Thursday, July 11, 2013

Libraries, the Universe & Everything – a Letter to a Younger Me, by Ned Potter


Dear 25-year-old-me,

It’s January 3rd, 2006. Tomorrow you start your new job as a Customer Services Assistant at the University of Leeds Library, UK. The bad news is, you’ll be commuting every day to an entry level job on a ridiculously small wage. That’s what comes of having a humanities degree, eh? The good news is, you’ve found your calling. Here are some things to watch out for over the next seven and a half years.
(That’s the first major headline, by the way. You thought libraries was just a temporary thing, but it isn’t. Okay, read on.)

You won’t believe how much you care about libraries
Previously you’ve been fairly indifferent to Libraries. Pro-library of course, in a not-really-thinking-about-it leftie liberal kind of way, but you don’t really go to them much. Or at all. In fact it is people like you who libraries aren’t attracting but potentially should be – you’ll often think back to how you felt about libraries in 2006, so get an insight into what is realistic in terms of attracting new users.

Anyway, you will start to care about libraries a LOT. You thought you were going to segue into Careers Work from here, but it turns out library work is a lot more interesting than you’d ever imagined (a common theme among your peers, you’ll realise, in about 3 years’ time when you wake up and finally get online). You’ll love working in HE, you’ll really enjoy the contact with the students and being on the cutting edge of learning technology. But you’ll also end up caring about public libraries, special libraries, school libraries as well. Bafflingly, despite being inherently lazy and having had exactly 25 years of massive underachievement, you’ll care about libraries so much it’ll cause you to work really hard, including sometimes in your own time, at home! Imagine that.

You’ll care about librarians even more
Between first getting online in 2009, and finishing your book in 2012 (I know! WTF, right?), you will invest an enormous amount of emotional energy in libraries, and after that you’ll settle down a bit and take a step back. But what never dims is your passion for librarians. Or more broadly, information professionals – and professionals here refers to anyone in the profession, NOT people with degrees. (Don’t even get us started on that.)

The best thing about librarianship, by far, is the community. Info pros are defined by their kindness, their willingness to help and to share, their sense of fun, and their love of gin. (You don’t like gin at this point – sort yourself out and start drinking G&Ts instantly. This letter will seem more insightful and entertaining the more gin you drink.) [Editor’s note: This guy is clueless. Real librarians drink vodka. Or bourbon.]

Going to library conferences is FANTASTIC. Particularly ones around New Professionals – new profs are generally defined as people who’ve entered the profession within the last 5 years, and even in 2013 when you’re most definitely OLD, you still love the new prof events the most. The energy, the optimism, the positivity! It’s great. Because fundamentally, it turns out that you can seek out the people who have the same outlook on the profession as you do – the world doesn’t all think like the people in your office. And that’s a great thing. Twitter, which hasn’t been invented yet (buy shares in it if you can) is going to allow you to be part of a network with likeminded people who work in the same profession as you, and to interact with them every day – you won’t believe how brilliant that is.

You’re going to have to do another Masters
Sorry about this. But it turns out – we really should have foreseen this – that a Music Masters doesn’t really lead to increased employability. And there’s a ceiling in Librarianship – around the second or third job you get – beyond which it’s very difficult to progress without a Masters in Library and Information Management, or similar. So as soon as you secure your second job in Libraries, in 10 months’ time, you’ll agree to do the Masters via Distance Learning. And though you don’t think the degree itself is up to much (and will later grow to dislike being complicit in a system so obviously flawed) you’ll be glad you have it because it’ll allow you to progress to what is known, irksomely, as a ‘professional post’. Professional posts pay quite well, so although you’re on naff-all money now, you’ll be fine in the end.

The upside of all this is you’ll be a Master of Science! Given your Science GCSE grades (2 Ds) you’ll find this hilarious. Take that, Mr. Mallaband the Chemistry teacher who said you were the most frustrating student he’d ever taught!

You waited too long to get online
Half way through 2009, librarianship goes from your job to your vocation in a day, more or less. You go to the inaugural New Professionals Conference in London (turns out you love public speaking, which you did NOT see coming…) and it’ll open your eyes. One of the papers is given by Jo Alcock who, it turns out, is something of an online pioneer. In 2013 EVERYONE is online, but the migration was still happening back then. Jo’s talk about her blog and Twitter activity makes you think you might like to try something like that. Events which subsequently happen and which can be directly traced back to that decision include: getting dream subject librarian job you aim for all along, getting to travel to other continents to give presentations, writing that book, doing some consultancy for the Latvian Ministry of Culture… I know, right? Wtf!

