A Career in a Life

In addition to a lot of time to meditate, my last year of serious illness has given me a lot of time to think, including about my job and career. I seem to be of the age where people start considering what they’ve done with their life so far, and evaluating whether it was worth doing and whether they were successful at it. What does it mean to have a successful career? The question can’t really be answered until the end of a career, since even thriving careers can end badly, but there are at least two ways to evaluate success before the end: inner-directed and outer-directed. (One can think of these perspectives as based on authenticity or conformity, but those terms are much more loaded.) I have adopted the inner-directed approach where success depends partly on how you interpret your own career, on the story you can tell about your career within the story of your life.

The outer-directed evaluation is the most common and the hardest to escape given that we’re individuals within a profession and professionals within a broader society of professionals. Both of those social contexts can provide criteria for evaluation. How do we rank compared to other academic librarians, especially ones of our own age/experience cohort? And how do we as academic librarians compare to other professions, especially those to which we might have aspired?

Like many people who become academic librarians, I started out on a more traditional path to academia. Had I not decided during my graduate study in English that the chances of getting a tenure-track job I would want were extremely small, and if I had continued on the track I was on, and if I had despite the odds been successful, I would have become an English professor, probably of early modern British literature. Would I have been happy in that career? Probably as happy as I am now. But I decided my chances of gainful employment were too slim to make it worth the effort, so I left grad school after my M.A., and the world lost the opportunity of getting another Shakespeare scholar. I’d already decided in college that my chances in English were better than in my other love philosophy, so the world had already lost the opportunity of getting another philosophy professor. The world doesn’t seem any worse off.

Would my career have been more successful as a professor than as an academic librarian? Certainly professors are higher in the academic hierarchy than librarians (I’m skipping the faculty librarian debate). They generally make more money and have more social prestige. However, as a professor I would still have had others with which to compare myself, since professors are far from equal. Had I ended up at a small state university, I could still have thought, “if only I were a professor at Harvard or Princeton, then I would really be successful!” Or I could have been a moderately paid English professor looking at my colleagues in the business school and irritated that I wasn’t paid as much as them. And, possibly, I just wouldn’t have been very good at it.

However, an honest comparison of my prospects might not be between English professor and academic librarian, but between academic librarian and adjunct writing instructor. Here the story changes considerably. I understand the motivation of people who would rather teach for low pay without benefits or job security, who would rather identify as a professor than anything else despite their tenuous employment. I love teaching, even the academic grunt work of teaching writing, and most of my years as a librarian I’ve also taught either in a writing program or in a library school. Discussing difficult texts with interested undergraduates is a great pleasure, but I would rather be an academic librarian with a full time job and benefits than an adjunct writing instructor with neither, and those were probably the best options within the competing careers I was likely to achieve while remaining in academia. So am I more successful or less than I might have been?

The other outer-directed evaluation is with other academic librarians. A frequently used criterion is moving up, where “up” always means into administration. It’s an objective fact that in any library there can be only one library director, and at best only a handful of high level middle managers even in a large organization, and those librarians are at or near the top of their profession in an easily measured way. So attractive is this model that librarians often uproot their lives and move every few years to advance in their careers. By this standard, my career so far hasn’t been too successful. I’ve spent my 18 professional years doing variations on the same kind of work, and 16 of those years doing it at the same library, because I like what I do and better opportunities haven’t come along.

There are other ways to measure the success of academic librarians in an outer-directed fashion, ways in which I’m not such a loser I guess. I could compare institutional prestige, for example. I moved up in a sense when I moved from Gettysburg to Princeton, but like a lot of liberal arts colleges in small towns Gettysburg has its attractions, and had I not been locked in a professional battle to the death with my then supervisor, I might have stayed a lot longer than I did. And my first few years at Princeton weren’t much easier than my fraught time at Gettysburg, so I learned early on there’s no library workplace utopia. Besides, the institution doesn’t confer value on the individual; the individual creates value for the institution.

Academic librarians also have the opportunity to compare themselves via their scholarship, reputation, professional service, etc. Here I fair moderately at best. I’ve published some, and I’m pleased with what I’ve published, but it’s out of the mainstream of library science publications and my impact has been minor. I’ve presented some, but not much compared to more prominent academic librarians. I’ve been active in professional organizations, but I’m unlikely ever to be president of ACRL, so how successful could I really be? Within my own institution, I’ve earned two rank promotions, but what difference does that really make? I’m surrounded by smart, capable people on the same route. By these standards, I’m more successful than some other librarians, but much less successful than a lot of others. And yet, I’m very satisfied with my career, so whence comes my professional satisfaction?

I have tried never to evaluate my life or career by the standards or accomplishments of other people. Jobs always have outer-directed aspects to them. Part of living peacefully in society is conforming to at least some social conventions, and part of being employed in a capitalist society is pleasing other people. My library has rules and procedures for advancement as do most libraries, and I’ve tried to comply with those rules. I try to fulfill the expectations others have for my work without falling into bad faith, without “playing at being a librarian” in a Sartrean sense, but I conform to those expectations as much as I need to. In other words, I’m not a rebellious outsider chafing against the rules, mostly because I chose a profession where I agree with the rules. Professional longevity, if not success, is inevitably judged by some conformity. You can’t have a career if you can’t get or keep a job.

However, most of the time I conform to the expectations by chance rather than by design. To the extent that I’m successful in my work, I’m successful because I believe the work I do has value and because it fits into a larger life project, and it’s that larger life project from which I derive much of my meaning, purpose, satisfaction, ikigai, or whatever one might want to call it. I’m good at what I do because I like and value what I do and it exploits skills that I would have developed regardless of my job.

The overarching life project that has motivated most of my professional decisions over the years could be described as self-cultivation through the study of humanity, an engagement with Culture as Matthew Arnold defined it, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” Academic libraries and the access to scholarship they provide are important for that life project. I want to be able to research any subject that I fancy in any depth I desire.

