Life here at Alchemy isn’t all vampires and snark.  It is, however, rather bookish.

I’m somewhat startled by how infrequently I talk about books in my professional librarian blog.  Then again, my writing about books would be much like asking fish to philosophize about water (especially since fish can’t talk).  Print books, to me, are not so much objects to be fussed over as they are critical elements of survival that I take for granted.  The sun will rise in the morning, the water that comes out of my tap will be potable, and there will always, always be something for me to read.  You will step between me and my books at your peril, and you will pry their papery goodness from my cold, dead hands.

All that being said, I’ve decided we don’t talk about books nearly enough at Alchemy, and that this must change.  Given that I am still my department’s emerging technologies librarian, we will still grumble talk a lot about technology.  Because I’m now officially in the leadership training cohort, we’ll still be talking about leadership.  And because I remain your cynical romantic, we will definitely still philosophize.  There are, however, one or two little cosmetic tweaks we’ll make going forward.

For starters, at the end of every post, I’ll link to the book I’m reading that day.  Given that I am usually reading 50 library books at any given time, and have 50 more on order, this should not prove difficult.  In all fairness, I am usually reading more than one book per day (one for the bus, one for each room in the house, one for my lunch break, etc.), but to keep the literary insufferability to a minimum, we’ll stick to one per post.

Finishing books tends to be an issue for me.  I take Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule very seriously; it breaks my heart that, at the end of my life, I still won’t have read all the books on earth, so I want to make sure I don’t spend too much time with clunkers.  50 pages is more than enough to be able to file it away in my brain for readers’ advisory.

Still, I’d like to finish more books than I do, which is why I signed up for two reading challenges this year, a 50-book challenge at GoodReads, and a 100 book challenge at Every Girl Blog. That’s technically 150 books to finish this year (doubling up seems like cheating), and I’m going to keep track of them right here at Alchemy, just to save time.  You will find my 2010 reading log thus far in the left-hand sidebar, or you can visit it here.

You’d think we would be all booked up right now, but you’d be so very wrong!  Just to up the ante, starting with the next book I finish, I’m going to review it here at Alchemy.  I love writing book reviews, and would like to get both more exposure and more practice.  The 175-word fiction reviews I produce for Library Journal are definitely fun, and keep me sharp, but I find that, much like the opium addicts of old, it takes more and more of the stuff to satisfy my critical appetite.  Since it would be selfish to sign up to review all the books at LJ, I’ll simply have to branch out.

What else is in it for you, Constant Reader?  Well, those ARCs have to go somewhere when I’m done with them, and I’d prefer it not be the recycling pile.  The sensible, responsible thing to do seems to be passing them on to a fellow information professional.  Ergo, each time I’m done with an LJ ARC, I’ll offer it up for grabs on Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I actually have one for you today – everybody who comments on this entry between now and Wednesday April 28th will have the opportunity to win the somewhat-battered copy of the book I’ve just reviewed.  Today’s mystery ARC is the third novel from a literary mystery author, and if you’re in the mood for a solid whodunit with a number of quirky literary style choices and a meta-fiction vibe, you should put your hat in the ring for it.

In a token nod to technology, I’ve updated my blogroll to indicate which library blogs I’m actually reading right now.  I don’t read many blogs, sad to say; this is not because I don’t love you madly, but because I loathe squinting at a tiny screen.  Because printing out posts is neither time-efficient nor environmentally sound, I limit my blog reading only to those authors who make it consistently worth my while.   Paradoxically, however, I am always on the lookout for blogs I haven’t yet discovered, and it seems sensible that I should start with you.  Ergo, if you are blogging, please include your link so that I can repay your kindness to me by checking out your thoughts as well.

Last, but certainly not least, a feature for the comment-shy:  WordPress has just initiated a delightful new star rating system, allowing you to indicate how much you liked a particular post without having to leave a comment.  I’ve enabled this feature, and you will now see it at the top of every post.  The only way I’m going to get better at this is if you give me feedback, so please, for the sake of quality control, make your (dis)pleasure known ad astra if you’re not feeling chatty.

Poll results indicate the bulk of you are interested in hearing about My Year of No, a project that began on Facebook.  When I come back from my “nobody should work on their birthday” mini-holiday, I’ll tell you all about it…at least, all about the professional aspect.

Happy reading!

Reading Today: This is for the Mara Salvatrucha, Samuel Logan.  A gang member turned informant spills the beans on the MS-13, one of America’s most notorious street gangs (non-fiction, true crime).

Title Fail (Insert Vampire Metaphor Here): Library Failure, Pt. IV

A/k/a “Part the Last.”  Honestly, I don’t know how Dickens managed this whole serialization thing. Romance at short notice is more my specialty.

Besides, we have to finish this series before you start accusing me of making up failures and blunders to suit the topic.  Truth always being funnier than fiction, however, it probably makes sense to you that, as I’ve been typing this and helping various patrons, I also managed to spill half a bottle of water all over myself.

This would not be so bad if I were wearing my usual black attire.  Today, however, I opted for the knee-high, fire-engine red sheath dress that looks so fetching with my black labcoat and pirate boots.   The resulting wet-dark splotches make me look like a badly bruised tomato, and have prompted at least two patrons to ask me if I have enough sense to come in out of the rain.


If only to stop attracting failure, then, let’s get this over and done with!

The Non-Verbal Approach

Logically, you know that screwing up at work doesn’t make you a bad person, because everybody does it.  And, logically, you know you’re supposed to forgive yourself, laugh it off, rub some dirt in it, and take a lap.  Because of your pesky brain chemistry, however, logic is not always going to work.  In fact, the more you try to logic yourself into getting over it, the worse you are likely to feel, because you’re trying to solve a right-brain problem with a left-brain approach.

Belleruth Naparstek figured this out while working with trauma survivors.  The lightbulb went on with one client in particular, whose repeated verbalization of her trauma increased, rather than decreased, her symptoms of upset.  Non-verbal techniques, however, such as visualization, guided imagery, and meditation led to a decrease in suffering for the patient and a whole new path of therapeutic exploration for Naparstek.

Now, with the exception of those rare days when somebody ODs on heroin in the library bathroom, you could argue that working in our profession is not traumatic; it simply feels that way sometimes.  And remember, to your amygdala, it doesn’t matter whether or not the trauma is real or imagined.  So if you’re having a bad day of any sort, you might want to consider tricking yourself back into sanity with a visualization, or a meditation.

If you found yourself rolling your eyes at the prospect, it’s possibly because you think I expect you to imagine, say, fields of wildflowers, with chirping little birds flitting past, and perhaps a fuzzy, snuggly bunny rabbit you can cuddle until you feel better.  Those of you who would feel cheered by an interlude with a bunny can hold that image, close your eyes and stop here.

The rest of us are going to do some Lincoln thinking.

Lincoln = Failure?

One exceptionally annoying aspect of the internet is the way truth and fiction meet,  have a few cocktails, and impulsively take off together on an ill-advised, whirlwind tour of your e-mail.  Case in point:  the e-mail foward that praises Abraham Lincoln for his persistence in the face of repeated failure.  The good folks at Snopes have written a meticulous, point-by-point refutation that elucidates just what is, and is not, true about that e-mail forward.  Emotionally, however, it is very satisfying to have an image of somebody larger-than-life who triumphed over adversity to cling to, especialy when we are having a bad day.

Given that we are librarians, however, our logical brains are harder to outfox.  We want order and structure, organization and classification, gosh darn it.  Ergo, our mythic, symbolic figures have to be ridiuclously, outrageously mythic and symbolic in order to sidestep our strong natural tendencies.

