On the Negative Nellies

Librarians are, as a profession, exceedingly generous toward their newest members. I expect most of us have had at least a few great interactions with professional librarians who have given us their time and attention for interviews, given us professional advice, written us references and recommendations, and generally been on the lookout for the students and early-career librarians around them. So far, every librarian I’ve asked for help has made time for me, and I always come away from those experiences feeling grateful and astonished at how willing librarians are to help even a lowly library school student.

But just as we all come across these instances of personal generosity, I expect we’ve all probably had to contend with the other side of that coin as well: librarians can be awfully negative. And often that negativity ends up aimed right at us, the library students. From generalized rants about how the schools are producing too many of us, to complaints about all the ways in which our educations fall short, to comments about our own foolishness for wanting to join the profession, I don’t personally know any library student who hasn’t gotten a dose of negativity from a librarian at least once.

I’m not talking about the kind of criticism that produces discussion and debate, or reflection on the many challenges and problems that we as a profession currently face. That’s valid and necessary. What I’m talking about is the personal negativity that has little to do with librarianship as a whole, and more to do with where you personally, little library student, are going wrong.

An example: a friend of mine who’s entering her first term of library school this week has spent the summer volunteering at a public library branch which, coincidentally, is managed by a family acquaintance who has taken a bit of personal interest in her library ambitions. Unfortunately, this interest has taken the form of repeatedly expressing disapproval of my friend’s choice to enter library school, telling her that it’s a bad decision.

I have to give this librarian the benefit of the doubt and assume that what she means is that librarianship is a tough field these days, and that my friend would find better prospects elsewhere. Which, in turn, is just an oblique reference to a whole host of other issues and problems that librarians face, none of which have anything to do with whether librarianship is a good choice for this one person in particular. But rather than talk to my friend about how she might approach these issues in her own career, all this librarian says is “you shouldn’t do it.” Which ultimately isn’t helpful for anybody.

So what should we do when we run into one of these pessimists? My favorite solution: counter their pessimism by getting them to talk about the things that make them feel optimistic. Not terribly long ago, I saw Hack Library School alum Turner Masland ask a question during a conference panel that had gotten seriously mired in pessimism. After a whole round of discussion about  a number of intractable problems that we face, Turner got the microphone and asked, “What makes you feel hopeful for the future of librarianship?” And that question led to some statements of real optimism, and ended the whole conference on a positive note.

That’s a powerful way to turn a negative exchange around. When you encounter a librarian who seems stuck in all the things they perceive as wrong and difficult about their jobs and the field as a whole, ask them what makes them feel hopeful. They might have to think for a minute before they answer, but you might both leave the exchange feeling better. And if they really can’t think of anything that gives them hope for the future of librarianship? Well, at least you know who to avoid in the future.

Have you ever received a dose of negativity from a librarian? How did you handle it?

Categories: Honesty

17 replies

  1. Thanks for writing this! I am starting my first semester in a couple of weeks and truly feel that one of the biggest obstacles in starting a Master’s program is overcoming a sense of inadequacy and gaining confidence in the path we are passionate about… especially when so many libraries tell us we are entering into a “dying breed.” Thanks for sending some hopeful and optimistic words!


  2. This is the main reason I left many of the library groups I had joined on LinkedIn. It seemed as if every other response by a seasoned librarian was to tell the student or novice librarian that they were stupid and presumptuous for choosing the field, they’d never find a job, and they weren’t wanted or needed. It was appalling the amount of negativity and frankly childishness that these responses included. I was shocked to see that type of behavior from professional adults. I hope they weren’t treating the patrons that way!

    I expect, for some of them at least, this negativity is just a result of their own insecurities and fears for the future of librarianship. However, by pushing away students and newer librarians, they’re losing an entire generation of allies.


    • “I expect, for some of them at least, this negativity is just a result of their own insecurities and fears for the future of librarianship.

      You hit the nail on the head, Kim. Many older librarians are scared that they are not able to keep up with the changes. It would be so easy to learn the new skills, but they’d rather just be scared and take it out on us new folks.


