Thursday, December 20, 2012

I Began Saying Yes to All the Interesting Projects That Came My Way, by Brett Bonfield


I'd love a post about how and why you made the transition from academic to public libraries. There seems to be a whole mythology around switching between different kinds of libraries—at least among people who are new/newer to our career—and I'd love to start dispelling it. (Jessica Olin, October 26, 2012, via email)

I’d love to start dispelling it as well, because I’m pretty sure it is a myth. But I’m not certain. I don’t think there’s any empirical evidence, and even my personal experience is unidirectional: I worked at three academic libraries, part-time, while I was in library school and for the first eight months after I graduated, and then I started working as the director of the public library in the town where I live.

In order to have any credibility as a myth-buster, it seems like I should take a job working in an academic library. And to present myself as an expert, it seems like I should then leave that job for a job at a public library and then, to buttress my bona fides, leave my new public library job for yet another academic library job. Which seems like an awful lot of bother, not least because I really like my current job.

However, if things were to stagnate or deteriorate, and I'm no longer a good fit for my current job, I'm agnostic about what I would do next. I might try to become a faculty member at a library school, especially if I somehow manage to complete my LIS Ph.D., or I might try to work at a different library—public or academic, special or vendor. For me it's more about the organization's philosophy than its superstructure. Or, daring to dream big, I would love to work with a foundation that funds libraries in setting up a YCombinator for library-related startups.

As near as I can tell, librarians who are able to traverse boundaries, either real or mythological, are the ones that have this sort of “all things are possible” attitude. They’re the ones who have a well developed sense of perspective; the ones who feel good about themselves when they make a difference in other people’s lives; the ones who seek out opportunities to work with people they admire; and the ones who feel so passionate about what they do that it doesn’t even feel like work.

I’ve written about this sort of thing previously, but I’ve neglected to cite one of the primary sources that helped to inspire me to take this kind of action myself. Around the time I handed in my last assignment in library school, Aaron Swartz published an essay called, “The Interrupt-Driven Life.” There’s a phrase he uses in the first sentence of that essay that could be the tl;dr for whatever success I’ve enjoyed in my career: “I began saying yes to all the interesting projects that came my way.”

Saying yes to interesting projects can take on a life of its own. You start by volunteering to help with a code4lib project or answering a call for DPLA participation or showing up at a meeting for a committee you don’t belong to and the next thing you know you’re on a board or directing a library or writing a column. But then, that’s what it’s all about, right? That’s why you enrolled in library school in the first place. You wanted to make a difference.

But let’s face it, you didn’t know how libraries actually functioned. You knew nothing about ALA or SLA or your statewide organizations. You had just the barest sense of OCLC, if you had any sense of it at all. You thought people afflicted with OPACs, ILS, and MARC required antibiotics (if only). So the idea that you had some vague sense that you might like working in an archive or sitting behind a desk at an academic library or leading story time was grounded in ignorance. (Well intentioned, unavoidable, nothing to be ashamed of, but ignorance nevertheless.)

The thing to do now is let it go. If you’re working in or on behalf of libraries, then you’re a librarian. And if you’re committed to your profession, if you’re saying yes to all the interesting projects that come your way (and making sure you’re frequently in position to have interesting projects come your way), then you’re developing the skills you need in order to work effectively anywhere. And if potential employers don’t realize it, you’re better off avoiding such backward thinking workplaces.

Brett Bonfield is the director of the Collingswood (NJ) Public Library and a 2012 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. He graduated from Drexel’s library school in September 2007, and taught a course there in 2011. He is one of the writers & editors at In the Library with the Lead Pipe.


  1. "...librarians who are able to traverse boundaries...are the ones that...have a well developed sense of perspective...who feel so passionate about what they do that it doesn’t even feel like work."

    Having worked in many types of libraries as a page to a specialized research librarian since 1986 (and lots in between), I fully agree with the paraphrased statement above that experience in many roles and various institutions is vital to a broad understanding of what we can and should be doing as librarians. That's not to say that being in one place makes it impossible to do valuable work, but that being able to cut the apron strings can be vital and will most likely enhance ones' professional abilities and quality of life.

    This, however, can be a difficult thing for many of the librarian ilk to do.

    1. Thanks for this. Nothing makes me happier, as a writer, than to read thoughtful comments about something I've written.

      Do you think librarians are less likely to cut the apron strings than people in other professions?

    2. I think that the often introverted, cautious personality types that have been traditionally attracted to the profession may be less likely to be quick to get up and move on to something new and/or better. I've met many long suffering librarians, which unfortunately, doesn't bode well for our future viability. I think one way we should be redifining ourselves is through putting oursleves "out there," becoming activists and knowing when things have to change.

    3. I agree with your last point.

      My hope is the Young Librarian who I hope might find something of use in this post is unwilling to play the role of long-suffering librarian. For what it's worth, almost all of the librarians I've met who are newer to the profession than I am seem eager for change, a situation that helps me remain strongly optimistic about our ongoing viability.

    4. I am really glad to hear about the new librarians that you have come into contact with and your optimism about the future of the profession. I also have met some smart enthusiastic LIS students who have given me some hope as well ( Unfortunately, I also see too many who have thrown in the towel. But, with blogs like this and other means of communicating our value, young librarians that care and are unafraid, maybe we can make sure the tide is turned. I'm in! Thanks for the responsiveness!

  2. "If you’re working in or on behalf of libraries, then you’re a librarian." Perhaps I'm taking this out of context, but just seeing this sentence begs the question: Really?

    This discussion on whether or not we are or deserve to be profession may not belong here, but I'm still seeing it all over the place and in action. It's tedious but must be countered for the profession (and our libraries) to flourish.

    Also, I would like to hear more about what this "mythology" of transitioning to different types of libraries is that you speak of. As mentioned in my comment above, is it (a myth of) perspective and/or taking on change or more?

    Having worked in public, academic (very briefly), nonprofit, law and back to public I would say it could be both or neither. My transitions have ranged from the practical to the highly idealistic but the journey has brought perspective and vision.

    There is a mythology around public libraries that transcends a particular organization's philosophy and which I think should also apply to the librarians that work in them (though this is often and possibly increasingly not the case). This myth is around the ideas of equality and democracy. The expertise in providing, connecting, teaching that we bring to lucrative special librarian positions can and should be applied to public librarians, though in somewhat different contexts of course. This means committed, educated, paid professionals. This means continuing education, being hooked into one's community, being able to have perspective beyond the local problems and much more.

  3. I really like what this post has to say. I have made several transitions in my career--I worked part-time in a public library during graduate school, made the transition to a specialized library/archives environment for a number of years, and then have recently taken a high-profile public services position (in the same library system where I worked part-time) where I manage a whole collection and wing of the library in addition to serving as one of the floor managers. I'm learning a ton--skills that were lying dormant in the organization where I was essentially becoming another one of those "long suffering" librarians (archivists in my case). In some ways I feel like my next step very well might be administration in a public library . . . although there is also part of me that wouldn't mind getting back into academic librarianship. Ossification isn't good. And public librarians can bring an amazingly innovative skill-set, esp. when it comes to customer service, back into academia if they so choose.