Reality-based Librarianship for Passionate Librarians

Here it is, past the jump, as written and mostly as delivered. It’s hard to remember precisely what I said at which of the three times I did this, so this is some amalgamation of the three. I do know that once I set language patterns I stick to them, so I suspect this is pretty close to word-for-word. When the LIANZA video is released, we can compare notes. Click to embiggen the slides.

Slide 1

This may seem an odd title — we all do, in fact, live in reality, so there’s no need for the phrase “reality-based librarians”…  Except I think there is. Because we live in a liminal time – the internet, globalization of information and culture, and the as-yet-unseen repercussions of the digital divide, the shifting global and regional economies – they’re changing everything. And so we have people who are clinging desperately to the past, people urgently plunging forward, and people standing still.  It doesn’t matter which camp you’re a part of, really — I think the future will take care of us all in one way or another — but what matters is that your decision to cling, to lunge, or to stand be based in your personal, local reality. Local realities differ, just as our individual positions differ. Budgets, communities, goals, needs, resources, skills, desires… they’re all different. And so we stand, we plunge, or we cling. I believe that we’re all capable of being passionate, effective, and successful — of plunging forward in smart ways — but it’s foolish to think we can all do that in the *same* ways.

So that’s where reality comes in.  I value reality-based librarians, whatever their circumstances.

Slide 2:

So thats the title and where it comes from. But who am I, where am I from, and why am I here?

The easy part to answer is that Potsdam is 20 miles from the Canadian border in New York State, and is closer to Montreal than to Boston, New York City, or Buffalo. The closest decent airport is in Ottawa. It gets very cold in the winter, and is currently snowing, and will do so until April.

Who am I?  I’ve been working in libraries for half my life, and all the adult part of it, committing myself to public education, and finding great satisfaction and some very cool opportunities as a writer and speaker. I have worked at my current institution for 8 years in three different roles, and I have been director of libraries, encompassing the campus general library, the music library, the archives, and special collections for two and a half years.

As for why I’m here, offering you a closing keynote, well, I’m someone who gets things done. I set goals, identify dreams, and make things happen. I do that by planting myself equally firmly in passion and in reality.

There’s been a lot of questioning, here this week and in general, about how to nurture and create leaders from within our profession. I would say the answer is clear: go do it. Go be it. Take responsibility for that need for leadership, and do it.  And if you tune out halfway through this talk, I hope you remember one single thing: You are your own best weapon against the things you want to change. You are your own most powerful resource.(You can stop listening now.)

So I’m here to share some thoughts on that – possibly wisdom. Possibly not. You decide for yourself.

Slide 3:

The very first thing you have to do to be a passionate librarian is find your passion. You’re hearing great stuff at this conference, talking to fascinating people, and you’ve got ideas. Great ideas. Some big, some small, some huge and unwieldy, some very do-able but fraught with uncertainty… and you’re wondering how to do it. How to make it work. What to actually do.Step one is to figure out why you like the ideas. Why do they keep circling your brain? Why are you fixated on that particular outreach technique, or that bit of tech you saw demoed? Why do you want so badly to change this thing, that thing, and the other? What is it about those ideas that resonates for you?

Figure that out. If you can figure that out, you’re advocating for an idea, a goal, and a belief. A passion. If you can’t figure that out, you’re advocating for an outreach technique, a piece of software, this thing, that thing, or the other.

An example  Standing up and saying “Springshare’s LibGuides website builder is awesome!” isn’t nearly as compelling as standing up and saying “Expanding our users’ access to up-to-date content by using web-page creation software designed by librarians for librarians with a shared contentbase created by our peers is awesome!”

Some attendees voiced concerns that Aroha Mead did not explicitly link her excellent talk to “what this means for libraries”. I would argue that it’s your job to create that linkage, because only you can see the ways in which your context links to her information.

So use another example, attending a conference or a talk, and saying that you went, and that you heard these 20 things, is less compelling than thinking about the talks you attended, linking them to the ideas and challenges you took away from them, linking the ideas to goals of yours, linking your goals to your institution’s goals and community needs, and then linking the goals to work you’ve done on concrete projects – and talking about that.

Which one would you rather hear about? So name your passion. Start there. And then make it actionable.  I believe that one way to do that is to be an optimist — Just optimistic enough to believe in yourself, to believe “it” – whatever your it is – can be done.