Furthermore, because I believe in the life-enhancing importance and value of such research, I want to help others to achieve that goal. Hence, building research collections and helping people use them–a significant goal of research libraries and a big part of my work–is satisfying to me. Being a part of a larger enterprise that has given my life such meaning gives my career meaning as well, at least based on my own standards. In an address on the idea of the university, the rhetorician Wayne Booth said that “the academy attracts those who aspire to omniscience.” I’m one of those people. To paraphrase Aristotle, Wayne by nature desires to know, and the academy attracted me like a moth to a warm, bright light.

Thus, it didn’t matter that much for my own career satisfaction whether I became an English professor, a philosophy professor, an adjunct writing instructor, or an academic librarian, although being outside of academia might have been less satisfying. I am not my job. My life isn’t my career. My life doesn’t become meaningful because I’m a librarian; I work as a librarian because it fits well into the larger project that does provide meaning for my life. When I was an adjunct writing instructor prior to library school, I wasn’t dissatisfied with my work. Gladly would I learn and gladly teach. I made considerably less money, and there’s a sense in which I sold out to become a librarian (just as I sold out to go to grad school in English instead of philosophy), but money for me has always been what Stoics call a preferred indifferent. I probably make more in a few years than my parents made in their working lives combined, but I was still pretty happy pursuing my studious life course when I was an impoverished grad student.

This happiness isn’t about the subjective well being that positive psychologists study. It comes from interpreting my life in a eudaimonic sense. Eudaimonia is usually translated as “happiness.” One article on positive psychology I read recently went so far as to claim that for Aristotle, eudaimonia was just the word he used for happiness, but it’s the other way around. I do like a definition formulated by another psychologist, Carol Ryff, who wrote that “the essence of eudaimonia” is “the idea of striving toward excellence based on one’s unique potential,” in Nietzsche’s phrasing, “becoming who you are.” Although I’ve written about the calm and joy when dealing with adversity that Stoic Zen stuff brings, I’ve long understood my life and my career in existentialist terms and interpret eudaimonia within them: facticity and transcendence, authenticity and Bad Faith, anxiety and guilt, freedom and responsibility. Our potential transcendence is always circumscribed by the world we’ve been thrown into, our facticity. Eudaimonia comes, possibly, from making the most of that to shape our lives within values we choose. We might have anxiety facing our possible choices, and experience existential guilt that we didn’t choose other than the way we did, but ultimately we’re free to choose and live better lives when we take responsibility for those choices, even though we had to make them within more or less narrow circumstances.

Regardless of my subjective well being at any given time, or how much of a success or failure I might be by various outer-directed criteria, if I interpret my career in the sense of striving towards excellence based upon my unique potential, I can be happy with it both in itself and in how it fits into my life as a whole. I made most of my major life and career choices not because they made sense by someone else’s standards, but because I understood them at the time either to enhance, or at least not interfere with, the projects  and roles I chose to give meaning to my life. Even now, I feel confident I could use my library experience and my rhetorical skills to work in sales and make a lot more money. By the world’s standards, that would make me more successful, but the work wouldn’t align as well with my life projects and so would at best be a distraction. More money, or a bigger house, or a more expensive car, wouldn’t make me significantly happier. I could afford a bigger house or more expensive car than I have now, but the only reason to buy them would be to impress other people whose values I don’t respect precisely because they’re the sort of people who are impressed by big houses and expensive cars. Even if they made me happier in a hedonic sense in the short term, I would probably get used to them eventually and lose that happiness. Such is the hedonic treadmill.

Moving up in libraries would be just fine as long as the work still supported the research mission, but the last job opportunity I explored for that left me so disgusted with the person I would have reported to that I deliberately but subtly sabotaged my interview so that I wouldn’t even be offered the job. If I’m happy, in both a hedonic and eudaimonic sense, with my work, there’s no reason for me to leave just to move up. However, I like it when people I respect and value move up, and I’m glad when they find meaning in their work. I don’t think they’re more successful than others because they’re further up the hierarchy; I think they’re more successful than others because they find meaning and satisfaction in work worth doing. I judge their success by the same subjective standards by which I judge my own. For those of us who find meaning and satisfaction in our work, what objective standards make sense for judging relative success? I do question the motivation of people who move up because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do, to conform with the expectations of what Heidegger calls Das Man, “the They,” or the ones who want to move up because they want to control everyone. They’re the ones who’ll be the most unhappy with their work, and probably make others unhappy in the process.

You can successfully engage in life projects of your own choosing, even within your natural and social limits, and be successful and happy without feeling good all the time, maybe even most of the time, and without achieving what others think you should have achieved. As the Buddha said, “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” What matters is how you interpret your career. Think of life as a narrative. In the story we can tell about our lives, a story for all of us not yet finished, does the story make sense? Does it have meaning? Does the main character develop? Do the plans and choices ultimately come together in a satisfying form, regardless of how random or chaotic they might seem at the time? Does the main character learn from mistakes or keep making the same ones? Does it look like the story will end well? And how does the career fit into the larger story? Whether I have a successful career depends partly on the story I tell myself, or at least that’s the story I tell myself.

Professional Contingency and the Cosmic Perspective

This blog is approaching its tenth anniversary, and I realized that its tenth year has been one of silence. Partly I’ve been working (slowly) on another book, partly I’ve been chairing a really busy ACRL committee that produces lengthy documents, and partly I’ve less incentive to blog since one provocative librarian has ceased publishing laughable false dichotomies about libraries and another has ceased all public activity due, supposedly, to “threats and politics.” I feel at my best as a critic. But mostly I’ve turned my mental free energy to other things and have generally found a negative correlation between eudaimonia and social media engagement (the subject of another, perhaps ironic, blog post I haven’t finished).

Of all things I was awakened from my dogmatic slumbers by a Medium article encouraging library managers to embed creativity in their libraries. I say “of all things” because I’m all for creativity in the workplace, I’m not a library manager, and I have no particular objection to any advice in the article, with the small quibble that I’m not sure how one can have scheduled time together to “be creative” that has no agenda and can be used for “learning, play, investigation, fun,” but that also needs an “eventual outcome.” That sounds like a hidden agenda, but considering some of the librarian meetings I’ve attended over the years, a hidden agenda is probably better than no agenda at all.

