Author: Valerie Forrestal
Web Services Librarian/Asst. Professor
City University of New York
College of Staten Island Library
2800 Victory Blvd., 1L-109I
Staten Island, N.Y. 10314
valerie.forrestal at csi.cuny.edu
There is a secret society in the library profession. It doesn’t have a name (though some would try to name it) and it doesn’t have a headquarters; (it lurks in Facebook groups and Google hangouts.) Word of its meetings is inconspicuously disseminated via Twitter and text message. Read your feeds carefully; blink and you’ll miss it.
It was no one’s intention to start this society. Passionate, ambitious individuals gravitated towards each other, as like-minded people often do. It sprung up as a sort of rebellion among librarians who were tired of crafting witty and intelligent responses to smug questions about their supposed obsolescence.
There are no rules for membership, but there are things you can do to get noticed, perhaps even to be sought out for inclusion: have over 1000 Twitter followers; be active in the conference and convention circuit; have been named an ALA Emerging Leader, and/or, preferably, a Library Journal Mover & Shaker.
And now we get at the heart of it. The raison d’etre for this missive. This is where I tell you about how I was almost a Mover & Shaker, what I ended up receiving that was so much better, and what I learned in the process.
Not too long ago, there was a hullabaloo on the internet. I know, I know. When is there not a hullabaloo happening somewhere on the internet? But this particular hullabaloo was about recognition, and why we want it so badly. My friend and fellow librarian Julie Jurgens wrote about it in a popular blog post called “ego, thy name is librarianship,” where she laments that many excellent librarians (especially children and teen librarians) go largely unrecognized because they focus on writing and presenting about the practical aspects of their jobs, rather than topics considered “trendy” in the field.
I nodded along to a lot of what she said, but I didn’t feel it necessary to weigh in on the back and forth discussion that ensued (both in the comments, and in others’ response posts.) Part of why I didn’t post on the topic was because, after some unfortunate whining in the past about library-world controversies, I told myself to stop commenting on issues if I didn’t think I was adding anything useful. Honestly, I thought the ensuing discussions covered pretty much anything I might have to say, so why add another voice just to restate already-stated viewpoints?
The other, and main reason I didn’t comment, was that I, myself, had a big old pat-on-the-back coming my way, so I really couldn’t complain about wanting attention or credit. You see, I had recently received an email saying:
As you probably already know, you’re pretty much a shoo-in as one of Library Journal’s 2013 Movers & Shakers—our annual group of worthy individuals making a difference in the library profession. You’ve been nominated and vetted by LJ’s staff, so it’s just a formality at this point before confirmation is made. You’ll be getting spotlight profiles in LJ’s March 15, 2013 issue where we announce this year’s group, with Movers & Shakers being the cover story of the issue. (email from Library Journal, 1/3/2013)
So I really wasn’t in a position to want to be noticed. I was finally about to be! Well, until I received another email telling me I had not made the final cut. A full 3 weeks after that last email, where I was such a shoo-in, I got a terse, thanks-for-playing, good-luck-in-the-future email. After I had gotten the pictures taken. After I had done a lengthy phone interview with their reporter. After my nominators and references had also done lengthy interviews about me. The news just about crushed me.
I emailed them back to tell them how I wish they would have let me know sooner, or kept me in the loop on the decision-making process, and asked about what I could have done to present myself as a better candidate. I received an apology about the late notice, and told that, although I have a slew of accomplishments, it would have been better to outline one noteworthy achievement.
Wait, what? So my history of innovation across the board is not worth as much as one, flashy project?! There’s also something insidious going on in library-land. Judging from the responses to Julie’s post, there are so many of us who feel unknown, unappreciated. And I think that’s why I wanted an award. Not necessarily because it was really and truly my time to be honored (I’ve only been a librarian for 7 ½ years) but because I feel like I need to be getting these sort of honors to keep up with my peers. To be part of the aforementioned secret society of librarians. We’ve begun to judge our careers not necessarily by our accomplishments, but by who’s keynoting what conference, and who’s winning what award, and we think, “wait! But I am a so much better librarian then they are!”
