Since change is the current leitmotif of library life, I’d like to talk about it for a bit. Having been a librarian since 1978 (I was precocious, very precocious), I’ve earned my chops on change. At that point, library school students spent about 20 minutes a week “practicing” on the school’s spanking new OCLC terminal, did our papers on typewriters, catalogued on multi-part carbon copy forms, and completed a computer course on mainframes using FORTRAN. At work we made heavy use of the National Union Catalog, the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC, pronounced Three Stooges-style as “nuck-muck”), the printed LCSH (which consisted of 3 books then), and the print Manhattan telephone directory. There were no desktop computers, and the only phones we had had cords so tangled they’d snap back to the wall if not held tightly. But we made it work and were able to help researchers anyway.
Then came OPACs, fax machines, microcomputers, and a slew of technological changes that affected everybody—but especially altered life in the library. One year we were working with microfiche and the next with CD-ROMs and mediated online searching, then we offered end-user searching (how quaint that phrase sounds now).
So I bridle when I hear someone say that librarians don’t like change, because that’s just not true of most of us. The library world has been completely revolutionized several times during my career thus far. I was fortunate enough to be able to experiment with new technologies and resources at the beginning of my career, and I have dearly loved most of the changes: they’ve made my work richer and much easier. There are some in libraries who want to maintain the status quo, but they’ve been very much in the minority in my experience.
At the same time, I realize that I, and I suspect just about everyone reading this, have balked at something new we’ve encountered in the workplace. Our objection may have been to a new policy or procedure, or a staffing change, or a change in programs. Whatever the problem was, it seemed very important at the time. It may have made us angry because “this was our work” and we felt we were right and that the decision makers, whomever they were, were wrong. Our anguish is understandable, because if you’re knowledgeable and care deeply about your work, you feel compelled to oppose change that you perceive to be for the worse.
Now let me switch back to library school for a moment. I took a very good course in administration as a student. I vividly remember the professor saying that, during our work lives, we’d sometimes disagree strongly with others. She advised that the optimal way to handle such situations was to try to influence the outcome by convincing others of the validity of our position. It would be completely appropriate for us to voice our concerns among our colleagues, she explained. Once the decision was made, however, she advised supporting it publicly if possible; if one could not do so, leaving the organization was the only option.
A lengthy class discussion ensued about whether or not the first course of action was hypocritical, and the other, defeatist. But after 30-plus years of working in libraries I now have a middle position to propose. Rather than staying within the organization and feeling compromised, I suggest stepping back from the conflict, and reconsidering your stance. Is this something that’s really that important to you? Will it really compromise you to continue working in the institution under these circumstances?
I’ve been in this position several times in my career, and it’s led me to reexamine my priorities periodically. In so doing, I’ve discovered what is truly important to me about my work, and what is not. What’s important is helping the students, faculty, and others who come my way. As long as I can concentrate on that work, and on interacting with the researchers I serve, I’m good. Now if something’s significant to me, I speak up about it, but if a decision doesn’t go the way I think it should, I’m able to let go of my feelings about it. Sometimes I later change my mind about the situation; sometimes I don’t. But I don’t let the little things gnaw at me. It’s a variation on “don’t sweat the small stuff,” but it’s an important variation—because the work we love is big. Letting go of the small stuff that sometimes clouds it is the trick.
So here’s the “mantra” my friends hear me repeat almost daily. It keeps the small stuff in perspective, and keeps me grounded—in a good way.
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