My Year of No – Library Edition

I wake up every day torn between the desire to save the world and to savor the world.  This makes it hard to plan the day. — E.B. White

On April 1, 2010, I began what I’m calling My Year of No, and it’s not a joke.  It’s an experiment in setting limits, creating boundaries, and simplifying, and it’s a holistic project that encompasses every area of my life.  I’m nattering on about it at length via Facebook Notes (friend invites from Constant Readers cheerfully accepted), but for alchemical purposes we’ll stick to the library sphere here.

I’d been thinking about a work-related project like this ever since I read Emily Ford’s phenomenal essay, How Do You Say No? at Lead Pipe last December.  She articulates, much more logically and rationally than your passionate alchemist ever could, the benefits of setting limits, and offers concrete, practical resources and techniques for professional boundary-setting.  Click there toute de suite, s’il vous plait, because it’s marvelous.

In theory.

This is hardly a slam on Ms. Ford’s writerly excellence.  Putting theory into practice, however,  is always difficult because there’s that messy, human, emotional component that makes saying no and setting limits very, very difficult.

Most libraries are, right now, being asked to do more and more with less and less.  Legislators nibble at state budgets, ruthlessly nickel-and-diming us.  Staff members leave, for whatever reason, and cannot be replaced, much to the chagrin of the Legion of Jobhunters.  It’s no picnic for those left behind, either, as they assume more responsibility for the same amount of pay.  And a simple cost-of-living raise becomes an occasion for celebration (probably with a potluck) because, hey, at least we got that. 

I’m not casting aspersions, mind you.  It is what it is, and there’s no point in grumbling or finger-pointing.  No one person got us into this mess, and no one person can get us out.  It’s a team effort.  Which brings us back to the quandary of saying “no.”

In such a tense professional climate, it becomes difficult for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs to say no to anything, ever.  The fear becomes, if we  start saying no, that’s a demonstration that we’re  not team players, not willing to “man up” in hard times and help us all get through this.  No matter how nicely it’s said, even the most polite, professional “no” can sound like an unwillingness to go the extra mile in tough times.

[Those of you jockeying for tenure are, in a way, fortunate.  You have a goal in sight, a holy grail, a promise of safety to work toward.  In other ways, of course, you are just plain crazy, but it's the adorable kind of crazy that I decidedly appreciate, considering how often I refer students back to my colleagues across the lawn at Pitt,  and up the road to CMU.  Bless the academic librarians!  Without them, we in the public sector have no measuring stick for professional pain, and we stand with you in solidarity against the onslaught of information illiteracy, and cultural stupid/lazy.]

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, somewhere, sometime, something does have to give.  But it’s hard to birth theory into practice.

What works for me is public humiliation accountability.  I know darned well that I could try to make changes until I’m blue in the face, but unless there’s the possibility of a public pratfall, changes won’t happen.  I will, for example, set my Facebook status to something like “has to finish writing the meeting agenda.”  This spurs me to finish the agenda because if I don’t, I’ll have to publicly admit I didn’t finish.  There’s the added benefit of the “go you” and “get ‘er done!” type comments from my peers.

So I’ve printed Emily’s lovely essay for myself (they call me Gothface Tree Killah around these parts, apologies to my WuTang overlord), and will be using it as a guide for the rest of the year as I craft my cunning plan to set professional limits.  I also hereby vow to you, publicly, that from 4/1/2010 to 4/1/2011, LAV will not:

  1. Check work e-mail when she’s not working.  This has been astonishingly difficult, and there are times when I have to sit on my hands to keep from logging into the exchange server.  I keep reminding myself that my job does not (normally) involve blood or fire, and that whatever ends up in my inbox will keep until I get back.
  2. Work from home.  Technology has made it easier and easier to be connected 24/7.  This has had a deleterious effect on playtime with my cats and cosmopolitans with my girlfiends.  Ergo, it must end.  See e-mail rationale, above:  there is no professional issue I could possibly have that waiting 24 hours would ruin.  In some cases, it actually might help.
  3. Volunteer for any additional unpaid professional service.  This is the one that has me uneasy, because it calls into question all my yardsticks of success, to say nothing of my professional goals.  Can I really spend a year saying “no” to committees and task forces and volunteer projects and conferences, and still become a library director someday?  I’ve already said no to at least three amazing opportunities, and part of me is wondering if I’ve ruined my future forever, or look like a slacker.  I’m also afraid that, no matter how nice I was about it, I’ve ruined at least one professional friendship.  That’s kind of a scary place to be.  And yet…there is so much more to success than the number of add-ons on your resume.  Surely I can achieve more than one kind of success?
  4. Say “yes” to any new work opportunity  without subjecting it to a 24-hour discernment period.  I solemnly swear, I am working very hard at the job I get paid to do.  That being said, I have a bad habit of immediately saying “yes” to every new, cool opportunity that comes down the pike at CLP.  Given that we’re a 19-branch library system, there’s something cool going on almost every day.  No sane person can accommodate that.  So I’ve been waiting a day before signing up for anything new, even though this, too, has involved a lot of biting my tongue and sitting on my hands.  What’s been helpful in this regard is my Fabulous Boss’s assertion that I’m working too hard.  When your ambitious, energetic, multi-tasking supervisor tells you you’re working too hard, you can probably ease up a little bit (have I mentioned lately that he’s the Best Boss Ever?).

The punch line to my latest humanifesta is, of course, that I am writing this particular Alchemy essay from home.