Michael Lopp, who writes about IT management, was reflecting on the death of Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple. He was provoked enough by the loss of a visionary to write, “You are underestimating the future. You are fretting about the now; worrying about little things that don’t matter. You are wasting precious energy obsessing over irrelevant details. You don’t believe that a better future is out there and can be built, that it can exceed people’s expectations, because you’re spending so much time considering the truth of the present and the seemingly important lessons of the past. You are underestimating the future because you believe you cannot see it, but you can – you’ve seen it done before.”

If you are convinced, and believe that something matters and CAN be done, fears and fretting aside, you have to then stand up for it. That’s what I mean by actionable passion — a belief in something coupled with a belief that it’s possible is a great call to action.  But you cannot assume that someone else will lead the charge, make the stand, shout the slogans, or do the work for what you believe in. That works sometimes — sometimes Steve Jobs is reinventing Apple. Sometimes someone else will do the thing and make your dream a reality for you.

But not usually. Usually, if you want something, you have to make it happen.  So name your passion. Own it. Be optimistic about it. Believe in it. Stand up for it. And get ready to make it happen.

Slide 4:

So, you’ve named your passion and decided to stand up for it, you want to make it actionable, to do something. Awesome.

I’m a visual thinker, and i love metaphors. So i ask you to play along with me, here –  let’s all agree to pretend that acting on your passion is a hill, because that will make my metaphors work way more smoothly.

Everyone has a hill to climb. Everyone believes in something, wants something. Always. I cannot believe anyone who says they can’t think of what their next project should be, or that they don’t know what they might possibly change or improve.  There’s always a hill to climb — the people who think otherwise just haven’t named their passion, or don’t believe it can be done.

So if you can accept that everyone has a hill that they can climb, you yourself must next decide if you should climb it.  Some hills are too big, too dangerous, too far away — and some are a really awesome challenge because they are all of those things. You have to decide which ones are which.

I have a whole mountain range of passion about my work.  One of the places I climb it is on my blog, in my writing. This fall, I chose to argue with vendors, calling out Proquest and the American Chemical Society on bad service and terrible pricing models. I drew a line in the sand about librarianship’s professional identity and the (terrible) decision of some university librarians to hire non-qualified staff rather than supporting the skills development of their qualified librarians. Before that, I was commenting on our professional take on online identity, and it’s immense power and the fear it engenders in many of our colleagues. These professional thought wars all still wage, but I fought and won a bunch of small battles, raised awareness of issues that matter to me, and started some conversation. My choice to act mattered.

The things I do at my institution also matter: Improving spaces, reinventing services, reorganizing the staff structure, changing our mix of resources, empowering staff to learn and innovate.  Not all of it was easy. not all of it was safe. It matters, regardless.

You can do the same.  How? Doing what you’re doing now, here at this conference. Gathering new data and then making new arguments. Trying out new stuff.  To quote Amy Buckland at McGill University Libraries, professional development is all about challenging legacy processes. Or, as we say over too many beers at conference bars, “die bunheads die”. Except, when we say that, and when we challenge those processes, sometimes we see that those bunheads are guarding the heart of our profession — and then we defend them to the death. But you can’t know which processes are which unless you challenge them, examine them, and understand them.

But, so, you come to conferences, right? You talk to a hundred interesting people. You hear a dozen talks, take notes, check websites, grab business cards and pens with vendor logos on them, and you try on new ideas… and then what? You go home with a million big ideas, all poised to change the game. But you’re one person, working at one library. You can’t do it all, and the size of the hill in front of you is daunting.

There’s always a hill to climb. You cannot let the simple existence of the hill stop you from climbing it.  
You just have to pick your hills. Look at what you’ve learned here, this week, at the ideas you’ve generated. Look at your energy, your resources, and your barriers. And pick a hill.
Figure out which one is worth the climb, worth the sweat and the sore quads and the scramble over rocks.  And just start climbing.  And when you get halfway there, and see the insurmountable obstacle — be it lack of budget, resistance from colleagues, lack of leadership, dissonance of vision, the consequences of a natural disaster, or a good old fashioned catastrophic avalanche of all of them at once — you have to stop, and ask:  Is this the hill I want to die on?

Because not all hills, even smartly chosen ones, deserve your passion. Some battles aren’t worth fighting, and can’t be won. Or the cost of winning is too high – you will spend more than you can afford to see it done. Or, remembering the exhortations of earlier keynotes to focus on political awareness, the victory isn’t strategic enough.  Some hills are not worth dying on.

And since choosing the hill is intensely personal, only you can know if this climb is the climb you ought to be on.  But you have to know you can choose. Because there’s always a hill to climb, if you choose not to tackle this one.

Slide 5:

And that’s a whole lot of squishy metaphorical talk about feelings. So want to know something concrete. People always do. So: How do you start?