Good thing we’ve got some pop culture options to pick from.  Enter Seth Grahame-Smith, who turned our sixteenth president into a vampire hunter, and the warped gang at Kill Vampire Lincoln Productions, who turned him into an undead abomination.  Read each visualization scenario, then decide which symbol works best for you and find a private place to soothe your amygdala.

Visualization #1:  Abraham Lincoln As Vampire Hunter

If you cottoned to the previously-suggested notion that library failure is like a confidence-draining vampire, you might want to focus on bloodsucker-battling Abraham Lincoln as your symbol of sanity. 

Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and imagine the tall, lanky statesman gravely planting a stake right through the heart of your failure-paralysis.  Relish the thought of those spindly arms scything the heck out of the terrible demon that prevents you from becoming your professional best!  Savor the feelings of liberty that kick in as the eloquent Gettysburg addresser calmly bids your fears depart this mortal plane, and return to the unholy realms of their origin, hastening their departure with a ginormous flask of holy water to the face!  Finally, when your fears have been vanquished, don’t forget to shake hands with Mr. Lincoln and say thank you – good manners are always in fashion, no matter how silly the scenario.  Open your eyes, ignore the slackjawed stares of your compatriots, and resume your normal workday duties.

Visualization #2:  Abraham Lincoln as Vampire

It’s perfectly possible some of you might find the previous symbolic stance — as well as most of this series — both rabidly anti-vampire and insensitive to the rights of the undead.  Because Alchemy strives for inclusivity off all kinds, I offer this second visualization in which things take a somewhat different turn.

Close your eyes and breathe deeply.  Imagine that you are growing taller, sprouting absurdly long incisors, growing an astonishingly thick and lavish beard.  Picture your clothes melting and reconstituting themselves into the form of a really striking black suit, complete with tall stovepipe hat.  Feel the preternatural strength in your vampire veins as you consider your prey, all those petty, annoying fears that keep you from achieving your full potential.  Use your amped-up, immortal laser-beam eyes to fix them in place, and stare them down like the puny, pathetic little rabbits they are.  See them grow smaller, trembling in fear at your obvious might, and cover in the face of your bloodthirsty rage!  Now pounce on the little rodents and administer righteous justice!  Mwahahahahahaha!

Remember that you are a scholar and a gentleperson, and slowly watch what remains of your fears dissolve into nothingness.  Count backwards from 100 until you reach 1, at which point you will, hopefully, have recovered your equilibrium.  Take one, last deep breath, then open your eyes, ignore the horrified stares of your co-workers, and resume your normal duties.

Post-Visualization Analysis

Once you’ve managed to convince your supervisor not to shoot you full of Thorazine and lock you away, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I willing to take risks and be a little silly for the sake of my mental health and well-being?
  2. Am I courageous enough to consider that perhaps I take myself and my responsibilities just a teensy bit too seriously at times?
  3. If the whole vampire thing didn’t work for me, am I open to creating visualizations around alternatives that I personally find appealing?
  4. Do I hide my true personality and character behind a calm, sedate professional mask?  Do my co-workers know who I am as a person, or do they only see a polished exterior?
  5. How come Library Alchemy gets to be silly and I don’t?

That last is a trick question – you have a right, nay, a duty, to be as silly as possible whenever necessary and appropriate.  What makes you laugh?  What images would get you through a crazy, failure-swamped day at your library?  What is the appropriate balance of personal and professional in your office?  How personal can you get before your peers recoil in horror?  How do you and your officemates keep yourselves sane?

I ask myself these questions a lot.  I also ask myself why I’m still sitting here when I should be on the other side of the work-life balance hyphen!  To be fair, it was quite busy at the desk this afternoon, and that simply must take priority.  I will, however, be back when I can, to do a bit of housekeeping, and then to write about the topic you chose in the last Alchemy poll.  If you haven’t yet voted, you’ve got one more chance.

 A bientot, chers colleagues.  Stay strong, but stay silly too.

Title Fail (Insert Vampire Metaphor Here): Library Failure, Pt. III

Here we are again, leading by example, coming up for air to talk a little more about failure.  Like, for example, my failure to keep a straight face yesterday at the reference desk when a patron’s cell phone rang.

Though I’m no Lady GaGa, I’m pretty good with the public service poker face when the occasion warrants.  Yesterday, however, I couldn’t remain composed when the cellphone ringing started.  You see, Constant Reader, the sound that played at intervals without ceasing was…

…a crowing rooster.  Sort of like this, only without the heavy metal riffing in the background.

Put yourself in my place for a moment.  In the peace and splendor of a steady, yet quiet, tour of reference desk duty, your composure is marred by


Every 30 seconds.  With the patron showing no signs of having heard the sound, or wanting to do anything about it.  And you, enforcer of the policy which clearly states that cellphones should be taken out into the hallway, cannot enforce it, becuase you have your head tucked into your hand, suppressing violent giggles.  Other patrons are looking at you, waiting for you to take charge of the situation, because you are the arbiter of order.  And yet, there you sit, turning purple from suppressed mirth.

Rooster.  Ringtone.  Professional.  Response.  Fail.

How my desk partner managed to get through it with a straight face, I’ll never know.  Perhaps he’ll consent to giving me lessons in future?  Or, perhaps, I should heed my own advice and see what science has to say about outsmarting my brain, so that I, too, can remain calmer in the face of mayhem?


 There’s no dearth of recent books ready to help you tame your amygdala.  Many of them cite the same scientific sources, so here, pulled at random, is a capsule description of what happens in your brain when the amygdala freaks out:

The Fear Response stimulates the amygdala-hippocampus complex (AHC), your emotional response center and the primitive part of the brain, often called the “lizard brain.” The lizard brain directs the emotions or behaviors that are responsible for survival of the species, such as fear and aggression. The lizard brain also stores the memory of any given negative experience or threat so that you can react even faster to it in the future.

Stimulation of the lizard brain triggers a cascade of events, culminating in the production of hormones and peptides, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that cause physical changes in the body. At the same time, changes occur in the brain that prevent you from doing any complex problem solving–you actually revert to a more primitive being whose main goal is physical self-preservation.

The Love Response, Eva M, Selhub, pg. 5

So, a chemical process that once might have saved you from being saber-toothed tiger chow now has the potential to trip you up by spurring you into fear-driven actions and responses that have the potential to become a negative feedback loop. What’s a librarian to do?

In a word, laugh.

There’s virtually no end to the veritable flood of information out there about the science of laughter. Robert Provine, a key scholar in the field, has generated a great deal of research on the topic, including a lengthy essay in American Scientist.  The bottom line appears to be that laughter is adaptive, is good for us, makes us healthier overall.  Which means that my giggle-fit “fail” at the reference desk yesterday wasn’t so much a “fail” as it was the best possible response to a fairly ludicrous situation.

That lets me off the hook quite nicely!  You, however, may be skeptical.  You would be perfectly within your rights to scowl at your screen, cross your arms and say, “Listen girlfiend, you’re not here, and you don’t know.”  Your library, you may reckon, is no laughing matter.  No amount of snicker-inducing shenanigans could possibly improve your current working conditions, could they?

Well, allow me to retort.  In part IV, I will attempt to sidestep the logical part of your brain and appeal to those parts of it that respond best to myth and symbol, via the figure of Abraham Lincoln.  And, of course, those pesky vampires.

I’ll try to wrap this up on Friday, but it could drag on until next week.  In the meantime, if you have any hilarious cellphone stories, please share in a comment.  Aside from the rooster, the best ringtone I’ve heard at the library was the refrain to The Scorpions’ 80s hair-band hit, Rock You Like a Hurricane. Can you top that, Constant Readers?

