tracking down a fairly obscure citation in a foreign journal that I was pretty sure we should own, given the language and subject matter.  Sure enough we do have the periodical in question, and not only was I able to provide my colleague with the correct citation but a PDF of the article as well.  Even before the other librarian had a chance to thank me I was already glowing.  How could have I possibly forgotten how good it feels simply to help someone out of the blue?

We're all so busy grinding through our daily workflows, monthly statistics, and annual reports that it's easy to lose sight of what makes our job so awesome:  listening to people who are in need of information, navigating our library's resources in order to locate that one all-important thing, then sharing it, not for profit or personal advancement but for the expansion of human knowledge and the simple joy of sharing.  If you can imagine that exact feeling I'm describing and consider it one of the most wonderful things in the universe, then you might just be a librarian yourself.  Since then I've tried not to end my workday without finding a way to commit at least one random act of kindness, and I've found myself infinitely more energized as a librarian as a result.  I dare you to try it yourself...  there's always room for another library superhero.

* Andy, Jenica, Joe, Amy, and Will-- you are all both library rock stars and superheroes in my book!  Keep doing what you're doing, as you have no idea how many of us in the field look to you for inspiration.

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