It’s actually very simple

September 22, 2007

I have been involved in a number of discussions lately centering around morale, personal interaction and perception of staff. These conversations have been at best enlightening and at worst somewhat disheartening. I’ve been known as Miss Polly Positive for some time which I’m guessing has a lot to do with my attitude and outlook and also my unwavering desire to believe the best in everyone. Well, I think that desire is starting to waver slightly.

Really, I am more disappointed than anything else and this is not such a let down that the fundamental core of my being is altered in any significant way, if anything it has made me more aware and sensitive of my actions- in a good way and I am looking at it as a not-so-gentle reminder of the way the world is. See, that is me being Miss Polly Positive (she ain’t going anywhere).

Foolishly, I really believed that the way I treat people is pretty much the way everyone else does. You can all stop snorting now.

Okay, so it isn’t. I had some very candid discussions with my staff and learned a lot of valuable insights into their daily work lives. I took a lot of mental notes, and then went back to my office and did a brain dump. While there is/was a lot going on in these discussions, I am going to share what seems to be the simplest and most important issue.

People like to be acknowledged. I don’t mean acknowledged in terms of accomplishments. I am talking about acknowledged as another human being on this Earth, standing 3 feet away from you, who you see on a daily basis. The bottom line: smile or say hello. It goes a tremendous distance in making another person feel like they exist. And it is actually quite difficult to feel like you matter when you are repeatedly treated like you are invisible.

There are people who work in my library whose names I still don’t know because I don’t work closely with them. However, I know they work in the library because I see them on an almost daily basis and when I do I smile or say, “hi, how are you?” I didn’t realize doing that was a big deal until more than one person told me it was.

My recommendation for Step One in creating a change in climate, morale and staff perception: say hello to your fellow coworkers. Smile, nod, wave.

It makes a huge difference and makes people feel happy.  And happy people will communicate, share, be open to change and discussion, and ultimately be more productive.


I just read the article that ran in the Fashion & Style section of the NYT about librarians titled, “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers.”

I am so embarrassed and aggravated I actually threw the paper across the room after I finished reading.

I would love to know when this became the new stereotype about the profession (urban hipsters, sipping $10 cocktails who became librarians because it seemed like a cool profession).

Maybe 5 years is a long time, but when I graduated from library school, none of my classmates became librarians because it seemed cool. They were interested in teaching, collection development, preservation, outreach, literacy, web development, etc. Trendiness had nothing to do with it.

Why are we allowing ourselves and our profession to have one stale stereotype swapped out for a younger, “hipper” one that may be even less accurate than Marian the Librarian ever was?

After some thought, I think I can boil my issues with this article down to two points:

1. Admittedly, I have never worked in a public library, so I have no idea what the “office culture” is like in them, but I am sure many of my fellow large academic librarian colleagues and those who work in a corporate environment will agree when I state that while the academic environment can be fairly liberal, there is a definite culture of professionalism. In some places it is more evident and adhered to than others, but it is there. You want to be taken seriously and advance in your career, then you have to play the part. Yeah it is a game, just like most things in life. I am not sure how far a pink-haired, openly heavily tattooed librarian would go in some academic environments. I have worked in some that could care less, but I have also watched librarians sink in other, more rigid work environments. Never underestimate how important a skill being able to navigate your organization’s political climate is.

This is not a judgment, just an observation. I feel like this article has chipped away a bit at the professional aspect of our positions. We are professionals and I think part of our problem when it comes to salary, benefits, and library school curriculum is that people tend not to view us as professionals. Nothing in this article helped clear that up. And I would *love* to know where the $51,000 salary positions are in NYC.

2. Secondly, and this is probably the bigger issue for me, social networking software, web design, programming, and L2 tools are not new anymore. They are increasingly becoming the tool kit that many of us are using in our daily work. Highlighting these tools as the reason people are becoming librarians does a huge disservice to what all of us do everyday.

I found it interesting that no one quoted in the article stated that they are becoming librarians because they like to work with people, or that they enjoying teaching. Jessamyn is not hip and cool because she uses IM. She is valued because she has chosen to work in a small, rural public library assisting the community in becoming more aware of and adept with new technology. She is also a tireless advocate of small public libraries. That has cool written all over it.

