We Have Met the Enemy, And He Is Us

by Mark Y. Herring  (Dean of Library Services, Dacus Library, Winthrop University)

Sometimes, we librarians are our own worst enemies.  That’s not altogether unusual in any profession, but we librarians often make things harder than they need to be.  We are in difficult times as a profession.  Had it not been for the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, we might already be dead, a fact that I know gives many colleagues heartburn as the name “Bush” or the idea of Republicans helping sits unwell on most librarians’ stomachs.  And therein hangs the tale of shooting ourselves, first in the foot, and then in the head.  But I’ll come back to this particular point later.

First, we are sometimes our own worst enemies on our campuses.  We are at times unyielding about our budgets.  It goes without saying that we do not get enough money — who does on a university campus? — but we librarians often seem to be especially prickly about it.  Sometimes, we think we’re targeted for lower funding on purpose.  Sometimes, we think everyone else is getting what they asked for, but we are not.  Sometimes, we even think there is some sort of conspiracy of funding to starve the library of money.  Seriously?

Second, we are, at times, unyielding about staff positions.  Now, there are never enough positions in any area.  I mean, how many businesses say “We’ve got plenty of staff”?  But sometimes, we librarians think that there are jobs only librarians can do, and jobs only paraprofessionals can or should do, and never the twain shall meet, ever.  But it really isn’t that way any more (read Gillian Gremmels’ “Staffing in College and University Libraries” (Reference Services Review, Vol. 41 (2) 2013), but do not do it before bedtime or you’ll never get to sleep).  We think we have to do everything the same way we’ve always done it, a recipe for obsolescence for any profession.  We make stark divisions between technical services and public services staff, and what each is “allowed” to do.  We tend, too, to make especially sharp divisions between what intelligent student workers can do regardless of their ability to do them.

Finally — and the point I said I’d get back to — we shoot ourselves in the foot politically.  I don’t mean that librarians shouldn’t have political opinions.  Lord knows, I have them.  I mean that as a profession we cannot afford to favor one political side against another publicly.  And yet, we do that at just about every annual convention and every national election.  Rather than suck up to both parties and hope for the best, we often draw lines in the sand about first one thing and then another, leaving the preferred side silent while making the opposition furious with us enough to want to shut us down.  Makes perfect sense in a time of tight budgets and scarce dollars, right?

I recall a story Michael Novak once told me about a time when he worked for McGovern.  After the election was over and Nixon had won just about every precinct in the country, they were sitting around the table, men scratching their heads and women crying.  One woman look at him and, through a multitude of tears cried, “I don’t know how this happened.  I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.”

Now, if you can forget for the moment that the story is about the dreaded Nixon, there is a moral here about groupthink.  It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you look in only one direction, and no one does that worse than people who work in colleges and universities.  If we really are for our constituents, then we really do have to embrace both sides, even if it means holding our noses from time to time.

I don’t think this is peculiar to librarianship as much as it is the nature of human beings.  The grass is always greener everywhere else.  But you’d think in an age when our very existence is being questioned, we’d be far more agreeable on just about any question, wouldn’t you?  I mean, when your spouse is ready to boot you out the door, is that really the time to ask if she’s put on a few pounds?

Now is as good a time as any to be more open-minded about such things.  With our profession struggling to find a niche, any niche, we can’t afford to make any enemies.  And we really don’t want to be our own worst enemies by complaining about everything, asking for more money, acting as if nothing has changed in the last few decades, wanting new staff positions for every new wrinkle we can think of, and alienating every political party but one.  We need to work hard to please everyone.  Extra special hard.

In times like these, it’s important to remember that it really doesn’t matter who throws you a lifeline when you’re drowning.

It only matters that you end up on dry land, safe and secure.

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