That library manager reports that she’s spoken to “creatives newly employed in the library industry” who find a “dogged unwillingness to change” entrenched, and who “also speak about the meanness of our profession as long term staff members, often now middle managers, allow their own feelings of not being nurtured as a professional to affect their management practice of their team members.” That’s a pretty serious charge coming from these creatives, to which my response is, 1) I’m completely unsurprised, since even non-creatives like me have found professional lethargy an occasional hindrance; 2) I’m not a manager, middle or otherwise, so I’m not hindering anyone as far as I know; and 3) hey, wait, are you talking about people like me who have never been “nurtured as a professional”? You are, aren’t you. You’re talking how mean I am and psychologizing about my feelings. That’s not very nice.

Probably not many librarians would call me mean. I doubt any would call me nurturing, either, although I do strive to be collegial. I certainly don’t want to defend any mean librarians, because I’ve known a small number who have been downright malignant and it wouldn’t bother me at all if they died slowly and painfully as long as I didn’t have to listen to them complain about it. (A couple of those librarians might indeed call me “mean,” but that didn’t sound mean, did it? I’ve gone unnurtured so long it’s hard for me to tell.) I have even tried in the last several years to encourage some newer librarians (not nurture, but still) in ways I was never encouraged, even if it is entirely in my self-interest to do what little I can to keep smart, engaged people working here. And I believe library managers should be encouraging and nurturing and all that, but I know they often aren’t.

But there’s another, unnurtured, feral part of me, shrugging, humming, and slowly tilting my head from side to side saying, “hmmm, well, maybe there’s another perspective.” It could be that “long term staff members” are being mean; it definitely happens. They could also be bitter or envious as they see enthusiastic newer colleagues and reflect on how little they’ve accomplished in their life and career. However, there is a possible non-malignant explanation for the behavior of long term librarians that doesn’t entail them being mean because they were never nurtured as professionals. They might not be mean, just indifferent, and that indifference might have an understandable existential rationale, which might itself offer some small consolation.

A former colleague of mine once related some advice he received early in his library career. Someone told him that the library had been there long before he was hired, and would be there long after he was gone. The same is likely true for you and your library, and in a case of a library like mine, it was here long before I was born and will likely persist long after I’m dead. And, unless you accomplish something exceptional, your work in that library will leave little to no lasting, significant change. That isn’t meant as an insult. I believe the same thing about my work, and I have a high opinion of myself both personally and professionally.

Our professional lives are as contingent as our personal lives. We were all born through a series of arbitrary events, thrown into a world not of our making, and will die without, in all likelihood, having affected the lives of more than a relatively small group of people, all of whom will also eventually die. Our work is much the same, only shorter. Where we work and what we do is mostly a matter of chance and luck, good or bad, and once we’re gone we’ll be replaced, if we even are replaced, and the workplace will continue to function.

Despite this professional existential contingency, we sometimes think of ourselves as necessary. Sometimes that’s because we’ve identified ourselves with one of the roles we play, like the waiter in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Instead of performing the tasks of a librarian, people play at being librarians, and conflate their selves with their current arbitrary professional roles. You may have encountered librarians who believed that the library wouldn’t run without them, that not just their position, but their person, was necessary for everything else to continue functioning. They need to believe that their contingency is really a necessity, but I believe they’re living in bad faith.

Consider this when thinking about the seeming indifference or resistance of your colleagues, especially the “long term staff members.” One of the things “long term staff members” learn is the contingency of other employees, if not perhaps of themselves. When you’ve been at a library long enough, especially one that employs lots of people, you learn that individual people come and go and yet the library keeps functioning. Sometimes if they leave the library everyone is worse off for a while, maybe a long while, but everyone adjusts. People are resilient, and there’s a lot of ruin in an organization. Thus, it might not be that the librarians who have been around for a while are trying deliberately to frustrate you, it could just be that they know how contingent your professional existence is.

In the wrong frame of mind, this might make you feel bad. Some people apparently feel anxiety at the thought of their own contingency. Why doesn’t everyone recognize my brilliance and defer to me, you might ask yourself. That question is probably even more puzzling if you actually are brilliant and full of great ideas that would make the library a better place for everyone and not just you. Some of the best and brightest librarians I’ve known and respected have been the most frustrated at the “dogged unwillingness” of entrenched librarians to change. I’m not dismissing that. I’ve felt that frustration myself.

If you feel like your colleagues aren’t listening to you and aren’t changing fast enough to suit your tastes or aren’t nurturing you enough, you might find some consolation in reflecting on the contingency of your own life and how it might be viewed sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity. From a cosmic viewpoint–the “view from above” that Stoics recommend to put yourself into perspective–your life, your work, and your contributions ultimately don’t matter very much, but the same is true of your problems. Something that seems frustrating at work almost certainly isn’t important when viewed from the cosmic perspective. That’s also the perspective that almost everyone else has about you, because while it’s difficult to approach a cosmic perspective about our own importance, it’s relatively easy to gain one about other people, especially people who aren’t your close friends or loved ones.

Now it could be that you’re just a more compassionate person than I am. I’ll grant that’s entirely likely. I won’t fight for the moral high ground here. It could be that you REALLY care about ALL the people you work with, that you consider their well being as much as you do your own, that you’re incapable of viewing other people as anything but visceral extensions of your own emotional state and that you feel their pain as you feel your own. Other people look around the library and can find people they dislike and whose departure would be a cause for celebration. Maybe it’s their asshole boss, or that toxic colleague, or whomever. But not you.

If you’re like that, then you might be incapable of understanding the cosmic viewpoint and putting your problems into a larger perspective. Also, you might be incapable of functioning as a human being. But if you’re capable of feeling emotionally indifferent to the problems of even one of the people you work with, or to any of the 7.3 billion people estimated to be alive right now, then you might be capable of something resembling the cosmic viewpoint, and it might lessen the frustration you have with workplace problems that are relatively trivial.

