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Lookin' For A Ladder...

I've been at this game for nearly a quarter century, and have, perhaps, paid a due or three, but I am scarcely less annoyed than Jane when the impatience of my younger colleagues is dismissed with the notion that you need to be wait your turn and "pay your dues".   

Experience rarely yields wisdom.  It certainly doesn't necessarily make one more capable at anything.  And we're at a point in our profession where the change we are undergoing is so dramatic that experience can actually be, in some ways, a drawback.  Nonetheless, experience can, sometimes, provide a bit of perspective.  With that in mind, here are some observations and, perhaps, a bit of advice:

1)  This has nothing to do with a particular culture of librarianship.    There is nothing peculiar to librarians that makes our organizations especially change resistant or unwelcoming to the ideas of people who are new to the field.  This is about human nature and the dynamics of organizations.  I defy you to show me any mature industry or field of endeavor in which more than a small percentage of the organizations within that sector truly foster a culture of innovation, mentoring and risk-taking from top to bottom and from side to side.  Drucker started writing about this stuff in the thirties.  The reason that this is important is that it means that if your goal is to change the "culture of librarianship" you are choosing the wrong battle and you are doomed to lose. 

2)  The notion that "millennials" are somehow intrinsically more risk-taking, eager for change, and impatient with the slow movement of the organization, while "boomers" are congenitally risk-averse, overly cautious, and unwilling to allow their younger colleagues to advance too quickly is bullshit.  It pains me to have to point out that it was the boomer generation that marched and chanted and actually believed that we could overthrow the capitalistic system altogether -- preferably within the next three weeks, back in 1968.  (We thought, of course, that we invented rebellion, being entirely clueless about what our grandparents had done in the twenties).  The more difficult truth is that a significant portion of young people in all generations are eager for greater social change and impatient with their elders-- but then they turn into the elders!  Most of the radical rebels from the sixties & early seventies turned into the cautious, maintain status-quo managers of the 90's and 00's -- and it will happen to the millennials as well.  Your challenge, if you really want to be a change agent in the long haul, is to manage to maintain that idealism, energy and impatience throughout a long career.    Most people don't.

With that as context, here's my advice:

1) The corollary to number 1 above is that change happens one library at a time.  If you're on the leading edge of comfort with change, you need to put yourself into an organization whose interests are aligned with yours.  If the predominant viewpoint in your library is "you've got to wait ten years until you've paid your dues," you are not likely to change that.   (If there are just a few people who feel that way, don't worry about it -- just ignore 'em).   Start looking for an organization where you're going to have more freedom and get more support, and set your sights there for your next career move.  Those organizations are out there.  There are many great and wonderfully innovative and exciting libraries of all types.  When you're early in your career, don't fuss yourself with trying to turn your library into one of those.  Your focus should be on getting your precious self into one of those libraries where you've got good mentors and the leadership that will help you grow and experiment and have fun.

2)  In the meantime, be specific about the changes that you think you can effect in the organization that you're a part of.  Identify the people in the organization who have the power to change things, and figure out why the change that you think is necessary is going to help them solve one of their problems.  That's the only way to sell it.  Let them take credit for the idea, if that's what it takes.  And look outside of the organization for satisfaction as well -- you may find that you can have a greater impact there.   Five Weeks To A Social Library was a stunning achievement, and its ripple effects will be felt for a very long time.

3)  As your career progresses, don't allow yourself to become complacent.  It'll sneak up on you.   One day you find yourself a department head with several eager young librarians reporting to you, with lots of exciting ideas -- but now, if one of their ideas blows up, it's your neck on the line.  Can you discipline yourself enough to be willing to give them the same kind of freedom and opportunities you're craving now?  Or will it look very different from that perspective?

4) Be patient.  I know, I know, that sounds like "paying your dues," but I don't mean it that way.  Change never happens unless there are people who are continually pushing, but sometimes change takes a long time.  It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.  If you're really in it for the long haul, you have to be willing to stick to it.   One of the things that I really wanted us to be able to do when I got here was get more formally aligned with the medical school curriculum -- at that time we did a variety of orientations and occasional in-class presentations, but it was all ad hoc, dependent on the particular interests of a particular instructor at the time.  I worked on building relationships within the medical school, on understanding what they perceived as the major problems and issues.  The goal was building trust and a greater awareness and appreciation for our expertise and range.  It took ten years before the door I was looking for appeared -- and then it was easy to open it and walk in because we were prepared and ready for it.  Now we're not just formally involved in the curriculum, we have librarians leading a significant part of a complete revamping of the curriculum.  The important thing in this context is that I didn't know if we would ever get there.  Sometimes you just have to keep planting those seeds without knowing if the thing you're looking for will ever sprout.

