Librarianship is a savannah

The moment library leaders no longer say “wow that’s a pretty ambitious goal” is when we know Skilltype is successful. Sure we can quantify our impact today. But until the information profession embraces the optimism that anything’s possible, there’s work to be done.

I remember sitting in Susan & Ennio’s kitchen one morning when the first stream of possibilities hit me for the library profession. Ask anyone who knows me. They’ll be talking about something seemingly unrelated. I have to be rude, take out my phone and capture the adjacencies.

In time, your vocation becomes a lens through which you see the world. Inspiration hits you at the most unsuspecting moments. You don’t expect everyone to relate — you appreciate them too for what they teach you. But when you find people who do, there’s no need to interview.

This morning someone shared a podcast on whether cynicism is ruining your organization. In libraries, it’s easy to apply this question to the profession at large.

I view cynics as a key piece to this puzzle however. Firstly, growing up how I did, cynics are extremely motivating to me. I tend to play to the level of my competition. I will conserve energy and coast if until pressure comes. Procrastinate until the paper’s due. You get it.

The particularly vocal type of cynicism in libraries today can be overwhelming, discouraging, or downright debilitating. But it’s these environments where I operate at my best. And I now know what to look for in others who do too. We’re usually historically underrepresented.

It’s why a part of our interview process is understanding what a potential colleague has to prove. Not for the sake of asking what they have to prove, but because our goal is so ambitious that we will need them to find the inspiration to prove it in their work.

Cynics behave like hyenas. I remember encountering hyenas on a safari in Tanzania when I was younger. They present as friendly and will walk alongside you when alone. But can instantly become aggressive and find boldness in numbers and want to attack.

Me while in Tanzania during the 2007 great migration

Maximalists on the other hand behave like lions. They are confident unto themselves, able to peacefully coexist alongside cynics, and will only defend themselves when threatened. This lion playing and exploring the savannah is the perfect metaphor.

The beauty of the savannah as an ecosystem is that all of these interactions, no matter how tense and uncomfortable at times, are necessary for it to evolve over time. Things expectedly get a bit chippy when the water dries up.

The digital shift in libraries is a great migration of sorts. We should understand that not everyone will make it. But those of us who do have a responsibility to continue on in the things that sustain the profession, if for nothing else to ensure that others’ work isn’t in vain.

So while I can’t work with them, I appreciate our community’s cynics. I respect their role and value, and find motivation in how they challenge our status quo. But it takes maturity to keep the vision in mind and understand we’ll never be the same.

Founder & CEO at Skilltype. Inaugural EIR at Boston University Libraries. Board emeritus at Rooted School. Native New Orleanian.

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