(You’re probably wondering why 2013 you says American things like ‘I know, right?’ etc. Well, it’s sort of done ironically. But also not, really. Because you communicate in a very American way, generally. More than half the traffic to both your blogs comes from the US. You’re friends with lots of North Americans generally. You speak the same language. But also, you’ll learn over time that the right people will appreciate you – it’s okay to be yourself and lose some of your audience by saying things like ‘I know, right?’ because there’s enough people out there who’ll understand where you’re coming from.)

So really, the first two and a half years of your professional life were fine, but your horizons would have been a lot broader if you’d been online from the start – if only as a consumer of blogs at first, later becoming an active participant in the community. Knowing you are part of something bigger is a hugely powerful thing.

Twitter will be the single most important tool for your CPD
CPD means Continuous Professional Development. You will LOVE Twitter (the first Tweet will be sent 3 months from now), despite resisting getting on there for YEARS, even after starting blogging, because you were too narrow-minded to understand it. But Twitter will keep you up to date with what’s going on, give you a constant source of ideas and inspiration, and tell you about new tools to try. Without Twitter you wouldn’t have been able to get your current job, write your book; do anything good, really.

You’ll have quite strong views on what we should be doing in the profession
Your dislike of conflict has not gone away so this occasionally causes some stress when you’re saying things people don’t want to hear, but it’s nothing major so you’ll do it anyway. Because you’re passionate about libraries and librarians, you are vocal about what you believe to be important. This includes:
  • Communicating our value PROPERLY at every opportunity. Librarians can be backwards about coming forward, but this is no longer acceptable – we have to make it explicitly clear how we can help people do things better / quicker / cheaper / more efficiently or whatever it is. We need to talk BENEFITS, not features. We need to talk services, not content. As Stephen Abrams (you don’t know who he is yet, but you’ll love him) put it just yesterday in 2013, nouns (books, buildings, desks) can be cut, can be warehoused, can be replaced from other sources. Verbs (engage, serve, DO) are the impact that we as librarians provide, and that’s what will – hopefully – keep most of us in jobs.
  • Embracing informality. Libraries tend to communicate in a rather austere and formal way – this goes back to the need to be respected and taken seriously, to have professional integrity. However, it IS possible to be professional yet informal, and communicate more effectively. Approachability is so important to building relationships, and relationships are essential in librarianship.
  • Trying to inspire people rather than placate. Librarians and libraries are inherently quite cautious and have a massive in-built fear of offending or alienating anyone. This partly comes from the moral duty libraries have not to exclude groups or demographics. However, simply not offending people is NO LONGER ENOUGH. That’s why we’re in this mess. (Oh did I mention libraries are in a mess? Tomorrow morning at 9am, your first day, you’re officially stepping on to a sinking ship. But that’s not as bad as it sounds – it’s an inspiring challenge and it’s invigorating to fight for something you believe in.) To get more people to value libraries, we need to inspire people – and it is difficult, if not impossible, to inspire anyone if you’re catering for everyone.
  • Understanding that work-life balance is important enough that it should not be considered with reference to what ANYONE ELSE IS DOING. By which I mean, a lot of people in the library community seem to be sort of super-librarians who do EVERYTHING, which scares some info pros – but the only thing that matters is finding a work-life efficiency that works for YOU. Whatever makes you happy.  There are no standards by which any of us should judge if we’re doing ‘enough’ except our own. In other news, it turns out saying ‘no’ to things, even great opportunities, is absolutely fine. Never once will you really regret it. Also you don’t need to be a martyr to this profession. There are prominent voices online who would have you believe that if you’re not out protesting against library closures, you don’t deserve to be a part of the profession. This isn’t true. Everyone is different. There are still many things in your life much more important to you than libraries.
  • Libraries have always been product orientated, but now they need to be market orientated. Ah, marketing speak. You’ll try and avoid it, but it’ll slip in now and again. Libraries have always been about books – you want books, go to the library. That worked for centuries, but now the information books contain is available through myriad other sources. So being based around a product – the book – doesn’t cut it anymore. We have to be based around the market; to survive we need to provide what people need. This means listening, anticipating, being brave. Fear-based librarianship has a very short life expectancy.

