March 30, 2011

Not a Leader

My favorite course in library school was The History of the Book. In addition to having a brilliant and thoughtful professor, I had to do several class projects that actually mirrored modern-day workplace collaboration—even when our subject matter was ancient scrolls or movable type. These projects were accompanied by the dreaded reflection and self-assessment that made them less office-like and too touchy-feely for my taste. Nevertheless, it was in writing one of those streams of academic consciousness that I was able to resolve an old crisis of conscience: I am not a leader.

The last time I remember officially being in charge of something other than a discrete project or task was my senior year of college when I was elected President of our chapter of Psi Chi, the national honor society for students of psychology. If memory serves, I ran uncontested, so to say I was ‘elected’ is a bit of a fiction—one that is more telling now than I could have imagined in 1997.

I wouldn’t say that I failed, but rather that as President I accomplished nothing of consequence. I accepted the position because, at the time, I thought no one else wanted it. Fourteen years later I still think no one wanted that leadership position. Not even me.

Late last year I affirmed my long-held suspicion that I am in fact an introvert. This, combined with the deepening influence of Gretchen Rubin on my Embedded Librarianship Project, has helped me to come out as what I really am instead of what I thought I'd be (under the influence of other people’s expectations). Rubin emphasizes time and again that her first and most important commandment is to “Be Gretchen.” She bolsters this point with repeated references to Ray Bradbury’s “Love what YOU love” and W.H. Auden’s “Develop in your natural direction.” I am many things, some of them great, but I am not a leader.

I can hear it now (because I have heard it many times before by people I like and respect)... People think I am having an off day or a self-esteem crash, or in some other way they are comfortable with, they pretend they know me better than I know myself. Cheery voices crying “But you ARE a leader!” do nothing to dissuade me. What they do is reveal a collective assumption that one ought to be a leader.

Our vocabulary is impoverished when it comes to leadership and followership. (And there is a pallor surrounding the word ‘service’ now in the library context. Here is just one strongly-worded example.) This is changing though, in a welcome application of social media nomenclature to others parts of life. Online, people seek out enthusiastic, educated peers or ‘followers’ to mobilize a cause. It’s a kind of followership that’s not blind but illuminated. More street team-like than sheep-like.

People are needed at every level of engagement, and the truth is that some of us are just courageous, principled people with good ideas. That does not make us leaders. And what good are engaged leaders without engaged followers behind them--supporting them--and questioning them? Good followers are more important than ever.

March 23, 2011

Conference Prep

Perhaps I am overthinking things.....

I have a particular (if flawed) approach to planning for conferences I am going to attend. It has everything to do with how I approach conferences I am helping to staff or organize. I've been fortunate to be in meetings with great minds who are putting together huge national meetings on important issues. Sometimes the whole event has an arc or theme that we work hard to build deliberately--and convey effectively--to attendees. Part of the work is putting yourself in a conference-goer's shoes and hoping that you've created something useful and, while you're at it, a little bit entertaining.

As I am putting together my schedule for SLA 2011 I am keenly aware of my position on the other side of this equation. What does the annual conference have in store for me? How will all the moving parts come together? Will I make the most of my experience? There's a lot to think about and time's a-wastin'.

First, there is the big picture what-do-I-want-to-get-out-of-this-conference question. Do I want to 'Embrace Ambiguity and Curiosity' or do I need to get organized? (And how will I feel in mid-June?)

While browsing through session titles I oscillate wildly between "Ooh, here is one that would be easy to justify, and a cinch to explain to coworkers," and, "...but it's a skill I've already developed a fair amount and I should move outside my comfort zone." Then there is the cynical conference participant in me: "Is this session on social media or millennials really going to teach me something new, or will it be more of the same bland overstatements I am trying to debunk in my own organization?"

There are a number of time slots where I think it might be good to attend one of my division social activities, but if I am already going to the division business meeting (and I'm in more than one division), how do I strike the right balance?

I want conference equilibrium between big sessions and small ones, new contacts and people I know, learning as much as possible and not coming back exhausted, a good dose of both practical tips and lasting inspiration. I would also love to find a way to sneak into the Baseball Caucus meeting, and to spin a connection between my current work and an unrelated but fascinating-sounding session like 'Post-Recessionary Consumer Trends in America.'

Will I go to my friends' presentations to support them? And where will I be the slot before my own presentation and will I be able to concentrate? With almost two months left to plan, I should be able to sort it all out.

One of my guiding principles when I travel for a conference is to 'embrace place,' so I should also work in some brotherly love time. I've already got a date with The Decemberists June 15 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Care to join me?

March 16, 2011

Basic Instincts

This morning I was thinking about how much I love my commute, even the very busy transfer at the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro station. If you're there at 8:30 any weekday morning, you know that it's crazy. It helps to choose a train car--and a seat for that matter--to achieve optimum platform placement when you disembark. This ensures a smooth flow from Green Line train to stairs to Red Line train, where I also want a particular car so that when I exit at Metro Center I am next to my preferred escalator.

I am not from here, and had to be told not to stand in front of the doors when I first rode Metro. That is to say, I had no DC Metro instincts six years ago when I arrived. Now I love my commute, not only because I am an expert on which stairs lead where, which of the five exits gets me closest to my office, and how to breeze through the stiles without even stopping. I also love it that I got to feel this transition happening in my adult life. I remember being an incompetent Metro rider, but now I could win a prize.

