March 23, 2018

Kindness in Librarianship | Not Dead Yet

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Elwood P. Dowd, Harvey

Cheryl LaGuardiaHaving spent a good portion of my professional life trying to be smart, I am now trying to be pleasant and kind, in my work and in the rest of my life. That’s not to say I’m abandoning smart—it’s just not my top priority, since I think, like Mr. Dowd, that pleasant trumps smart at the end of the day.

I’ve seen polls in which folks were asked, “Would you rather work with someone who’s really smart and difficult or someone who’s not so smart but is nice and easy to work with?” and the results show that people generally prefer the latter. I’m with them. (And before you say it, let me note that the ideal would, of course, be to work with folks who are really smart and really nice. When you get such an environment, cherish it!) The good news is that it seems that being nice to one another may be a trending quality in work environments; a quick look around the web found articles in a number of different sources that are basically talking about the value of being kind to one another in the workplace:

In the course of my web travels I recently came across two sites that, well, simply made me feel good, and I think it will be kind to share them with you. The first is, which is a blog about “the “Happy Life-Expectancy”…[which is] the number of years a person lives happily.” Since I’d like to increase my happy life expectancy, I read on through a number of posts and found one that, funnily enough, sums up the approach I take to public desk work. The post is How To See the Good in Other People, and the relevant section is:

“Your Basic Social Skills: There are three very simple social skills that will help you see the good in others. They might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often you don’t do some of these things:

1. Slow Down and Be Curious About Others

2. Look Them in the Eyes

3. Smile at Them”

I was lucky enough to discover how well these behaviors work at a reference desk fairly early in my career (I was so happy to be working at a reference desk that I was beaming 24 hours a day), but how I wish someone had tipped me off to them in library school—they truly are the “secret” to overcoming researchers’ reluctance to approach you at a desk. And I suspect that the combination of those three things is what has made my library life interesting, enjoyable, and fulfilling—talk about lifelong learning! I’ve met some astonishing and lovely people at the various public desks I’ve worked. Also some not so lovely people, but they, too, were astonishing in many ways….

The other site I enjoy no end is the Goodreads compilation of quotes from the Dalai Lama. Admittedly, you can also read the book The Art of Happiness, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, but this site is now my immediate go-to place whenever I need a pick-me-up: it puts things in perspective and has never failed to bring a smile to my face when I needed one. It also helps to remind me to be kind, both for others’ sake and for my own. As the Dalai Lama notes, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie J.M. 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, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    Another wonderful post. Thank you Cheryl!

  2. Thanks, Cheryl, this was really refreshing. :)

    • Thanks, Karin — frankly, every time I go to either of the sites noted I feel refreshed! Glad you enjoyed the post.
      Best wishes,

  3. Good reminder. I love the fact that the policy section includes reminder to be respectful.

    • Thanks Dorothy — that is the key to behaving well amongst ourselves, isn’t it? Having basic respect for others at all times. Like the article says, “you get what you give.”
      Best wishes,

  4. Thank you for this article. In a world of challenges and low-level snark, and of vastly-differing perspectives on what constitutes efficiency, authority, and/or leadership (regardless of industry), empathy, warmth, and thoughtful encouragement are too often relegated to situational traits or displays of behavior, quietly reserved just for the more-vulnerable patrons or for “confirmed” like-minded colleagues. They don’t oppose efficiency, authority, or leadership; they enhance them.

    Reluctance towards warmth is a sad state any way you look at it. This is an important topic.

    • Thanks, Traci — I think it’s an important topic, too. I’m extremely fortunate to now be working in a warm and thoughtful environment, with supportive colleagues I like and respect and an administration that is smart, kind, and human. As you note: these qualities enhance the efficiency of our workplace and make me respect our leaders — and my colleagues — even more. You said it so well: “Reluctance towards warmth is a sad state any way you look at it.” I’d love to see a library conference devoted to enhancing work and service environments with the starting point being to remind us to be good to each other.
      Best wishes,

  5. Thanks, Cheryl. It’s always good to be reminded.

    The friendliness factor has shown up time and again in studies of reference services where it reveals that being friendly is actually more important than being right when it comes to the satisfaction of your library customers. Of course, the ideal would be to be friendly AND right.

    • Hi Jessica,
      Really underscores the importance of being friendly and welcoming at a public desk, doesn’t it? You can’t answer a question correctly if the researcher never even approaches you for want of a welcoming demeanor. Thanks for writing!
      Best wishes,

  6. I think many people make the assumption that nice people are dumb, or at least dumber than themselves. Nice people have manners, and good manners dictate not to be a know-it-all. You can be nice and intelligent. Please do not assume that just because someone is nice, that person is not as smart as yourself.

    • Hi Stephanie,
      I agree completely, and I think you’ve got a corollary to Traci’s observation, above, that “Reluctance towards warmth is a sad state any way you look at it” — it’s also very sad to think that being nice is aligned with being not-so-smart. That’s a perception I’d love to see turned around in libraries (or anywhere)!
      Thanks for writing, and best wishes,

  7. Rhea Lesage says:

    Great post by a wonderful colleague who practices what she preaches! Thank you, Cheryl.

    • Rhea, this means a lot coming from you, because you are the person who immediately comes to mind when I’m talking about kind and supportive colleagues. I am kvelling over your comment.
      Thank you, and thank you especially for bringing such kindness and humanity to the workplace — every library needs someone like you!
      Very best,