Title Fail (Insert Vampire Metaphor Here): Library Failure, Pt. II

Previously, on Alchemy, we’d seemingly written ourselves into a corner, what with surface-scratching neuroscience, myth, symbol, and many examples of heinous fail, all of which actually happened somewhere in library world.  In addition, a number of brave commenters stepped up to the plate to talk about their own mistakes and failures.  On these brave souls I hereby bestow the Black Badge of Infamy With Pink Skulls Upon It. 

Metaphorically, of course.  I’ve got no budget for actual badges (and you don’t really need them anyhow).  What I do have are a few stolen moments in which to advance my theories.

First, the vampires.

Vampire as Fail Metaphor

Ever since John Polidori sat up all night telling ghost stories with Byron and the Shelleys, we’ve had vampires in our fiction, for good or ill. Many a scholarly study theorizes as to why this particular undead creature continues to fascinate us, but from where I’m sitting, it’s pretty simple:  humans need blood to live, and vampires take blood.  Ergo, vampires are scary as hell.

[What's interesting is that we seem to be entering a fictional age in which vampires have compassion, can be redeemed, even fight for equal rights.  Ergo, I'd better hurry up and finish this metaphor before what was once a classic symbol of terror becomes completely drained of its potency.]

Vampires make a lovely metaphor for failure simply because the prospect of screwing up exerts a similar effect:   failure stops us in our tracks, drains us of confidence, leaves us depleted and wondering what the heck happened to us.  Once you’ve been bitten, it’s hard to shake it off and bounce back, especially if you don’t feel you have anyone you can confide in.

Now up the stakes by thinking about failure specifically within the library.

 Librarianship is a profession in transition, actively questioning its future.  What’s the role of the physical library?  What do reference services in the 21st century look like?  How do we serve the “born digital” without neglecting the rest of the community’s needs?  What’s the future of cataloging?  How can we teach information literacy to people who are perfectly happy with Wikipedia, and don’t necessarily care if Wikipedia is wrong, or if better sources exist?  How can we convince the non-librarians who oversee our medical/special/school libraries that our services are value-added?  Are library coffeeshops still hot, or are they “soooo 2004″?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s enough to establish that librarianship gives us enough to worry about on good days.  Adding the prospect of failure to the mix simply ramps up the possibility of vampiric possession.  When everything around you is hazy, nebulous, uncertain, subject to change at any moment, the prospect of somehow “doing it wrong” is almost too much to bear.

So what do we do?  Because this is me you’re dealing with here, you get two answers:  a logical one, and a mythic-symbolic one.  In Part III of this series, I’ll give you the logical answer which incorporates the forty thousand things I’m learning about neuroscience!  And in part IV, we’ll finally get to Abraham Lincoln and his vampiric (or not) tendencies.

I know, I know.  I took a day off, I got buried in catch-up work, I had to lower the blogging bar.  It happens.  Can I get a witness?  I shudder to think what will happen when I disappear the week of my birthday, if, indeed, I do dare to take that much vacation all at once.

Until next time, I remain,

your library alchemist.

Title Fail (Insert Vampire Metaphor Here): Library Failure, Pt. I

Last week, while helping a really cute patron, I made a wee blunder at the end of a transaction.  When he thanked me for my assistance, I looked him right in the eye, gave him my most dazzling customer service smile and said, “You’re wonderful” instead of “You’re welcome.”


The patron grinned.  I blushed about seventy-five different shades of scarlet and apologized.  He was very gracious about it.  Did I mention he was also very, very cute?  Cute as in “Hardly anybody that cute walks in here” cute?


If you’ve never done anything like that during a reference transaction, just you wait.  Interspersed with all the inspirational moments where you change somebody’s life there will be inevitable episodes of mistaking babies’ genders, much to the outrage of their parents; mispronouncing names; bumping into people; tripping over laptop cords; forgetting to bring someone’s chases over to their work table (usually when you’re trying to help seven people at once), and deleting print jobs from the queue instead of releasing them.

It gets worse.  You will, at some point in your career, screw your courage to the sticking place and propose a new initiative that will be roundly dismissed by the powers that be as unfeasible due to circumstances of which you were not aware when you crafted your cunning plan.  What’s worse, at least one of your projects will fail miserably and die quietly while your peers politely ignore the stench of dead woodchuck under the porch of your career.  You will accidentally send an e-mail intended just for one person to the entire countywide listserv and, along the same lines, intentionally send an e-mail to the countywide listserv only to discover that your missive has incorrect information, a typo, or both.  You will completely misunderstand something a patron wants and, for example, send her/his books back to the warehouse when what s/he really wanted was for you to keep them a little longer.

Quite possibly, your mistakes will be even larger.  If you’re not careful, you will sign up for far more committees and special projects than you can reasonably handle, then freak out when the workload gets to be too much. You will then refuse to drop or quit anything because you want to prove that you’re hard-core, and can run with the big dog librarians.  You also won’t want your boss — or his/her bosses, for that matter — thinking you’re a wuss who can’t take the heat.

Luckily, you will survive all of this, and more.  Someday, you will even laugh about it.

“Failure,” in the context of library work, is an amusing intellectual concept because, even on our very worst days nobody dies (usually) and nothing gets set on fire (normally).  Those of us who work in urban public libraries frequently have more harrowing stories to tell; these, however, have less to do with personal failures or mistakes than they do with gaping holes in the larger social fabric.  For the moment, we will put those aside and concentrate on those individual moments of epic fail that stop us in our tracks and make us wonder if we took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

Discussing Library Failure

In June of 2009 the estimable Walt Crawford wrote a blog post called Learning From Failure for what is know known as the Library Leadership Network.  Your alchemist prescribes a cup of tea and a slow, careful reading of this post, but for those of you already caught up in a frazzly workweek, here’s the money quote that goes a long way toward explaining why we don’t talk much about our professional failures:

Failure isn’t sexy.

Librarians are by no means immune to the desire to be admired, respected, thought well of.  The extent to which each individual wants personal “library fame” varies widely:  some people want to be on the cover of LJ; others would simply like a job.  But all of us want to be regarded in a positive professional light.

This is, I assure you, perfectly normal.  Where we goof it up, I’ve found, is in the pressure we put on ourselves to be likeable.  We are, I think, harder on ourselves than any employer or colleague would ever be.  Just a theory…but let’s test it out, shall we?

Let’s say, for example, your boss sends you an e-mail.  Somehow said e-mail gets buried in the crush of daily e-mails you receive, and you don’t see it.  For a whole year.  Which you then realize about 48 hours before said item really should be acted upon.

At this point, you probably need to be peeled off the ceiling because your mental chatter sounds something like this:

OMG I am such an idiot!  I can’t believe I let an e-mail sit in my inbox for an entire year without doing anything!  My boss is going to kill me.  Worse, before s/he kills me, s/he’s going to give me THAT LOOK, the one that makes me want to curl up and die of shame because it reminds me of the way my swimming teacher looked at me when I refused to jump off the high dive in 4th grade PE.  Maybe Boss will yell, or maybe s/he’ll give me the silent treatment, but either way, this blunder is going to go down in my PERMANENT LIBRARY RECORD, and I will never get another good assignment, promotion, or raise ever again.  Then my boss will tell HER/HIS boss, who will start treating me as if I’m somewhat feeble.  Word will spread.  I’ll stop getting invited to the GOOD meetings, the ones with DOUGHNUTS.  People will avoid me in the halls and stop talking whenever I walk into a room, and it will be because they were discussing ME and ALL THE WAYS IN WHICH I AM AN EPIC FAILURE.  Nobody will eat lunch with me anymore because they won’t want to be associated with the fail-cloud hanging over my head, and eventually I will have to wear a scarlet letter F on my oufit.  At my next evaluation I’ll be let go because of “budget reasons,” and I’ll never get another library job again, and some snarky library blogger will write a post using me as an example of What Not to Do.  I’ll end up working at Dunkin Donuts and LIVING IN A VAN DOWN BY THE RIVER!  My life is OVER!