I’ll sum up my thoughts. Things don’t just happen. Steve Jobs does not magically appear and invent the iPad. Things happen because someone was in the right place at the right time with the right idea. Things happen because someone planned for them to happen. So approach success, advocacy, and change as you would any other project: Plan for it.

Put yourself in the right place at the right time, because you intended to be there, you worked hard to get there, and you made a plan to ensure you stayed there. You can’t just show up in your manager’s office door and say “we should have ebooks” and expect it to happen. You must have a plan. (I would, on behalf of all managers everywhere suggest that if you are the sort of person who shows up and says “we need ebooks” you might consider how that sounds to your audience, and consider how well it’s working for you.)

A plan is key. Because I believe that, I’m going to assert that any goal can be project-managed, and I’ll also assert that any goal should be project-managed. Must be.  I’ll say it again: Change doesn’t just happen. Change happens because someone worked hard to put themselves in the right place, at the right time. Work to put yourself in that place, just at that time. Plan for brilliance, agitate for success.

Slide 6:

So, how?

In short, to reiterate, PLAN.  To some people planning a dream or a goal sounds completely bizarre, but I maintain that it’s necessary.

1. Identify your goals. That’s the bit I talked about first. Name your passion.

2. Map out the steps. This is the crunchier bit. If your goal is to make sure your library’s website is responsive and modern because that’s in the best interests of your users access to information, what’s the first step? I can’t tell you that — this is where your reality comes into play.
Who are you in the food chain of your library?
Who is in charge of the thing you want to change?
What’s your relationship to that person?
What allies do you need to make it happen?
What’s it gonna cost?
All of those things and a bunch of others define your first step, because your first step might be to begin a user needs survey, or it might be to ask for a meeting with the person who updates your website, or it might be to rearrange your budget plan for the year. I can’t know that for you. What I can know is that if you don’t have a plan, you won’t know where you’re going, or how to begin smartly.

3. Understand your need for accountability — of others, of yourself, of external forces.
How much do you need to know, understand, and report?
How much do you need to be involved in the decision making process, as a consultant or a decider?
What and who do you need to update, and be updated on and by?
Prepare to be ask for the information you need, and to provide it in turn.

4. Understand your need for support. Each of us is a different kind of social and professional creature, so each of us will have differing needs for team work, validation, attention, and participation. What do you require in order to feel successful?

5. Consider those questions, and then include your conclusions about all of them in your plan.

Slide 7:

And then follow your plan. Do not self sabotage. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen librarians build a great plan that then dissolves upon first contact with reality.  Stop that.  You built a plan based on your needs and goals.  Your needs and goals have value. They matter. You matter. Treat yourself accordingly, and follow through.

When I say this, I don’t mean you need a complex process map complete with flowchart arrows for every step of every day (though I think those are really cool), but if you haven’t considered the needs, outcomes, and challenges of getting shit done, how will you respond when the challenges arise, needs are identified, and outcomes take a sudden turn left from your expectation? A map, a plan, some forethought and care, can protect you from yourself… and from others.

Slide 8:

New metaphor!  For a few minutes, we’re all astronauts.

You want to reach the stars.  But you look around, and you know you can get to the moon; that’s a reasonable goal, and you can see the route to get there. And so you plan for it.  But in your planning process, you realize you can’t just get to the moon; to get there with the resources you have available to you, you have to build with a really ugly rocket. And you hate that rocket. But you need that rocket. It’s what will get you to the moon.So love your rocket. Give it a cool name. Ignore how ugly it is. Always remember that it’s what will get you to the moon, and that getting to the moon is important.

Bringing it back down to an example:
Your passions about user service tell you that what you want is a new information architecture on the website for a vital service to your community (this is the stars). But you know, when you consider the reality of your situation, that what you can get is an update of the content on the current sort of clunky website. (This is the moon). But as you build a plan of action, you realize that to get to that update, you’re going to have to agree to do a user need survey. You think this survey is sort of pointless; you don’t believe it can tell you anything you don’t already know from working with the community and doing your own professional research. But the powers that be believe there useful data to be gathered, that hard data will make a stronger case than anecdotal reporting. So that survey.  It’s a necessary step to get administrative buy in for your plan to get to the moon. In that moment, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong about the survey — that survey is your rocket. It’s a damn ugly rocket, but it’s the process that will get you there.

Embrace it. if your goal matters to you — embrace the process, because you know it’s worth it in the end.

Slide 9:

So, embrace process, but don’t be a pushover. Back to the hill.  Some people have to be encouraged to embrace the process as a necessary part of planning for success.

