Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Wears Heavy Boots, Is Loud: On "Brutal Optimism" in Professional Practice

At ACRL last year, I attended the keynote speech given by Henry Rollins. (Confession: Hank was the reason I even submitted a talk proposal in the first place. I may occasionally attend the bigger conferences, but my preference has always been and will likely always be for smaller conferences.) It was probably one of the best talks in that vein that I've attended in years. The man practically turned into a librarian fanboy on the stage as he talked about his own experiences with archiving early punk paraphernalia and his experiences at the National Archives. He even quoted the 14th amendment to us, word for word. Henry was a fascinating and riveting presence on the stage, and everyone with whom I compared notes afterwards said that the speech had been an energizing experience.

But, as amazing as Henry Rollins was, there was one concept he introduced during his speech that was even more captivating than the man himself: brutal optimism. I have come back to that idea over and over in the intervening time - playing with it, turning it over and over in my mind. To me, brutal optimism means "I believe the best of people, damnit!" It's fiercely advocating and truly believing that things will turn out for the best, that things will get better, and it means planning for that day - even amidst all the crap (*cough*budget cuts*cough*) that happens. A year and a half into my first administrative librarian position, well into my twelfth year as a librarian, I've decided that I'm going to adopt "brutally optimistic" as a professional touchstone, a phrase I'll consciously revisit again and again to remind myself that it's okay to believe things will be well.

Why am I doing this? Well, in order to explain that, I need to make a confession: I really do believe the best of people. Even when someone is being all craptastic to me, my first instinct is to wonder who treated them so badly that they think it's okay to treat others that way. I know I occasionally come off sounding pretty cynical, but my cynicism is more pronounced because I do actually believe things will improve... it's just that I sometimes get impatient. Maybe it's my study and practice of Buddhism, or maybe it's because I've got a stubborn streak, or maybe it's just that the alternative is too depressing. Regardless of the cause, I am an optimist. (Not saying I don't have my down moments. Being a human being is, by its nature, a roller coaster kind of thing. Just saying that, when all is said and done, I expect good things to happen.)

I guess writing this blog post isn't really about a new direction in my life as much as it's about a public declaration of that direction. Kind of a "Do I think things will turn out well? Yes. Do I think I'll have to fight a bit to help everything turn out well. F* yes." thing.  I'm sharing this with you because I'm hoping others will come out of their cynical shells to admit their inner Pollyannas, and to encourage new librarians not to hide theirs. Like I said, I'm pretty sure it is precisely because I know things will eventually turn out well that I get so angry at times. It's that vision of good things in the future that is the reason I publish posts like Jake Berg's think piece about a very flawed aspect of the proposed framework. It's that vision of good things in the future that is the reason why I keep fighting. (Cue one of my favorite bands.)

How about you? Do you think this is something we, as a profession, can get behind? Can we all become a bit more brutally optimistic?

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