February 16, 2018

A Teensy-Tiny Survey of Seasoned Librarians | Not Dead Yet

As you may have seen, I’ve been talking recently with a number of newer librarians and reporting about those conversations in this column, e.g., here. Thinking it could be helpful to check in with some seasoned professionals on their instructions for newer librarians, I emailed a short survey to a bunch of library friends around the country—folks who’ve worked in public, academic, and special libraries, who are on the front lines, in back rooms, at the top, and in-between. Guaranteeing them complete anonymity, I asked them to reply to four questions. Here are the questions and the unexpurgated replies I received:

What do you like best about your library job?

  1. What I like best about my job is watching the “ah ha!” moments with a user when an explanation or answer to their query has been fully comprehended/accepted. I like the daily learning moments that happen at work.
  2. Continuous learning; the work is never the same from one day to the next and there’s always a new challenge; great colleagues; helping students see the possibilities and connecting them to expert colleagues and to our amazing collections; being part of a great and historic place.
  3. The flexibility I have to do exciting things (use social media for classes, visit users outside the library). AND, there aren’t too many jobs for a full-time collection development specialist with a budget that allows one to make a difference in my area of collecting. In both cases, my supervisors support my endeavors.
  4. There’s so much—I love my wonderful colleagues and the variety of the work, and working with a lot of different researchers.
  5. I work with an amazing group of people in my immediate department and I have a *really* good manager. I feel very lucky for both of these things.
  6. I love working with the students and the faculty, and with most of my colleagues, who are truly amazing people. I absolutely love having access to so much information and research material, I love working with it and delving into it, and I especially love helping others find and access it. It’s the one thing about librarianship that makes me see what a positive difference we can make in the world.
  7. Working with the public (faculty, staff, students, visitors)! It’s the reason why I decided to become a librarian. Nothing beats explaining something and seeing them “get it.”
  8. The bottom line is that I love putting people in contact with the information and resources they need: Every reader his/her book; every book its reader.
  9. The work is varied and challenging; the curriculum connection; freedom to experiment; the HR benefits; flexible schedule and independence; I get to work with students, librarians, faculty, administrators, vendors, alumni, parents…; and there’s always something new.
  10. What I like best, and have always liked (make that LOVED), no matter where I was—public, community college, small private or large research library—is that I can make a positive difference in people’s lives. Some of those differences are bigger than others—instilling some basic info-lit skills in non-native English speaking students, or those struggling to go from welfare to work, really changes people’s lives. When I am contacted by these students, quite a few of whom have now progressed either to graduate work or full-time employment in the social services, and they tell me what they’re doing to help their clients based on what they learned in my class, I’m so proud I could burst. It’s as if these are my own kids. Helping students in a research-level setting has different rewards, and feeds the intellectual side of me. A corollary to question #1 is that I learn something new every day (usually in a positive way); I have never been bored (wait, there was a paper earlier today that was borderline), and the connections I can make between people, resources, technology, services, collections: I can’t imagine doing anything else.

What do you like least?

  1. The political b******t.
  2. I’m not Pollyanna, but I love my work. If there’s a theme that detracts, it would be around competition for scarce resources or conflicting internal priorities.
  3. Useless meetings. They happen everywhere. At least now I can take my iPhone and check email and Facebook for professional updates (YES, professional).
  4. I hate the politics. I hate the politics. When I’m just doing my work I have a lot of job satisfaction. When I lift my head up from it and look at the bigger picture I get frustrated because so much is politics, and it gets nasty at times.
  5. As a so-called manager, I hate feeling powerless. Nobody tells you in your management class that most of the job of being a manager involves smiling and nodding. Oftentimes there is not anything that you can do except listen, sympathize, and pass the issue up the food chain.
  6. I used to hate the politics. Then I learned the technique demonstrated here, and I started working for a real manager who is outstanding at reading and handling the politics (and yet is also able to be a real human being). Also, the local politics improved drastically due to a change at the top. So now I can honestly say I have absolutely no complaints. I love my job and my work.
  7. Politics and management. I really don’t care for the rush to digital everything, dumping print and changing libraries into study halls to meet a college’s or university’s space needs—why is this the library’s responsibility? What especially bugs me is the focus on the technology and not the research process (finding, reading, analyzing, and creating new knowledge). Found an old independent report about the library in which I work, which noted a “lack of trust (especially of senior library managers) […] and a sense of resentment as a result of retribution and inequitable treatment.” Some things haven’t changed.
  8. Libraries, especially venerable and established ones, can be very conservative places. I wish that my current work environment was more tolerant of experimentation and risk. A culture of creative experimentation not only fosters innovation, it also helps to keep employees engaged.
  9. People stay in jobs too long; there is not enough institutional change; there is an academic resistance to change; the diminishing reading on the part of students; the space does not match the needs; academic communication is often poor; the level of integration into the curriculum is often less than ideal; and we need more staff.
  10. What I like least are the coping strategies I’ve had to use to deal with colleagues and students who are not interested in making a difference. If they’re just biding their time, waiting to pass this course, or for the next round of retirement packages, sometimes I can work with them to find better activities or pursuits (in libraries or not) to spark their passion. But if they insist on being deadwood, or worse, obstructive, they suck the positive energy out of me, a service point, a department, and even an entire organization. Colleagues, vendors, or patrons who waste their/my time, who lie, who can’t collaborate: that’s what I dislike, and what takes up a lot of valuable time (and mental space). A coping strategy I will share is to allow yourself two minutes at night to think about all the crap and people who pissed you off or sucked out your energy during the day. I do this while brushing my teeth, because my toothbrush buzzes after two minutes. Then all those negative thoughts are banished for the remainder of the night—no staying awake fretting over idiots I’ve encountered during the day. This has seriously changed my life for the better, and I wish I’d figured out this tactic earlier rather than later in my career. Corollary: organizations and bureaucracies not interested in making a positive difference and not moving forward elicit the same response in me. (Sometimes I have to brush my teeth twice.)

