BackTalk: The Truth About Libraryland

By Linda Koss

Sometimes stereotypes happen for a reason. Librarians get their shorts in a wad every time we are stereotyped in the media as meek, weak little people whose glasses can be picked right off our faces and trampled underfoot. We create posters - or at least hire graphically gifted people to create posters - in which librarians are "real-life heroes," like Batgirl, who was a librarian and a hero but not a real-life woman. Or we come up with something like Conan the Librarian or some other fictional person designed to give us professional self-esteem.

The truth is most librarians are wimps. We are not more physically cowardly than the next guy, but we make up for that with personality traits and professional conditioning that rob us of our starch. We are just so doggone accommodating, so willing to see the other person's point of view, that if we can make the public or our bosses happy by removing our spine and laying it on the table, we will reach around to our back and search for a zipper to pull.

Rolling with the punches

There are some underlying reasons for this circumstance. We do need to be accommodating in our everyday work: supplies run short, equipment breaks down, and the public becomes unreasonable. If you can't take it, you really do belong somewhere else. Most of us are used to working in the public sector, where having enough money and materials to do our work hangs on the whim of voters. The ability to roll with the punches becomes part of the job description. The best of us have a strong sense of mission as well and would go through a brick wall rather than leave a patron stranded.

That combination of predisposition and professional molding creates wimps all up and down the professional food chain. Library administrators understaff agencies, knowing that librarians will pitch in with long and strange hours and cover desks without complaint. Middle managers don't open their mouths and ask upper-level administrators for enough manpower or resources to run their facilities, either - that would be whininess, an admission that you are not a team player.

Mum's the word

The same thing applies to complaining about malfunctioning equipment or a lack of supplies. At the top, public library administrators do not ask the public for enough resources to attract and keep good, young people in the field, choosing instead to pay their staff as poorly as they can. Mentally, we just live in what one of my colleagues calls "happy libraryland," where it is "unprofessional" to acknowledge the impact that these scrape-by-for-today-don't-think-about-tomorrow strategies have on our service to patrons, and it is definitely unprofessional to raise hell about it.

Gradually, we become conditioned to accept the worst with neither complaint nor analysis. We don't differentiate between stuff that naturally happens because we work with the public in the public sector and stuff that happens because of bad decisions made by management that could be corrected if they were to be acknowledged.

In some libraries, this attitude becomes extreme. Librarians are expected to tolerate anything short of physical abuse in order to "work with the public." Institutionally, we bend over backwards to return circulation privileges to serial thieves, we don't take firm security measures because it would be an honest acknowledgment of security problems, and we allow staff to become the brunt of patron bullying.

Enough is enough

But when we rationalize tolerance of bad decisions and bad treatment as "professionalism," we rationalize our own cowardice. We are not being professionals. We are not doing anyone any favors. Our patrons get worse service when we don't ask the community for enough resources to do our jobs and enough money to attract young people to the field. Short staffing means long waits, poor customer service, and bad programming. Patrons who don't steal are in effect ripped off by those we allow to rob us repeatedly of materials, because the materials that they paid for with their hard-earned taxes are not available. When we tolerate bad behavior from patrons, directed at other patrons or at ourselves, we make everyone using a library feel unsafe.

I know everyone likes job security, and everyone wants to be liked by their colleagues and bosses. But if we can only be "liked" and "respected" by putting our spines in escrow, it is not worth it. The standard for being tough enough to do our jobs should not be how much mediocrity and stupidity we can tolerate.

Linda Koss is Grantsmanship Specialist, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

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