Being frustrated by the slow pace of change or the indifference of long time staff members to your designs seems to me to be relatively trivial even from many non-cosmic perspectives. Institutional oppression and workplace bullying seem far worse than indifference or resistance. More serious issues emerge as you expand outwards to whatever you’re unhappy with about the state of the nation, human rights violations around the world, global trafficking in humans and weapons, the dangers we humans likely face from climate change, and the current scientific consensus that in about 4 billion years the earth will be too hot to sustain any life and in 7 billion or so it will be engulfed by the expanding sun–and that’s before we even leave the perspective of the earth.

Some might consider this point of view bleak, but I don’t share that interpretation. Worry, anxiety, obsession with others, the fear of embarrassment or failure–these can all thwart our attempts to change our circumstances for the better, and all of them are unimportant from any but our narrow personal perspective. If knowing that the earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun doesn’t hinder your will to act, why should knowing that some of your colleagues aren’t enthusiastic about your views or are indifferent to your contingency hinder that will? If you act to foment change, to improve your professional life or your library, what’s the worst that will happen? People who don’t care about you anyway will get irritated? You’ll fail? The worst that can happen, from the cosmic perspective, isn’t really that bad, so why not go ahead and try?

The people who do most to improve the world don’t worry about the indifference of others. They act to create the world they want to see. Embracing your own contingency and trying to adopt the cosmic perspective can be enervating or invigorating as you choose, and it can prepare you to do whatever you can to change things, and to feel less personal frustration over the things you can’t control.

Good for You is not Bad for Me

I’ve written variations on this post before, and then I’ve usually deleted them. I was inspired to write by the recent announcement of the Library Journal Movers and Shakers 2014, but it probably relates in a way to all forms of prominent recognition in the field of librarianship, whether it’s big speaking gigs, popular blogs or Twitter accounts, or whatever.

My own response to the Movers and Shakers list is the same as it’s always been. I look through the list to see if there’s anyone I know in case I want to send a congratulatory email. There’s rarely anyone I know, and for the past few years usually not anyone I’ve even heard of. Once I find out there’s no one I know on the list, I might click through on a few profiles, but that’s about it. People seem happy to win the award and it will possibly help them in their careers. That’s all fine by me. Good for them.

Sometimes there are responses I find puzzling. Envy, resentment, a large helping of why-not-meism. It’s as if good for them somehow becomes bad for others. There might be another round or criticism this year, and there have certainly been some in the past. I’ve only seen dribs and drabs, because I don’t frequent the virtual locations where people spend their time complaining about stuff like this. But some of the stuff that has seeped into my bubble is hard to take seriously because it seems so motivated by resentment.

Some people resent that the particular winners won the award, with the implication that what they did wasn’t that great, or it wasn’t the “real” library work that we hardworking librarians too busy to showboat do “in the trenches,” the metaphor implying that working in a library is somehow akin to standing in a muddy hole in the ground hoping not to get shot by enemy combatants. Since I rarely read through them, I don’t even know what most of the people did to get rewarded. I assume it’s flashy programs or popular library promotions or something like that. I don’t really care what they did. Unless I know them personally or work with them in some capacity, what they did has no affect on me whatsoever. The underlying assumption is that what I do is just as worthy of recognition as what they did, and if the world was fair I’d win awards, too. What is there to say to that? A lot of life’s frustrations come from the conflict between reality and our expectations of reality. If we absolutely can’t change that reality, it’s foolish not to change our expectations.

Some people resent the winners because, supposedly, the thing they’re really best at is self-promotion. Possibly. On the other hand, talented self-promotion can’t be the only thing that distinguishes most of the award winners from everyone else. The M&S award winners all seem to have done something new that affected other people in positive ways. Maybe they’re great at promoting that thing, but they still did whatever thing they’re promoting. To expand this some, the big name librarians are often big names because they’re really good at promoting their expertise into speaking and writing opportunities. But still, they have that expertise, or at least had it at one point. I can’t be resentful that they’re better at self-promotion than me, because I really don’t care whether they’re well known or not. Their popularity takes nothing away from me.

The hard truth that a lot of us don’t want to accept is that we’re just not that special, and in particular we don’t have the drive and talent to promote ourselves into the librarianship stratosphere. I’ve accepted that truth about myself, because I don’t care about library fame. The professional recognition that matters to me is the kind that affects my life. Becoming a Mover and Shaker might make things better for me, although I don’t see how. But not being one doesn’t take anything away from me. What recognition other people get doesn’t help or harm me. Even if I cared that wouldn’t make me any more capable of that self-promotion. I could put myself up for an award, but I don’t want one. It doesn’t help that some of the most creative things I’ve done in libraries I couldn’t talk about in public anyway. Nevertheless, it’s likely that even if I really, really wanted an award, I probably wouldn’t get one, at the very least because I’m not willing to make the effort to promote myself in that way. I can live with that just fine.

The only thing I might find irritating is if some award winner came up to me and said something like, “I’m a Library Journal Mover and Shaker, which means I’m great and you have to pay attention to me.” Actually, I take that back. I wouldn’t find that so much irritating as amusing, and everyone could use a good laugh. I just can’t imagine a situation in which that would happen. I guess another potential irritant would be if I was competing against an award winner for a job, and the only reason they got it over me was that they had the award. Again, I can’t see that happening. Generally, what’s good for them isn’t bad for me.

So congratulations to all the award winners and the famous librarians and the like. Good for you. Best of luck and all that. Now back to work.

[I realized after writing this is similar in some ways to my post on wandering free and easy last year. Maybe it’s something about the approaching spring that brings on these moods.]