  3. When I first started exploring the option of going to library school, I got great encouragement from a university librarian. She was positively giddy at the prospect of me joining the field she loved. She was truly the reason I applied for school and will start in the fall.
    But then I started volunteering at a public library and was mostly met with scorn and sarcasm when I mentioned I would be starting my MLS in the fall. It was so shocking to me that I almost quit volunteering altogether. But I know being in libraries is the best way to learn about librarianship, so I’m sticking to it.
    These negative nellies, who probably think they are doing some sort of good with their criticisms, do a disservice to the field when they don’t support those who will have to carry the torch in the future.


  4. Thanks for this positive post.
    The boss in my first professional post was a negative nelly, and I have found it difficult not to get bogged down in that attitude on many occasions in my day to day work since I am the only librarian in my organisation. The wider librarianship community is great to allow us to vent at times, but it can better serve to come up with and share constructive, positive ideas for change.
    Yes, we face challenges in our profession (and I don’t think we are unique in that), but it is only through positivity and enthusiastic contributors to our profession that these challenges can be creatively managed and overcome.


  5. Unfortunately, every single one of my paraprofessional-level interviews turned negative when my interviewers found out I want to make librarianship a career, not just a job. I don’t know how to turn that positive when that is the attitude oaf entire metro area.


  6. Back in the early 1990’s, while working as a paraprofessional in a large mid-western public university library system, I faced a great deal of negativity for quite a while. My paraprofessional coworkers, for the most part, thought librarians were bad, lazy, evil, divisive people and “why would I want to be like them?” When one of the reference librarians found out I was applying to library school, she told me they had received fifty applications for their last reference posting, and from looking at those applications, I would never qualify to be one of them. The student assistants would just laugh when I shared by career goals. I used to tell these folks, hey, if you think of a different career I might be good at, please suggest it. None did.

    I am now a mid-career tenured librarian (associate professor) at a slightly smaller mid-western university library. I also teach part-time in the library school. Because of my own experiences, I vowed long ago to be positive and encouraging when working with potential and current library science students. However, I do think it’s important to share realistic information about the job market. I advise each of them to try to find a way to gain an edge…a unique on-the-job experience or skill or extra degree or certificate.


  7. When I was applying to library school in late 2005, I was on a mailing list for new and prospective librarians. There was one list member in particular who was having serious trouble finding and keeping a job, and who had decided their problem was the result of too much competition from other librarians, and who complained about it endlessly. Over the summer of 2006, this person quite seriously proposed to the list that they start a letter writing campaign to students slated to start library school that fall, encouraging them to choose another field.

    I had figured out LIS was my calling after being miserably stuck in the wrong career for half a decade, and because I was starting my degree that summer, I was deeply offended by this proposal. Who was this person, to tell me I shouldn’t pursue my calling? I also made a mental note that if I were to ever work somewhere this person applied, to recommend against hiring them. I can’t imagine that someone with this attitude would be someone I would want to work with.

    I ended up eventually leaving the list, largely because of this person. It was clear that this person was very negative, and it seemed likely that this negativity had a role in their problems finding a job. This person also had an exceptionally narrow view of what one could do with a library degree, which probably added to their sense of the threat of competition, and which I imagine is true of many of the profession’s negative members. Conversely, I knew from the start that I wanted to do something nontraditional, like being an independent information pro or a corporate librarian, which didn’t seem to be within the imagination of the list’s negative nelly.

    Today, I design semantic web ontologies for a software development firm, a lucrative job that I would not be qualified for were it not for my library degree (and my engineering degree, to be fair). It’s also likely a job that didn’t even exist when I started working on my library degree. (it definitely didn’t exist when i finished my engineering degree in 1999!) It takes a true lack of imagination and optimism to effectively discourage people from pursuing the jobs of the future that don’t even exist yet.

