“Nobody Died, Nothing Caught Fire”: The Art of Self-Appraisal for Public Library Workers

It’s that time of year again.  The leaves don scarlet and orange frippery, then gradually waltz to earth in a slow dance of death.  Bitter, howling winds nip at the ears and fingertips.  Germs and viruses of every stripe stalk the land, sidelining the weak and weary with their pestilence.  And librarians nationwide collectively bang their heads on their keyboards as they strive to summarize their annual accomplishments in the rite of self-appraisal.

[Academic librarians  are cordially invited to go do something fun in lieu of finishing this post.  As competitors for tenure, this sort of thing is part and parcel of the fabric of your lives, and Alchemy's supposed to be fun/helpful, not stressy/repetitive.  Have you considered ballroom dancing instead?  Mustache growing for fun and profit?  Otter spotting?  Go to.  Other librarians may stick around as inclined, and I hope you will at least chuckle at our plight, if it is not applicable to you.]

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the process.  Believe me, I like having a measurable, objective, quantifiable yardstick of the professional progress I’m making.  Something I can point to, much as a mason can point to the cathedral s/he helped build.  Goodness knows library science can be, er, fuzzy and ephemeral at times, what with all the helping and the world-saving and whatnot.  Bring on the concrete criteria!

However, despite the benefits of self-appraisal, its major drawbacks are that you still have to a) remember everything you did all year, b) write it up in a coherent fashion, and c) make new goals for the coming year,  all of which can be challenging when you’re d) busier than ever at the reference desk, and e) anxious about writing to begin with.

Fret not.  Alchemy’s here to help.  And by “help,” I mean, mostly, “gently suggest possible anxiety-relieving options.”

Part the First:  Gathering Information

Your calendar — e-mail or paper version — is your friend.  Take a quick flip back through whatever organizational tool you’ve been using and check for entries that indicate anything you might have done:  programming, working extra shifts, outreach, etc.  If it was important enough to put on your calendar, the chances are 50/50 that it will be important enough to record as an accomplishment on your appraisal. 

You will probably start to see patterns emerge as you click through the months; this will indicate areas of focus and or strength to emphasize.  Did you pretty much live in the book order room?  You’ll be hyping your mad collection development skills.  Spend a lot of time in meetings?  You’ll be talking about teamwork, collaboration, and all that jazz.  Bonus:  you get the pleasant surprise of realizing you’ve done more than you thought. 

If you have a blog, repeat this step by clicking back through your tags and / or archive.  See also:  the saved e-mail folder.  If it was important enough to save, it might be important enough to mention, especially if it’s a thank-you note from a patron for being extra-super-spiffy.  

Next, go get last year’s appraisal (unless this is your very first appraisal, in which case, please wait patiently and a new paragraph will be with you as soon as possible).  Part of the deal, remember, is that you get to keep a signed copy of what you and your supervisor discussed last year.  This is good because  the experience of discussing your self-appraisal tends to vanish in a haze of nostalgia once you’ve survived it.  Much like childbirth, or so I’ve heard.

At any rate, your prior year’s appraisal will have a list of the goals you indicated you’d achieve in the coming year, and should write about now.  For the moment, don’t worry about whether — or how well — you’ve achieved those goals.  You’re here for information, and skimming the record of what you and your boss discussed last year should jog your memory.  If not, there’s still time to jump ship for the competitive worlds of academic librarianship or otter spotting.

If this is your first appraisal, or you still feel like you don’t have enough material yet, a second opinion is called for.  Given that most of your peers are probably fretting over their own appraisals, the correctly-timed, half-joking question, “So, what did we do last year?” could lead to a round of collective inspiration/revelation…or, failing that, a round of margaritas as you bemoan group memory loss.  Usually, though, what happens is that your peers will have noticed things about you that you didn’t consider a big deal, which can help you flesh out your appraisal.  If you’re lucky in this regard, be prepared to repay in kind.

Part the Second:  Writing the Darned Thing

If self-appraisals were a movie, this would be the part that gets filmed as a montage.   You’ve seen it before: the writer labors at her/his keyboard.  Seasons pass.  Pieces of paper are crumpled and tossed at wastebaskets.  Cigarettes are smoked and/or liquor consumed.  Stormy classical music plays in the background.  And then, finally, the sun comes up over the horizon, and the writer drops off to sleep, exhausted, but done.