How to Chair an ALA Committee Meeting

Although I haven’t the decades of experience of some librarians, I have recently returned from my 26th ALA Midwinter or Annual in a row and have been a member or chair of one or more committees since my first ALA attendance. I’ve been a member of committees at the ALA level and the ACRL section level, and a chair and member of committees at the RUSA division and section level. In that time, I’ve been to a lot of bad meetings and many good ones. I think I can say without too much immodesty that most of the meetings that I’ve chaired have been better than average, at least if the goal is to get the most amount of work with the least amount of time spent. And if that’s not the goal of meetings, then why have them? Below are some tips that I offer freely to anyone who will be chairing a committee meeting at ALA, especially any meeting I’ll be attending.

Remember the Chair is in Charge

The committee chair is in charge, period. Everyone should participate and have a say. Decisions should be the result of group deliberation. But if something derails the meeting, it’s the chair’s job to get it back on track, even if that means being blunt or forceful. The committee is there to get work done, and anything that takes away from that needs to be dealt with. When disorder reigns, people look to the chair to bring things back to order. Don’t let them down. The chair can keep charge of the meeting while still being polite, considerate, and even amusing. While it might seem rude to stop timewasters and squeaky wheels, it’s actually rude to everyone else not to. Members can get away with just showing up, but chairs have to work, and if you can’t do the work, don’t take on the job.

Do Everything Virtually That You Can

This might seem obvious, but the pattern of work of some librarians hasn’t progressed along with the technological capacity for virtual work. Based on my experience, the old norm was for long, multiple face to face meetings, because it was much harder to do group work at a distance. Email has modified that considerably, and tools like ALA Connect and Blackboard Collaborate finish the job. If it doesn’t need some extended discussion, then it can be handled virtually. I once took over a committee that had been meeting twice for a total of 4.5 hours over the course of a conference. I streamlined it to 1 meeting of 1.5 hours and got just as much work done, because everything that could be handled virtually was, and by the time we got face to face we had to deal only with the stuff that required a meeting.

Give the Committee a Structure

Again, it seems like an obvious point, but it’s not. Librarians tend to be nice, democratic people. They want to solicit opinions, gather viewpoints, and then consider acting at some time in the future. But as a volunteer organization, most librarians don’t want or have time to think a lot about the work of a committee until they absolutely have to. They typically won’t respond to general questions like, “tell me what you think.” Instead, don’t ask them what they think; give them something to think about. If the committee needs to come up with a plan, give the committee a plan. If it needs to review a document, review it and submit your suggested revisions. If it needs to create a document, then provide a possible outline. If the committee is between projects, don’t just ask people what the committee should do next. Give them concrete suggestions to consider along with a request for further suggestions.  Then give people the options: adopt this, critique it so that it can be improved, or ignore it and propose your own alternative. Make it clear that you have no personal investment either way. Chances are, they’ll choose the middle option, which will give the committee something detailed to work on. Sometimes it’s just adopted. And then every once in a while someone actually proposes an improved alternative. So much the better. Everyone gets a say, but people are more likely to speak if they have something in front of them to critique.

Give the Committee a Deadline

Again, because of the volunteer nature, librarians are prone to procrastination regarding committee work. So, along with the structure, provide a deadline. Something like this usually works (although fleshed out more to sound less brusque): “Here is a possible plan/revision/document that moves us along on the project we’re working on. Please adopt it, critique it, or provide an alternative by one month from today. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you approve.” That last bit is crucial. Always take their silence for assent. If they know this, those who care will respond, and those who don’t care won’t feel bad for not responding, and you won’t feel bad for ignoring them later if 6 months down the line they don’t like something. People will usually respond, often enough with good criticisms of the proposal. Those who don’t respond had their chance, and everyone knows it.

Call for Agenda Items

Agenda items should require in-person discussion and action. Calling for them includes everyone in the discussion. This is important both to be courteous of the committee members as well as to give teeth to the agenda later if you need to deal with timewasters (see below).

Create an Agenda

Regardless of whether anyone submits anything, create an agenda. If you can’t come up with any agenda items that require in-person discussion or action, then you should cancel the meeting. Avoid announcements or anything that could just as easily be handled in an email.

Send out Documentation Well in Advance 

Any documentation that’s necessary to understand the agenda items or prepare people for action should be sent out well in advance. A month is a good lead time, because it lets you wait to set the agenda, but gives people ample time to read the documentation. Announce that the documentation needs to be read in advance of the meeting. There are two typical failures here. Sometimes the chair sends out documentation at the last minute, and by last minute I really mean anytime in the week leading up to the meeting. The week before a conference is almost busier than the conference itself. If you send it out that close to the meeting, there’s a good chance it won’t be read, and it’ll be your fault. The other failure is people not reading things even if sent a month in advance. That’s too bad for them, because the meeting isn’t the place to be reading or going over background documentation. Don’t let it devolve into that. The absolute worst thing to do is to bring documentation to the meeting that no one has seen before and then ask people to read and react to it. Save that discussion for another meeting unless it’s an emergency, and really, how many ALA emergencies are there.

Start on Time

Time is increasingly precious at ALA. Also, anyone who is late to a meeting (barring some sort of emergency or alternate commitments) is being discourteous to those who showed up on time. Don’t do a further discourtesy to those people by saying, “let’s wait another ten minutes to see if more people show up.” Unless you have rules about quorums for votes, then who shows up shows up, and start on time. Since you never know why people are late, don’t draw attention to them when they come in after you’ve started. At a minimum, you could just announce, “we’re on agenda item X and the question under discussion is Y,” and then proceed as if they’d been there all along. Given the tightness of the schedule, they probably had to attend another meeting simultaneously anyway.

Stick to the Agenda

After you start, stick to the agenda. You might move things around depending on events, you might even drop something, but don’t add anything or allow for irrelevant discussions until you get through the agenda. People know the time and plan in advance, and respect them enough to stick to it. Focus, focus, focus.

