Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Embracing Librarianship, Warts and All: My ENY/ACRL Keynote

Note: This is as close as I can come to recreating the keynote I gave at the annual conference of the Eastern New York chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ENY/ACRL). This post is based on my notes and my memories of what I said, and is not an exact transcript. In a couple of cases, I've removed references to specific people and things that were part of the conference in the interests of making it more blog-y. I want to thank the organizing committee in general for giving me this opportunity, and Emily Thompson and Tarida Anantachai in particular for all their help.

young girl hugging a very large bullfrog

Before I get into my talk, I need to make a confession. The first thing I did after the organizing committee approached me and I said yes to giving this keynote... the first thing I did was to freak out.

kitten flipping out after being nudged by a bearded dragon

On an intellectual level, I got it. The theme of this conference ("Building Supportive Organization Cultures in Libraries," or more colloquially: "Librarians helping librarians.") is one of the driving forces in my professional life and it’s the reason I started blogging in the first place. But there’s still something a bit overwhelming about having your passion recognized. I've spent so much time kicking and screaming and shaking my fist at the profession, that when the world finally turned around and started paying attention, it was a moment of "Oh, [expletive deleted]!"

great dane standing over and looking down at a chihuahua who is looking up

I know it’s supposed to be bad form to share fears and insecurities about public speaking in an actual talk, but it feeds into the actual theme of my talk: owning that I’m human.

I’m not exaggerating, however. Letters to a Young Librarian has always felt like me shaking my fist at “the man.” Forget about how weird I feel now that I’m an administrator and therefore kind of “the man” myself, I wasn’t in charge of much of anything back when I started writing. So let me tell you about what led to the birth of my blog and why I’m so passionate about the theme of this conference. 

The first thing was that I finally, after years of meaning to, got around to reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. If you’ve never read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Ours is a creative profession, and anyone who is creative for a living needs to read this book. Next, I read something about a woman who started a blog that turned into her career, and I realize now that it planted a seed for me. 

Shortly after reading those two things, I was supervising a library science graduate student in his culminating experience - kind of a cross between an internship and a research project. I asked him one day about how his classes were going, as I often did, and this time he started complaining about having to learn an outdated piece of technology. It turned out it was a piece of tech I’d complained about when I was learning it a decade prior, and it had been outdated even then. I brought that conversation up with some coworkers over lunch later that week, and found out that library hand - the specific kind of handwriting librarians used for cards in the card catalog - had been taught in graduate programs as late as the thirties despite the invention and proliferation of typewriters. We were still teaching it, "just in case." Outdated curricula was not unheard of, in other words.

And that's when I got angry.

gif of Dr. Bruce Banner turning into the incredible hulk

And that's when I started writing.

Something else has been making me angry lately, which brings me to my real topic today of owning our mistakes. That’s this: there are so many talented librarians who feel they don’t belong.

very young chipmunk standing with some plastic animal toys

I want to backtrack again for a moment and talk about my path to librarianship.

the words "origin story" over doctor doom from the fantastic 4

I left college with a bachelor of arts in american history. I know that my liberal arts background prepared me better than almost any other experience for this profession. However, at the time, I had no idea what to do with my life. I bounced around to different jobs - residence counselor for an autistic teenager, bookstore clerk, assistant manager of a Roy Rogers, secretary… The last one was particularly miserable, and I realized I needed to find an actual direction. So I took one of those much maligned career aptitude tests. I don't know why those tests are so eschewed, because it worked for me. I don’t remember much about the test, but I do remember that librarianship was the top result. And it made so much sense. There was the fact that my favorite job I’d ever had was at that bookstore, mostly because of the kind of people who came into that store. Also, my godmother was a librarian and loved it. Finally, and I don't talk about this publicly very often, my very first kiss happened in my hometown public library. I’m not one to believe in fate, but there was a definite constellation of events that took the shape of me becoming a librarian. 

One important thing to note, though: I’d never worked in a library a day in my life before I applied to library science graduate programs. 

Obviously that didn’t get in my way, not too much anyway, but that’s a story for another time. I’m telling you all of this to express that when I was the new kid, it took me a while to feel situated as well.

several birds on telephone wires with one upside down

I sometimes have a hard time believing I’ve been at this librarian thing for twelve years now, because I still remember how it took me a long time in my first professional position to be able to trust myself, even though my boss and coworkers seemed to trust me well before that.

The thing is, there are still sometimes when I feel like I’m playing a game of “fake it til you make it.”