Well, am I right?

If that sounds even remotely familiar to you, welcome to your amygdala, the lizard part of your brain that manages to turn your failures and mistakes into heinous crimes the likes of which would make Jack the Ripper himself blush with shame to be seated next to you in whatever punitive dimensions exist beyond this one. Though your cerebral cortex will try to have its way, the only way to counter-attack the amygdala is with myth, symbol, and other constructs that speak to the emotions.

This brings us, quite naturally, to vampires.  But, ironically, not right now!  What I’d hoped could be one long moment of library blog brilliance has turned, by necessity of between-patron typing and editing, into a two-parter.  Nothing like leading by example, eh?  Part Two will discuss vampires as a metaphor for failure, using the curious paradox of Fictional Abraham Lincoln, who has a bit of an identity problem for us to resolve.  We’ll also talk about ways you can outsmart your amygdala…and I promise you that to make myself publicly accountable for doing the research on that.  After all, I wouldn’t want to fail you, Constant Reader.

Live well, laugh often, talk soon!

Cranky Bodhisattva in a Long Black Dress: How I Got Here, Why I Stay (Pt II)

For those of you who missed it, Part I of this series explains how I became a librarian. Part II delves into why I stay, and took me a little longer to write because, as many a Facebook relationship status asserts, “It’s complicated.”

I mean, I can tell you that it took less than six months to make up my mind about the MLIS, a year and a half to get the degree (clerking and adjuncting most of the while), and the biggest stroke of luck in the universe to start a librarian position at CLP shortly after graduation.  That is a whole separate story unto itself, which we’ll get to…eventually.  All I can tell you right now is that with hard work and a little luck, strange things happen.

And boy, did things ever happen.  My MLIS coursework was hard-core, old-fashioned reference all the way, so of course my first professional job was in readers’ advisory.  Thanks to professional literature, a lifetime of reading both trash and treasure, and a flock of amazing coworkers, I got myself up to speed.  Several years later I moved on to the Reference department, not because I was unhappy, but because around here, the Reference staff are like the Yankees:  legendary for depth and breadth of knowledge.  Who doesn’t want to play for the Yankees? 

Don’t answer that, Dodgers fans.  Just trust  me.  It was a move from good to better, and the last three years have been mostly made of win as I’ve learned from the amazing talent all around me.   I know a lot more about technology now than I did, and I’ve had a front-row seat at the ongoing “future of reference” conversations.  Who could ask for anything more?  

But that doesn’t exactly speak to the question of the reasons why I want to spend my life in public libraries.  I mean, getting a PhD was interesting.  Working in corporate America was interesting.  Librarianship is interesting.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.

My reasons are partially explained by my favorite reference transaction thus far.  It took place on a quiet night while I was in library school.  I’d just been promoted to library assistant, and was thrilled to death to get more time at the first floor reference desk.  A young man in a suit walked up to me with a determined look on his face and said the most amazing sentence I’d ever heard:

I need a book that will change my life.

My eyes lit up like Christmas trees.  “Tell me more,” I urged.  And we got into a 20-minute conversation about the kinds of changes he wanted to make, and the kinds of books that had spoken to him in the past.

It goes without saying that our next stop was a trip into the Bs.  I reassured the patron that the kinds of questions he was asking were the same kinds that people had been asking for thousands of years.  As we walked through the tiers of philosophy, religion and self-help, I pulled various tomes from the shelves and booktalked them, demonstrating how many different answers people had found before, and how many different ways there were to answer those questions.  I varied my stops based on his visible and verbal responses to the books I picked, and we finally stopped in front of a shelf that looked interesting to him based on my description of some of the books on it.

I left him alone to browse and went back downstairs to my post.  About 20 minutes later he came back with a shining face and an armful of books, thanked me, and left.  I never saw him again, and I have no idea if he found what he was looking for.

I swear on a stack of the religious texts of your choice, that really happened.  Yes, Virginia, in this crazy world, where we put up with so much ignorance and unpleasantness on the daily, where we see first-hand the extent to which society and culture often fail the sick, the mentally ill, the poor, and the otherwise disenfranchised…sometimes, we connect on a deeper level.  Sometimes, in our library conversations, we reach past not only our polite, professional facades, but also past all the wounds and challenges in which all of us come wrapped, and touch lightning.

That’s not the only time I’ve ever felt lightning at the reference desk, but it was the first time…and you know what they say about your first time:  you never forget.  On days when ignorance and stupidity pile up like landfill debris, I strive to remember that underneath every question somebody asks me — yes, Virginia, including “Where’s the bathroom?” — there’s a more fundamental question that addresses the root of who we are as human beings.

This brings us to the concept of the bodhisattva, the person who deliberately delays enlightenment until everyone else is enlightened, too. That’s a pretty huge concept to wrap one’s brain around, especially if you are not — as I am not — a Buddhist. And yet, for some reason, it resonates with me, especially as described by respected Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in a Nov. 2006 essay for Shambhala Sun:

[T]aking the bodhisattva vow is a real commitment based on the realization of the suffering and confusion of oneself and others. The only way to break the chain reaction of confusion and pain and to work our way outward into the awakened state of mind is to take responsibility ourselves. If we do not deal with this situation of confusion, if we do not do something about it ourselves, nothing will ever happen. We cannot count on others to do it for us. It is our responsibility, and we have the tremendous power to change the course of the world’s karma. So in taking the bodhisattva vow, we are acknowledging that we are not going to be instigators of further chaos and misery in the world, but we are going to be liberators, bodhisattvas, inspired to work on ourselves as well as with other people.

That passage neatly nails on the head why the reference desk at a public library is the perfect place for me. It is a sad, broken, struggling, complex, hair-pulling world. I am often confused and burdened. Every day people come into the library who are frequently more confused and burdened than I am, to the point that I feel guilty about my own confusion and burdens, even though I know that’s silly, and suffering is not a contest.

But every now and again, bang, pow!

Lightning. And, for a moment, we all see clearly, before darkness and ignorance descend again, as descend they must.

Your mileage, obviously, may vary. I certainly don’t expect everybody to see librarianship through my lenses. It would be an awfully boring world if you did, and it would deny you your own unique path through the profession.

Why did you become a librarian? And, more importantly, why do you stay? If you take up that ponderous gauntlet, do link back for me in a comment.

Next time, thoughts on failure.  Possibly with vampires.

Cranky Bodhisattva in a Long Black Dress: How I Got Here, Why I Stay (Pt. I)

This series may be where I lose some of you, and that’s fine.  I’ve been meaning to write a collection development policy for Alchemy, and I’ll almost certainly need one if anything comes of my nomination for the Salem Press Library Blog Awards.   You should know right up front what kind of library madness you’re dealing with.

[Many thanks to whomever nominated me, by the way.  The notion that one relatively obscure, somewhat odd, librarian's philosophical ramblings might have pleased one or two of you at some point warms the cockles of what's left of my heart.  And Mr. Tobey, if you're still reading along, I'm sure you get a lot of e-mail, but I wanted to remind you again that I'd be delighted to respond to that biography questionnaire as soon as you send it, if the nomination still holds.]