Don’t Talk Too Much

By the time the meeting has started, you’ve sent out documentation well in advance, called for agenda items, sent out the completed agenda, and prepared everyone to discuss and act on the agenda items. You’ve done the bulk of your communicating. The meeting is the time for the members to communicate with each other regarding the agenda items. After introductions, move to the first agenda item and ask an appropriate leading question. Don’t give long speeches about it. Don’t try to fill up dead air if no one speaks immediately. The longer you talk, the less they will. So state the question, ask for discussion, then shut up. Your job now is to guide the group through the agenda and make sure action is taken.

Deter or Defer the Timewasters

Timewasting is relative. In this case, it’s anything that’s not on the agenda or relevant to the discussion at hand. Whether you deter or defer depends on the importance of the timewaster’s point. Committees need to get the work of the agenda done. That’s what meetings are for. Some people like to spend time whining or complaining about the organization, or its members, or something else. That’s what bars are for. Don’t confuse the two. If someone brings up an irrelevant and unimportant issue, acknowledge it but then say we have to move on and we can possibly discuss that after we’ve completed the business at hand, by which time everyone will have forgotten about it.

However, sometimes people bring up important issues that just aren’t relevant to the business at hand. They should be deferred, not deterred. For example, I recall a meeting where the discussion went something like this:

“But I thought Important but Currently Irrelevant Question A was decided in Manner B by Organization C.”

“No, it wasn’t,” reply multiple respondents.

“But I thought it was.”

And so on for several rounds, frustrating everyone. Instead of letting that kind of thing take away from meeting time, a good response might be: “No, I don’t think it was, but that’s an important question, even though it’s not directly relevant to the work we need to do right now. However, because it’s an important issue, after the meeting I will consult with Organization C to make sure what actually happened and will communicate the results to the committee. Perhaps that is something we can take up at a later time.” With this response, the agitated timewaster is recognized as a person with a worthwhile point, is provided an explanation of why that point won’t be addressed at the moment, and is promised further action to follow up and to possibly address the point in more detail later on. (And do the following up; don’t be lazy.) Recognition, explanation, promise of activity. Reasonable people will stop there.

If the timewasters persist, then it’s appropriate to be more blunt and say, “we have to move on now,” and then go to the next item on the agenda. Don’t seem angry or annoyed. Just calmly announce that it’s time to move on. The agenda has strength as a guide because everyone has been invited to contribute and everyone has approved it. Furthermore, not deviating from the agenda shows everyone else the courtesy of not wasting their time. Committee members are reluctant to stop the ramblings of timewasters. That’s okay, because it’s the committee chair’s job. The only person who might be upset will be the person who unreasonably expects to take up everyone else’s time. Everyone else will be silently thanking the chair, just as they were silently cursing the timewaster.

End on Time, or Early

Time is tight and people have other commitments. If they don’t they’ll still be tired of sitting in the same chair for an hour or two. End the meeting on time. If you run out of time, postpone the business. If you go way over time, that means that you planned badly or let things go awry during the meeting. Don’t make everyone suffer because of your errors. There’s rarely anything so crucial that it can’t wait. And if you’re focused and get done early, everyone will be pleased. It’s an example of what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.” Add a little bit of that to someone’s day and they’ll appreciate it.

An important consideration for all these points is that they show courtesy to the committee members, all of them and not just the squeaky wheels. Members of the committee who want a say in the agenda have it. Members who want to propose alternatives to the chair’s suggestions are free to do so. Everyone has a say at the meeting, and everyone has some control, but that control is regulated to ensure fairness and productivity.

My Professional Advice

In my last post, I put the ultimate responsibility for professional development on librarians themselves, though without taking any responsibility from library administrations. My advice was more of a warning; the person most likely to look after your interests is yourself, so be prepared. In response to my response to her post, the Library Loon suggested that while I was a “talented autodidact” who could direct my learning in appropriate or useful ways, not everyone could. They need guidance so they don’t flounder amongst the many things there are to learn. Point well taken. Here I’m offering a little guidance, but also pointing out the places I get guidance. No librarian is an island. Also, while I’m no librarian “rock star” (whatever that might mean), I don’t think I’m being immodest in believing I’m a reasonably successful librarian, and I think the practices I discuss below contribute to that success. So, here goes. My professional advice, or how to be an autodidact while really trying.

If I could reduce my professional advice to one sentence it would be: Always act as if you’re on the market. An additional sentence might be: Graduation from library school is the beginning of your library education, not the end.

Below, I have thirteen suggestions for finding time and using that time wisely to keep up and keep learning. They aren’t especially profound or new, just the way I manage my time to do what I do. I’m not including health tips like get a good night’s sleep every night and using caffeine as a pick-me-up rather than life support, though I know there are librarians that need those tips. I would also suggest listening to Radio Swiss Classic while you work; it’ll relax you, but I didn’t think it deserved a paragraph of its own.


When you’re working, work. A lot of librarians claim they just don’t have time to read or learn new things. They’re too busy with meetings and other work. For some librarians, that’s true. All their “keeping up” would have to be done on their own time. To protect themselves from future obsolescence, it might still be worthwhile, but it’s tough. However, there are ways to gain more time. How much time at work do you spend on Facebook or Twitter that have nothing to do with work (so, not reading a Facebook update that gets you to good professional reading, but just messing about)? How long do you stand around with colleagues gossiping? Online shopping? Taking coffee breaks? IMing or texting with friends? All that time could be better spent.

Manage your email. Don’t spend a lot of time reading emails you were copied on but didn’t need to be. If you’ve read the subject line and the first sentence or two and don’t know why you were copied, you can probably just delete it. Don’t generate a lot of emails that copy people unnecessarily; you’ll end up getting replies you don’t need to read. Also, don’t reply to emails that don’t need replies; say your “thank yous” in advance when making requests. Keep your emails concise and focused, and hope everyone else does, too. Don’t subscribe to listservs with a low signal:noise ratio. If you must subscribe to some, get the digest. Set up filters to automatically file stuff you don’t need but might need. If you’re a slow typist, take one of the many free online courses and speed yourself up. I type about 75 words per minute, according to this test. That’s not even very fast, but it’s saved me a lot of time compared to some of the slow non-touch typists I see. Find the most efficient email management strategy for you. I strive for the zero-inbox approach, but the reality is often more like the 20-inbox approach (5 at the time of writing, none urgent, but each requiring action by me or someone I’m waiting for; anything not awaiting action is filed or deleted asap). Sometimes this all goes to hell, and I end up with a bloated inbox. Then if I spend a couple of hours whittling it down to nearly zero, I feel much happier.