But other people… sometimes people begin something and then have poured so much energy into climbing their hill that they can’t imagine stopping. It happens to us all. Sometimes you’ve given so much, tried so hard, that you can’t fathom turning back. You simply cannot stop. As an amateur rock climber, I know that when you have knees full of stone from smashing into that rock over and over again, it’s very very hard to consider not topping the climb to make it all worth it.  When you’ve given weeks or months of time, energy and startup funding, it’s nigh unto impossible to declare the thing a failure. That’s just another facet of the reality we all work within.

And so I also advocate that you remember why you’ve set yourself on this road — come back to your passion. Why are you climbing the hill? Why are you scaling the face? Why are you facing off with this immovable person? Why did you start this project? Why are you arguing for resources?  What is your end goal, and why do you care?

But in moments of crisis, also ask yourself: have you passed your point of no return? Have you truly reached the point where the project must be completed? Or is there a way to say that you’re done climbing, and you’d like to come down now?

We have inherently altruistic reasons for doing things — we’re all in libraries, and as such we serve the needs of others as our daily operating goal, so altruism features large — and that altruism often leads us to think that turning back or admitting defeat is purely unacceptable. I’ll acknowledge that there’s also some correlation between willingness to fail and not giving a damn, but I think that when you do give a damn there’s a point where being altruistic prevents success by preventing failure. If you cannot acknowledge that a project is doomed and was a mistake, you never stop doing it, and if it isn’t working, can’t work, but you can’t say that it’s a failure, you keep pouring resources — altruistically! — over a cliff.  That wasn’t your goal, was it?

Earlier I said “be an optimist, and believe”. I would amend that to “be the kind of optimist that makes people want to follow you … not the kind of optimist that can’t see truth through their belief and so fails.” You have to parse out what’s probable and what’s possible.  And when you hit the “not very probable, only possible with tactical nuclear weapons” stage, even an optimist has to know that it’s time to stop now.

Slide 10:

Because you will not always succeed. That’s reality, too.

So I ask you to consider: do you know where your tolerance for failure is? How accurate is your personal guage as you assess challenges? How high are you willing to climb, knowing the oxygen will get thin and it’s a hell of a long fall to the bottom if you slip?  Or, to switch visual metaphors, (again!) how strong is your egg? How fragile? (Strong things can be fragile, if you know where to push, and fragile things can be strong if you hold them right.)

In order to choose your projects, goals, and dreams, and plan for smart risks, you have to know not only how high you’re willing to climb, you have to know if you can handle failing. So before you start chasing a new passion, and before you say yes or no to an opportunity, ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen?

And not in the flip way. For real. What’s the worst that could happen? If you try this, buy that, ask for the other thing. What’s the worst that could happen?  Thinking about the “best” is easy. We predict success brilliantly. Patrons will come in droves and will love us dearly. Yay! Best case scenario!  We pick projects, battles, hills, because we can imagine the pinnacle, see the peak, envision our dreams, and we want it. That’s awesome. Focus on it, and let it guide you. But know what you’re doing: Consider failure. What’s the worst that could happen? And once you know that, ask again: Can I handle that?

I don’t advocate for this because I believe we should operate from a place of fear; far from it. Fear is the worst possible driver of decision-making. Fear is not strong, or hopeful, or wise. Fear reacts and fear protects and fear makes us small. But we must know how far we can push ourselves before we break, and we must anticipate both the negative and the positive consequences of our choices and actions before we can make wise, strong, and hopeful choices.

Know what you want. Know what you can handle. And then make a choice to move forward.

Slide 11:

And if you can name your own tolerance for failure, you must then also acknowledge that every other person you encounter has a tolerance, too. We’re all human. We have issues. We all have a point of fear: beyond this line, I do not go. Spiders. Spiders is mine. You say spiders, I say no. Fortunately, spiders are not a big feature of academic libraries, so professionally, I’m mostly golden. Personally, give me a rodent problem in the house, I’m good. I got this. Give me spiders, I turn to stone. Trembling, terrified stone. So everybody’s got a line.

Which is to say, people fear things. Professionally, one of the things they often fear is failure, with different points of tolerance. So some people are a brick wall on some issues, usually out of fear, — but not all people, and not on all issues. Part of being a change agent is knowing when you’re bashing your face into a brick wall, when someone ten feet to your left has a door in front of them.

There’s great strength in seeing a barrier for what it is, knowing when to stop hitting it, knowing when to ask for help, and knowing when to turn left and go around. Fear of failure, and our tolerance for it, are powerful motivators. If someone is strongly rooted in theirs, you may not be strong enough to move them aside. But you can always move yourself. And one way to start is to ask why someone is blocking you. Ask yourself what you can do about it, aif it’s worth doing, and if you can do it.