I guess I am the Grinch who stole Library School Graduation. The article mentioned one library student talking about their career path after they heard a zine curator speak. That absolutely is an awesome and interesting job…if you can get it. Updated to add: The student quoted blogs here, where you will find a thoughtful post about what interested her in librarianship and greater detail about the speaker she heard. I wish the article included more of this and less about the clothes, the IT toys and the cocktails. The reality is that being a librarian you find yourself doing things that are not cool a lot more than you’d like to admit. See this post for my list.

We do these things because we care and they need to get done. And while a position such as a zine curator does sound pretty awesome, there is not an overabundance of them in the job pool. Distance education librarian may not sound cool, but I guarantee that there are plenty of them out there who think they have the best job in libraries.

I don’t want to see a new crop of librarians who joined the profession because it seemed cool and they thought that they would work with technology all day. I want new colleagues who are committed, engaged, energized, willing to go the extra mile to help a patron, will advocate for change and who want to be taken seriously as educators.

This article didn’t touch upon any of those things, nor did it even paint a portion of the picture of true librarianship. Unfortunately, I think it successfully made those of us over 30, who are not urban hipsters feel slightly more alienated than we have before.

Age has nothing to do with it. Nor do your clothes, body modifications, the type of cocktails you drink, or where you hang out after work. It’s what you do when you are in your library assisting a patron that matters. You want to be valued and respected, do something that is relevant and that matters to your patrons and your colleagues.

This article begs the question: Are we failing library school students in another way by not giving them an accurate depiction of the profession and the types of positions that are available? I hate to beat a dead horse, but again, this would be one of those issues where working while going to library school, or doing an internship pre-library school would solve some of the confusion and misrepresentation.

I love my job – headaches and all. But, I am constantly amazed by how many librarians, new and seasoned, who are surprised when I describe some of my responsibilities. There needs to be more honest discussion about job duties and responsibilities in library land. Articles like this one reinforce my belief that a lot of library school students have no idea what it means to be a librarian and they type of work that gets done on a daily basis. That worries me.

Finding time to write has been very hard lately. There is a lot going on at MPOW and I am making the transition from the adjustment/orientation period to the “time to make some changes and get moving on projects” period. Needless to say there is a lot happening and I have been working many 16 hour days. So naturally sitting here in the airport in Colorado, Springs waiting to board a flight to Dallas, is when I have the time to post.

Even though I have not been writing, I have been keeping up with my blog subscriptions. I read an interesting post on Blog About Libraries titled, “I didn’t get an MLS to do that.” I thought the post was very well written and touched upon several important reasons why we (as librarians) can not have that attitude. The points stated are: professions do not stand still, we don’t have a choice, and the jobs we signed up for may not exist anymore. All very good and valid points.

What I started thinking about after reading that post is the attitude of “I won’t do XYZ.” A similar attitude that I have witnessed is, “that is not in my job description.” Nothing gets my ire up like hearing that sentence.

I have told all the staff I have managed throughout my career that, “That is not in my job description” is the one sentence that I never want to hear come out of their mouths, especially when speaking to me. I would never ask a member of my staff to do something that I wouldn’t do myself and more often than not I will get down and do the deed with them. I don’t like to hear that line because if they knew all of the crappy little tasks or other things I have done that were not explicitly written in my job description they would cringe. If I had a dollar for every gross thing I did that was not in my job description, I would be retired and sailing on a yacht somewhere. A short list of some of the more “fun” things I have had the pleasure of doing:

  • clean toilets
  • pick up garbage
  • empty trash cans
  • dispose of dead birds, rats, mice, etc.
  • kill rats and mice
  • deal with weird smells
  • spend 8 hours tracking down a piece of wood paneling
  • vaccuum
  • dust
  • assemble furniture
  • clean windows

All of this while either working towards or after having received my MLS. To tell you the truth for the most part I enjoyed doing the work (okay except dealing with the dead things and the garbage). I just accept that in my line of work this is par for the course and I try to instill that in my staff. I also try to put a positive spin on it. I have learned quite a bit from dealing with minor and major crises that had nothing to do with my written job description. I have learned to think quick on my feet, trust my instincts and decisions, better management skills, have gained confidence in my abilities and have become more flexible. You learn to roll with whatever comes your way and when you can do that, you are a much better person to work with. I know, I am positive to the point of annoyance, but I believe that it helps to put things in perspective.