During my Peace Corps training in Guinea, we were subject to a model of cultural adaptation that was all about recognizing and honing instincts. (Crossing cultures is a great way to dismantle all your reflexes and then rebuild them.) The theory behind this particular training model holds that when arriving in a new setting where the rules and norms of behavior are vastly different from one's own, one goes through the following four stages of adaptation:
  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence
It's possible that I'm a bit too enamored of my current skill level on Metro, and that my extreme consciousness of it is holding me at Stage 3. Perhaps I will advance to Stage 4 soon and stop talking about it. What about my growth as an embedded librarian?

I absolutely operate on instinct. That said, I also try to document as much as possible. But essentially, even my collection development policy is a subtle, tricky thing--a delicate recipe of things added and things taken away. It's not written in stone, and can shift depending on legislative winds or organizational priorities. At times I completely miss the boat on what we're trying to accomplish and I find myself in Stage 2, painfully aware of my incompetence (though eager to learn).

Lately I have been checking my instincts with people about a lot of things, and generally the results are positive. I came in with the library skillset but have to constantly check my patchy, organic knowledge of our specialized content area. Having my instincts confirmed helps me stay in the Stage 3 happy place of conscious competence on most issues, while I'm sure I remain at Stage 1 on newer topics or technologies. Maybe one day I will be at Stage 4!

By the way, Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th birthday this month, needs librarians. Check out this cool assignment in El Salvador.

March 9, 2011

Be Your Own Intern

So far, the hardest part of reading Gretchen Rubin’s book--part of my embedded librarianship project--has been a small section that spans pages 79-80 in which Rubin describes how she learned to “Enjoy the fun of failure.” This was difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which was feeling bad that she felt some of her efforts were failures simply because they were not appreciated by someone else. It was also hard to read this part, which appears in the “Work” chapter for March, because it served as a wake-up call for me on one of my ongoing work projects.

I wanted an intern. And, miracle of miracles, the hardest part of the process was not (as I had expected it to be) convincing the powers that be that we (a) needed an intern or (b) could recruit one for no pay. Last fall we were thinking of starting a podcast series and I had written a brief proposal detailing what I thought our equipment, staff, and training needs would be. I did all this with virtually no knowledge of podcast production and only a minimal search to try to find similar proposals. It was aspirational writing, with an imagined magic intern as one of our required resources underlined and in boldface type.

After the holidays and assorted delays, we revisited the proposal and had a lengthy team discussion (sidelined by ample philosophical waxing on the definition of podcast) about whether and why we truly wanted to undertake this project. We did and do, and last month I did due diligence to craft the best podcast internship ad this side of Dyersville, Iowa. If you build it they will come, right?

I was wrong. The response to my ad was not sufficient for us to hire someone. And rather than revisit the outreach and marketing strategies I had used to promote the internship, I reread the ad itself and questioned whether I could be my own intern. The time required to orient my hypothetical helper was already allotted. I wondered aloud if I could perform the tasks I had enumerated so meticulously in the position description. Wondering something aloud, particularly in the presence of one’s supervisor, invites a worthy challenge--or maybe a foolhardy adventure--not to mention a healthy dose of accountability.

Here was a project I would have gladly taken on as a library school student. Yet, as professional staff, I felt I lacked the expertise or capacity to commit to making the project a success without guidance from the outside. I was stuck on the notion that what people really want is not to make a difference per se, but to be effective. How could I be an effective podcast intern with no experience?

I reached out to the various list-servs for advice, as well as the people behind any podcast series that were along the lines of what ours would be. I managed to collect a decent number of tips and suggestions, though many of them contradicted one another. “It’s more work than you think,” some said. “Just try one and then make a better one next time,” others chimed in.

In my zeal to avoid the worst case scenario of producing a less-than-excellent podcast, I overlooked the fact that that is not really a worst case scenario. What would be worse is letting the fear of failure paralyze me into avoiding the project altogether. I reread Rubin’s “have fun failing” passage and was struck by all the tasks she tried and “failed.” She had racked up a huge list of “tries” even though she also listed them as “failures.” I decided that I wanted to create a similar list.

As of today, I am my own intern on the podcast project and am happily filling in the “try” column. Stay tuned.

March 2, 2011

The Solo Librarian's Relationship Status: It's Complicated

Last Friday when I was presenting at my alma mater, I hit on an accidental and important theme while describing the success of our conference Twitter feed: collaboration. I hadn't intended to be obvious about it, but in reflecting on what made (and continues to make) our use of social media unique and effective, it's that not one of us is tweeting or blogging in an empty room. Instead, we're helping each other through the Internet wilderness. It's a complex chain of trial, error, feedback and trust, and it works.

At its inception, the idea behind this blog was to chronicle my adventures in the white spaces, a seemingly lonely place. Solo librarians need other solos to network with, bounce ideas off, and to generally know that we are not alone out here. The truth is, you are not alone in your organization. If you think you are, it must seem enormously difficult to get anything done.

The only task I truly do alone is cataloging, and too often I avoid it altogether in favor of my more collaborative responsibilities. Activities like SMUG would not see the light of day without teamwork and support among many staff members. And no matter how small your own role is in something like a social media users group or tweeting from your employer's trade show, you should try to get involved at some level in any area that could benefit from your skillset. Building relationships through the non-traditional stuff also makes a huge difference when you're sitting down to do a reference interview with someone.

I am greatly enriched by my colleagues in the DC Chapter of SLA, the Solo and Transportation Divisions, and the Associations caucus. Of equal influence are the subject matter experts who make up my customer base. I could not do my work without them because they're the ones I serve, and I have to anticipate their needs. Doing this effectively requires the sturdy structure of a good relationship. (Even better if you happen to like your colleagues and enjoy their company.) But, as I've said here before, these things take time. Nothing happens until we collaborate.