Back to point 1 above -- libraries have been changing steadily for centuries, it's just hard to see that when you're relatively new.  Even the most authoritarian, hidebound, do-it-like-we've-always-done-it library is far more progressive and open than its counterpart of twenty-five and fifty years ago.   But the majority of libraries (the majority of organizations) will always be in the middle of the pack, waiting to see what the leading edge organizations are doing before they're willing to take those same steps.   Fortunately, there are always organizations and librarians that are doing amazing and wonderful things.     And in our world of blogs and instant networked communication, it is much easier to figure out which libraries those are.  Students have much greater opportunities for getting the lay of the land than their predecessors of even a decade before.  Rather than being frustrated about being unable to change an organization that is in the middle of the pack, set your sights on going to work for one of those innovative, exciting places.  That's where you'll get the support, experience and energy that you need.

A final note -- when I'm at a conference, hanging out in the bar with the library directors that I tend to associate with, we're likely to be sharing strategies about how we can get our organizations to move faster, to be more innovative, to be more hospitable to new ideas.  And we'll be fussing about how we can get the best & brightest to come work for us.  We will never be in the majority, and that's okay.  If we were, I think I'd start to worry that I was losing my edge.



Hi, T. Scott, I'm a lurker on your blog, but felt compelled to comment here. First of all, I'd love to find out more about what you're doing w/ the med school curriculum. We're at the threshhold ourselves, and I'm trying to emphasize that we're more than EBM in my discussions w/ curriculum leaders. Maybe I could talk to one of your staff at MLA?

I'm less concerned w/ the notion of "paying your dues" and resistance to change than I am w/ the slowness of our libraries to change traditional hierarchies.

I see so many library "mgmt" positions asking for 5-7 years of experience w/ increasing responsibility--and a narrow definition of what responsibility means. I think there are a lot of X and Y-ers, particularly in libraries, who aren't particularly attracted to traditional mgmt. What we're interested in is flexibility--not only in work-life balance, but in our day-to-day jobs. I want to have the flexibility to work for a while on projects that will help my users, and not have to ask permission of my supervisor (or balance the demands of supervising other professionals) to do it.

I'm at an academic library w/ a large staff, and until recently we were in very traditional units (tech services, instruction, reference, etc). But on top of that we're liaisons. So if you were an effective liaison, that meant you got pulled away from "unit" responsibilities, which, depending on your supervisor, was not always approved of. This created tensions for a number of people.

We've recently moved to a less hierarchical and more flexible, team-based structure, which is great--except that now only a few people are actual supervisors. What we have is a bunch of solo librarians/liaisons working under one roof. The organization is much more flexible and responsive to change--but it may be harder for people to move on & up to other organizations w/ traditional hierarchies.

The focus of ALA, MLA, and other orgs, is currently on "recruitment and retention of managers." But I really think that as long as libraries stick to these traditional notions of leadership & mgmt, it's going to be a hard sell to those who are looking for that flexible organization.

This is long & rambling, but I hope I've been somewhat clear. Thanks for the forum!

T Scott

Nate -- thanks for the comment. I'll send the contact info for the person you should look up at MLA to find out more about what we're doing with the curriculum.

You're right about the need for changing the management structure within our organizations -- and it becomes more difficult the larger the organization.

I think I disagree somewhat with your comment about the focus of MLA in this area -- there is certainly an emphasis on recruitment, but it's designed to get bright people into the profession, not necessarily to turn them into managers. And the Leadership & Management Section has always (since its formation in 2000) been concerned with developing leadership skills throughout the organization -- I think they've done a good job of doing some of the rethinking that you're talking about.

I think we're all struggling with finding better ways to recognize and reward leadership outside of the traditional management structures. But as I say in the post, there will be relatively few institutions on the leading edge of that.


"...One day you find yourself a department head with several eager young librarians reporting to you, with lots of exciting ideas...will it look very different from that perspective?"

You bet it looks different. "New ideas" look like budget expense, and staff expense, and they all have to be weighed against the 10K other things that someone with actual responsibility has to think about. Holy cow, it's dizzying!

I read through much of the "ladder" thread on a variety of blogs with interest. I would like to say that my goal as a manager is to let everyone do everything they want to as long as it is a) within our own power or b) clearly tied to departmental goals.

However, I still have to say NO a LOT, and not only to my "young" staff. Any staff member who thinks their idea is the best, the only, the it's-got-to-be-done-now-or-else-you're-blocking-change has got some learning to do.

Maybe that's the meaning of "paying dues."


I turn 50 this year. I remember being 25, new in my field (medical publishing) and thinking that I had all the answers and that the corporate culture only got in my way. Twenty-five years later, I still think that the corporate culture gets in my way (sometimes). But reading through your blog and the attached comments I don’t see the issues addressed here as a conflict between ‘innovators’ and ‘laggards.’ I just see the problems inherent in any complex human organization. One person’s brilliant new idea is another’s horrific folly.