    I hadn’t thought about it before I read this post, but I think this all happened because I was hopeful about where my LIS degree would take me, and I was hopeful about the demand for LIS skills outside of libraries. This makes me wonder where this negative nelly is today, and what their reaction would be to the path I’ve taken. I must admit it would feel nice to show them how wrong they were.

    Thank you so much for writing this post, hopefully we can spread the hopefulness.


  8. Let me begin by saying: I agree! Negativity gets us nowhere.

    That said. I live in a major metropolitan area with an LIS degree-granting institution (from which I received my degree in ’08), work in close geographic proximity to this institution, and keep active with it through alumni board service. So, I am in pretty frequent contact with current LIS students and recent graduates. I see a LOT of people (roughly half. seriously.) moving through this program who should never have gone to library school, and every year they saturate an already-tight job market. As someone who is now on the hiring end of this market, I find the number of applicants with zero library experience before or during their graduate programs astonishing.

    Yes, absolutely, there are many students and recent grads who made the most of their LIS experiences and are going to be fantastic additions to this profession. But as schools that grant library degrees continue to see their LIS grad programs as revenue-generating machines, and as a result continue to admit upwards of 90% of applicants (this is based on numbers from my local institution, but it can’t be much different from others), the ill-prepared and ill-suited MLS-holders will continue to exist.

    I’m sure this isn’t news to anyone currently working on a library degree. I’m just offering an insider’s perspective on one possible source of the “don’t go to library school” mantra. I myself have said these words to a recent college grad who wanted to get her MLIS so that she could “have a job where I can wear cute clothes and read books all day and not have to talk to anyone.” My further advice to her was: educate yourself about what librarians *actually* do, volunteer in an *actual* library, consider that you may go into scary debt for a job that will pay you a medium-low salary for many many years, and THEN decide if library school matches your career goals, such as they are.


  9. I think you will find that a lot of the negative types are just generally negative – not just to new professionals but to life in general.
    Love your ideas of turning the negativity on the head though.

    I’m in the position of being both a new professional and an older librarian (career break when the kids were small, then a masters by distance learning afterwards). I am however very happy with ‘new’ technology, quite happy to write a website, program, engage in social media etc etc. I love changes and the challenges of learning new skills. Not everyone in life is so confident about doing so however, and most of us hate to admit to not understanding something that everyone else seems to think is obvious or easy – noone likes to be made to feel small.

    Maybe part of the answer is to ask those scared of what the future may hold what would ease their anxiety – how we as new professionals can help – i.e. what we can offer them … making it more of a two-way partnership rather than a ‘them and us’ situation? As regards changes, helping older professionals understand them in a way that they don’t feel belittled can work wonders (I think it can be very easy to unintentionally come across as ‘this is the new way – your way is out of date” which is guaranteed to make them bristle, just as much as it would make a new professional bristle to be told that there way is worthless.
    Both groups have so much they could learn from each other – the new professional from their older colleagues and their experience and the older colleagues from the new professionals – it saddens me to see so much ‘them and us’ creeping into the profession from BOTH groups – lets hope all of us can rise above it.


  10. Thanks for this reminder to some of us “old guard” that we need to be more encouraging of our successors. Because if we aren’t there may not be a library profession around much longer and then where will any of us be?


  11. Imagine my surprise when I got the negativity from one of my PROFESSORS! He spent an hour during one of our classes telling us we were never going to find jobs and in ten years there wouldn’t even be libraries so we were wasting our time and money getting the degree. I know I have a difficult road ahead of myself… likely more so than many others as I currently work full time in a non related field and will graduate soon without any library experience. It did make me question why I was bothering though… and one of the other students did withdraw from the program. He is no longer teaching, but I do think he caused a lot of damage during the time he was there. Since then, I realized that, despite my lack of library based experience, I do have other opportunities, mainly the one where when I graduate, I won’t be forced to search for a job right away, as I already have one. I can then volunteer and get the needed experience and try things out… I am getting the degree because I love the classes… love the information. It is for me. Not for the end result but for the journey.


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