3. If you had it to do over, what, if anything, would you change about your library career choices?

  1. I would have tried to get more experience in those areas I am currently lacking. I would not work for an organization that doesn’t support the professional development of its staff members.
  2. I’ve been just incredibly lucky. No regrets and I’m glad I worked in a variety of different kinds of libraries. Very happy to have ended up where I am.
  3. I was never one to be too well versed in techie things and would probably pay more attention to that area. BUT, I’m still one of the last ones to be migrated to a newer system/machine/application. I want others to experience the errors/ups and downs so it can be easier and smoother when my turn comes.
  4. I came upon my work serendipitously—luck, plus a skill set that was needed, set me on my library course. Looking back, I might have tried to get a broader experience, to be more marketable.
  5. When I started in library school, the Internet was just getting going. I thought I was going to be entering a field about books and found on my first day of classes that it was all about computers. I knew nothing about computers. I had only used email a handful of times and I had never “surfed the ‘net.” Now, X years later, I wish that I had known how cool databases were when I was working on my degree. I would have taken more of the technical and informational sciences classes.
  6. I wouldn’t change a thing. I feel blessed, especially by the library friends I’ve made throughout the years.
  7. If I wanted to feel more valued, I probably would have taken more programming, but I don’t think that would give me the job satisfaction I have working with end-users and other staffers. Working more with computers and software I probably would be making more money, but honey, who becomes a librarian to get rich?
  8. I’d have come to libraries sooner.
  9. I would get a second subject master’s degree or a PhD.
  10. What would I change about my career choice? Some things I might have changed would involve activities not appropriate to discuss in your column because they involve violence and loss of life (not mine). See above note about toothbrushing. I’m gleaming. Seriously: I would have held my managers a bit more accountable, and tried to do that in a positive way. I would have managed up better. I think this new generation of librarians may instinctively do that, given how they’ve grown up: if they don’t get a trophy, they ask why not. If they want something (a program, funding, a service), they’re much more likely to go in assuming the answer is going to be “yes” rather than our generation, which spent an awful lot of time meekly asking, “Please sir, may I have some more, and yes, you can take it out of my hide, or my salary, or my weekend….” One major choice I would have made differently is that when a library director, in wrapping up her career, created a position for me to be a “special assistant” and then someone else applied, I stepped back to let the other person get the position, because we were friends. Unfortunately, that other person did squat, didn’t take advantage of the management training and project skills that were available, and the library lost the line (and that person went off to coast through another position, the line for which was also lost, after she left the library). I didn’t see that opportunity for what it was. So do take advantage of opportunities, even if they’re scary and you might have to compete with a friend.

