February 17, 2018

The Key to Long-Term Library Sanity | Not Dead Yet

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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Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at claguard@fas.harvard.edu, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. Cheryl, you’ve got five years on me. I love that part about how those of us between 30 and death couldn’t deal with change. I think that became prevalent about the time that “change agents” started to sprout up in the profession. What that meant was, they came into an organization to “change” it according to what had worked for them previously somewhere else – if you said anything, then you couldn’t deal with change. I remember confronting one of these during a presentation break by pointing out to her that we had opened 3 new libraries in the past 4 years, tripled our staff, and switched circulation systems and I really didn’t understand why people thought we couldn’t deal with change. She couldn’t get away from me quickly enough.

    • Thanks Joneser, for the anecdote. I’d like to add that I think all librarians everywhere get tarred with the same brush of being staid fuddy-duddies who don’t like change, not just those of us who are a bit more “seasoned.” But that’s another column….
      I do think it would be nice to see folks talking more about meaningful change that is occasioned by and benefits our researchers and users rather than change because to change is good and to stay the same (in some respects) is bad. Is it that the wind of change is so sweeping that to question it is seen as obstructionist? Oops! I guess you already answered that in your comment, huh? ;)
      Yours in solidarity,

    • Hi Cheryl,

      Anything new, especially if it’s technology-related, is seen as “sexy” and of course we must all have the new “flavor of the month” – so to make any sort of comment is seen as not being able to deal with change, no matter how irrelavant and wasteful the change might be. You know, thinking outside the box when your actual box is crumbling and rotting from within. Perhaps that’s too extreme and morbid an analogy, but I think you get that point . . . Sister!

  2. Thank you, I needed this! I needed to hear it said, and I am “letting it all go.”

    • Lisa, I made the video for two reasons:

      1. to make folks guffaw (one friend tells me I sound like a curandera tryng to drive away evil spirits, which sounds like a good reading of it to me) and
      2. to tell you very literally what I do any day I find something peeving me (or worse). And my blood pressure has gone down 40 points since I’ve begun doing this routinely, and that ain’t bad.

      Which is to say — I’m really glad you’re using it!
      Very best wishes,

  3. My problem after 25+ years as a professional is that I no longer get to do the things I got into this profession for. I never gave a hoot about teaching someone to read quality literature, I just liked to alphabetize and use indexes to answer questions and read novels and histories. I liked to put things in order and now computers do it all. Outside of being a cataloger those original jobs that attracted me to librarianship no longer exist on the professional level. Ready reference has been replaced by Google and Ask.com. Now its all outreach and marketing. I’m not a salesperson. I guess it’s time to read What Color is your parachute and figure out where I can use my skills.

    • Hi Sue,
      Sounds to me like you don’t need to leave the profession, maybe you should become a project manager? So many of the skills librarians have are perfect for project management, and that’s neither outreach or marketing. There’s also assessment (the many colors of assessment — a veritable spectrum of skills and possibilities). So re-purposing might be an attractive option — I’m just wondering….
      On another note: have you thought about doing some reviewing of sources? If you’re reading those novels and histories it’s a great spinoff. And BTW — I’m still doing a lot of ready reference, oddly enough — it’s just different questions than it used to be.
      Hope something out there catches your eye and fancy, and thanks for writing,

  4. cranky librarian says:

    Thanks for the Let It Go – I needed to read that today!

    • Dear Cranky (if I may),

      Glad to be of help! If you’re in the greater Boston area I’m thinking perhaps a flash mob of Let It Go might be viable. Would you be in?
      Have a better weekend than your day was today, and all best,

  5. Anne Onymous says:

    Dear Cheryl,

    I loved your column and really appreciated the video. I definitely needed it today!

    Have a wonderful weekend, I know I will, by “Letting it go!”


    • Dear Anne,
      Thanks for your note! Please do apply the video as needed, and take two steps back from whatever’s bugging you daily.
      You have a wonderful weekend, too! And please keep reading and commenting — we all need support.
      Best wishes and thanks again,

  6. Cheryl, I love the video! as well as the possibility of a flash mob, but i am not in the Boston area. Maybe at ALA midwinter or ACRL? Thanks for making my weekend!

    • Hi Liz,
      Glad to be of help. ACRL could be a possibility — I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, hope the video continues to be of use.
      Have a great week, and thanks,

  7. I am so sick of hearing that librarians are averse to change! Good for you for pointing out the truthful opposite and backing it up with reality. That is one thing I wish our naysayers would “let go.”
    I’m a gen jones too and the library world has changed so much since I started it’s unrecognizable but fun. More power to change for the good! Thanks!

  8. Thanks for the affirmation that we’re not all one foot in the grave. I’ve been a librarian about the same amount of time as you and, although I’m thinking towards retirement, I know I still have lots to contribute to the profession. Many times, I’m the one coming up with the ideas, encouraging change, thinking of the future, and not my younger, more-recently graduated staff. I keep trying, encouraging, mentoring, as much as I can, and have to have hope for the future.

    The phrase that really gets me is “legacy librarian”, which is not used in a complimentary way. Apparently if you didn’t finish library school in the last decade or so, you’re an old fogey waiting for retirement. How sad. Apparently one has to be under 30 to have computer skills – how do they think we got to where we are in libraries without evaluating new technologies and embracing those that help us provide the service our patrons need? Like many librarians, I was a very early Internet-er (sorry not really a word), long before most people I knew or worked with. And haven’t looked back since.

    A recent degree doesn’t necessarily equate a “good” librarian, heck a degree doesn’t even guarantee that.

    • Hi,
      “Legacy librarian” — that’s a new one on me. I’ve never heard the term before. I like your term, “interneter” much better. It amazes me that any library would “write off” human capital such as a seasoned librarian, but I suspect that what may get we seasoned folk ignored or written off is not that we’re old fogies, but that we’re not naive and as malleable as some recent grads, and therefore we may not swallow hogwash readily when we’re presented with it (this is no disrepect to recent grads: if you haven’t seen a lot of hogwash in the workplace, it can take a while to recognize it for what it is).
      Make sense? Glad to hear that you continue to have hope for the future, too!
      Thanks for writing,

  9. Thanks, Cheryl, I needed that. And it looks like you gave me permission to sit on the floor.

    • Travis, you absolutely have permission to sit on the floor! I forward this one to 3 or 4 colleagues and friends (you’re both!) each week, as well as referring to it myself weekly, if not daily.
      Glad to be of help, and hope all is well with you.
      Best wishes,