In that spirit, a bit about spirit.  Or, to put it another way, librarianship as vocation.

Part the First:  How I Got Here

Once upon a time I was a doctoral student at a respectable institution of higher learning.  My grades were good, my papers were being accepted at conferences, and — based on their responses on post-course evaluations — my students were loving me to pieces, even the ones who got stuck in my 8 a.m. Intro to Lit courses because they’d dilly-dallied on registration day.  With only one or two classes to finish, and a doctoral exam reading list well under way, I was on the fast track to the PhD.  There was just one small problem.

I was really unhappy.

Not in a visible way, of course.  I really did love a lot of what I was doing, especially the teaching.  There’s nothing like explaining to impressionable young minds that there’s more to life than getting a well-paying job, and demonstrating in fun, concrete ways why fiction, poetry and plays still matter.  But there was something missing, and I had no idea what it was — just that there was something else I was supposed to be doing.

[I know!  What a fortunate problem to have.  We'll discuss that in greater depth in part two.]

If that sounds crazy to you, you can imagine how it sounded to my parents and friends when I told them I was going to take a sabbatical from my program and figure it out.  They thought I’d gone barking mad, and their suspicions were confirmed when, after a year of soul-searching [and adjunct teaching, a trial by fire if ever there was one], I left the PhD program altogether and became a receptionist for a firm in a field about which I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever.

See if you can guess how I then made it to library science from there:

a)  I had an epiphany in which I realized that I’d been using libraries since I was a child, and loved books and reading, so, I should go do that!

b)  I read a lot of books on choosing a career and finding your true purpose in life, and took a lot of fun quizzes that helped me realize I should become a librarian.

c)  I became roommates with a library school student.

Everybody who picked “c,” go to the head of the class.

But it wasn’t an overt thing, either.  C., bless her, never gave me a career pep talk.  She simply went about the business of being awesome.  By which I mean, recommending books she thought I might like, and speaking candidly about things she was passionate about.  Service to teens.  Intellectual freedom.  How to find affordable shoes that were both cute AND comfortable!  Er, research skills.

After we’d lived together for a while, and I’d learned a lot about librarianship through osmosis, I thought it was a career I could get excited about.  I even had a faint glimmer of hope that perhaps I was on the right track to finding whatever it is I’d been lacking in a work situation because librarianship, as C. practiced it, resonated with what my notion of a meaningful career should be.

Pragmatically, however, I was already on the hook for quite a bit in student loans.   Therefore, my cunning plan was to go get a job in library to see if the additional time and expense were justified.  So I bookmarked the “careers” page at my local library system and checked back every day until there was a job posting.  In the meantime, I socked away as much money as I could at my day job.

[If you are currently in library school, please go back and re-read that paragraph until it is imprinted on your brain.  Think of me as the Relatively Ancient Mariner who stoppeth one student of three:  before you finish your degree, get yourself into a library to find out if it's really for you.  Endure the low (or no) wages, the possible scorn of your classmates, and the concern of your family.  Trust me.]

The story of my application and interview would make an amusing tale in and of itself–let’s meet for drinks in NoLa at Annual 2011, shall we?– but for now we’ll skip on ahead to the part where I was offered, and accepted, the clerk job.  I resigned from my full-time corporate America job, picked up a few more adjunct classes (never, ever, ever burn your bridges) and started off on my zany new madcap glorious path to library science.

More about that, and about why I want to work in a public library for the rest of my life, later this week.

Excuses: An FAQ

And just where have you been, young lady?

I’ve just returned from another one of my mini-staycations.  Notice how nobody died, and nothing caught fire.  My email is a right backlog, though – I’ve spent most of this morning cleaning it up.

Don’t you worry about becoming irrelevant in today’s fast-paced world of digital excitement?

Even we technomages have our limits.  I think it’s very important to spend periods of time away from workmail, workblogs, worktwitter, workfacebook, and, well, work, period.  I’m actually much more concerned at the moment as to whether or not I can use the word “technomage” without J. Michael Straczynski slapping a lawsuit on me.  A quick search of the Trademark Electronic Search Service (TESS) at the USPTO site indicates I’m safe, but I think he should probably call me, just so we can have a good professional discussion and clear that up.

Fair enough.  Now that you’re back at work, can you tell us why there was no August Wilson Leadership Academy post for Feburary?

Er, yes.  That.  I chose to spend my time differently last month.

But it was such a good idea!

I know.

And you promised!

I know!  I hang my head in shame.

So, when will we see the next installment?

When I read something that inspires me.  It’s not looking hopeful.  I’ve been reading a lot of leadership material, and, well…

Well what?

It’s kind of depressing.




Reasons vary.  Some books are heavy on the inspiration, light on the practical implementation.  Others are crammed with bullet points, suggestions and tips to the point where it’s overwhelming.  And don’t even get me started on “management parables.” 

Well, why don’t you talk about that, then?

No can do.  Much like Booklist, Alchemy only gives positive reviews.

Where’s the fun in that?

Hey, nobody tries to write a bad book.  Even Stephanie Meyer had good, albeit sparkly, intentions.

You know where those lead, right?


So, how have you been choosing to spend your time?

Workwise, it’s still all about the databases:  making sure they’re working properly, troubleshooting them when they’re not, promoting/marketing them, gathering statistics, trying to see if all the vendors can deliver said statistics in the new format certain parties want, running trials, giving meetings, taking notes, and trying to stay on top of / manage the ongoing POWER library situation.


Hey, you asked!


It’s not very exciting, I know.   So much library work takes place behind the scenes, and is difficult to talk about in an exciting way.  This is why I usually philosophize rather than talk about what I’m doing.  I’ll gladly change my position on this if I suddenly get an outpouring of comments begging to hear more about the intricacies of einetwork database statistics collection.

Er, pass.  Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?

When I’m not managing the electronic resources, I’m still doing everything else I usually do:  buying books, fussing over Eleventh Stack and CLPicks, staffing virtual reference and — once in a blue moon — working at the physical reference desk. 

What’s your favorite workday responsibility?

Of all the tasks on my to-do list, coordinating Eleventh Stack is still my favorite.  Serving as team leader/editor is fun and educational, and I’m both surprised and pleased that our library’s blog has passed its second birthday without a drop in quality or quantity.  Credit for that goes to my amazing team, of course.

So, you’re not at the reference desk much these days.  How do you feel about that?

Truthfully, I would like more time at the physical reference desk.  However, there will be plenty of time for that when my countywide committee responsibilities end in 2011.  I think it’s really important to try as many things as you can; even if you find out that certain kinds of library work are not to your liking or skill set, you can still learn from them.  And I’m certainly not sorry for the opportunity to get to know my peers out in the county — it’s led to a number of opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had, and I have a better picture of the Pittsburgh’s public library landscape than I did previously.

That’s a lot of p-sounds in a sentence.

That’s technically not a question.

Sorry.  Read any good books lately?

I thought you’d never ask.  Under the umbrella of professional reading, I’m currently swooning over The Late Age of Print, which nimbly vaults over the “print vs. digital” dilemma by examining the print book as a consumer product / cultural artifact. On the religion/spirituality tip, I’ve got Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (vocabulary and diction geared toward the divinity school set) and Bring Me the Rhinoceros (more layman-friendly).   Fictionwise, I’m in slack-jawed awe of American Salvage, a collection of tight, well-constructed stories about uncomfortable subjects, and Every Last Drop, the fourth installment of the Joe Pitt Chronicles, a series designed expressly for folks who appreciate the hard-boiled qualities of Chandler and Hammett, New York stories, and — are you sensing a theme, here? — non-sparkly vampires.