This is in large part because of the wise advice I received from a trusted co-worker:  it’s not enough to say “no” to what’s not working for you; you also have to say “yes” to the things that uplift you, professionally.  Writing with and for all of you, and trying to make sense of this crazy library world together, is, I reckon, one of the most important things I do.  No sense trying to shoehorn that into the framework of a 7.5 hour workday.

Any thoughts, comments, advice, or frosty adult beverages you have handy would be most welcome.  I am going to spend the rest of my day off doing Nothing Work-related Whatsoever.  And when we return, we’ll have a few book reviews before we get to the next-most-popular Alchemy poll topic.

ETA 5/1/10:  Good heavens, all my intentions up in smoke already, and all of you too kind to call me on it.  At the time I wrote this post I was reading Tana French’s In the Woods. I have since finished, and it will be one of my upcoming reviews.

About these ads


  1. Kelley B said,

    April 30, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    While I always enjoy your alchemical posts – this one was particularly enlightening. After a few recent disappointments at work, I’ve been feeling less than delighted during my 8-hour workdays – which is new for me in this position. But I realized, mostly inspired by your journey on this year of no, that my yesses have been part of my disallusionment with my work. It’s just too much. I definitely have goals, so saying no to things that you’re convinced are going to help you get to those goals faster and easier, is supremely hard, as you say here. But, my other life goals (like, finding serenity somewhere!) are being pushed to the back-burner too often. So that whole inner-soul thing gets all tangled up and unhappy. Then the job isn’t what it used to be or should be and then suddenly nothing’s feeling good.

    Balance. Very important stuff. Hard to get and maintain, but striving for it is essential I think. Yay you. And thanks for the inspiration, G.

  2. Jess Neiweem said,

    April 30, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Gothface Tree Killah!

    Saying no is awesome. Thanks for an important post. *hands you the frosty adult beverage of your choice*

  3. Emily said,

    April 30, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    I stumbled onto your post today because I was reading your post on failure that I had bookmarked to “read later.” I guess I have good timing! Thanks for the super nice shout out. It made me blush.

    The thing that really struck me about saying no and reading the Ury book that informed a lot of that post, was that saying no can BE a positive thing. When you are saying no you are saying yes to something else. It sounds to me like right now you’re saying yes to your quality time with cats, friends, liquor (teehee!), and generally improving your quality of life.

    Something that I think a lot of us library people forget, is that we are not our jobs. Being a librarian/library worker/information professional does not define us. I am struggling with this, too.

    I really like the list you made. Here’s mine.
    -I will not take on anything new as a professional volunteer until at least 3 other obligations are off of my plate.
    -I will not be consistently unhappy at work. If I am consistently unhappy I will change my situation.
    -I will not be defined by my job title.
    -I will not eat lunch at my computer.
    -I will not sacrifice my critical thinking and thoughtfulness to take the “easy way” out or avoid tension in the workplace.

    (Also, I need a reader for the draft of my next post. Will you e-mail me if you’re interested? It’s about failure, kinda, in a round-about way.)

  4. afewsocks said,

    April 30, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I love your list Emily and am adding the lunch-computer one to mine. I do that too often – would be nice to step away from the desk.

    And won’t she just say no to your request to read your blog post draft? : )

  5. May 1, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Yay, comments! Let’s see here:

    @Kelley, I’m glad this post was helpful for you. I figure, if I’m experiencing things, I’m probably not the only one, so, might as well talk about it. There’s a lot of heart and soul in librarianship – difficult to build a discourse around, but so necessary!!

    @Jess, thanks kindly! Puns and adult beverages for everybody who wants them! Hee.

    @Emily, credit where it’s due, always. I tend to read things and think about them a long time before I respond. And I loved your list – thanks for including it the comment! Once I achieve my current goals, I’ll have some new ones to consider – yay!

    E-mail forthcoming…

  6. Will Manley said,

    May 1, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Leigh Anne…it’s simple. Say yes to those things that help you evolve as a human being, and say no to those things that get in the way of your evolution as a human being. Know yourself and put that knowledge into practice. The thing that struck a chord with me in your essay was the mention of committees. Committees stop human growth. Just.Say.No.To.Committees.

  7. Leigh Anne said,

    May 1, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Heh. We’ve got it in writing, from a credible source! Can I get a witness?

  8. Will Manley said,

    May 1, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    Facepalm. Can you fix my typo? I’m really not a “dese, dem, and does” guy. Re. committees…they are evil…unless you goal is obfuscation, delay, inaction, and bullshit…then they are very effective. Also never join a service club especially the kind that sings stupid songs and wears funny hats unless George Babbit is your best friend.

  9. May 1, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Fixed! I am now snickering about George Babbit.

    I’m really grateful for your feedback because I just figured committees, after an organization reached a certain size, were a necessary evil. Also, having now planned and scheduled more meetings than I ever thought I would, I know just how hard it is to run a good one….donuts, definitely…

  10. May 4, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Hi Leigh Anne,

    Just a quick note to say, whatever you do, keep saying yes to writing. :-)

  11. LAV said,

    May 5, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Thank you, Pete! That means a lot. Have I mentioned lately how grateful I am for everything I’ve learned from you? :)

  12. May 5, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Thank you for your kind comments. If I knew how to code a blushing emoticon, I’d insert it here —–>

    And SERIOUSLY, I have sooooo enjoyed your writing. Your humor, insight, intelligence, and caring shine through every post. Hope to see you at ALA! :-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 173 other followers

%d bloggers like this: