Beyond the Bullet Points: Don’t be the mud

I have too much to do to write this post, but this post has to be written.

“I’ve also gotten a sense lately that some working librarians are getting frustrated with constant advocacy, and are starting to believe the hype that libraries/librarians are doomed. How can we change their minds?”

That was part of a comment left on my blog by Topher Lawton, a current (and excellent) student. I share his frustration. Every week I go into my introductory class for librarianship and talk about amazing librarians, big ideas, and the opportunities to shape the future. On a pretty regular basis mostly receptive students tell me “I love it, I get it, but when I go into some libraries, I don’t see it.” There are simply too many librarians that can’t see beyond what they do today to see a brighter tomorrow – or realize that what they do today will shape that future brighter or not.

I am getting tired of the “yeah, but…” questions that seek to ground new ideas and innovations in what those opposed to change call reality. Their reality is in fact their limited view of the world. I am tired of the hand wringing, and committees, and paranoia. I am tired of those who wait for the white knight, or the new app from Silicon Valley that will save us. I am tired of hearing about cataloging backlogs, government bureaucracy, conservative management, the Tea Party, and the other million excuses for resisting change. If your library won’t let you do something, start a blog. If your policy doesn’t allow it change the damn policy.

I am sorry if my frustration is leaking out here, but you have to understand my view. Take every preconceived notion of the library school student – second career woman who loves cats and quiet – and throw it out the window. I see the most amazing people becoming librarians. I see people fresh out of undergraduate degrees (the average age of this year’s class is 25), and lawyers looking to give back to society. I see technologists, and humanists, young and old who have a fever to be a librarian. They are no longer coming to library school to read, or because they are good at crosswords. They are coming into library school to change the world.

Then I see these amazing people run into a librarian who toss the student into the meat grinder of lowered expectations and mediocrity. To be sure not every student will hit this wall. There are a huge number of progressive and supportive library role models, but it only takes one librarian who is pissed off the world has changed to damper the enthusiasm of a new librarian.

Understand if you are a librarian today, these students revere you. They want to be you. You are a role model. I know it’s not your job description, but it’s true. So every snarky comment and your foreboding sense of doom, it has an effect. I am begging you to expand your sense of professional responsibility to mentorship.

I hear, from time to time, that library schools are not preparing graduates for the jobs available. I listen to these critiques closely, and do my best to act upon them. However, understand that you as a working librarian have an equal responsibility here. Are you looking for the skills of yesterday or today? Every conference presentation you give is a classroom. If you don’t get excited about your topic, the students know that – it has an effect. When a student shows up to interview you or look for an internship, you are the most powerful classroom there is. If you don’t think there is a future in the field, get the hell out of the way for those who do.

I have been called (and now wear the title proudly) a pragmatic utopian. I am someone who sees a brighter future, but understands we need to slough through the mud to get there. Here’s the thing, don’t be the mud. As librarians we can and should argue about the shape of the future. We can and should have honest and heated debates on where we want to go now. But if you are convinced that you are the last generation of librarians, that the field is going away, then get on with it and let the folks seeking a better tomorrow get to work.

I have seen glorious librarians. I have seen librarians work in the cloud forests of Costa Rica, and bravely support the revolutions of Egypt. I have seen librarians organize camel caravans to get learning to the remote villages of Africa. I have seen librarians help the homeless, give dignity to the unemployed, inspire students to learn, and save lives of abused women. I have little time for those that would say these librarians are exceptional. To be sure these librarians are brilliant and amazing, but to say that they are exceptional is to say that their work falls outside of the mainstream of our vocation –excepted from the norms. They are not exceptions – they are the yardstick that we must measure ourselves by.

Topher, I wish I had a good answer for you. I wish I had the ability to stop librarians from worrying about their future, but instead go about creating it. I wish I could change the minds of librarians waiting for the end. I can’t…but I will keep trying. And your job is to become a librarian that sees extraordinary as your job description.