4. Any advice for up-and-coming librarians?

  1. Be flexible and be strong! Take courses that provide organizational / management training, psychological and group interactions, and new technologies, and those that introduce new basic software programs needed in our profession. Learn how to market yourself and your job.
  2. Think of yourselves as stewards of information and of culture and as part of a culture of openness and continuous learning. It’ll help you to avoid sweating the small stuff.
  3. Learn a foreign language if you don’t already know one. We are becoming less monolingual as a society. It opens so many possibilities.  If you are not skeptical yet, become a skeptic and question all those latest techie fads that come and go. The best will stay for while, the others will evaporate faster than books on CD-ROM!
  4. The library as we know it is not going to be there in ten years. Budgets are getting slashed. You will have to have a lot of tech background and be more of an infotech person in the future. Be as flexible as possible and be ready to change. You will never completely “know” your job—if you do, you’re not being a real professional. Above all: be positive! And be prepared for whatever comes your way.
  5. Work in a library either before or while attending library school. I learned more on my first day of the job than I did in the entire time that I went to library school.
  6. Keep your love of books, in whatever form. Be open to possibilities—they crop up in the unlikeliest circumstances. Treat each other better than you may initially want to (if someone’s acting badly towards you); it will help you sleep better at night and save your teeth. And however much you love your job, get involved professionally in something outside your immediate library—it will ultimately keep you sane, no matter how crazy the politics get.
  7. You have to like the work you do. If you really hate coming to work and the people you work with, you will be miserable.
  8. Learn to code, at least a little.
  9. God no, but … get technology skills and assessment skills (that is assessment, not evaluation). Learn to create learning outcomes. Learn to write for the web. Learn to present, digitally and in-person. Read broadly and always. Be regionally active.
  10. Advice? You know I’m full of it! I’ll try to be pithy. Pay attention: to context, to people, to politics. Be creative: turn challenges into opportunities. Be realistic: you can’t save or change the world by yourself. Play well with others: know your strengths, and those of your colleagues. Get out of your cubicle and look at your job (department, library, institution) from a different perspective. Be patient: even in this brave new world, you’re going to have to pay some dues before getting your dream job. Network: you never know when one of your faculty members from library/information school will recruit you for that aforementioned dream job, so stay in touch, and don’t disappear; Brush your teeth at least twice a day.

That’s the survey along with the results; fervent thanks to my friends who were willing to respond, and to be so frank. All of these respondents are highly successful and very accomplished at what they do. I was surprised by some answers, and intrigued with the common threads expressed. So I hope you’ll share this post with the newer librarians and library school students you know—I think there’s something to be learned here, or at least considered, by everyone.

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

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.



  1. Anne Onymous says:

    Thank you, Cheryl, for this terrific piece. I am one of those “seasoned” librarian and pleased to see that in spite of years of budget cuts, layoffs, and constant change, professional librarians still love their work. I was also struck by the number of people who mentioned in different ways the political bull^%& that gets in the way of work in response to question 3.

    To all you up and coming librarians: Good luck, and really look at the answers to question 4. Great advice!

    Best, Anne

    • Dear Anne,
      Thanks to you and my other seasoned colleagues who were kind enough to respond to this survey. I, too, am struck by the common threads that came through — especially how much these folks continue to love their work. Considering the number of years each has been in the profession it’s a strong affirmation of them and of the work we do.
      Thanks again, and very best wishes,

  2. I failed to respond on time, but I would add (under advice):
    Be strong and brave — even when others are mean and petty.
    Be fair and honest — even when it is easier not to be.
    Be the best person you can be, at that moment in time, at all times. You’ll respect yourself more.
    Forgive and move on and make room for others to forgive you.

    Management is about community. The ones we live in, the ones we want to live in and the ones we’re passing through. You only get to do this once. Take care and smile, lots!

    • Thanks for adding to the advice, Amy! The more people who say it, the more folks may hear it.
      Very best,

    • Stephanie says:

      That is classy. I read a non-library related book on management that said above else, act with class.So true!

  3. Wayne Montgomery says:

    I am a retired engineering librarian. Like so many of those who have already commented, I LOVED practicing librarianship and especially working with students. As the librarians from the “boomer” generation retired, they were replaced by librarians that had great political and technological savy. This was mostly a good thing. Our library has gone through a dramatic transformation that is both shocking and enviable. Three departments and their service points were eliminated. Remember the 80/20 rule, well most of the 80% of the dust gathering books were removed. The remainder of the collection was shifted up two floors. In the space that was cleared on the second and third floor, group and individual study areas were installed, computer-equipped class rooms were built, and most importantly, a coffee shop now occupies about a third of the second floor. In addition the library has established a large foot-print in the campus social media. These advances are phenomenal for sure. However, I have not seen concomitant expansion and penetration of information comptence among faculty and students and that saddens me.

    • Thanks for writing, Wayne! It will be interesting to hear if other readers have responses to your comments.
      Best wishes,

  4. I, too, was too late to respond to the original survey, but would like to add my two cents to the advice, as follows:

    a. I agree whole-heartedly about having a second (third? Fourth?) language in your skill set – it can only enhance your marketability and gain you access to research materials you might otherwise not find or use or be able to recommend to researchers;
    b. Know that, as a middle manager, you may grind your teeth quite a lot. The advice given above about brushing is helpful, but once you get into middle management you may find a grind guard useful;
    c. Consider playing a sport intensely once you’re working in libraries – it will help take the edge off any frustration and may be instructive in working out interpersonal communications in the workplace, as well. It will also counteract the many hours you’ll spend sitting in front of a computer, no matter what you do in libraries.
    Thanks for this survey – I find most of the responses to be right on the money!

    • Thanks, JM, for responding online! All of these comments are going to be helpful to up and comers (and others who haven’t yet discovered their usefulness).
      Best iwishes,