March 20, 2018

Caring…Just Enough | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaHere’s a complex and controversial topic: Just how much should you care about your library job? If you think that’s not so complex or controversial, consider this: many, if not most, of the librarians I have known during my (pretty long) career have been passionate about their work. Not just when they were newbies, either (although to be sure, this is one of the many good reasons for bringing new blood into an organization: the high energy and excitement the newly graduated bring to any library enterprise), but throughout their careers. So many of us are lifelong library believers: believers in research, the arrangement of and access to information, literacy, services to the differently abled, the solving of bibliographic mysteries…the list goes on and on, but the trait is common to many librarians. We love our work, we love what we do, and we believe in its innate worth.

But libraries themselves are complex and, at times, controversial operations. Seldom is any issue in a library so straightforwardly obvious to all that there is universal agreement, whether it is about policies, budgets, services, you name it—political realities govern most of what goes on. Library administrators generally answer to a higher authority—trustees, deans, and other governing bodies—who essentially direct what can and cannot be done. And sometimes that conflicts with what staff want.

So what do you do when decisions are made with which you don’t agree, or when services and policies are put in place that you don’t like, or when they’re not put in place when you fervently believe in them? You have choices, certainly. I remember the options described in my library school administration course: you can disagree in private, but you need to agree in public. If you find that you cannot agree in public, then you need to move on. And those choices make good professional sense—but I’m wondering how many of us are able to do that.

I’ve been in a host of situations like this during my career, and I’ve made different decisions at different times. Sometimes I reconciled myself to “disagreeing privately,” sometimes I worked within the organization to change that with which I didn’t agree, and sometimes I moved on. But what I’ve endeavored to do in every instance is not to become dispirited, not to become discouraged, and not to become dysfunctionally embittered. This can be very tough to achieve when you care so much about your work—and I do care and have always cared. I think I’m speaking for most librarians in this: we care!

It might, therefore, seem odd that I suggest we should care…just a little bit less. I’m not saying we should no longer be passionate about our work, but I am saying that when you care so passionately about something that can’t be done or can’t be changed, maybe you need to let go a little. Most everyone wants things to go the way they think they should go. The reality is that that is often not possible, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes you fight the good fight (in private), and for whatever reason, what you want to do can’t be done, or what you don’t want has to be done. In my humble opinion, the worst thing you can do, both for yourself and for your library, is to be irreconcilable about the issue and become a disgruntled malcontent. If you have to, please move on! Somehow. If you cannot move on physically/professionally (if you have to stay in the situation for family or financial reasons, for instance), then move on intellectually and emotionally. There is much wisdom in the saying, “Let go or be dragged.”

Why am I bringing this up? Oddly enough, it’s because I’m particularly happy in my work situation right now. I am working with, and being managed by, real, honest-to-God human beings who are decent, thoughtful, committed people, and I’m happier in my work than ever before. I’ve lived through some dark times, moved beyond them, and let them go. And having done so, I’d like to help anyone else who is going through the pain of being unhappy at work in any way I can. One way is to say that it really is okay—in fact, it’s necessary—to let go of some of your caring about the difficult situations and conflicting issues. Holding on is holding you back. It is enormously liberating to care just a little less, to focus your energy someplace else, and to find the joy in your life, wherever it may be.

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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, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. librariankris says:

    I don’t often respond, although I read regularly, but this one touched me today, because I’m dealing with a situation in my workplace right now where the majority of staff is being overruled by administration on what probably feels to administration like a very small issue. I think there is extreme value in people feeling they’ve been heard. If my boss/manager/department head/whoever listens to what I have to say, allows me to make my case to the next level up if appropriate, respects the work I’ve put into it and still vetoes me, I’m okay. I might disagree privately, to use your words, but I’m going to feel respected and feel as though my work has worth. This makes it easier for me to fume and then let go and move on. If I feel ignored, slighted, shoved to the side, belittled, or spend a lot of time doing work that I’m later told means nothing, that is when I will have trouble letting go emotionally and/or look for greener pastures. A note to managers: if you want people who care deeply about their jobs (and you did a nice job saying why that’s important), make sure your employees know you care deeply about them.

    • Dear librariankris,

      Thank you for adding such an important aspect to this issue: “the extreme value in people feeling they’ve been heard.” I agree with you wholeheartedly that this is a key ingredient to a work situation in which you can — and want to — continue, even if you disagree with administration about something, confident that your “caring” is worthwhile. And thank you, too, for putting your finger on something else I now realize is making my own situation happier than ever before: I do feel that I’m being heard, and that, as they (and you) say, is HUGE.. I appreciate your writing; based on what I hear from colleagues near and far I suspect this is an issue that means a lot to many of us.