So… to deal in my own chosen metaphors, if passions are hills that you can choose to die on, people and their fears are walls. If you can’t find a way through the wall, open a door. If you can’t open a door, go over. Or go around. Sometimes you have to be creative — and understanding of what motivates others — to find a way through. But if you don’t try, you can’t succeed.

Slide 12:

At this point, I expect some of you are drawing lines between my words and your lives, and thinking “I can’t go around my supervisor, or over her, or through her — that’s a TERRIBLE piece of advice. But you’re right, her fear of failure is blocking me. And I can’t change that. I’ve tried.” And you’re right. Openly thwarting your supervisor is probably terrible advice.

Ok then. 2 things.

1. Can someone else change the unchangeable? Boost you over the wall? Can you find an ally, an advocate, or a partner who can speak in ways that will get you through the wall? One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned is that sometimes my power lies not in speaking but in finding someone who can speak for me. Not in acting, but in finding someone who can act on my behalf.  Sometimes you are not the one who makes it happen, for all sorts of reasons, but you can be the voice whispering the good ideas to the ones who can make it happen.


2. Even if you can’t find someone to help you, even if this issue in front of you is something you have to turn back from, go find those allies anyway. You need support. We all do. You need to have people who get you, who will feed your passion when the world sucks you dry, who will prop you up when you wobble. That might be a local community — your coworkers, you local peers. Or it might be regional, or national. Or, as in my case, international. Use your professional organizations, professional development opportunities, and the internet to build a world of professional peers who can offer you a hand when you need it.

None of us can function alone. Steve Jobs had an army of smart, creative people standing with him, generating ideas, making his ideas real, and (presumably) supporting his innovation. You’re no different.

Slide 13:

One of the reasons you can’t function alone is that you’re gonna need a network someday. If you’re taking ownership for your choices, choosing to make your passions actionable, and deciding that you believe in your dreams, you will sometimes find that you have outgrown the capacity of your current place of work.

And while I acknowledge that it’s a terrible economy, globally and locally, there are always other jobs. You can always choose to move on. And in that moment, your professional buddies are often the ones you can turn to as you move forward — the ones who know things about the jobs you’re applying for, who can give you a lead on something interesting, or who will simply support you as you make changes in your life. Cultivate that network.

If there aren’t other jobs for you, for whatever reasons are a part of your personal reality as life happens to us all, we become tied to a place, the needs of others, or whatever it is that anchors you to a place, I hope everyone will consider what you’re giving up if you can’t embody your passion. You’re making a choice, and a sacrifice, if you don’t have room to act on your goals and dreams. You are the only one who can know if that’s the right decision for you, but make the decision consciously.

Slide 14:

And so, to conclude…

What I’m saying is:
To succeed, and be proud of who you are as a professional, you have to focus on your own reality, and know what you need as a human being, so that you can decide what you need to accomplish, want to try, desire as goals, and cannot live without. If you don’t know those things, setting your priorities accurately is impossible.

If you can identify your strengths, your resources, and your values, regardless of your personal reality, you’ll know which hills to climb, how to build a plan that includes all the important stuff, and when to turn back or ask for help.

Without a strong sense of who you are and what you need, you’re going to be taking the hard road. And the world needs too much change to do any of it the hard way.

Because I don’t care whether or not you think that our shared future of transformational change is exciting, terrifying, or just par for the course. I don’t care what your passion is. I don’t give a shit how hard times are, how bad everybody says things are, or how bad your funding is. This is life. This is our profession.  It is what it is.

I grew up in Illinois, and Illinois is a part of our country which has lots of two things: corn and soybeans. Farmers as far as the eye can see, and on that flat land, the eye can see pretty far. And when I was 16, taking my mandatory course in US History, I quickly saw a trend: farmers never have a good year. If crops are good, prices are low. If prices are high, there’s a drought. If nature allows a decent a crop, prices are mediocre. Farmers never have a good year.

But here’s the thing: they keep farming. Even though it’s hard, and nobody gets rich, they keep farming because growing things matters, feeding the world matters, and if it’s a bad year… So be it.

Libraries are very much the same, to my mind. So it’s not a good year for libraries. So what? Has it ever been a good year for libraries?

I’d say no. And I’d say we’re going to keep farming anyway.

So decide what you value and fight for it. Do something.



And some photos are my own.


  1. I was at the conference and your speech was very inspiring to me and hope for everyone else too. You were just rocking: )We’ll face the challenges.


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