What happens in the hazy spaces of actually producing the writing will forever be a mystery process known only to each aspirant.  That being said, there are a few things you can do to prime the pump so that you’re not staring blindly at a wall at three a.m. or frantically banging your keyboard in time to Rachmaninoff.

My favorite technique is something I like to call the faux appraisal, the record of all the things you did — or refrained from doing — but would never actually submit to your boss in writing (unless, of course, you’re hankering for a brief visit to a padded cell, helped along by an armful of Thorazine).  This can be a fun exercise, if you commit to it whole-heartedly.  Observe:

It’s been another banner year for me here at Sunshine Rainbow Unicorn Bubble Public Library.  For the eighth time I am pleased to inform you that nobody died and nothing caught fire on my watch.  Quite the contrary:  armies of malevolent clowns repented their sins after basking in the gaze of my glorious customer service smile, and all of my programs were attended by at least 1,000 patrons, plus a phalanx of talking owls who have humbly requested that I become their queen. I responsibly managed a collection budget of seventeen acorns and a box of Junior Mints, with which I was able to buy seven hundred copies of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom thanks to my personal relationship with Oprah Winfrey and my strong library marketing skills, with which I sold our book jobbers on my alternative acorn-based economy, thus saving the library heaps of real money. In conclusion, I have a lightning-shaped scar on my forehead, thus placing me in a protected class of fictional characters who cannot be expelled from the library lest small children cry. I hope that this document and the large box of donuts to which it is attached is sufficient to demonstrate my continued value to the organization.

 Hopefully indulging in some serious silliness will break through any writers’ block or appraisal anxiety you might be experiencing.  If you do it right, it can even be a cleansing experience.  Just remember, if you get too crazy, burn or shred that draft ASAP;  your organizational culture might not be ready for a phalanx of talking owls just yet.

Not a fan of narrative? Several colleagues have reminded me that the humble bullet point can be your friend. You don’t want to undersell your accomplishments, but you also don’t want to force yourself to write long paragraphs if that’s just not your style.  A long list of bulleted accomplishments can look pretty impressive, especially from across the room, and for supervisors with piles of appraisals to read, they can be a godsend. 

For best results, however, make sure they’re all things you actually did, with no padding.  Think of bullets as if they were buttons on your lanyard.  A reasonable number of pithy ones make you look hip/cute; too many make you look like you work at TGIFridays, especially if they all involve committee service, and you have no plans to enter management.

Somewhere along the line you should refer to those goals you dug up earlier.  If you achieved them, make sure you say so, and go crazy on the descriptive (or the bullets).  Conversely, if you didn’t, you can still save the situation if you have a plausible explanation why.  Public libraries change quickly, remember, so it’s possible that you were needed at the reference desk more, and had less time to work on X-Y-Z special project, or the funding was pulled, or the library decided to go in a different direction.  There’s no shame in not meeting your goals, unless your only excuse is that level 16 on Portal made you cross-eyed.

In addition to a written section, many of you may have to deal with the Dreaded Ticky Box Phenomenon, in which you pigeonhole yourself into categories based on your gut instincts. This is the part of the evaluation where most people undersell themselves, so my advice to you is to re-read your bullets or paragraphs, and then rank yourself one level higher than you think you deserve.

Sound prideful? It’s not likely, but if it makes you feel better, try reframing it as a business transaction, say, selling your car or home. The more you ask for at the outset, the more you’re likely to get, even if there’s a downward adjustment somewhere in the process. Very few people are so deluded that they will rank themselves higher than they actually deserve. So if, for example, your choices are “Achieves,” “Exceeds,” and “Excels,” go for “Exceeds” and “Excels,” especially in the areas where you have the most proof to back you up.

If that still seems excessively boastful, do it anyway and hand it in before you can change your mind.  If you really do need a reality check about your greatness, your boss will gladly give it to you – and if s/he’s a good boss, she’ll even do it in such a way that you’ll appreciate hearing it.   Most people, however, tend to err on the side of Neville Longbottom rather than Hermione Granger, an unfortuante tendency of librarians that we’ll just have to unpack some other time.

Part the Third:  Setting New Goals

This is what is referred to in the professional library literature as “the fun part.”  It can, however, also be the most challenging, especially during times of uncertainty when you’re not really sure if there will be time, funding, or staffing for all the cool things you want to do.  With that in mind, here are some suggestions for good goals.

