Thursday, November 12, 2015

On Listening and Being Listened To, by Michele Santamaria


My former colleague, let’s call them "M," was completely baffled that someone could get a job recommendation letter from a person whom they had never met face-to-face. M was questioning the validity of a recommendation letter written by a library school professor who had only interacted with our candidate during online classes. The candidate in question was someone who had been hired in a temporary position at our library and whom I had never met. However, I knew that the candidate had alienated M by implying, either accidentally or intentionally, that M’s view of librarianship was hopelessly out of date.

In fact, I had been warned by someone who had worked at the library for a very long time that it was very important to show M respect. Which I did. But I also showed her respect by engaging her in real dialogue and occasionally challenging her preconceptions. This discussion about the recommendation letter was one of those moments.

When it came to discussing this lack of face-to-face contact, I pointed out that I knew several excellent librarians in an "In Real Life" context who had attended the same online program and that this was the way many people were becoming librarians in our geographic area. Given the number of library schools and the economic realities of life, this was the best way for most people. To riff on the language used by Jessica in a recent post, I created a bridge between online and real life, a rift that M didn’t like to traverse. M nodded cautiously; at this point, they didn't think that I was full of crap, so I took it as a good sign.

This particular conversation took place during the summer when there was less stuff to do. I sat down and spoke with M for about an hour. We would do this sometimes.  Though M was the most senior of the librarians and very set in some ways, I felt that M was willing to listen to me. Maybe part of the reason for this is that M felt the same way about me, hence the title of this post. These times with M resonate for me, given some recent commentary about newbies needing to do a better job of absorbing the institutional knowledge and context before showing up with brand-spanking new ways of doing things that may not be a good fit. Meredith Farkas’ fairly recent editorial piece in American Libraries comes to mind.  

I agree that listening to seasoned librarians is essential and that overzealous young librarians may favor change at all costs rather than smart change that is a good fit to their institutional context. However, in exploring my dialogues with M, I want to draw attention to the fact that there needs to be reciprocity between generations of librarians. Ageism cuts several ways. Or put in a less-like-academic-speak-way, I listened to M because they listened to me. M didn't necessarily agree. M would frequently advocate for their point of view. But at least M was willing to entertain that I had something to offer and that they might want to rethink their preconceptions. I felt heard by M and this made me feel less alone in that particular workplace.

I knew for sure that M listened to me when I made a comment about some strategic plan language sounding "outdated” during a meeting. Two librarians who had drafted this particular piece of language looked at me funny. It would not be a stretch to say that they gave each other a knowing look and then glared. M, who was the oldest by several years, said that what they thought I was trying to say was that the language had become so commonplace that it no longer sounded fresh.  Which was exactly what I was trying to say. Perhaps it would have been wiser, in a way, to say "clichéd" though I might have sounded more judgmental.  Honestly, I would rather sound harsh than ageist.

So I wish that the younger me had been more careful with my words, though it was kind of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't situation."  But mainly, the older me is grateful towards M for mirroring back what I was trying to say and grateful towards the younger me for at least being wise enough to sometimes realize the importance of listening. So listen, young librarians and seek out colleagues who are also willing to listen. 

Michele Santamaria is the Learning Design Librarian at Millersville University. She is also happy to say that she is the Subject Librarian for English, foreign languages, and Latin@ Studies. While she has published in other genres, this is her first real blog post. She tweets at @infolitmaven.


  1. Excellent post. I absolutely agree that "there needs to be reciprocity between generations of librarians." I'd like to think that being a Gen Xer works to my advantage. I may be "young" as a librarian, having just started grad school, but I've been friends with - and have enjoyed listening to - older librarians for years.

    1. Hi Heather,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that Gen Xers can be in a unique position to act as a "bridge" since we've experienced what came before and after the great big informational changes. In my experience, the generational difference has functioned more like an "elephant in the room" rather than something that we acknowledge and then try to draw strength from, through dialogue. I'm glad to hear that your work as a librarian aims to bridge that gap.

  2. So important to listen! And not come in "guns blazing!" Indeed, there is so much "new," "young" librarians have to offer. And there is ALSO so much we "older" librarians have to share, including background and history. NEITHER side should throw away what the other has to say in the trash.

    1. Hi Cheryl,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read & comment. I'm reassured by your commitment to listening and to dialogue. I think that sometimes librarians' passion for what they do can sometimes make it harder for them to listen; that being said, that passion also pushed me towards the profession.