      Best wishes, and thanks again,

  2. acadlibrarian says:

    I was just reflecting on this issue on the way into work today. Just like everyone else working in higher ed today we’re “experiencing change” seemingly from every direction. And since our institution is vast and Byzantine it constantly feels like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is up to. There are literally so many things going on which seem so very wrong on so many levels that it would be a full-time job to make a stand on half of them. Yet I see a handful of colleagues doing just that and … perhaps not surprisingly … increasingly they are being dismissed as cranks. And not just by admin – even their colleagues are weary of the non-stop criticism.

    I don’t just admire their passion – I feel it myself, but I’m increasingly convinced that choosing one’s battles is the only way to go. I just can’t “care” about every last bit of the crazy that’s going on around me. Some of it just has to bounce off my back. Is that right? Probably not, but I think it’s crucial to remember that there’s a difference between the world as it should be and the world as it is.

    So yes: to survive, to be effective and to keep my health and well-being I have to care about my job somewhat selectively. I just don’t have the energy to tilt at every windmill on the horizon and I even if I did I can’t see that being the best way to serve my community.

    • Dear acadlibrarian,

      Your note is full of a number of excellent points, I think, including: “choosing one’s battles is the only way to go,” ” it’s crucial to remember that there’s a difference between the world as it should be and the world as it is,” and “to survive, to be effective and to keep my health and well-being I have to care about my job somewhat selectively.” But the thing that impresses me most about it is that you view the issue through the lens of what is the best way to serve your community. I think anyone who is able to keep that perspective, to see the real world, warts and all, and still be focused on serving your community as best you can, has a healthy, positive, and effective workview. I humbly salute you, and thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and adding to the ideas here.
      Best wishes,

  3. acadlibrarian says:

    heh. Thanks Cheryl. This reminds me that probably the best professional advice I’ve ever been given is to remember that “it’s not all about you.” This was not a moment of meanness on my boss’s part – just a healthy reminder that I’m a(n important!) piece in a much larger jigsaw ;-)

  4. Hi Cheryl, very true, we need to learn how to let go — more.

    As long as you are not up there at the TOP of the Library hierarchy, chances are, you’ll often find yourself getting frustrated by their way of thinking. So often when I hear them speak, I feel as if my surroundings have morphed into some medieval setting. I pray that I don’t become like that one day, please no.

    For those who share my sentiments, whenever you find yourself frustrated, my advice is to make a conscious effort to ask yourself:
    (1) What is it that’s really important to you?
    (2) Is it *that* important to win your case?
    (3) So what if you’ve lost the battle?
    (4) So what if you’ve won?…or did you really?

    Think about some past office battle which you won/lost, say 5 years ago. Does it matter that much *now*? How many of your colleagues who knew about that incident are still around? How many of them still remember, or care? Similarly, for today’s battle, regardless of its outcome, it won’t matter very much 5 years down the road. Don’t beat yourself up about it!

    When I disagree privately about the decisions that are being made, I let go, if it’s not a matter of life and death, and accept that different people think differently, “Too bad you’re not at the top”, I would joke to myself :p

    Just to share one example. We have so many users asking where the washrooms are. I suggested putting up clear directional signs to the washrooms, like those you see in the shopping mall. But our Heads refused, reason being that toilets don’t need be “highlighted” in the Library. (Say what? When that’s *the* most frequently asked question at the information desks??) I find the rationale super crappy. And know, deep down, it would be a waste of my time and energy to argue further with someone who has fixed his mind that that is that. But I was frustrated that a simple thing to do was rejected, for a poor reason.

    Then I took a step back and asked myself, okay whose lives have been made poorer after this silly battle? Well, to be honest, no one really. It’s super easy for our staff to just say, “Toilets? Just head straight and turn to your left.” For the users, life goes on as per usual. They aren’t really that inconvenienced. If they couldn’t find the toilet, they just need to ask and they’d get the correct answer from our friendly staff.

    You see, not worth beating myself up about it.

    So my friends, let go more. In your journey, you’ll find so many of your great & wonderful & creative ideas getting killed (not all, but maybe most) by your bosses for the most ridiculous and unbelievable reasons. The true benefit or impact to users is really not THAT great that you have to trade in your emotional and mental well being for it. Even right now, with so many areas that are in need of improvements, majority of our users are actually rather okay with the current state of things.

    Love your job, and remember, your health, happiness and family are most important.

    Take care,