Give Me Some of that Real-time Inspiration

May 22, 2011

I’m no naysayer. True, there was a time when I was known amongst friends as “the prophetess of doom”, but that was many years and countless hours of self-work over the bridge. I believe in inspiring people. I was drawn to the pulpit, literally, and even lately, after enjoying several months filled with opportunities to write and speak about the future of librarians, toyed with the idea of becoming a consultant; a professional cheerleader for our profession. Two things I really take pleasure in are (1) making people laugh and (2) making people feel good about themselves, feel as if they are and/or can be who they want to be. That said, I find myself now, a few days removed from the pep rally that was the annual meeting of the Medical Library Association, in a bit of a quandary.

It seems that I missed the message of hope and encouragement supposedly shared by the plenary speakers. Others all around me – people I like and admire and who’s professional opinion I respect – stated and blogged and tweeted with palpable enthusiasm for what they heard. “Best Janet Doe lecture EVER!” “Wasn’t Clay Shirky awesome?” “Ready for the golden age of librarians!” I had to return to work on Wednesday and missed the final day of the meeting. I missed Geoffrey Bilder’s talk and I missed Dr. Hotez give the Leiter Lecture, so I can’t make any comment about these contributions, but from the tweets I read, Bilder, at least, was as exciting as the speakers from the previous days. The mantra “we have great value” evidently continued to ring loudly.

Now before I type another thought, let me type this one… I believe with every part of me that we DO have great value. Every single one of us. I believe everyone has value, or at least great potential for it. I believe being a librarian is both an admirable and essential role to play in our society. I think those who call for the closure of libraries, who think they can find any and every bit of knowledge on the Internet are… well, they are misguided at best, though more likely simple buffoons. I am proud of the work I do and so grateful to be part of what must surely be one of the most interesting, intelligent, useful and helpful, and downright fun professions going.

So why, you might ask, do I come away from this event feeling a bit … cynical is not the right word … maybe disappointed is closer to it. Maybe it’s the cumulative effect; living in a society that swings from the hopeful rallying cry of “Yes We Can!” to the negative, anger-fueled Tea Party Movement in a matter of minutes. I can’t help but notice that there is a shallowness to the cries of both sides. I wonder if we’re just being delusional, fooling ourselves as a means of getting by in a world with too many seemingly insurmountable problems.

People asked me, “Didn’t you think that was great?” after Shirky’s lecture, and I could only reply, “Yes, but…” But. But where is the reality? I’m all for inspiration and even for small doses of the acceptable coping strategy of delusion, but I need it tempered with reality. The mantra at my library is not, “The great age of libraries is over. Now is the great age of librarians.” No, the mantra at my library is “more with less”. We will continue to do more with less. This is the reality. This is the “new normal”. This is what I hear. And stating only my opinion (because I have absolutely no facts or experience to base it on), I bet that’s what the librarians at the Lister Hill Library at UAB hear from T. Scott Plutchak when he’s in his role of Library Director instead of Janet Doe Lecturer.

And not to negatively criticize the great bandleader, because his message is a WONDERFUL message. It is a most hopeful thought. It really is inspiring, but sadly, for me, only in the confines of the convention hall in Minneapolis. Similarly, I enjoyed Shirky’s observations on all of the data out there and all that it can tell us about the world we live in. I delighted in his challenge against establishment (even our own professional assertions), of the validity of the collective wisdom of Internet support groups against randomized control trials and systematic reviews. I thought this was something to give us all pause and make us think, or in the theme of the meeting, rethink.

But I was dumbfounded – not to mention offended – at his assertion that we’re simply lazy people, that if we only quit watching television on the weekends we could build Wikipedia ten times over. Yes! Yes! Yes! Crowdsourcing, community engagement and collectives hold tremendous hope for the world. I am devoted to them. I was a VISTA Volunteer for crying out loud. I listen to folk music. I am about the people. Power to the people! And most of all, I am a librarian. I am a member of the profession that is the archetype of community building, shared assets and collaboration.

And THIS is the reality I felt missing from the messages meant to inspire me – I am part of a profession that already builds and shares and collaborates, yet finds itself devalued more and more every day.

As I returned to my cubicle office in my library on Wednesday, I walked past the construction of a multi-million dollar research building that will feature everything from state-of-the-art labs to a fitness center, study areas, and a new cafeteria. There will be no new library, but that’s okay isn’t it? It’s not the age of libraries, it’s the age of librarians. So what’s my problem with this message? It’s the message being sent that the reality is there are millions being poured into buildings while budgets are frozen, positions remain unfilled, and any necessary resources that do not involve steel and concrete are nowhere to be found.

We settle for outsourcing work rather than fighting for the positions to remain and/or become part of our departments (our libraries). We find some kind of hope in study results demonstrating our patrons find great value in information, fooling ourselves into believing they thus also find great value in us, the information providers. We believe we can continue to parse out .25 FTE here, there and everywhere to cover our bases. We believe if we only change and/or grow our skill set we can tackle some really cool and interesting new fields like eScience, data management and publishing. We believe it’s just a matter of cutting out extraneous services, rearranging departments, rewriting job descriptions and getting out of the library. If we only do these things we will find our relevance, we will re-establish our value in this ever-changing world.

But my reality tells me that I work in an environment that has done every one of these things, yet we still struggle to prove our worth. The Chancellor still gets a raise on his three-quarter of a million dollar salary before I can fill the vacant position in my department. The year-end budgets always roll around with money for things, but never money for people. And this is hardly about only libraries and the library profession, but it really is the reality of the society in which we all find ourselves.

Maybe it’s just really, really hard to put an inspiring message into this context. Maybe that’s not what those lectures are supposed to be about. Maybe they’re supposed to put our reality on hold for awhile, to give us a break, to help us think of a world where no difficulties exist, but only possibilities. Kind of like all the talk of the rapture – it’s so much easier to just believe we can one day, in an instant, leave all of the hard stuff behind.

But alas, I don’t believe in the rapture and though I flew Southwest Airlines to all of my many destinations the past couple of months, I find I didn’t really get away. I left MLA with a mixed bag of feelings. I left the library publishing workshop I attended right before MLA much the same, with so many ideas and so much excitement for new and interesting possibilities, yet so frustrated by my inability to see how we will ever be able to do any of them in our current reality. And the week before that, I attended the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Health Sciences Library Network, my state professional organization. It was a meeting I’d planned, a meeting I put together with the goal of having members encourage one another by sharing their stories of their “outside the box” thinking – the innovative projects and services they’ve established in their libraries. We had a keynote address focusing on creativity and exercises to help us redefine ourselves. It was a great day of professional development solely devoted to inspiration… yet only about 50 people attended. What is the reality this points to? (I really don’t know. Could be something, could be nothing at all.)

And so I’m left wondering about the reality of our work, our profession, our goals, our direction. I do love my job. I love the work that I do, the colleagues that I have, the ideals of my profession. There is a great desire amongst us to serve people, to help people, to really make a difference for our communities – our institutions and our patrons – that you see less and less in professions today. We do have so much value. But we are going up against some way bigger and way different values. There are bigger priorities and a lot more power resting in people and places far beyond our control. Maybe just a nod to that fact during these messages would have helped me feel less conflicted. Probably a big rally inspiring us to overthrow those powers and get our library/education/healthcare-centric values back where they belong, i.e. on top, would have left me the most satisfied, but short of such anarchy, I’ll settle next time for a dose of evidence-based inspiration.

(It really has been a fantastic few months. I’ve got little belief for the guarantees of a simple life and these kind of struggles make it interesting and worth being a part of.)