One of my favorite moments of library school was when Stephanie Willen Brown returned from a conference (I no longer recall which one) and in her recap of the sessions she attended said that “librarians express affection through information.” I blurted out “can you call my mom and tell her that?” It was a funny moment of both personal and professional revelation for me. That undeniable impulse to smother the people we care about in information seems to be a common thread through the variety of librarian personalities and experiences.
Throughout my time in libraries, my colleagues have frequently observed (usually of homeless patrons) that we are probably the only people to be nice to many of the patrons who approach us. It can feel a little self-congratulatory as a topic of discussion amongst middle-class librarians who work with impoverished kids, homeless folks and people struggling to get by. Nevertheless, it is likely true. Increasingly, I think it’s true across the spectrum- we may be the only genuinely kind person many of our patrons, regardless of socio-economic status, encounter all day.
My whiteboard, while not very glamorous, has a list of everything my department does in a given month. Above all of those things (and there are quite a lot), we have scrawled “MAINTAIN GENUINENESS.” I know that for all of us, the need to share and give away information is fundamental to who we are. We can’t not do this. Of course, we go to workshops and take classes and bring in speakers to keep our skills sharp, but the thing that brings us to work every morning is that need to share information. If we are genuine, it shines through to our patrons and each other.
So, what of the affection we are expressing through information? In our personal lives, how many of us have greeted a friend or loved one in crisis with a stack of articles or a barrage of emails with links to websites they might find helpful? Are you soothed by researching the things that worry you? You might be a librarian! At work, we are caring for our community in our own quirky way. I have yet to meet a librarian who has not chased after a departing stranger with one more article that would really really help.
Jenny Engstrom frequently talks about kindness as a lifestyle and the notion lodged itself in my mind. It dovetails nicely with my recreational interest in Buddhism, but I am increasingly convinced that kindness is an important part of librarianship. I am not suggesting that we are nice in lieu of being accurate or actually helpful (surely, we have all encountered nice but useless assistance at most service organizations. It is maddening.)
At Computers in Libraries, I closed my portion of Darien Library’s presentation by saying that “kindness is our chief export.” Of course, information is sort of important too, but I think for many of us, the two are irrevocably intertwined. This is how we know how to help people. Without the kindness, we lose much of our value to our community. When I am in need of a break from public facing time, I often say that I am “out of nice” for the day. I’m not out of the ability to find information, but on its own, it doesn’t do much for my organization or our users.
And what of kindness to each other? When we step back to look at the big picture of libraryland, do we forget the incredible amount of effort put forth by legions of dedicated library workers? Are we forgetting to encourage each other’s hearts? Darien Library has seen a huge number of librarians come through lately. Granted, they are a self-selecting group, but they are all people with the right intentions.
Intentions are too frequently overlooked. When we photograph bad signage or criticize seemingly outdated policies, are we encouraging self-awareness amongst librarians? I think that is the intention- to encourage discussion and to work together to figure out how to best serve our patrons, but it’s easy to slide into finger-pointing without looking at motivation. We’re all going to have bad policies or make foolish decisions at some point, but our intentions have to count somewhere. The tremendous amount of hard work and huge number of good hearts on the front lines of every library in the world have to count.
John’s, Cindi’s and Kathryn’s Darien Statements are remarkable for many reasons, but I keep coming back to how positive they are. Even if you don’t know the three of them, it is so clear how much they care about libraries, librarians and library users. They’ve left room for those of us on the front lines with good intentions to stumble without fear we’ll be dunned for it, while asking us to push ourselves and our organizations forward with all our might.
Personally, I am thankful to work with extraordinary people who push forward every day. They don’t have blogs and they don’t get to tell you how great they are at conferences, but they walk into the library every day and they are kind and they work hard and they do good things.