ASSOCIATES (vol. 9, no. 1, July 2002) -


I came to the library profession in much the usual way: through nepotism. In an effort to minimize the sibling warfare that all the free time available during summer break inevitably escalated into Agent Orange tactics, my mother let me know there were student job postings in her library system. As it happened, the pay was better and the work less trying to the soul than working at a fast food restaurant or being locked in my room for a month.

My first library job was an enlightening experience. I learned I couldn't be on time for love or money, although, like grenades, I could be close enough. I learned that although I was a precise and conscientious shelver, I was also slow, so I would have to use my brains rather than my brawn to get ahead in life. And I learned that a person could nurture a grudge against me for just such trivial flaws, to the point of lying to Human Resources about my work ethic, which -- truth be told -- was sincere to the point of touching naivety.

It was certainly not because of a Higher Calling to the Library Profession that I now sit, a fully functional Library Technician. Don't get me wrong: I subscribe to the usual beliefs about universal access to information, freedom of expression, and other fine ideals as put forth by the American Library Association, even though I, as a Canadian, take all of it with a certain sardonic lift of the eyebrow and a pinch of salt. I admit to feeling a little frisson of excitement if I enter the doors of even the most dilapidated library. I have the typical library worker's eclectic -- some would say smorgasbord-like -- approach to learning. ("Have a little of that nineteenth century Turkish pottery, dear. It's really delish!") But having in some fashion inherited the calling, I don't need to buy it wholesale.

Last year I played "Spot the Librarian" in San Francisco during ALA. It was appallingly easy. I got the image -- however inaccurate -- of legions of white, upper-middle-class, introverted, de-sexed, sensibly dressed women with an earnest desire to please everyone: the Vestal Virgins of our time.

Frankly, it made me want to deny my whole profession. Moreover, since I resemble this image fairly closely, it made me want to take up hobbies like excessive drinking, exposing more skin than is strictly necessary, and doing things on tables other than eating, just to stem the tide of WASPish niceness. Now I knew why my boss had taken up Salsa dancing with a passion close to obsession.

Along with this earnest desire to please come the interminable meetings and discussions about inclusivity and fairness about practically everything, while actually doing little about it. I have come to realize that though a little democracy goes a long way, a lot of democracy will never get us there, especially in a library.

Part of being a professional is risking being unpopular in doing your job properly, whether you're making a decision about a service, running a meeting properly, promoting full access to the Internet for teenagers in the teeth of calls for filtering and cries about pornography, or writing a guest editorial. (Unpopular, I must emphasize, not unpleasant. Some people don't understand the distinction.)

Now some of you may be wondering, why am I talking about professionalism and being unpopular? Because I have come to the conclusion that being a professional when you're a library support staff worker is like becoming an adult: you have to take it, and own it, and assume it, and laugh at it. No one is going to give it to you for being a good little library worker. In fact, the opposite is true. And the worst enemy to becoming a professional is inside your own head.

I recently chaired the first-ever post-secondary support staff conference in British Columbia. That's as in, First, and also as in, Ever. The committee consisted of twenty or so people -- mostly support staff -- from five different institutions, which only had six months before the conference to get things done. On the whole, they got things done, and well enough so that we received a 99% rating of "very good" or "excellent" from our delegate evaluations, and had forty people volunteer for next year's committee. By all accounts it was a roaring success.

Why am I telling you this? Because I have to confess: I was faking it. I had found out about a good idea (some would say I had a vision but I leave that to saints and shamans) and I wanted passionately to see it become reality. But in order to do that, I had to grow up. I had to become a professional. And I went kicking and screaming.

I had to be organized, for others if not for myself. I had to be tough in meetings so that the work got assigned and people got heard. I had to let the committee "go do" without me handholding anyone, and I had to have faith that my people would find out what needed to be done and do it. I had to communicate often with the "powers that be" even though I am a naturally shy person. I had to take responsibility, recognize good work, and if necessary apologize promptly. I had to project a sense of ease and confidence.

I think I did it well, even though the voice inside my own head was saying, "You're just a support staff worker: They won't take you seriously."

We buy into this message so easily, don't we? It means being small: inoffensive, unthreatening, and just slightly ineffectual; or self-effacing; or detached, or critical; perhaps even cynical or vicious. I believe it to have its roots in the traditional female role model. It is a disturbing mindset, and one all too common in the library field, among library workers.

Aren't you tempted, just once, to say: "Yes, it's appalling the pornography sites that some of our patrons access. We need to refer them to better ones. Can you do a web search?" Or perhaps use a little irony to get your point across as in, "Yes, I agree. I think free speech should be reserved for those people able to afford a lawyer." Or when one of your coworkers is in a snit about something a colleague said, say with a hint of humour, "I'm glad *you* got something out of the meeting. I couldn't believe I missed Oprah for this."

I propose an alternate role model: we need to get uppity.

We need to expect to be treated seriously and given responsibility and autonomy as colleagues and professionals, and gently ignore or distance those who cannot accept this, or who try to micromanage us, or who treat us as not-quite-fully functioning adults.

We need to be allowed to make mistakes when we are given responsibilities, and then the chance to mend them ourselves.

We should neither apologize for our profession's principles nor the compromises we have to make that fall short of these principles. We should learn to communicate and sympathize with the complexity of the issues behind them, as the best lawyers, shop stewards and teachers do.

We need to "go do" the good ideas we are passionate about and make them a reality. We shouldn't let where we stand in the library, organizational hierarchy, or community dampen our passion. We should definitely not let what others think of us discourage our efforts.

And most of all, we shouldn't take the Higher Calling to the Library Profession too seriously. We'd have better parties, and possibly also better wages, without it.

Sylvia Skene
Library Technician
Advanced Education Media Acquisitions Centre
Langara College, Vancouver, BC Canada

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