The In Crowd, or Fear and Loathing in Library Land

Valerie Forrestal
Web Services Librarian and Assistant Professor
City University of New York, College of Staten Island Library

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.


16 thoughts on “The In Crowd, or Fear and Loathing in Library Land

  1. Thank you for this article. I’m a recent MLIS grad and have been trying my best to run a small regional campus academic library with 3 student workers and myself being the only staff members. It gets awfully busy in there and it’s hard to do as much research as I would like when I am constantly going into classrooms to teach, doing orientation sessions, programs, and generally doing reference work. Plus managing the cataloging and other little day to day tasks. I am somewhat ambitious but I know I’m not going to be a mover and shaker anytime soon or a famous internet personality librarian. I’ve never been to ALA. I am excited to present my first poster at the end of October at our academic library association in Ohio. I’m starting small and doing what I can. So thanks for the reassurance and encouragement! Making our campuses’ faculty and our students happy is what keeps me going, and I do love my job.

    1. Jamie – I often think about what a tough situation new MLIS grads are facing. Not only is it competitive to find a job in the field, but it’s also competitive to make your mark professionally. But it’s good to know you up-and-comers have your head on straight, and I have faith that as good as the current (and past) generations of library professionals are, that the next generation will be even better! Keep on truckin!

  2. >>”But for a long time now, I’ve followed one guiding principle: engage with things that interest you…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.”<<

    Excellent philosophy, I have parallel feelings. I think one of the reasons librarians are pressured to be superstars, is because so many outside of the field have denied or denigrated the worth of our work. I don't know, is it compensation? Or am I projecting the chip on my shoulder?

    Thank you for writing this!

    1. No, we’re definitely in an under-rated, under-appreciated field. And I think the fact that we were once a traditionally female profession really put us behind compensation-wise. I don’t know too many other fields that would require a masters degree and this level of diversity of skills that would pay the way this field does. But I honestly think that we’re making strides to regain the respect we deserve. Even since I graduated with my library degree 8 years ago, I’ve seen a change in the way people respond when I say I’m a librarian. Sure I still get the “didn’t google make you obsolete?” comment, but I also have people excited to tell me about all the cool things their local library is doing. I honestly think our passion and devotion is going to carry us through, and revolutionize the way people view the profession. Evolution takes time though, so we’ve just gotta power through!

  3. Thank you Valerie. Thank you for sharing your voice, your passion, and your expertise. You are admired and appreciated more than you know!

    1. My guilt-ridden, ex-Catholic self can’t even deal with all the love coming my way. Maybe it has something to do with me switching meds, but I’ve been a little bit of an emotional wreck all day. TMI? Ok, let’s just pretend there’s something in my eye.

  4. You are right in so many ways. I worked for 34 years in the field trying to do my best for the kids AND the profession. I won Librarian of the Year award in 2010 (few children’s librarian ever had) and the accolades and attention after it were wonderful but silly too. I hadn’t gotten “better” in 2010- still was keeping on keeping on as hard as I could like always. But the results – a guru-hood that I can use as a platform to lift my youth colleagues (in the region, state and nation) up into the spotlight and support them and provide recognition for their work – priceless!

    1. I love awards! And I think this is exactly what awards should be about. It’s not that you did something special in 2010, it’s that you’ve had an amazing career and it deserves to be recognized. It just takes time for people to notice how consistently awesome the people around them are. We need to make sure we’re rewarding people for the right reasons, for their passion and their devotion to the career, and not *solely* their efforts at self-promotion. Belated congrats on the award! :)

    1. Is there an award for shaken, not stirred? In 2009, the Library Society of the World created a Shovers and Movers Award. The process was entirely self-nomination and was both great fun and revealing of the many librarians out there doing really cool things while also not taking themselves very seriously. We should do it again.

  5. Look, my hair is dyed orange! Look, I’m saying “fuck” online . . . in front of EVERYONE! Look over here! I’m wearing crazy clothes! And I’m a librarian! And I don’t have a “Librarian Wardrobe”! Get it?! Wait, look at this! I have some crazy tattoos! It’s not enough for you to notice them, I want someone to complain about them so I can make a fuss about my rights and what is important in this world and get some more attention! Hey, look, I drink! I get drunk! And I’m a librarian! Look at me! I got a major award! I’m an Emerging Mover & Shaker! Read more about ME on my blog! Or my Twitter feed! Or my my Facebook page!

    1. There is a real tug for librarians between self-promotion and modestly retiring behind our buildings to whisper “hey, libraries are awesome. If you don’t mind my saying. Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.” Scott Plutchak put that well in a lecture – – we confuse ourselves and our potential value with buildings. “The library did it” is a strange way to talk about what we did. Yet, there is a lot of angst when librarians either try to distinguish themselves or are singled out.

      We have to find our own balance and we have to find the difference between self-promotion, self-expression, and sharing the good things we do so that they will be more effective.

      1. I’m extremely leery of calling people out for standing out for the wrong reasons. On occasion, over drinks, I’m sure I’ve mentioned a person here or there that I don’t feel lives up to the hype they create around themselves, but the truth is that’s just my opinion, and who am I to judge? Someone I feel is all talk can be truly inspiring to someone else. But I do feel like if you’re going to actively thrust yourself into the public eye it’s in your best interest to make sure you’re damn good at what you do, because you will face scrutiny. That’s just the nature of the beast.

  6. I don’t like these games because I don’t play well with others. I would be bitter all the time about who wins what. So I am the.effing.librarian online which protects me from myself. I don’t play so I don’t have an opinion on who wins. Some people like me, follow me and laugh with me; and seems to be enough to keep me happy. … Just do the job and do it the best you know how. Learn more about what interests you and keep learning. Share with others. If that’s a secret, I’m glad to share it.

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