I work hard at helping my staff put the curve balls in perspective. I constantly commend a job well done and always focus on the positive lessons learned from an experience. It works. Access services is all about rolling with whatever comes your way, and being flexible and positive make the experience a lot less painful than it could be otherwise.

Is there a point where what we are willing to do crosses the line? I do think there is and generally I draw the line on a case by case basis. I try to consider all of the angles and outcomes to a situation before I decide it is something that my staff or I should not handle. Generally if it is something that involves security or a situation that could be dangerous, I look for assistance from the trained professionals who deal with those situations. We always consult with whomever or whichever department will be affected by what we are doing and look for guidance and assistance in dealing with issues. I like collaboration and teamwork and find that it gets a job completed correctly and faster than going it alone.

The bottomline is that yes, sometimes the unexpected can kill morale or make people feel like they are being taken advantage of, but by working to put a positive spin on the situation and focusing on the lessons learned, the curve balls are not as bad as they initially seem.

While other librarians are busy teaching BI, answering reference questions over IM, or building the interactive content that will sit on the front end of the library’s website, we in access services are checking books in and out, reshelving the current periodicals, scanning articles for e-reserves, and searching OCLC to locate that article you requested this morning.

Sounds exciting, right? Makes you want to run straight out of library school and find the first job in access services. What’s that you say? Oh…You’ve never even heard the department mentioned in library school.

It wasn’t mentioned in my library school experience, either- and I have heard similar tales from other graduates. We didn’t even take a trip to the campus library to look at the ILS in action, or even learn what an ILS was. We get absolutely no love in the library literature. Sure Journal of Access Services exists, but have you ever looked at how many titles are devoted to all flavors of reference, education, collection management and digital collection development?!

Making us feel even more like red-headed stepchildren is the fact that our national association doesn’t even have a committee or special interest group devoted to access services. Yes, there is a discussion group that can meet (if there is any interest) at the annual meeting, but there is nothing formal. I have lived in three different states and none of the chapters have had a circulation/reserves committee. I will give some credit however to the fact that ILL/document delivery does seem to get more love in being recognized as “resource sharing” and committees, task forces, and special interest groups devoted to the concept do exist.


Taking all of this into consideration, some in access services can’t help but wonder sometimes if what they do matters. Is it important? Do other librarians think it is important? Are we not “real” librarians, just like those working in any other part of the library?

I call this our professional self-esteem issue. It has been known to poke its head out during conferences when we are surrounded by people with really snazzy job titles, who sound like they do really exciting things with technology.

An interesting phenomenon I have noticed at several libraries is that the staff in access services often feels this way about how their work is perceived. Worse, the perception is sometimes taken seriously by others, leading to those in access services being treated differently, thus reinforcing the problem

All right, so we don’t get to play with sexy technology all day, nor do we spend the bulk of our time in a classroom with students, and as a department we often have the highest concentration of non-professionals. So what? Here’s a sampling of what would happen if we all went away for just a little while:

  • Books would not be checked in or out
  • Books would not be reshelved
  • Current periodicals would not be shelved
  • Fines would not be collected
  • Articles or books from other libraries would not be acquired
  • Other libraries would not get materials from our collection
  • The stacks would be a mess
  • Reserve materials would never get processed
  • Alarms would not be reset
  • Signs would not be updated, removed, or replaced
  • New patrons would not be registered
  • Microforms would not be reshelved
  • That leak in the bathroom would not get called in
  • That book you put on hold would not be retrieved from the stacks

Okay so maybe this is somewhat snarky, but it makes a point. What we do matters and is important. We are as essential to the functions of the library as any other service. The library couldn’t function without us. We’re the “go-to guys.” New service? No problem, we can make it happen. We say “yes,” a lot because we care about serving our patrons and assisting them in any way can.

I am extremely fortunate to work in a library that is dedicated to creating and sustaining a culture where every individual (and every service) has value. My job is to make sure that message makes its way down to the staff in the trenches. I don’t get to spend the bulk of my time using virtual reference tools, or create library Flickr sites (valuable tools in their own rights), but I do spend much of my day running around putting out fires, answering questions, listening to complaints, making improvements, creating and implementing new services, and making sure that my staff feel proud of themselves and the work they do. That pride translates into the right kind of customer service, too. When patrons compliment the library for the fast, friendly service they got? That was (more than likely) us.

So this access services self-esteem problem has got to end. Soon. Now would be good.