Wednesday, February 16, 2011

5 most challenging things about my job

If you read closely, you will notice that these 5 are more or less each the flip side of their companion number from the previous post.
  1. Isolation
: So, here's the thing. In a community branch, or anywhere where you work alone-ish, it can be fun for awhile but it will get lonely pretty quickly. I was really fortunate to realise this before I even moved to Ottawa. A mentor of mine, from my pre-Ottawa life, observed that I would have to work to make sure I don't get isolated in my new job, and she was right. The best antidotes I can find are to stay connected to colleagues in other physical locations but in the same system (sit on local committees, attend library board meetings, visit other branches on the weekend, chat during breaks at meetings), get involved in library associations (local, regional, and/or national), and actively seek out professional development opportunities, even if you have to do them on your own time and with your own money. The investment will be well worth it in many, many ways, some of which you probably can't even imagine at first, and, as a bonus, you won't feel so alone.
  2. De-professionalisation
: Big word about feeling "little." When it sometimes feels like you spend your day fixing printer jams, it can be hard to remember that you're a librarian. As a community librarian, you probably will spend a lot of time “on the floor” at your branch; that helps make you that trustworthy community contact, but it also helps continue to confuse the public about what a librarian does (everything? Anything?). Spending all this time on non-professional tasks is also an Express lane straight to burn-out. I don't have any easy answers here, kids: the most I can suggest is that anyone in this position use every opportunity to promote the library's services and collections like the professional they are. Every request for help is an invitation to have a more meaningful interaction with someone visiting the library. That being said, it can be tough. I sometimes spend a few seconds explaining what a librarian is, in certain situations (eg. "Anyone sitting at this desk can help you with homework questions, research, or recommend a good book. Over there is where you can check out the stuff you want to borrow, and they can also check your account for you.") It all depends on the patron, and the situation, and you have to use your judgment about that. If you find you are getting frustrated, or under-stimulated, on the floor, look at everything from schedules (can you break up your Reference desk time?) to architecture (can the printer be moved any further away from your desk, to cut down on the crazy traffic and incessant questions?) to staffing. This is also a great time to take on a special project that will stimulate you, and revive your passion for public librarianship, in all its shapes and forms.
  3. Lack of resources
: In a big system, like the one in which I work, you have a lot available to help you (colleagues, best practices, policies, tools, reference material, and even a shared collection of puppets!), but you can also get cut off from central departments if you are working in a branch. Sometimes, in any large organisation, it's easy to feel like one octopus leg, and every leg seems to be acting independently... Why are you re-inventing the wheel, only to find out that last month Librarian X at a neighbouring branch is piloting a Wheel Study? Similarly, if you are the only librarian somewhere (anywhere!), you might find that the person who had your position previously wasn’t great at succession planning, leaving you to wonder what on earth he/she did with their time and what you should be doing. The best piece of advice I can give about dealing with this is: if you don’t speak up, you can get lost. The more you share about what's going on chez toi, the more you will hear about what's going on alentours (especially if you, um, ask). Make friends: stay in touch with them, if even just to say, "Is anyone having problems with..." or "Has anyone created a guide to..." There's "working from the ground up," and then there's Sisyphean labour.
  4. Feeling overwhelmed: with the diversity of experiences/opportunities/tasks on your plate, you might find yourself spending a lot of time “putting out fires." It's easy (ha! Relatively speaking, that is) to move from crisis to crisis; harder to take a step back and analyse the direction in which you and/or your library should be heading. Essentially, you need to stay calm, and be organised: you might even want to set aside time (monthly? Quarterly?) for looking at and thinking about higher-level issues, if your institution doesn't have any regular set of checks and balances in place.
 You might find that you need to work in an environment that has goals for the year that are measurable and are followed up on, or else you might want to spend time doing this yourself. In my experience, neglecting this neglects your own professional development, and affects the contribution you are able to make to your institution.
  5. Balance: With everyone clamouring for your attention, and all the responsibilities you face, it can be difficult even to prioritise the needs of each group. You have to judge pretty quickly what can wait until later, what should be a priority this year, next year, this month, this week, depending on your responsibilities to each group you interact with. Sometimes, you just have to accept that you have enough responsibility at the moment, and you have to refer to your friends "No" (he and I aren't that close these days...) and "Can I delegate this?" You just can't do everything, or, at least, you can't do everything well.


  1. Elegantly articulated, and for whatever it's worth, you belong to a very large community of public librarians who know, with extreme sensitivity, what these *challenges* feel like in their everyday-ness. It's great work AND it's exhausting work and most of us can't do it really well for an entire career. I hope you can see options on your longer horizon which build on your very personal combination of knowledge and skills. Community librarianship wears many costumes ;-)

  2. Thank you!

    I bet there are plenty of interesting options on my larger horizon... I think we live in a really interesting time for library work. Already, only 7 years into my career, I am on a path I wouldn't necessarily have completely predicted ... in a good way!