Change Agent Librarians

There is a lot to be proud of in the world of libraries. There are a lot of creative and innovative ideas. I see a lot of passion and enthusiasm. But there is also a lot that needs to change. The scholarly publishing system is broken, we need to figure out how we are going to change our model to capitalize on ebooks, and some of us even still need to allow mobile phones and food/drinks in libraries. We have plenty of work to do and no shortage of good ideas. But how do we actually go about evolving, fixing what’s broken, and creating lasting change, especially when there are a significant amount of people and systems in place that actively resist change?

Change starts with you

Sitting around and waiting for inspiration to strike or the perfect moment is not going to bring about change. These are outside circumstances that you have no control over. What you can can control is yourself and your own decisions. This is the starting place, and having this mindset is the most important part of being an agent for positive change. One of the biggest mistakes that librarians can make is getting discouraged or giving up because of colleagues who actively resist change, an administration or board that is stuck in the past, or an institution that is seemingly calcified. You cannot control these things (but you can influence them). What you can control is your response. If you direct your anger and energy at the board or your “backwards” colleague or your inflexible institution, you will only reap frustration.

In chatting with librarians who are frustrated, I hear a lot people say things like “we can’t have drinks in the library because x,” or “if only x would retire, then we could enact change.” But this is giving up control. You still can respond. Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (I’m getting hooked on this book) talks about using proactive language instead of using reactive language. Instead of using phrases like “I can’t” you can say “I choose.” Instead of saying “there’s nothing I can do,” say “let’s look at our alternatives.” By understanding that you have the control over your choices and the decisions you make, you empower yourself.

I’ve seen other librarians talking about this same idea. There was recently a great post by the folks at In the Library with the Lead Pipe on the theme of the Occupy Movement. One of the sections was about occupying yourself and they discussed this idea of owning your own power and not giving it away to others. In the post they give a great model for a positive communication technique to bring about change without sounding like you’re attacking.

Know what change you want to see

In bringing about change it’s also necessary to be strategic. One person can’t change everything; they just don’t have the time. So you have to clearly understand what it is you want to change. You also need to be able to prioritize and recognize when a service or resource needs to be dropped. We can’t be everything to everyone in libraries, so we have to play to our strengths. Jenica Rogers talks a lot about this and she recently did a presentation for the LIANZA conference entitled¬†Reality-based Librarianship for Passionate Librarians. In it she discusses identifying goals, but also this idea of picking your battles. Not everything can be changed, or it may not be worth the time, effort, and effects on your sanity to change something. Change doesn’t come easily, but have a road map for how to get there makes things simpler.

You’re not alone

My favorite part about library conferences is meeting with other librarians and hearing what they are working on and what they are passionate about. It’s easy to get caught up in the very narrow view from your own institution, but when you talk with others, you realize there are a lot of different ways to bring about change. By talking with others outside of your own institution you can begin to see other perspectives and different approaches to problems you are trying to solve. It is also a way to invigorate yourself and gain new energy. If you feel that no one at your institution wants change or has the same interests as you, find others who share your passion and collaborate with them.

You have to take care of yourself as a librarian. Burnout is real, and if your passion and creativity continually gets stifled at your institution, try to collaborate with other passionate librarians at different institutions. There is no shortage of passionate librarians. Go to conferences. Go to local meet-ups of librarians. Connect with folks via social networking. And if there aren’t many networking opportunities in your area, start some. There are likely others who want to connect and share ideas and are looking for a venue.

What strategies are most helpful to you in bringing about change at your library?

Andy Burkhardt


  1. I also enjoyed the Lead Pipe post with the five variations. Great stuff. In terms of my own strategies for bringing about change, I try to lead by example. It’s a struggle at times but it’s really the only way to go. I often observe a “core” of the most engaged individuals at an institution working collaboratively with each other. We can’t force people to change, we can only continue to provide opportunities, support, and leave the door open if they’d like to come along.

  2. I like that idea of providing opportunities and leaving the door open. That is something that I try to remember when I am teaching. I am offering students an invitation to learn. If they don’t take me up on it it’s their loss, but I can’t force people to want to learn. I can try different strategies to engage different learners, but there’s no forcing it.

    The same thing is likely true with colleagues. You can’t force people to engage or collaborate. You can offer opportunities and different strategies to make them want to engage around their own interests and passions. But again, trying to force it is only going to frustrate you and them.

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