[Editor’s note: “prolegomena” means prefatory remarks.]
Upon beginning my first full-time professional librarian gig, I was neither young nor did I consider myself a librarian (hold onto your dreams, aspiring archivists!). I had been dabbling in different industries, each of which required varying work ethics, displays of organizational prowess, and feats of mental determination. Oh, how I dabbled. Thus, being a full-fledged adult worker, bearing an advanced degree and all the gumption of a novice, I unwittingly hauled along some tacit assumptions about how to get s*#^ done.
And then came that first year.
You will want to do things. You will be excited and you will want to summon forth that energy to prove your mettle and efficiency. You will want to tackle project after project. You will want to advocate for the library’s value in your effectiveness and passion as a worker. You will want to help and you will want to improve.
Then you will hit that first organizational brick wall. And once you’ve picked yourself up from that, you will trip over a smaller, second brick wall. And once you’re done cursing brick walls, you’ll scurry through a dust storm, step a little too deep into that mud puddle, and wonder why the hell there are so many traffic cones surrounding you.
Welcome to the odd and wonderful, oft infuriating and anachronistic, world of libraries. We fidget at a nexus of competing energies and agendas, goals and stakeholders, timelines and budgets, purpose and value. There are never enough of us; there’s rarely enough time; we can never please everyone; and we choose our battles the best we can.
If you aren’t careful, frustration can and will become your norm. To the purpose of preserving yourself, your energy, and your enthusiasm, I vaguely offer the following:
Librarians are an idiosyncratic lot. Our personality types run the gamut, but there is a steadfast, determined and stubborn quality about us, as a collective, that I admire. We each stand up for what we deem important to the mission of the library. The quicker you come to appreciate the commonality of intent, independent of the temperament of expression, the easier it will be for you to recognize when your interests and goals may need to recede to whatever good the library (or its governing entities) deems as priority.
The politics of managing a library are unavoidable. We each have our say and our perspective, but few of us will ever be in the position to maintain a holistic awareness of the effort it takes to keep this particular ship afloat. Patience and fortitude, and all good things in time, is the outlook you need. It may take years to push through an initiative you are convinced will only take weeks to finish, and it may take minutes to decide on a project that takes years to complete. You may or may not have a say in either scenario. Adjust your sense and scale of time to be more expansive. Consider your projects and goals, your intent and wishes, from the macro. Libraries tend to not function like industrial behemoths, chugging along at an ungodly pace and churning out service after service after service. We live and work and thrive in an ecosystem that is delicate and sturdy, demanding and lackadaisical.
Purely from anecdote, no two libraries seem to be alike. Talk to one person and you’ll get the rigid, hierarchical, bureaucratic, slow-moving sloth of burden. Talk to a second person and you’ll get the mental whiplash of an overworked, agile, change-oriented… gazelle of delight? Talk to a third person and they’ll hover somewhere between the two, an uncertain and unholy hybrid. Probably don’t talk to a fourth person or you’ll have difficulties generating conclusions.
Wherever you happen to end up, take the time to understand the organizational culture you just stumbled into. Understand its history, the folks who have worked there since time immemorial, and the ones with but a mere few years of existential weathering. Understand where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re trying to go. This is an elementary, but crucial, first step.
Every one of us, irrespective of rank or position, whether by design or accident, has a deep influence in how our library runs and how we serve in its mission. But you cannot use brute force to wield that influence, however subtle or overt it may be. The hope, of course, is that you find a library that places reciprocal diligence into getting to know and appreciate you, and that it is a co-evolution of personal and organizational growth. To that end, never cease to advocate for yourself and your professional intentions, while preserving the congeniality of open dialogue.
Brian Rogers is the Director of Library IT at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Prior to that, he worked as a Web Design and Instruction Librarian. Prior to that, he worked as a software tester and copyeditor for the tech industry. Prior to that, he’ll tell you over drinks. He holds a BA in English from Emory, and an MLIS in Archives, Preservation and Records Management from the University of Pittsburgh. Everything clearly, clearly worked out precisely as he imagined it would. He tweets @bhar0.