15 Replies to “Beyond the Bullet Points: Don’t be the mud”

  1. Hi Dave. Great post. I am trying to share this message in my writings and my presentations. As I am telling colleagues, yes, we have our challenges, but there’s only a crisis if we let it happen. I think another barrier we face is that many librarians are not interested in looking outside the profession for good models we can use to create better library experiences – but there are good ideas in the world of business and we have to get over being resistant to the possibilities. I wrote about this here – or how we can look for examples elsewhere: . I have been advocating, not widely, that I’d like to see more of a design approach philosophy in the LIS curriculum so that the next generation of librarians comes to the profession with a very different way of thinking – that LIS is not about developing the specific skills you need for the workplace, but learning how to take on challenging problems and come up with elegant solutions (of course, we’ll always need for LIS students to learn the basics – but it can be bigger than that – and i’m sure that’s what you try to instill in your students). I hope you might start that conversation in the LIS sphere – would it help to have a design thinking philosophy within the LIS education. That may not help today’s students when they go out to libraries now, but it may make things better for the next generation of library professionals.

  2. As an iSchool student, I’ve been fortunate to be inspired by many of Dave’s rants in the past, but I’ve always been afraid that not enough librarians “in the wild” will have the benefit of his well-directed fanatcism.

    In all seriousness, I do know a good deal of librarians who act as incredible mentors and who support and inspire the up-and-comers. But no one is immune to the way this economic, political or bureacratic environment can make even the best of the profession feel sometimes. I hope this refreshes some attitudes.

  3. Well written and thank you. I am striving in my new job as IT manager to be stay on the leading edge of the new technologies and vast amount of information that is becoming more accessible every day.

    My inspiration these days is my wife’s cousin who has been a career librarian for the UN and the State Department. Her recent posting took her to Kabul, Afghanistan amidst the turmoil there. She and her husband have been posted all over the world including Somalia. Her work has made a difference around the world.

  4. Thanks for this post, Dave! As a future librarian I also appeal to the superhero librarians Dave describes above and plead for them to shove their way onto hiring panels and to greatly outnumber the votes of pessimists who want to hire people in their own image. We future librarians want so much to contribute to the future of libraries and might need a little help from the already-hired superstars to make the case to get us in the door so we can carry out our collective missions. Thank you all in advance!

  5. Yesterday I received my acceptance letter to the online MLIS program at SJSU. I’m middle-aged, this is a second career, but luckily, I HATE cats! And after all these years, I still want to change the world, one middle school student at a time.

    Thanks for the inspiring post!

  6. You have echoed the sentiment of so many of us out here in the field. The negative doomsayers, the dogged book owners, and the cemented circ desk sitters have got to either change their outlook or they need to retire. It is exhausting to keep up the energy, the enthusiasm, and the drive for this profession (for which I am absolutely passionate) when there are those both inside and outside of librarianship that want to proclaim our demise. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Sometimes the truth hurts.

  7. There is so much awesome in this post Dave. This is the kind of post I was trying to write last week, but you said it so much better. I do see a lot of that same negativity, frustration, and hopelessness sometimes in talking with folks. But those views espouse the idea that things are already determined and that we don’t have a choice. It is view that says, “we can’t change the future.”

    But I also see a lot of passion, creativity, enthusiasm, and optimism. There are a lot of librarians doing really amazing things. I was in library school 4 years ago and the folks I hung out with were smart passionate people who wanted to make a difference. I meet tons of folks at conferences who are engaged and have really great ideas. I think you are right. As librarians we have to also be mentors and examples to others and focus on effecting change for the better.

  8. Dave, as always, an excellent post. I’m five years out of Syracuse’s MSLIS program, a public librarian and still fighting on.

    One of my biggest frustrations with my current employer is our outdated management structure. I find it rigid and prohibitive.

    I believe the solution to the concerns raised in your post is management innovation.

  9. Hi.

    This is a great posting – and I will share it with colleges in Canada.

    Part of the issue is that libraries need to start providing a vision. I have been writing about a vision which is coming out of some great work in public libraries in Canada since 2004…

    Community-Led Service planning really moves libraries beyond internal service development – and begins to put the public back into public libraries. This model can also be used in other settings – eg. academic etc.

    To listen in…

    Librarians.. provide a vision!!


  10. I just got around to reading this post (I really should be working on my IST-659 final project, but we all need study breaks every now and again).

    I am one of those people who looked at a promising career in the private sector and found it wanting. It took a long time for me to figure out what that was, but with some help from people who know me and care about me, I decided the MSLIS was a step towards that something. Well, I am 10 days away from handing in my last assignment, and while the road has been incredibly fulfilling, I find myself asking “now what?” I dread the moment when I take all of that optimism, and passion, and desire to improve that SU has crammed into me during the past two and a half years, and run head-first into a wall of apathy, routine, and yeah-buts. It’s good to see my fears and frustrations echoed here, and all the comments from people who want libraries to innovate and adapt to the changing world. Thank you.

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