Avoid unnecessary meetings. The biggest timewaster for a lot of librarians. Some librarians love meetings. They like to meet just to meet, even if there’s nothing to discuss. Meetings are social events for them. While there are some exceptions, in general if there’s nothing to discuss or deliberate about, a meeting is a waste of time. Announcements can be handled in an email. If there’s no agenda and topic of discussion, the chances are good that it’s an unnecessary meeting. If you have a culture of useless meetings, fight back. The over scheduled masses will be on your side.

Avoid “multitasking.” I put multitasking in quotations because there’s really no such thing. From what I’ve read, the scientific consensus at the moment seems to be that we never multitask, we merely monotask in tandem, and every time we switch from one task to another we reduce our concentration and efficiency. So stop checking email and Facebook every five minutes and focus on that project until you make some serious progress. And then focus on email. And then Facebook.


Read relevant news. I probably average an hour a day at least skimming dozens of headlines and reading a handful of interesting or relevant articles or blog posts, after which I generally ignore the feed until the next day. Academic librarians should keep up with what’s going on in higher education, scholarly publishing, information technology, their own college or university, libraries, and librarianship in addition to job-specific developments at the very least. That’s a tall order, one that I mostly fulfill through various online publications using Google Reader. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Education as well as our campus newspaper. IHE is fully available online in full text, and has good articles and often great discussions in the comments. CHE is subscription only for the most part, but they do have some open access articles, plus the headlines and first sentence of each article is available in the RSS feed. That’s usually enough to get an idea of what’s going on in higher education. I also subscribe to the feeds of about 35 online publications related to libraries (I’m not going to add links because I’m lazy, but these should be easy to find). My favorite newsy publications include Library Journal, INFOdocket, LIS News, Library Stuff, the Kept-up Academic Librarian, and Resource Shelf. I also keep up with the technology news through Google News. Build professional reading time into your day. Once it becomes a habit, you’ll wonder how you could have tolerated being so uninformed before.

Read relevant opinion. I also read a number of what could be called opinion blogs (a category I would include myself in). These include, but are not limited to: ACRLog, Information Wants to be Free, The Ubiquitous Librarian, Gavia Libraria, Library Babelfish, Scholarly Communications @ Duke, Sense and Reference, Peer to Peer Review, From the Bell Tower, and Hack Library School. For obvious reasons, most of these are by academic librarians. I follow many other library-related blogs, but most other blogs have short, easily skimmed posts. When I’m short on time, I read only the academic librarian blogs and mark the others as read. I save In the Library with the Lead Pipe for those afternoons when the entire library has shut down and I have nothing to do.

Read job ads. I also subscribe to job ad feeds from ALA and LIS Jobs, glance at every one of them, and read through many of them that resemble jobs I’m qualified for, even though I’m not on the market and have no plans to leave my excellent job anytime soon. But stuff happens. Reading job ads tells you what libraries are looking for in new hires, which allows me to know whether I’m still a marketable librarian and whether there are things libraries are now asking for that it might be good for me to cultivate to benefit myself and my library. You don’t have to be ambitious to be marketable; you just need to be cautious.

Read conference programs. Learn at conferences by attending, or not attending. Lots of people go to conferences to watch presentations and participate in workshops. Great if you can afford it. However, even if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you can learn from it. A conference program is like a course syllabus. Reading through the entire program (usually free online) gives you a good idea of the things librarians are talking about and doing at the moment. For most presentations, if you have the title and description, you can learn on your own from there. Take the topic, search it in Library Lit and Google, and read a few articles. After that, you could probably give the presentation yourself. It’s autodidacticism, yes, but it’s directed autodidacticism.

Follow up on new things. Through the reading I find out about new stuff. That could be a new piece of software or service, a library trend, a better way to organize something, a new approach to outreach, whatever. If it’s anything that looks like it will add something promising to my work, I follow up on it, by reading more, using the tool, integrating a new approach, etc. Often enough, some new thing doesn’t work for me, but at least I know why it doesn’t. And once in a while something great comes along. I’m as selective or expansive about following up as my time allows, but I always make at least some time if I find something interesting.

Force yourself to learn if necessary. For a few years I gave tech presentations around New Jersey as continuing education classes for librarians. One frequent presentation came about because the program coordinator said, “I saw that someone elsewhere was doing a presentation on X topic. Could you do that?” I agreed to do them to force myself to keep up with emerging information technology. Someone at one of the presentations asked me how I knew about all the stuff I was presenting on. Simple. Research. CNet, TechCrunch, Wikipedia, and ten hours of work will do wonders for your knowledge of any given information technology subject. I’m planning a couple of presentations this semester for a department I work with. Learning what I need to learn and organizing them will take some time and effort, and to motivate myself I announced in a meeting of students that I was planning them. That way they don’t just float to the bottom of my to-do list.


Participate in ways that exploit your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. This could be at work, in professional associations, at conferences, or wherever. It also requires knowing your strengths and weaknesses, which we might easily misperceive. I know that I write well, that I’m very efficient and organized, that I work well under pressure, and that I can give a decent presentation about whatever with a little prep time, and sometimes even without it. I also know that I’m not as good with detail work as I am with other stuff (thus, no cataloging for me) and I’m shy around strangers and in large groups where I’m not the center of attention. (That is, public speaking doesn’t bother me much anymore, but mingling with strangers is sometimes literally painful to me). For example, every year we have an orientation for new students. I give tours because I’m good at giving tours. I avoid the unstructured meet and greet because I’m not good at it. This is better for me and better for the library. It’s the law of comparative advantage applied to work skills.