 I’ve also got Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook checked out, but I’m a little nervous about opening it. 

Why?   It sounds great!

It does!  Problem is, I have a feeling it will blow any other excuses I have for not writing into smithereens.

And that’s bad because….?

Because facing up to the truth about yourself, your gifts and abilities, and the way you can best serve the profession, and then getting over your fears and excuses, is one of the scariest things you can do throughout your career.  And it’s not like you do it once and you’re done with the process:  if you’re growing as a professional, you are constantly surveying the landscape, looking at where you are now, as well as where you would like to be.

Where would you like to be?

That’s the kicker:  I thought I knew.  Now everything ‘s up for grabs again.  This is very scary, but also delightful.

In what way?

Well, when you stop growing and learning, you might as well hang it up.  And I’m afraid you lot are stuck with me for quite some time.

All righty then.  Anything else to report?

I’ve just finished and turned in another book review.  Book reviewing knocks me out, and I’d love to do more of it, so I’m currently scouting out more opportunities there. 

I’ve also just been selected for the third cohort of the CLP Leadership Institute, a training program for Carnegie Library staff under the auspices of the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant we received.  I’m hoping this means I’ll be exposed to a better quality of leadership literature; it definitely means a lot more meetings and seminars in my future, though, which brings us back to the problem of making more time to write for Alchemy.

So, what are you going to do about that?

I have a few ideas.  I seem to work better with structure and guidelines, so I’m looking for a writing template that will be both on-topic and regular.  Heaven help us all, I also have an idea for a completely separate library blog, and am quietly making my pitch to parties I suspect might be interested in collaborating on it.  If that takes off, it will debut near the end of April, and will serve to complement the kinds of things I like to discuss, but can’t always make time for.  It will also, I hope, fill an as-yet-unfilled niche in library world.

And that is…?

You’ll just have to rest in the mystery a little while longer.

Fair enough.  How are you going to spend the rest of your day?

I have one hour in which to take things that are currently on my desk and do whatever it takes to get them off of my desk and finished.  I will then spend the last two hours of my day on AskHere PA.

Do you like working virtual reference?

I absolutely love it.  Disdained by some, virtual reference is actually a key service these days, primarily because the quality and type of the questions received simply cries out for informed professionals who are skillful at ready-reference, information literacy, bibliographic instruction, and good writing/communication skills.  A healthy dose of compassion certainly doesn’t hurt either. 

Can you send us off with a video?

Ask and get.  Here’s a clip from a British band called The Heavy, whose performance on David Letterman was simply splendid.  If you enjoy old-school soul, but appreciate contemporary twists, you’d do well to watch this clip, and then run — not walk — to pick up The House That Dirt Built.

Woah!  Dancing skeletons!  That’s, er, not very professional.

Probably not in the conventional sense.  Remember, though:  Alchemy’s all about balance and fun along with all those high standards.  See also “not forgetting you’re a human being with human needs” and “regular rock out breaks.”

Well, that was…very Alchemy.

Thanks!  Tune in next time for a little less fun, but a lot more professional philosophy, probably early next week.

Rage Against the (Self-Checkout) Machine: Getting Mad, Getting Over It

Raise your hand if you’re never angry about anything that happens at your library, ever.

That’s what I thought.  I’m open to the possiblity that there’s a librarian out there who never gets upset.  I’m betting, however, that most of us who  toil daily in the vineyards of ignorance occasionally feel like throwing somebody out of a window.  For that reason, I think it’s high time we talked about coping with anger in the library.

It’s pretty clear to most sane persons that actually throwing somebody out of a window is completely unacceptable.  However, we often accept the fallacy that it is also inappropriate to have such feelings.   Feeling angry, after all, would be unprofessional, right?

I call shenanigans on that notion, and so does Sam Horn. Observe:

It’s time to understand that anger is a natural response to our rights being trampled.  It’s actually the way our emotional system is supposed to work….Anger is the original warning system for letting us know our line’s been crossed.

Unfortunately, many of us have been intellectualized out of our anger.  Anger isn’t pretty.  It can lead to yelling and screaming, which isn’t “nice,” so we mentally ratchet it in rather than run the risk of letting it out and saying something we regret….

It’s time to understand what a terrible price we pay believing we don’t have the right to be angry.  Believing this is tantamount to believing we don’t have the right to feel aggrieved.  It means we believe that if people hurt us, we’re somehow supposed to take the high road and continue to respond rationally – – no matter what.  In other words, be a saint

Take the Bully by the Horns (160-161)

I don’t know about you, but I’m no saint, not even of the Boondock variety.  Professionalism applies to behaviors, not feelings.  And while it is incumbent on you to behave well in a professional situation, you are doing yourself lasting harm if you are dishonest with yourself about your feelings.

Not that we have really good models for that in our culture.  On television and in the movies, it’s easy to face your pain.  A montage of scenes in which the heroine suffers nobly, perhaps backed with a torch song that will become all the rage at karaoke bars coast to coast, will suffice to express the difficulties inherent in processing her feelings.    In sitcom context, following a series of bullet points, most likely coupled with a cutesy acronym for “anger,” will take away our hero’s pain and lead him through to the other side.  The lure of the quick fix is tempting, but the truth of the matter is that Microsoft does not make an Anger Patch, and the only way out of it is through it.

All that being said, I can offer you a few things I’ve found to be true, based on years of bittersweet experience.   Additional input from my elders and wisers is gratefully accepted as well.

Struggling is okay

Somewhere along the line human beings got the notion that suffering is a contest.  The rationale goes something like this:  if I am not starving, buried under rubble in Haiti or Chile, suffering from some incurable disease, or living in a van down by the river, I am not truly suffering, and should shut my pie-hole and be grateful.

Suffering is not a contest.  Say it with me, people:  Suffering.  Is not.  A contest.  Suffering is simply the human condition, and we all get our share to carry.  This is true everywhere in the world, and the library, despite its inherently magical nature, is not exempt. 

Those of us in service professions appear to be even more susceptible to the fallacy that we are not really suffering, because we frequently deal with people who suffer a great deal more than we do.  Here’s the thing, though:  sometimes library work is emotionally exhausting, and the sooner we get more comfortable saying that out loud, the better off we’re going to be collectively.

Think about it.  Patrons sometimes scream at us.  Colleagues behave in ways that make us want to gouge out our eyeballs.   Budget cuts are a constant source of worry and concern.  And organizational politics are a can of worms I don’t even want to purchase, much less open.

In the bigger picture scenario, many of us are currently unemployed or under-employed.  Constantly having to justify libraries’ existence in a culture where football players make millions of dollars for playing a game, and just about anybody can be on television is enough to send us right round the bend on a good day.  And, to add insult to injury, we’re still broadly stereotyped either as frumpy shushers, hipster sex kittens, or socially inept, virginal males. 

To put it in the vernacular, BLEARGH.  If none of that ever bothers you, ever, you are a far better person than I am, and you are cordially invited to school me in your ways of steely resolve.  My mom will gladly pick up the check for that, I’m sure.

While library workers are, indeed, more fortunate than many, it is disrespectful of the suffering we DO feel to try to short-circuit the emotional process by dismissing our feelings because they aren’t as painful as somebody else’s.  Librarianship is sometimes hard, all values of “hard” being relative.  And that’s okay.

You will not always feel the way you do right now.