  • If you did something well last year, up the ante and say you’ll do more of it.  Make sure you attach a measurable number of some kind – a percentage, a circ stat, a dollar amount, a time frequency, etc. – to “more.”
  • Heed the need to weed.  If you have a collection, you’re going to have to weed it at some point.  Writing it down on paper ups the chances that will actually get done.
  • Try at least one new thing, preferably something that scares you just a little.  This indicates that you have initiative and are curious about things outside your area of expertise.  There’s also the potential for low risk and high reward here.  Trying new things is a win-win situation because nobody expects you to be instantly fabulous at a new skill, but you get points for trying.
  • Team up with another co-worker on a goal.  Ideally this is something you’ve discussed with said co-worker in advance, something that’s too huge to tackle on your own, but would really benefit the library.  Not only does this earn you “team player” points, but it also demonstrates that you recognize that your performance is designed to benefit the library as a whole, not just you personally. 
  • Stick to two or three goals.  There’s only so much any one person, no matter how talented, can reasonably accomplish, and you don’t want to make promises on which you cannot reasonably deliver.  In fact, underpromising and then exceeding expectations is a good strategy.  Just make sure you don’t set the initial bar too low — you don’t want to look like you’re phoning it in.

There.  Feeling a little better?  Obviously this post not the end-all be-all solution to the self-appraisal problem, and I’d love to hear how you yourselves have handled the beast in the past.  Also, since every institution is different, you may be able to give insights and information for which I have no context.  How does your library evaluate your performance?  What hurdles have you jumped, and what advice can you offer about them?

Many thanks for indulging my own first-draft hijinks.  I feel a lot more comfortable about writing my own appraisal now that I’ve had a bit of fun with the idea.  I’ve also got a hard-core art question to work on, so there may be another long pause before you hear from me again…but when I get around to it, I simply have to tell you about something I found on a floppy drive, something I thought had been lost forever.

Good times.  Happy self-examination!

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  1. tina said,

    October 8, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    WOW. I’m exhausted and I don’t even have to do this! But thank you for sharing and giving me a glimpse into what I have to look forward to when/if I ever have to do this!

  2. October 9, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    i am going to change my name to Ticky Box Phenomenon and start a band called the Otter Spotters.

    Ticky Box Phenomenon and the Otter Spotters.

    – amy

  3. Don said,

    October 10, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Excellent job, LA. The one thing that needs to be touched on, perhaps a large enough topic for a separate post by someone somewhere (or perhaps an entire book as cultural phenomenon), is the WHY behind self-appraisal, the history of where the idea came from, how it is used, and its effectiveness over the long term.

    Some of what you’ve done here is very effective for approaching any type of appraisal, even for those who don’t have to do the self variety (and for those of us who do, it works very well also). So, hey a big thanks.


    PS I want to play bass for TBP & TOS.

  4. October 11, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    @tina, thank you! I decided, in the end, to go with the bullet points, with just a teensy smidge of narrative. :) Here’s to the day when you, too, will have the pleasure of summing up all the fabulous things you did in a year.

    @amy, <3 . I'm going to Threadless RIGHT NOW to open the store…

    @Don, you raise a good point: what's all this for / about? I kind of didn't want to go there, but…there it is. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. And yes, you can totally be the bass player. :)

  5. Jessa said,

    October 12, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    That… is a big fat check in the “Excels” box. Brilliant. The sample self-assessment is the funniest thing I have read in a long time.

    How did you know that I was a Neville and not a Hermione? Methinks you have Seekrit Liberry Powers of which us unemployed mortals know not.

  6. LAV said,

    October 12, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    @Jessa, thank you! I was having some serious writers’ block myself, and decided to just let it rip. Notice how when I do that and don’t attach too much to the outcome, it works. ;)

    I think many library workers skew Neville rather than Hermione…but then, especially for women in American culture, it’s not deemed “nice” to be strong, confident, proud of yourself….uh-oh…here comes my soapbox….;)

  7. Nann said,

    October 13, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    This is brilliant! I will include it in the memo for next year’s appraisals. Thanks!

  8. LAV said,

    October 13, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    Nann, you are so kind, thank you!! Hope it’s useful in the future or, at the very least, an amusing ice-breaker. :)

  9. Pat said,

    October 15, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Don, the reason I require a self-appraisal is so that they will have to keep track of and come up with their accomplishments during the past year. I sure as heck can’t remember what everyone has done–I have a hard enough time coming up with my own self-appraisal for the Board.

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