August 26, 2009

The Huff-And-Puff Syndrome

I was recently asked to speak to students in a reference class at the Catholic University of America, my alma mater. I had some talking points but I try to remember all the wisdom I absorbed from guest speakers in library school and it usually came in the form of one or two quippy pearls that either arose spontaneously or were stories whose morals were easy to grab on to and keep hold of. As much as I wanted to have good, well-planned and clear things to say about my job, I also wanted to give those students something they would remember, the way I remember the four most important things I heard in library school. (These are not necessarily the four most important things I learned, but things that I heard, and remember, almost verbatim.) Here they are:
  • Gary Price: "Find out who has that information and call that place; if I could only have one print source it would be the Encyclopedia of Associations. " (on the notion that the web will only get you so far)
  • Kimberly Ferguson: "Have a wish-list of 'shovel-ready' projects at the ready in case of a funding surplus. " (on being a good manager, and getting cool stuff sometimes!)
  • Susan Fournier: "When in doubt, ask another librarian. " (on what to do when you are stuck)
  • Bruce Rosenstein: "Know what you can do. Tell them what you can do. Do it. Tell them what you did." (on self-marketing)
If I had had more time with these students, I would have shared all this, but I was on a panel and trying not to monopolize, so I told them two things.

Thing #1 was the story of interviewing for this job and having the fortuitous opportunity to quote Susan Fifer Canby when asked what the role of a special librarian is. (I proudly - and probably with a bit too much enthusiasm - replied that special librarians "work in the white spaces of the organizational chart.") I hope the students remember this story.

Thing #2 was my introduction of a short article I handed out. "Libraries in a Digital Age" was written by Rita Evans and appeared in the March-April issue of TR News, a publication for transportation research professionals (it begins on page 12 of the linked magazine issue). I told the students that for them (as opposed to the typical audience of this publication) the points Evans makes in the articles would not seem revolutionary (especially given their excellent preparation at CUA's School of Library and Information Science!). Know your users, anticipate their information needs, have a service-orientation. What is notable is that we still have to, and will continue to have to, communicate this message to our users. This will never go away. And acting as if it has gone away inevitably leads us to what I am calling the "Huff-And-Puff Syndrome."

When I was a library school student, which was not that long ago, I found it easy to be optimistic and idealistic about our field. I rejected with disdain the "angry librarian" T-shirts that said things like "Librarians: The Original Google" in favor of more encouraging and entertaining slogans such as "Peace Through Librarianship" and "She blinded me with library science." But here I am, not four months past graduation, and I sometimes feel I am becoming a "Huff-And-Puff" librarian who laments the passing of print and resents my users' (occasional) lack of appreciation for my work. Huff, Puff, Don't You Know What Your Library Can Do For You?! Well, maybe they don't.

Flying solo? I think half our time might be spent explaining the business of the library and the other half might be spent actually conducting the business of the library. But as Evans' article points out, if done well, these can be one in the same. Sooooo......the next time someone asks me to set up the projector, I might Huff And Puff and want to scream that that isn't my job. Or I might use that opportunity to teach. And maybe I will even draw up a little instruction sheet on how to connect the projector and slip it into the case so that the technology always comes with instruction. Brought to you by your library!

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