I was raised to always put my “best foot forward.” When meeting and interacting with new acquaintances, it makes perfect sense to put on your best face and cover up your flaws. However, this didn’t always serve me well in my position as a librarian. I worked in a library with beautiful facilities: marble floors, hardwoon moulding, plush leather furniture hand-picked by a beloved donor. When you walked into this library, it was very easy to be swept up in how lovely the scene was, to be enchanted sitting in a windowed reading nook for the afternoon.
Behind the “staff only” doors, however, the library was (literally and figuratively) a mess. While we strove to put our best foot forward, there was a jumble on half-completed projects and downright disgraceful disorganization that needed to be dealt with. The collection was not completely cataloged, and no books were labeled or barcoded. Some 35 archival collections needed to be accessioned, organized, and assessed for condition, and finding aids generated. A massive donation of duplicate books needed to be appraised and the worst-conditioned sold in the library’s annual book sale. And there was a hidden room in the basement that had attracted the detritus of of years: if the staff didn’t know how to handle it, it went in the basement.
The library, however, lacked resources to handle these situations: there was no funding for more staff, and the library didn’t have a volunteer program. When once I let slip that we had some real challenges to a visitor, they were shocked. “How could that be?” she asked. “This place is immacualte. I had no idea you would have difficulties running this wonderful library.” We were victims of our successful “best foot forward.” While our patrons loved our library, they literally had no idea we might need their help and support to keep things running.
I think many (if not most) libraries have mythologized themselves. Libraries have been idealized to the point of the magical, and librarians have been cast in the role of the magicians making it all work. To be sure, most libraries will be better positioned than my library was. Most libraries have at least basic funding, a volunteer program, and support from a Friends of the Library group. But I’m sure all the library staff reading this can think of some shortfalls in resources in their library. In an era where libraries are facing tremendous pressures and municipal budgets are being cut, it’s no secret that our libraries have needs. But how are we communicating those needs? Are we tempted to cover up our needs, papering over them in the interests of “keeping things running”? We run the risk of hurting ourselves when we take this notion too far.
Back to my little library with a “best footforward” image problem. How did we go about solving things? We didn’t want to turn our patrons off by doing tours of the messy room in the basement. But we also had a long way to go to build our volunteer base from scratch. It took patience regarding all our needs and projects, and a policy of strategic honesty. When giving tours of our facilities, it became paramount to highlight all the ways that our patrons could help us. We advertised for library science interns, and I’m thrilled to report that we had quite a few come through our doors. Our archival collections would never have been wrangled without their help. Finally, when making some choices about our displays, we didn’t always go for the highest-quality solution. Sometimes we allowed our patrons to see the limitations of what we could do.
For example, when our library started marketing itself online, we launched our own blog. The blog ended up being a tremendous success, attracting thousands of readers around the globe. The blog allowed us to dive deeply into our collections, opening up access to the content of our archives and rare books with readers who couldn’t physically visit our library. But a real debate took place when we launched the blog about whether or not to pay a large sum to integrate the blog into our website. In the end, we chose to found the blog on the WordPress.com free platform. We would have had to really stretch to find the funding for full integration, and we felt it was more honest to let our patrons know that we had to opt for the free version. In the end, we didn’t sacrifice any functionality and still found great success without paying the cost for the nicer-looking version.
I think that the mythology of perfection is a broad phenomenon in our culture, and it does great harm. From American history to unrealistic body expectations, the drive to appear perfect can be something of a hallmark of our society. Libraries aren’t immune to this phenomenon, and our profession’s narratives about heroic librarianship have compounded this fact. I’ve known librarians who were very afraid of showing off the flaws in the library because they thought it would damage the patrons’ faith in the library as an institution. But when we craft a careful policy of “honest foot forward” instead of “best foot forward,” we open an avenue for deeper, more symbiotic relationships with our patrons and donors. When they don’t know how deep your needs run, they won’t advocate for your honest reality. And when we show ourselves as we truly are, we invite our patrons to become part of our organizational family. When that happens, we become more powerful, not less.