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An Open Letter to New Librarians – from Roy Tennant

Posted by Editor on February 18, 2011

February 18th, 2011 in LJ

Dear New Librarian,

PC Sweeney, a self-described “newish” librarian whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet recently, wrote a blog post about some of his professional frustrations. This sparked a number of supportive comments from other newly-minted librarians. Clearly a number of you feel the same way.

To recap some of those frustrations, PC noted in his post:

…budget cuts, checked-out librarians that refuse to retire, passionate and newer librarians who are dying to get the chance to do amazing work in libraries but can’t find job openings, ALA’s ludicrous and ineffectual institutionalization, ALA’s and state organization’s unwillingness to act as an advocate for librarianship, librarian’s unwillingness to fight for librarianship, library closures, library reductions in staff and money, libraries lack of ability (or refusal) to adapt to a changing information world, vendors that overcharge and under-deliver products and services that library patrons can’t or refuse to use, the hostile political environment of the people who claim that freedom isn’t free but someone else should pay for it, and all of the other systems in place that are working to keep libraries from getting ahead.

I can’t and won’t argue with much of this, as I think it sounds like a pretty good description of when I entered the profession as a newly-minted librarian in 1986. Or at least it puts words to many of the frustrations I felt then as well. I spent the early part of my career trying to convince the profession that the Internet was a sea change and we would ignore it at our peril. Was I impatient? Sure thing? Frustrated? You betcha. Am I trying to deny or belittle the frustrations of new librarians now? Of course not, I’m validating them. They’re real.

But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth struggling against them and working to make things better. Eventually you may even find it rewarding, as you make progress and chalk up successes.

So having fought the good fight in my day, and experiencing my own professional struggles that have not always (or even frequently) resulted in success, I have a few words of advice:

  • Find fellow travelers. This can be a huge help. These are the people who will help you get through the down times. They will likely not be at your institution. They will be people you connect with online and at conferences who share your views on where we need to be going and they will serve as sounding board, support system, and inspiration.
  • Pick your battles. I learned early on that serving on ALA committees was simply not my style. Therefore, although I have been an ALA member since before my first professional job, I have mostly avoided anything that smacked of governance work. Call me a coward, but that’s pain I can do without.
  • Know yourself. Work at learning who you are professionally. Know what engages you (you will be good at these things), what bores you (you will suck at these), and what frustrates you (you will avoid these). Learn to navigate your way through the landmines to your professional nirvana.
  • Cut some things loose. There will be things that you cannot change. Learn to cut them loose so you can focus your energies on the things you can change.
  • Focus your efforts where you can make a difference. Identify some things that you can do that are within your talents, that deeply interest you, and for which you can envision potential success. This may mean starting small and working your way forward incrementally. Big things can be accomplished this way.
  • Savor success. The small ones as well as the big ones. Did you get that report finished? Good on you. Crack open the bubbly.
  • Savor the success of others. Praise a colleague who has accomplished something worthwhile. Take someone out for a drink who has reached a professional goal. Basking in their joy of accomplishment will warm your heart and encourage you.

I’m not trying to say that if you do the things above that it will be easy. It won’t. Deeply committed and visionary people will also tend to be frustrated and impatient. But I’m here to tell you that with dedication and patience you will not only survive, but thrive. Our profession is counting on you to do so. Only the best and the brightest are frustrated. Everyone else is bored, or unengaged, or biding their time for retirement. You are the ones we simply cannot do without.

Yours in struggle,

Roy

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