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?