3 adult emperor penguins with one emperor penguin chick

I’ve struggled with this feeling off and on throughout my entire career, truth be told. And I’m far from being the only one. Meredith Farkas wrote about it recently, too. If you don’t recognize that name, she writes a blog called Information Wants to be Free. Great stuff, that blog. Anyway, she recently wrote about her struggles with “gut churn” (a concept she got from Jad Abumrad's keynote at ACRL this year).

hand drawn picture of a stomach with some scribbles in it accompanies by the words "gut churn"

"Gut churn" can loosely be defined as the specific way your stomach hurts when you try something new and scary. The whole post, which is titled “True confessions”, is worth your time. But one passage resonated with me:
"There are people who say they admire me. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that because I don’t think I deserve it. I’m also uncomfortable because I worry that it creates this false expert vs. novice dichotomy that might make them think they can’t achieve what I have. Anyone can do what I’ve done."
I don’t know if I agree that anyone can do what Meredith has done or what I’ve done or what any publicly successful librarian has done, but I do agree that most anybody can have career success. I’ll explain the caveat of “most” below, since I don’t want to lose the current point - the “false expert vs. novice” point. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this is, why we have this false dichotomy. One thing I think might be contributing is rampant perfectionism. Between photoshop, romantic comedies, bootstrap myths, and a few other forces in our culture, we really do think we have to be perfect. I’m not immune to this feeling which, if left to fester, can lead to self-doubt and feelings of vulnerability and eventually shame.

two panels from a comic, the first is a drawing of a dog looking up; the second is of the same dog looking down with his paw covering his eyes

I can feel you shifting uncomfortably even if I can't see you. And I get it. Talking about shame, and it’s partner vulnerability, in a professional context feels taboo. But if we’re going to get to the heart of why so many people joining this profession or taking new steps in the field are feeling so alienated and out of place, then we need to talk about the emotions.

And to do this, I’m going to borrow wholesale from the work of someone who researched this stuff for years: BrenĂ© Brown. You may know that name because she’s given two hugely popular TedX talks or because she sometimes gets to hang out with Oprah Winfrey.

screen capture from the television show 30 rock: the first panel shows Tracey Jordan and has the words "so what's your religion Liz Lemon?" and the second panel shows Liz Lemon and has the words "I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me to."

I feel the need to explain that I’m not a member of the cult of Oprah, so I’m glad I didn’t let Brown’s association with Oprah stop me because I’ve come to embrace Brown's work. Her definition of shame has stuck with me and it is integral to my thoughts on helping other librarians: “shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that won’t be worthy of connection?” Let that sink in for a moment. Something that won’t be worthy of connection in this hyper-connected world? And yet we all know this feeling, this “I’m not good enough” feeling.

Al Franken, in his role Stuart Smalley, hugging a teddy bear

I wasn’t sure if Stuart Smalley, a Saturday Night Live character portrayed by Senator Al Franken in the 90s, would work as a joke for everyone in the audience. For those of you who don’t know, the joke was a show about self affirmation and Stuart was known for saying “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me.”

I want to share a few more Brene Brown quotes with you before I go on. I’m sharing them because they are the things I hold to me when I’m feeling small and scared and vulnerable and weak.

a group of three kittens, one of which is arching its back

I think these quotes might help you, too. Brown says “This is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world.” She also says “Vulnerability is not weakness.” and, more to the point of my discussion, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

This leads me to my main point. If we want innovation and progress and new strong leaders, we have to support vulnerability and we have to stop stigmatizing mistakes.

a picture of Jake the Dog from the show Adventure Time with the words: "Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something." -Jake the Dog

Okay, I already brought one non-librarian into the mix. Next I want to talk to you about Joi Ito. Ito is the director of the MIT Media Lab and is seen by many as a guru of innovation. He was interviewed a while back by Wired Magazine, and through the course of that piece, Ito ended up giving some rules of innovation. (My thoughts are in parenthesis, but the list otherwise comes straight from the article linked above.)
  1. Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure. (I printed out "resilience instead of strength" typed in a pretty font and put it on the bulletin board behind my desk so I see it every day and it reminds me.)
  2. You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them. (This is just as much about personnel and time as it is about money or physical resources.)
  3. You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety. (No explanation necessary.)
  4. You want to focus on the system instead of objects. (This is especially important in libraries. We’ve got to remember that it - whatever "it" is - may not look like what we expect.)
  5. You want to have good compasses not maps. (It’s the future of libraries - and no, don’t worry, I’m not a library futurist - so there’s no way to know for sure what the future will look like.)
  6. You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t know why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it. (This is another nother one that doesn’t need explanation.)
  7. It's disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience, we should really be celebrating disobedience. (I feel the need to add “within reason,” of course - I’m an administrator after all)
  8. It’s the crowd instead of experts. (Odd for me to advocate this as I stand here giving a keynote, stand here being presented as some kind of expert.)
  9. It’s a focus on learning instead of education. (Education too often is seen as having an end point, but learning is lifelong. Preaching to the converted by saying that to a room full of librarians taking time to travel to a conference, I know, but still, it needs to be said.)
Now it’s time for me to make another confession: even though these rules are a huge inspiration for me, I still have a hard time with letting go. The safety of doing things that we know work, even if new things might work better, is a bit of a siren song. The thing is, though, security is an illusion. Safety is an illusion. Colleges close. People get laid off. Budgets get slashed. With the current climate, whether we want to admit it or not, we all live in a state of precarity.
n. condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.
I had this discussion recently with my friend Jake Berg, the author of the blog Beerbrarian and one of my librarian heroes and peer mentors. His response cracked me up. He told me to shut up with my Buddhism talk.

