1

What’s Right With Libraries?

changing life bulbs

image via DyanaVphotos on Flickr

There are no shortage of problems in librarianship. Publisher’s and libraries are wrangling over ebooks. Higher education and the academy is under siege. There are regularly stories of funding cuts. And apparently libraries are in crisis. It’s easy to see only what’s wrong and what problems are facing us, especially if that is what we are looking for. But what if we flipped that around?

What if instead of only focusing on solving problems, we focused on creative initiatives happening right now? What if instead of putting out fires we looked at proactive ideas to the issues facing us? What if in the place of managing crises, we looked at the distinct strengths of and the vast human potential of libraries and started building there?

There are clearly challenges facing libraries, and they can’t be ignored, but we default to looking at the problems and become overwhelmed. Instead of focusing on deficits and what is wrong with libraries, we need to look at the myriad opportunities for innovation and build on what is going right in libraries. This is a shift in perspective that could make a significant change, but it also takes a shift in action.

What could we do to shift our organizations, workplaces, and selves from problem and deficit-based thinking to potential and strength-based thinking?

Ask Better Questions

The questions we repeatedly ask determine where we direct our energy. If we ask in meetings or in strategic planning, questions like “how can we better market our services” or “how can we improve our service” then we’ll likely get incremental improvement with more problems following closely on the heels of those questions. But if instead we are constantly asking “how can we inspire human curiosity,” or “how can we be radically relevant to our users lives,” or “how can we amaze people everyday,” we are more likely to get transformational change. In questioning, we need to start with what we genuinely want, not what we want less of. “Don’t think about better vacuum cleaners, think about cleaner floors.” Asking better questions, like in Brian Mathews’ recent whitepaper Think Like a Startup, is the first step to coming up with better, revolutionary answers.

Build on Strengths

The management guru Peter Drucker said “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths, making our weaknesses irrelevant.” Too often we spend time trying to improve our weaknesses, and correct what’s wrong. There are so many things that libraries don’t do well, and that’s fine. But if we spend our energy focusing on what we do poorly it will be wasted. Libraries and librarians have distinct strengths like nurturing curiosity and creating unrecognized connections. If we can identify and amplify those current strengths our work will be much more focused, and the resources and services we provide will be much more effective.

Create Potential Rich Work Environments

Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks about two different ways of looking at work and motivation. In the first type (Type X) motivation stems from external desires and rewards. In the second type (Type I) motivation arises intrinsically out of challenge and a sense of meaning. Librarianship is a career path obviously focused more on the intrinsic rewards and the moments that make it all worth it, but work is not always structured that way. Instead of focusing on purpose or challenge we get caught in the day to day of maintaining the systems, answering emails, and teaching classes. What if we could find strategies that regularly got us out of our routines and got us focused on why and challenging us to grow? What if we instituted a FedEx day for our next work retreat where the point was to create a new service or offering in the course of a day? Library leaders need to find ways to focus on not only maintaining and getting our daily tasks done but connecting our work to the powerful reasons we got into this profession in the first place.

There are plenty of voices asking what’s wrong, what’s broken in libraries. A much more generative question is what’s right with libraries, and how can we start building there?

5

Do I Really Want To Be A Librarian?

Career Advice (via quinn.anya on Flickr)

The start of the school year is a good time to refocus – on initiatives, priorities, and most importantly, on your direction and career. With students back, the start of a new year can be really energizing, but it can also be draining and overwhelming especially if your energies are focused in unproductive directions.

There was a great thread in the ALA Think Tank (join this amazing group!) several weeks ago in which someone asked others about having mixed feelings and angst about librarianship. I loved the post and all the answers because they were so authentic and sincere. These are very real, genuine questions that I know I have dealt with and that we all have to deal with as librarians and as professionals. Does my work satisfy me? Is my work fulfilling? Do I really want to be a librarian?

Sometimes librarianship can seem like a cult. There are a lot of passionate, excited people talking about how great the profession is. This can make the profession really fun, but not everyone has completely drunk the kool-aid. While it’s nice to have colleagues who love their work, it can also make it hard to do this questioning. You can feel out of place or crazy asking “do I actually want to be a librarian?”

But these are important questions and part of being a professional is taking time to reflect on them, refocus, and sometimes even find a different job or career.  This reflection isn’t just limited to librarians though. I know people in other careers from college age to people in their 50s that ask these same questions. These are questions that you need to spend time on, but they are also not just one time questions. They’re important at different points in our careers and lives and should be asked multiple times. You need to find your own answers, not simply what everyone around you is saying.

Like everyone, there have been times when I have been less than satisfied in the work I was doing. I have been in funks or have been frustrated with the way things were going. I have found these situations to be enlightening though. These are opportunities to learn about yourself and what you value.

One line of questioning I’ve found helpful is asking “what do I love doing?” “When am I most excited and engaged at work?” Do you love working one on one with users? Collaborating with others? Designing events, or projects, or lessons? This can help give you insight into what your strengths are and what gives life for you. You can then focus on and leverage those strengths which will often help you become more fulfilled and effective. If you love collaborating, can you create a project-based team? Or based on your strengths are there different areas in your position that you could direct your energy? Are there other positions where you can capitalize on those strengths?

Sometimes though, there may be bigger issues or things outside your control (organization, management, culture, etc.) that refocusing just can’t fix. In situations like this it’s important to recognize that there are things you can’t control and fighting them will only frustrate you. You may also find that librarianship is simply not for you. Like anything else it has it’s own challenges and not everyone gets excited or passionate about it. Ultimately you have to find a place where your strengths can flourish and be directed towards something important to you.

I don’t feel like I have to be a librarian. I could be a million other things. Through reflection and asking these difficult questions though I’ve recognized that I am passionate about curiosity, personal growth and understanding, lifelong learning, and serving others. I could pursue these passions a number of different ways, but for right now librarianship is a pretty damn good fit.

Do you struggle with these questions? Does your work satisfy you? What’s helpful for you when you reflect on these issues?