I can’t lay claim to any special powers, and there’s quite a bit about life on this earth that I don’t know.  One thing I can tell you with absolute confidence, however, is that you will not always feel as miserable as you do right now.  Whatever is upsetting you will pass, and you will look back at yourself in amazement, wondering:

a) Wow, why was I so upset about that?


b)  Wow, how did I manage to keep from throwing someone/something/myself out a window?

T.S. Eliot once sagely observed, in his classic poem “The Hollow Men,” that life is very long.  Every moment that you breathe in, breathe out, and don’t do anything rash is another moment closer to the time when your suffering will be a distant memory.  One way or another, you will cope with whatever’s bugging you.  I promise. 

Speaking of coping… 

Action trumps inaction

You know what’s guaranteed to defeat you?  Inaction.  So if you’re angry, do something constructive, or at least something different, even if it has absolutely no relationship to whatever is ticking you off.

In the short term, you’re probably going to want to focus on small, immediate actions you can take to blow off steam in a professional manner.  Some of these can include:

  • Going for a walk (outside is preferable, weather permitting)
  • Rocking out to music you like (headphones for politeness, please)
  • Writing up your feelings in a journal / word processing file (make sure to shred and/or password protect afterwards)
  • Reading something that will make you laugh.  While this will vary greatly based on personal tastes, those of you who fancy train-wreck memoir might enjoy Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.  If suffering WERE a contest, Janzen would win the “bad divorce” divison hands-down.
  • Gamers are cordially invited to engage in a spirited session of Robot Unicorn Attack.  If slaying innocent fairies with rainbow lasers that come out of your head, and grinding silver stars to a pulp with said mighty rainbow powers, doesn’t make you laugh at least a little, you should probably just tell your boss you’re sick and just go home.
  • If all else fails, just go home.  Say you don’t feel well and get out of there.  You do get some sick time, right?  Of course you do.   Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so use it!  This does not make you weak, or a slacker.  This makes you both strong and smart for recognizing when to get the heck out of Dodge.

These are helpful techniques you can use in a pinch, but remember:  there are no quick fixes.  Taking action means getting to the root of your anger and figuring out how to keep yourself from going to the windowsill once too often.  I mean, there’s anger, and then there’s anger – before your struggles get out of hand, try addressing your feelings with these time-honored classics:

  1. Talk with somebody.  Depending on what you’re going through, “somebody” could be a trusted colleague, a friend, a family member, or a counselor.    The reason I say “talk with” and not “talk to” is that the goal of this conversation is not mere venting (if venting actually solved problems, anonymous/pseudonymous library blogging would’ve died a quiet death by now).  A good rant can be a fun conversation starter, but it certainly can’t end there.  After you’ve explained your problem as you perceive it, listen carefully to any constructive criticism you get, answer any questions your conversation partner has, and seriously consider any solutions s/he has to offer.
  2. Explore your options.  Many times we feel like there’s nothing we can do about the situation we’re in.  The truth of the matter is, we always have choices.  We may not always LIKE the choices we have, but there they are.  Write down all the choices you have, from “quitting your job” to “going back to school” to “discussing this with my boss” to “starting a goat farm.”  Write as fast as you can, and don’t censor yourself, with the goal of spending either ten minutes on this task and/or filling up a whole page.  Once you have a list, go back and circle the ones you could actually live with.
  3. Make a plan.  Pick one of your choices and create an action plan for implementing it.  Make the steps as small as they have to be for you to get comfortable making the change.  Depending on your level of anxiety about change, these steps could be extremely small…and that’s fine:  change isn’t a contest either.   For example, let’s say you’re not quite ready to leave the profession, but you are ready to apply for a job somewhere else.   One person’s action plan might involve working on their resume or asking people to be references.  Another person’s plan might start with picking an area of the country s/he’d be willing to live in, or spending 5 minutes a day imagining how her/his life could be different.  No matter how fast or how slow you move, you’ll get where you’re going as long as you’re moving.
  4. Implement your plan.  This is the hardest part of all; the best plan on earth will just sit there on paper and look pretty unless you put it into action.  One way to make implementing your plan eaiser is to pick an accountability buddy, a trick I learned from Pete Bromberg during Emerging Leaders ’09:  Tell somebody what you’re going to do, and when you’re going to do it.  Then arrange a date and time for that person to check in with you to see if you actually did it.  Just knowing that somebody’s holding you accountable is enough to light a fire under you.  Your buddy should, of course, be somebody who genuinely cares about you, not somebody who’s going to shame or embarrass you with your own goals.

Hopefully by now you are feeling just a little bit better, and are ready to take that final step of cheering up.  Notice how cheering up is the last step, and not the first:  really, is there anything more annoying than being told to cheer up?  But if you are honest with yourself about your feelings, and make a genuine effort to work through them, you just might find that things are (maybe) looking up.  With the heavy detritus of angst out of the way, it’s easier to focus on life’s fundamental goodness.  Kittens, for example, are cute.  Canada is home to many lovely trees.  Thai food is insanely tasty, and sunrises remain breathtaking, whether you’re seeing them as you first wake up or right before you go to sleep.

Relax.  There’s still a “Kumbaya” embargo in effect at Alchemy, in perpetuity.  But life is fundamentally good, and while anger is a part of life, it can be dealt with creatively and professionally.  Don’t let whatever is getting you down become an obstacle to everything you can achieve.  Take control of your options, get help when you need to, and try to make your way through to the other side.  I’ll be rooting for you, and I imagine your family, friends and peers will be doing the same.

The alternative, after all, isn’t pretty:

Don’t be like Howard Beale:  get mad, but then get over it.  The life you save could be your own.

The really astute readers among you will have noticed that there was no AWLA(PP) post in Feburary.  I’m writing a post about that called “Excuses:  An FAQ.”  I’m also starting to think it’s high time I tell you about how I became a librarian in the first place, hence “Cranky Bodhisattva in a Long Black Dress.”  And, because I can, you’ll also be getting “Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire, Vampire Hunter, Failure.”  That last is a working title, of course.  Everybody knows Honest Abe wasn’t really a vampire….or was he?

Coffee, then refdesk.  A bientot.

A Plague On Both Your Hepburns?: Leaders, Change Agents, and Library Archetypes

That sound you heard was the door to Alchemy creaking back open after a long, long pause.  Besides the backlog created by snow day closures, there’s been a serious uptick in the amount and kind of work I’ve been doing, which has hampered my efforts to put together anything coherent in these chronicles.   It’s really difficult to be witty and poetic when you’re up to your eyeballs in journal title spreadsheets.

It is not, however, impossible.  Ergo, I give you my Hepburn post.


The day I received my MLIS, one of my professors shook my hand, gave me a very nice coffee mug as a token of the school’s appreciation, and proudly proclaimed, “Congratulations Leigh Anne!  You’re a change agent!”

I was somewhat nonplussed by this.  Remember, it was 2004, and the phrase hadn’t yet become a buzzword — at least, I don’t think it had. Despite the fact that I opted for electives in both management and library marketing, I’d never heard it.  I figured it was a compliment, though, because the professor looked so happy.  So I smiled and said “thank you,” and that was the end of that…for the moment.

The memory hasn’t faded, though.  Off and on over the course of my career I’ve asked myself what that phrase means, or could mean, and how it compares to leadership.  I’ve been watching leaders and managers for a while now, operating under the premise that I want to be a leader.  But what if I’m just a really good change agent instead?

Not that the two are mutually exclusive.  Which brings us to Audrey and Katharine Hepburn.