This is not to say that everyone who keynotes, or everyone who wins an award is terrible at their jobs. The truth is that it’s such a competitive field because there are so many passionate, motivated, ambitious people doing awesome things. But come on, you know you do it too. If 50 people are Movers & Shakers, you’ll scan the list and find the couple that seem a bit weak, or perhaps undeserving in your eyes, and you’ll compare yourself to them, not the 48 amazing ones. And you’ll say, hold on! They are a Mover and a Shaker, and I’m not?!
The truth of the matter is this: I’m good at my job. Scratch that. I’m very good at my job. Higher education, information access, technology: these are my passions. It’s not just work to me; it’s a career, a calling. And that’s the amazing thing about the library field, so many of us feel that way. I feel incredibly lucky to work with so many people who love their jobs so much.
Library Journal is a magazine. They want to sell subscriptions, and they’re going to do it with things like Movers & Shakers, and highlighting people they think will sell copies. Same thing with keynoters. They’ll pick names they can advertise. I’m hurt that I was told my history of accomplishments don’t add up to one flashy project. But I just finished my third masters degree. I’ve got two peer-reviewed articles and two national conference talks under my belt. I’ve actively contributed to the world of library technology.
What message are we sending future librarians when we push them to elevator-talk themselves into a little box? To make themselves wholly into brands, and funnel their career away from daily contributions to their employers, their communities, and their profession, in order to focus on one or two projects they can tack their name on and get noticed?
You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’ve learned a little something from this experience, and I’d like to share it. If I were asked to keynote a library conference today, here is what I’d say:
My decision to become a librarian was a convoluted one, made more through smaller, incremental steps than any clear thought process. I tried many things, pursued multiple degrees, and was only occasionally what you would call a good student. I always thought of myself as a bit lazy, and never dreamed I’d find a career that I could truly excel at.
But for a long time now, I’ve followed one guiding principle: engage with things that interest you. No matter what you’re doing, latch on, with all your might, to the parts of it that you are truly curious about. Learn more about them, at all costs. Never be daunted by the fear that you are not capable of learning something, because you are capable of so much more than you think you are.
A friend recently shared with me an article on the Imposter Syndrome, that feeling that we have no idea what we’re doing, and that at any moment everyone around us will realize that we’re a fraud. My favorite part of the article is at the end, where the author recommends challenging yourself, and taking on goals you’re unsure you’re capable of achieving. I’ve only ever accomplished anything in life by attempting things I’m sure I won’t be able to do, and not talking myself out of trying. Take every huge task in tiny steps and then, at some point you’ve done it, even if in retrospect you have no idea how you were able to. Sometimes you think you might be able to swim, but you never know until you jump in the deep end.
Stop worrying about awards for now. Be happy with recognition from your co-workers, your constituents. Pay your dues. Start small, getting involved first in your community, then your state organization, then regional, then national. Skipping steps is ok, but don’t skip them all. Your colleagues will respect you more if they get the feeling that you are motivated by a passion for the job, rather than a desire to be noticed. It shows on you, and it counts.
I said earlier that I received something better than the Movers & Shakers award. When I told my story on the internet, many people, fellow librarians and cohorts, went out of their way to express their anger on my behalf, but, more importantly, their appreciation for the work I’ve done in the field. I get goosebumps thinking of their kind words even now, months later. My feelings were hurt when I was rejected for the honor, but to know that I was respected among my peers, that I was making an active contribution, that they appreciated me… well, that was worth more than any award given by a magazine. It meant the world to me.
Do your job. Do it well. If you don’t like your job, start taking the necessary steps to do something else, and cede your current position to someone who will love it. If you have passion for what you do, it will show. You will shine. You may not realize it, because people tend to be more vocal about negatives than positives, so you may have to pay special attention for the signs that you’ve made it into the library world’s little secret society. But I’m stating, here and now, that membership is not based on awards and honors. It’s based on increased story-time attendance, and heartfelt thank yous from parents, and internet colleagues who are truly excited to meet you in person, and ex-co-workers who still rave about you, long after you’re gone. All those things, when added up and over time, are worth far more than any single honor or hollow victory. They can’t be taken away from you. They make you more than a leader, more than a rockstar. They make you a luminary.