cat sitting with a statue of Buddha

And this is the point where I break one of those unspoken and mostly sound rules for talks like this - I’m going to talk to you a bit about my religion. I’m a practicing Buddhist, but I’m not going to start proselytizing. A lot of people adopt aspects of Buddhism as a life philosophy and I want to teach you a small part of it that helps me more than any other when I’m feeling like I don’t belong. Buddhism teaches us that attachment is the source of all suffering. More pertinent to this discussion is that our attachment to some image of who we are supposed to be as librarians and as professionals, some impossibly perfect image, will cause us suffering and pain and shame. But being who we are, and allowing the mistakes to happen, will lessen that. It’s not a surprise that I’ve seen Ito’s rules of innovation described in terms of eastern philosophies. His ideas sound very Buddhist to me.

I’m going to give you some practical ways to apply my ideas in just a moment, but I want to share two caveats first:

a cartoon mouse pointing at a computer mouse and saying "impostor!"

First, we need to be careful not to confuse feeling out of our depths - which is something that goes away with time and effort and support - with impostor syndrome, which is a whole other thing. It’s a bit lighthearted, that image, to be used to introduce something so important. Sometimes you have to laugh at things, regardless. Anyway, impostor syndrome is feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing and like you don’t belong even when you do. Also, it is way more prevalent among minorities and women than anywhere else. There are lots of good resources available on this topic, but I recommend starting with Alicia Liu's piece: "You Don't Have Impostor Syndrome, And Neither Do I Anymore." Another well written consideration of the topic is Cate Huston's "The Trouble with Imposters," which has this perfect definition of Impostor Syndrome: “faced with a hostile and discriminatory environment, one we are unwelcome in, our perception of our skills, our chances, and our abilities to succeed - change and suffer.” It's also important to be on the look out for the Dunning-Kruger effect which is when people are super confident in their skills but have no basis for that confidence.

drawing of a smiling woman with words: "hi there everyone! I'm white!! Like really white. Like so white that I can't take pictures of myself with the flash on!"

Second, and more importantly, is the reason I said “most” earlier. All of us need to be careful of our own privilege. The drawing above this paragraph is the first panel of an amazing comic by Jamie Kapp that explains one kind of privilege, the kind that is afforded to Caucasians. Like me. Really, I look the part of a librarian - white, female, middle class, middle age - and that gives me access and opportunities I might not have otherwise. It gives me access to the biggest privilege of all: the privilege of making mistakes. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I suggest you do some reading. (John Scalzi's "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is" and Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack" are good places to start, but go further. Learn about ableism and ageism and transphobia.) The next thing to do after that, to be frank, is to check your privilege.

Now I know this is a bit longer than what you're used to reading on LtaYL, so I’m going to wrap this up soon. I’ve beaten the drum and have set out a call to action to you all, so I want to tell you how to move forward.

First, to my fellow managers and administrators, reward sticktoitiveness. There’s all sorts research into the importance of grit and perseverance in the attainment of long term goals, and librarianship is definitely a long game. Mistakes are going to happen, but we need to keep going when we make mistakes and we need our staffs to keep going when they make mistakes. We need them to learn from their mistakes, too. So reward that gumption. So long as it doesn’t cross over into stubbornness.

two cats on leashes; one cat is walking along under its own power, the other is being dragged and ends up dragged onto the first cat

Second, to my fellow experienced librarians and other library professionals, be honest about your mistakes. Most of us were new professionals well before social media was a thing so our early career mistakes weren’t going to be on such broad display. I know we’re all so eager to share our successes, but like in high school math class, we need to be willing to show our work and the mistakes we make along the way.

grey cat mostly covered in packing peanuts being held up

Finally, to those of you who are new to the field: be patient.


And that leads me to my favorite quote from the book that inspired the name of my blog:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
~Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Thank you.


  1. For what it is worth, I am a 47-year-old librarian wanna-be, and your blog and your online presence is one of the few things that keeps me from losing the "wanna"

  2. I'm a Library Technician in Australia, working within this precarious public library industry. I loved this blog post. Thank you.
    Is there a way I can subscribe by email?