Okay, this letter is far too long already. You need sleep before the big first day. You’re about to start a journey which will be several times more awesome than you could possibly anticipate. As of tomorrow, you’ll no longer be an aimless slacker, because you’re about to stumble into a profession that will make a man out of you.

Have fun!

Ned Potter is an Academic Liaison Librarian at the University of York, as well as a trainer and presenter. He tweets @theREALwikiman, blogs at thewikiman, and recently published The Library Marketing Toolkit.


  1. Such a great letter, Ned. The whole thing resonated with me, but especially the bit about informality: how it helps us be more authentic, build relationships, and only turns off the wrong people anyway.

  2. Thank you Ginger!

    I feel quite strongly about that - I feel we're hungover from another era (on gin, of course :) ) and really need to change. Communicating well is so important, we can't be clinging on to outdated fears about being taken seriously!

  3. This is inspiring, and definitely motivates me. I view Twitter as a hugely important professional development tool, too, as it lets me interact with so many great info pros around the world. But I tend to be an observer; I need to take that next step and more actively lend my voice to the conversation!

  4. Fantastic, thank you Hannah. I've found you on Twitter now...

  5. Great letter. I am still in the library factory being made in to a capital L-Librarian and much of this is really how I've been feeling! Particularly inadvertantly stumbling in to the perfect career. It's good to know I don't need to be doing ALL OF THE THINGS ALL OF THE TIME too, I tend to get overexcited and just want to do absolutely everything. This was a very reassuring letter - apart from when it made me realise 2006 was 7 years ago.

  6. I'm not sure I'd really understood it was 7 years ago either...

    I think people need reassurance - librarianship is a much more dynamic and intense profession than those outside it would ever imagine. In terms of doing all of the things all of the time, and not panicking about not doing so, you might find this useful?

  7. This is a fantastic letter and very inspirational. A number of items resonated with me here but one of the biggest was the trying to inspire people rather than placate. I feel that I am often trying to do this and it can really wear you down while not really getting anywhere - you can't please everyone, right? I'd really like to hear more about how you do this in a University setting.

    I also like the advice about not being a martyr to the profession - librarians sometimes have a knack of instilling the guilt.

  8. Love this, off to make sure others see it and love it too.

  9. Thanks Lisa!

    Hey Sarah, you definitely can't please everyone, and trying do so is not just a minor issue, it's an active problem holding back the profession (or rather the industry).

    In terms of inspiring rather than placating in a University setting, there are two levels to it - things I can control, and things I can't. For the things I can't control - big library policy decisions etc - basically every time I hear a colleague say 'Yeah but if we do X it'll upset Group Y' I keep on plugging away with the notion that A) upsetting Group Y may be a price worth paying, B) their upset will likely be very vocal initially and then fade over time and C) oftentimes Group Y will be upset whatever you do, anyway... :)

    In terms of my actual work, I am basically less cautious than a lot of my colleagues, without being reckless - I rely on good communication skills to allow me to be direct and fairly informal with academics and students, because I think that's the only way to build relationships which actually MEAN anything (and allow you to achieve some progress).

    Librarians like to cover EVERYTHING to make sure no one misses out - if we weren't in such a state of crisis that'd be fine, but that's no longer workable - it's the equivalent of diluting a concentrated drink to make more, so much that in the end no one wants it because it's flavourless. So I leave info out of my webpages to make them smaller and more useable, I don't cover everything in my teaching so I can focus on the good stuff - all things for which there are very strong counter-arguments, but which I think yield tangible gains that make them worth the risk.

    Generally I always try and approach the services I provide from the point of view of what is most required by the students and academics, not from the point of view of what the library *has*, or has offered in the past.

    I also try and DO things as far as is practicable, rather than over-analysing myself into paralysis, or spending so much time checking it's okay with other people that I allow opportunities for spanners to be thrown into the works.

    I must stress though, I do all this in a minor way. It's fairly subtle, not full-blown anarchy. I am not trying to paint myself as some kind of maverick who daringly does what he pleases (people like that are often a lot more boring than they think they are, I've noticed); I work within the limits of what my bosses would expect of me because ultimately you get more done when you're part of the system than when you're outside it.