I have a deep, dark confession to make. It’s one of those confessions that tangles up the personal and the professional, and has lasting reverberations for how I exist as a person and as a worker. My confession doesn’t come lightly. After all, I’ve spent over 15 years working in libraries in some capacity or other: part time, full time, in graduate school, as a cataloger, a manager, an assistant, a librarian, and more. My confession is more than a bit embarrassing, after all this time. It does some damage to my ego to admit it, but the time has come for me to come clean and I can’t avoid responsibility any longer. My confession is this:
I am not an expert.
That’s more difficult to admit than you might thnk! First off, and perhaps largely, this is because of the sort of person that I am. I have always liked being right. From a very young age, I built many ways ofoperating in my life around the notion of being right. I mean, nobody wants to be wrong, right? This, of course, has led me to trouble and heartache as I’ve grown.
There is, however, a strong cultural pull toward being right within the library field as well. What is the essence of traditional library service if not to provide a patron with the correct answer to their question? The contrarian in me gets annoyed at this. We have t-shirts, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers with this well-intentioned quote (attributed to Neil Gaiman):
Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.
I don’t mean to be flippant about this, but I can say that each week that passes our libraries appear (to me, at any event) to be hurtling away from that paradigm at faster and faster speed. If you come to the library to ask a question, will we get you the right answer? Well, we’ll certainly try to do so. But keeping our eyes on that as our service identity is outdated (at best) and unhelpful (at least). Libraries have radically transformed in the past 30 years, and the transformation continues. The tired old click-bait about libraries going away and library workers becoming obsolete is stuck in this “libraries vs. Google” context that hasn’t been real (if it ever truly was) for a long, long time.
In any event, I believe that lots of library workers have bought in to the notion that libraries are a place you go for expertise. I say this not only because of some conversations I’ve had with fellow library workers throughout my career, but also because of the pressure I’ve witnessed library workers putting on themselves to try and become experts in everything: from astronomy to yoga, oil painting to maritime history. As libraries have experienced mission creep and a lack of focused strategic planning, the workers who provide the services and plan the programs have contorted and stretched themselves to try and be everything for everybody.
In this context, it just plain feels wrong to admit that I’m not an expert. But it’s true. I’m really not an expert, not even when it comes to libraries. The list of things that I don’t know could fill many, many volumes. One of my library school professors once said something that stuck with me. He called the concept “meta-cognitive miscalibration.” When you don’t know what you don’t know! Now there’s an adequate description for me. As I come to know more, I’m only more firmly convinced that I am many things, but not an expert.
I suspect that a good number of libraries in the past have elevated into management those who are experts: in the realm of knowledge, the one who knows most is the ruler. I’ve seen a lot of libraries shift away from this more recently. But the residual culture abides: we like being experts. It hurts us to not be experts for our patrons, for our communities, for ourselves. And I’ve worked alongside some true experts: people who, within their area of expertise, could find the proverbial needle in the information haystack. But that, I admit, isn’t me.
Have you felt the constant rush of pressures in the library world? If you have noticed how our field seems to go from one crisis to another, well, you’re not alone. The whole world is on fire, and why should our libraries be exempt? During my lifetime, we’ve gone from printed card catalogs to the PC revolution, to the rise of the internet, to budget crises, to information overload, infrastructure problems, chronic underfunding, and intellectual freedom challenges. For 20 years, libraries have been experiencing the definition of uncharted waters. Everything is new, everything is different than what came before. We struggle to keep up with the needs as they grow and morph.
I believe that there will always be a call for helping patrons locate information, but as libraries have transformed into communal spaces where the public can encounter and engage with culture and ideas, library workers have had to change, too. One of the reasons I’ve persisted in the field has been this changing paradigm. I’m no expert. I know just enough about most things to be dangerous. But thankfully, we don’t have to be experts for every topic. We just have to be connectors. And, I suspect, being good at that is likely good enough.
Okay, so I’m not an expert. But I have opinions! Here’s what (I think) I know as I move into the future. Library workers must be connectors — they don’t need to be experts in subject areas, they need to be experts in how to bring their community together. They need to be able to work collaboratively inside and outside their organizations. They need to get the library’s reach to expand beyond the four walls of the building. They need to care. Not the type of care where we exhaust ourselves, but simple empathy and a frank understanding of limitations to resources can go very far. They need to have good soft skills, an eye for big-picture thinking, and bold aspirations for what they can accomplish for the community.
Can I be that; can I help my team be that? I don’t know. But I sure am going to try.