I’ve noticed sometimes that library cultures can get swept up in the externalities of their workplaces. What I mean by that is that there’s sometimes an obscuring of a sense of purpose for individuals in the work environment. Put simply, I think it has to do with more focus on the chair than on what one wants to do once in the chair. A focus on position and authority can hollow out a culture, leaving it vacant of a sense of purpose. Things operate by and for those in power, leading to passivity (at best) and resentment (at worst). Often a mix of both. I’ve had people tell me that they don’t feel valued unless they are being promoted, and promotion is the only pathway to having a voice. In that context, the workplace has a one-track mind, and the creativity of the work suffers.
I think the best response to this paradigm is to underscore a new set of values that informs how work is approached. Again, I focus on what one wants to do in the chair, not on the chair itself. I can put anybody into the chair. There are loads of competent people who can do the work. But doing the work is often not enough to allow workers to be happy and to thrive in their work environment. There needs to be a sense of purpose: what do I bring to the table, regardless of which seat I occupy? What do I want to achieve? How does my seat align with my ethos and my goals? Where do I fit (on the team, in the organization, in the field)? Answering these questions is the first step to understanding our placement and working toward effective internal perspectives in our workplace dynamics.
I often reflect on my professional mortality as a way of staying grounded. It’s also prescient in the context of this topic. We all only have a finite amount of time to do our work. I don’t want to squander an opportunity to make my contribution because I was too focused on position instead of influence. Nobody will have a chance to make a difference in every way and at every turn. Life just doesn’t work that way. Those in positions of leadership can’t make the same kind of impact that a front line worker does. The same goes in the opposite direction.
It seems very basic to say that, but I’ve encountered library workers who resent their library directors for not doing checkouts and answering reference questions. The distinction of role isn’t a bad thing as long as it’s a delineation of labor and not a delineation of respect and dignity. The idea that fairness should play out in everybody doing the exact same things and having the exact same voice in setting direction is, more than anything else, a poor understanding of organizational dynamics. But it’s also a result of focusing much more on the chair than on contributing from the chair. It reflects a focus solely on the positions in play rather than finding ways to positively contribute from each side of the table. Focus on the chair sets the table for “us vs. them” conflict, and turns the workplace into a zero sum game. The environment becomes dominated by self-interest and everybody is trying to gauge what is on everybody else’s plate.
Of course, especially in the library community, there’s a growing intentionality around concepts like access and equity. It’s become extremely clear that a simple view of equality simply won’t do: giving everybody the same thing in the same way and treating it as “fair” leads to imbalances and creates winners and losers in a systemic way. So too in the work environment. When library workers focus more on position than contribution, the call for homogeneity inevitably comes. Fairness as sameness, I think, leads not only to no distinction in position, but also to no distinction in voice. This is where we need to understand that division of labor (the distinction between roles) is a critically vital component to any organization, not the least because the different roles lead to different points of view. This is incredibly valuable, provided the organization can cross-pollinate across perspectives: the leaders, administrators, managers, specialists, and workers all hear each other and communicate in a respectful dialogue about the work. Leaders can’t lead in the dark. Workers can’t operate without clear organizational support that actually addresses their needs.
Even deeper, however, is the notion of diversity writ large across our libraries. I think the discussion about diversity hasn’t gone far enough to serve our organizations in a practical way. The notion that diversity is a moral question permeates a field dominated by white workers. In my opinion, diversity needs to be promoted for the benefit of the organization: different perspectives make the organization run better and more creatively than organizations that are not diverse. I believe this to be true across all kinds of organizations. It’s critical to have multiple voices, backgrounds, and experiences represented in a variety of roles, of course. But it’s also often a neglected area to incorporate diverse values and intentions into our operations. When I ask people what they want to achieve from their chair, their answers will be deeply informed by their personal histories and experiences. A chair-focused approach to diversity overlooks the cultivation of achievement right here, right now. It passes by the accomplishments and competencies that workers already have by allowing the spotlight to dwell on a job title instead on the individuals themselves.
Many of these things seem basic to me, but I believe they need to have more focus and emphasis within our library work environments. Everybody has an opportunity to contribute from whatever chair they’re currently in… if we can allow ourselves to change the perspective and to intentionally crystallize what that looks like. I’ve been astonished to ask library workers (some with many years of experience) what they want to contribute and to have them say they don’t know. I’ve seen it in many different library contexts. Some library workers are honed in on this aspect, and do great things (such as contributing to conferences and professional literature). But others are decidedly not as focused on that aspect. I’ve found that this is a symptom of focus on the chair instead of accomplishment from the chair. The discussion on what the individual wants to contribute to the library is almost always a fruitful one. Library workers don’t focus on the chair on purpose and they generally want to help patrons and serve the library’s mission. Changing perspective widens the lens and allows creative planning to meet those goals, both to serve the community and to find satisfaction in the work for the worker.
I think it’s the manager’s job to help achieve this perspective. To really see our role as raising up those in our care, in cultivating every voice at the table, and to hire for diverse experiences and perspectives. Finding alignment between the personal motivations of workers and the mission of the library is the meat of a manager’s role, in my opinion. If that can be unlocked, everybody benefits.