Yes, I have no doubt in an age of rapid change that many library management procedures are outdated, perhaps even counterproductive. But that does not mean that all change is good and that all established procedures are bad. Scott, I have heard you talk about this being the greatest age for libraries since the invention of the printing press, and indeed it is. I have also heard you talk about how it took decades for libraries to develop a new management paradigm after the invention of movable type. We are in a moment in history where technological development has suddenly changed the rules. In such an environment it is highly likely that old management structures no longer apply. However, that does not mean that all new ideas are good. I would submit that we are still decades away from creating a management structure that fits the electronic age. Yes we must change, but I remind all the readers here that it is inevitable that many changes along the way will lead to a dead end, many mistakes will be made. In an age of great flux, it becomes very difficult to know the full consequences of one’s actions and decisions. Unfortunately, we are judged (and promoted) on current successes and not on long term (twenty years from now) successes. Many innovators can be right in the long-term and abject failures in the present. I am reminded of the wisdom of Zhou Enlai when he was asked his opinion on the outcome of the French Revolution, he said, ‘it’s too early to tell.’

I have always considered myself an innovator. In every organization in which I have worked I have always pushed the envelope. But have pity on those who are a bit more circumspect. For like Zhou those people might rightly believe that it is too early to tell whether or not your brilliant idea is the greatest thing since the French Revolution or perhaps just another Edsel. The one great insight I have learned in my career, as an innovative person I always make sure that I surround myself, and listen to, people who are more circumspect then I am. I might have lots of great ideas but I have no doubt that I have also had many dud ideas these past twenty-five years. Complex organizations performing complex activities need both types of employee to survive. I find that when I work with people of a different perspective my ‘brilliant idea’ is usually moulded and recast out of all recognition – but in the end (if we do it right) the result is much better then if I was left to my own devices.

Katy G.

Thanks for the first point #2. Whenever I read about the risk-taking millennials, I want to say, "Of course they are impatient with slow-to-change organizations. They're young!" One of the wisest managers I ever had taught me that it's often easier to change an organization quietly, from within, which goes against the grain of most impatient twenty-year olds, no matter what their generation -- Boomer, X, Y, etc.

It brings to mind a quote from Aldous Huxley, which goes something like, "A young conservative is an aberration of nature." Or was it abomination?

Sarah Louise

I am totally fine (most of the time) with paying my dues. I'm the second to most junior and half time in two departments (kids and tech serv) and I have GREAT mentors. My pay might not be as great as some others in our county, but I think job satisfaction trumps that any day. Great post.

(and by junior, I mean there are two of us that graduated from library school in the past 5 years. The rest have been librarians for 10-15-30 years)


Thank you for this post. I haven't been to your blog before and got here via some circuitous route or other, but I love what you are saying here. I'm not a librarian, and I don't even play one on TV, although I am entering grad school in the fall to get an MLS. (I plan to work as a school library media specialist.) No, I'm a 20 year veteran public school teacher, and what you said really resonates. "Paying your dues" has such a sanctimonious sound to it. On the other and there is a lot to be said -- at least in the personal satisfaction department -- for the mellowing that comes with experience, the figuring out how to sustain ones creative energy and passion for the long haul. When I was a youngster out to change the world, I was fond of reading the books by people like Pat Conroy, who hit a community like a whirlwind, turned a school on its ear, and got fired for his efforts. "Wow, is that romantic!" I thought. Now I harbor a certain disdain for the people who teach for a year and then write a (bestselling) book about what wonderful teachers they were but they had to leave because of the stagnant administration. So I guess each person must strike their own balance, and figure out how to "be the change" they want to see.

LibraryNation (Kathleen)

Thank you so much for this post (I just discovered A Wandering Eyre, and shortly therafter, you).

I'm one of those new librarians (MSIS Spring 08) chomping at the bit to see some changes to my local public library. I wanted to start working at the main branch right away as soon as I saw that they had internships opening. But a fellow student begged me not to apply because the main branch is notorious for crushing the hopes and dreams of promising public librarians. So I didn't take the job. I saw it as a challenge, but I instinctively knew that I couldn't change that much bureaucracy all on my own, and that I'd be better off at a branch or one of the many university libraries. I was disappointed (I've never failed to get management to accept one of my ideas), but I somehow knew it was the right decision. After reading your post, I'm doubly sure. I want to keep my spark going for a long time to come, not burn out in a tangle of oppressive management and red tape.

I'm printing your post (to a PDF of course) to save forever. I feel like I had a moment to sit down with a mentor who could help me understand how the world works (and give me a bit of a history lesson to boot!). This is one of my favorite discoveries about networked librarians - I can have mentors and heroes all around the country that I can look up to and gain strength from.

Thank you again for writing this.

T Scott

Kathleen -- thanks for that, I really appreciate it. We never stop needing mentors -- one of the things I enjoy about growing older is finding new colleagues much younger than me that I can keep learning from.

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