A Theory, With Disclaimers

Broad sweeping generalizations are fairly odious; moreover, I am the least qualified person on the planet to speak to possible archetypes of male librarianshp.  Although I’ve admired the gentlefolk from both afar and anear for many a day, I would not presume to try to describe what it’s like to be a “guybrarian.”  So one of you will simply have to pick up the “Gary Cooper / Cary Grant / Harry Caray” metaphor and run with it.  Or craft something utterly delightful of your own.  Or be a good sport and try to find your inner Kate ‘n Audrey as you read along.

That being said, ladies, let’s get down to brass tacks.

Even within the limitations of the archetype structure, it seems to me that you can tell a lot about librarians by determining whether they are more like Audrey Hepburn or Katharine Hepburn.  To illustrate, I will examine both archetypes, listing strengths and weaknesses, and determine whether their qualities tend toward leadership or change agent-ship.

Please note that by no stretch of the imagination am I speaking of the historical personages Audrey and Katharine, the ones who had private lives and histories that obviously went much deeper than a superficial library blog-gloss can go. I refer, however, to the iconic Kate and Audrey we’ve built up in our minds, the ones we think of when we hear the name “Hepburn.” That is the whole point, after all, of an archetype: it’s a broad portrait of a certain ethos, not a granular portrait of a complex human being.

One final warning:  you may already think you know where you are on this particular spectrum.  Try to suspend your judgment until you get to the end of the essay. You may be surprised by what you find in yourself.

Audrey Hepburn:  The Ladylike Leader

Three words:  little black dress.  Three more: Breakfast At Tiffany’s. One more for good measure: Givenchy. The Audrey type is redolent with class and sophistication, gentleness and grace, poise and good manners, humor and kindness. An open face with a lovely smile. Everybody loves Audrey, because you simply can’t hate her: she’s too darned nice. Even if you did hate her, she’d probably continue to be sweet and kind to you anyway.

The Audrey librarian is service-oriented to the point of self-sacrifice.  Even if she’s drowning in her own work, she’ll gladly help you with yours, and never complain about it.  The surliest of problem patrons melts in her presence because nothing ever seems to faze her, and she knows how to turn bad transactions into good ones with skillful listening and speaking.  She has an uncanny knack of knowing when to enforce a policy and when to bend it, and because she is always kind and gracious to everybody, she can never be accused of playing favorites.

Audreys serve on every committee that invites them and volunteer for every extra opportunity they can.  They’re also prone to bringing in donuts, cookies, or other baked goods to the office, most likely baked from scratch.  If she does bring store-bought, she springs for the cute cupcakes from the gourmet cupcake emporium in the hip neighborhood.   And again, all of this would be utterly unbearable if they weren’t really good cupcakes.

She’s good at readers’ advisory, reference, cataloging, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, storytimes, and organizing teen art clubs and Super Mario Kart tournaments.  If the circulation desk is short-staffed, she volunteers to pitch in.  If the library’s closed due to weather, she starts calling down the phone tree.  She gives 110% all day, every day, and never, ever, ever complains, even though she hasn’t had a raise in 5 years.

Lest you think Audreys are too perfect to exist, let me assure you they have a dark side.  Audreys have a bad habit of squelching their true feelings and accepting poor working conditions, because they don’t feel they have a right to complain.  If they are not given enough praise and recognition by their supervisors, they will start to feel bitter.  Audreys are also prone to overwork and martyrdom, and if they keep their frustrations bottled up too long, little things can set them off.  Audreys also have a hard time asserting themselves, and tend to avoid conflict like the plague.  Audreys may also grow to resent always being asked to take the leadership role, but are often unwilling or unable to delegate responsibilities to colleagues.  Audreys are prone to burnout, and tend to suffer when their high ideals don’t match up to the sometimes dull realities of library service, especially in its administrative aspects.

Katharine Hepburn:  The Challenging Change Agent

Two words: Desk Set.  One more:  trousers.  Kates are loud, vivacious, and opinionated.  They actively question policies, eye “the way we’ve always done it” with suspicion, and subscribe to the theory that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.  Kates avidly read professional journals and library blogs looking for cool new things to try in their libraries, and when they’re at the reference desk, the problem patrons tend to give them a wide berth, because they know no shenanigans will be tolerated.

Katharines love to learn new things.  If they’re reference librarians, they’re curious about cataloging; if they’re children’s librarians, they want to know more about adult services.  They loathe getting bogged down in the minutiae of administration, but at the same time they want to be a part of the bigger picture of library service.  Kates are generalists rather than specialists, and don’t like to be pigeonholed as any one kind of librarian.

Much to the dismay of people around them, especially the Audreys in their organization, Kates like blunt, direct communication.  If you want a Kate to do something, you can’t hint around or be subtle.  However, once you tell her exactly what you want and when you want it, she will bend over backwards to deliver it.  Kates don’t tolerate abusive behavior from peers or patrons, and they ask pointed questions about new policies or initiatives.  If the emperor has no clothes, they not only say so, they take a photograph and put it up in their library blogs, and if you want constructive criticism about anything, you should ask a Kate first.

Like their Audrey counterparts, Kates too have a dark side that must be acknowledged.  While they sincerely love and respect their colleagues, Kates don’t always play well with others, and may have difficulty finding a job situation where they fit in with the group.  Kates don’t “do” the social graces very well, perceiving them as fake and phony, and may therefore come across as tactless, thoughtless, or just plain rude.  Kates want to move forward as quickly as possible, both with their ideas and within the organizational structure, so they may become impatient, frustrated, and angry with those in her organization who resist change.   They don’t always know how to communicate their visions in such a way that the rest of the group can relate to, and they may sometimes be overly critical of colleagues whose work styles and habits are very different from theirs.

Hepburns as Leaders and Change Agents

I’d like to stress that while the archetypes are very different, there’s no wrong way to Hepburn.  After a lot of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that both Kates and Audreys could make very effective leaders, and that the variances are primarily of style rather than skill set:  Audreys, who tend to catch more flies with honey, are excellent choices to lead departments whose employees already have strong working relationships; although their fear of conflict makes them less effective in situations where there are interpersonal conflicts, an Audrey who is willing to work with her shadow qualities can learn to become a compassionate, yet firm, leader who can graciously lay down the law, an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Kates, I must confess, lend themselves far better to being change agents.  Change is scary and unsettling for most people, but Katharines thrive on it, and are extremely skillful at creating things that don’t yet exist.  It’s not that Kates can’t be good leaders – the problem is, their visions are usually so outrageous that people might be afraid to follow.  And unless a Kate is willing to work with her shadow qualities, and smooth down her rough edges a little, she may have a hard time convincing people that the horizons she’s pursuing are worthwhile ones.

In an ideal situation, you’d have co-leadership situations where an Audrey was paired with a Kate – say, an Audrey manager with a Kate senior staffer, or a Kate dean of students with an Audrey head librarian.  Since the real is always far less than the ideal, however, a good place to start is with yourself:  are you more like Katharine or Audrey?  In which ways?  What do you need to work on a little?  Is there a Kate or an Audrey in your organization who could help you with that?

Now look at the organization as a whole.  What’s the Kate-to-Audrey ratio?  Who holds the major position of power – Kates, or Audreys?  How do you feel about that?  What archetypal qualities of either figure would best move your organization forward?  How can you cultivate those?

Because this is a philosophical ramble, and not a scholarly study, I’m sure there are gaping holes in what I’m trying to do here.  But I think it’s off to a good start.  Now it’s your turn.  What, if any, archetypal qualities rang true for you in this essay?  Where did I miss the mark?  Do you have another archetypal structure in mind that communicates your own perceptions more effectively?

Okay, that was entirely too much fun to think and write about.  Back to more traditional work it is.  But the next time we talk, I’ll have some things to say about anger, and how to handle it in an appropriate, professional manner.

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