Think about your web presence. I write a blog (obviously), and a minor motivating factor in starting this blog was my web presence. Google me, and this blog  comes up in the first few links. Read this blog, and you’ll know what I think about libraries and librarianship and a few other things and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what sort of librarian I am. Some people think that’s a bad idea. I had a discussion with an LIS student who said she would never blog or write much online, because she might say something that would offend a potential employer. That’s true, it might. Then again, if a potential employer won’t hire you because of a professional opinion you have, then that employer isn’t worth working for. On the other hand, I didn’t start this blog until I had our version of tenure, so I’m not exactly a maverick on this one. Also, deliberately, I almost never write about my library or specific work issues, at least directly. If you’re acting as if you’re on the market, then this is something to think about, and there are many options. If you’re applying for jobs, you will be Googled.

Remember what you do and want to do. I’m really bad at remembering things I’ve done when it comes time to update by C.V. or put in my materials for my annual performance appraisal, so I keep a file (actually an Evernote note) where I list every professional thing I’ve done in a given year that wasn’t directly required by my job, along with a separate list of any good ideas I might have for things to do. If I accomplish one, I move it to the done list. They don’t have to be big things, just anything that I do that isn’t required as part of my daily routine, the kind of stuff I could get away with not doing. At the end of the year I decide what is important enough to get noted on my C.V. or elsewhere. I’ve found that keeping this list (and this is only my third year of doing it) helps keep me focused on doing more than just showing up and doing the minimum work.

So there it is. Live long and prosper.

Responsibility and Professional Development

A lot of you probably saw this article from today’s Inside Higher Education about “the layoffs of eight library staff members” to make “way for the creation of new positions that ensure the library will stay on top of current, digital trends” at the University of San Diego, and the response from some faculty critics who argue the layoffs are an “affront to the Roman Catholic teachings of the university,” which they very well might be. For those who think that Catholic social thought is all about abortion and stem cells, all I can say is that you’re woefully underinformed. (This websiteis a good starting place to find out more.) Several themes within the tradition of Catholic social teaching could be used to criticize laying off competent employees rather than trying to retrain them or find other work they could do. The dignity of the human person, the necessity of economic justice, the responsibilities humans have to each other: combined these would form the foundation of such criticism. But that’s not really the point of this post.

I wasn’t going to write about this until I read this interesting post by the Library Loon. It argues that situations like the one at the University of San Diego could become more common, especially given the library profession’s “lackadaisical approach to lifelong learning and re-credentialing,” because “in a zero-sum hiring environment, the only way to open hiring lines and budget for needed technology-intensive expertise is to cut someone else’s job.” It concludes that “If libraries are to continue to be humane employers…they must insist upon and intervene in professional development before matters with any individual employee reach such a perilous pass. Not to do so is not kind or humane, nor is it healthy for librarians or library workforces.” Points well taken, and I agree. In general, academic libraries are humane employers, especially compared to employers outside academia, and the professional development and well being of their staffs is a professional obligation. I might cavil that it’s not clear that any of the employees laid off at San Diego were actually professional librarians, though it’s clear at least three of them were not, but I believe that libraries also have an obligation to “cultivate their bottom,” and not just because it’s a nice thing to do.

And of course many libraries do provide support for professional development. Many if not most academic librarians seem to have at least some money and time they could devote to professional development, though not all libraries do, a point made clear by Dances With Books‘ comment on the Library Loon’s post. While I completely agree that libraries should provide time and resources to allow for the professional development of their staffs, I’m not sure I completely agree on the aggressive approach that would “insist upon and intervene in professional matters.” Let’s just say I’m undecided, but that waiting for such insistence and intervention is professional suicide. In the immortal words of Prince, “in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld. In this life, you’re on your own.” And if you’re not really, just to be safe, you should assume you are.

As painful as it may sound to some, ultimately librarians have to be responsible for their own professional development. Eventually, if they don’t keep learning and adapting, if they keep their jobs “for years or decades without going to a single conference, attending a single continuing-education class, or demonstrating new learning of any sort on the job,” and especially if they do so while being given opportunities that they choose not to take advantage of, then they really don’t deserve professional jobs because they’re not behaving like professionals. For motivated learners, there’s plenty they can do as long as they have a computer, an Internet connection, and some time. A library can help, too The learning material is out there, as attested in this blog post from Hack Library School about a book on DIY credentialing.

Just about any skill or knowledge you need to learn to adapt to a changing work environment you can learn for free. Conferences, classes, and workshops certainly help, but if there’s no support for them it’s still possible to keep learning. That learning might be harder and slower for a lot of people, but it’s definitely possible. Usually it’s just a question of motivation and knowing where to look. As an example, consider that “23 things” project going on a few years ago, where librarians would have workshops on using various social media and then go experiment with them. I’m sure the “23 things” workshops were useful for a lot of people, but every one of those 23 things could have been learned without talking to anyone or participating in any workshops. You want to learn how to write computer code, how to design websites, or how to get the most out of a piece of useful software, the resources are out there. They’re also out there if you want to learn a foreign language, or more about assessment or statistics. Books, websites, blogs, wikis, knowledgeable friends and colleagues–they’re out there. Even formal courses are sometimes free or very cheap.

All it takes is motivation and time, and if you’re motivated you find the time. I would be willing to make a small wager (small because I am after all a librarian) that most of the librarians presenting workshops and such at conferences learned most of what they present on their own. It’s not enough to wait for someone to tell you what you need to be learning. If you don’t want to grow stale, you have to go find out what you should be learning, and then you have to learn it. It’s also not enough to sit through a workshop or presentation and think that means you now know how to do something new. You know how to do something new when you can actually do it, and that means practice and effort. When Ptolemy asked Euripides for an easy way to learn mathematics, Euripidies replied that there was no royal road to geometry. There’s also no royal road to professional development. While libraries should support that professional development to the fullest extent possible, librarians have to take the ultimate responsibility and do the work themselves. It could be that no one will tell them what to do until it’s too late.