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Librarians need bigger egos

May 8, 2013

Obviously, not all of them.  Some of us have big enough egos and need to tone things down a notch.  I’m not talking about the big egos and so-called “rock star librarians,” but the egos of regular working librarians.

In a 2008 article in Library Journal, Casey and Stephens argue that egos are bad for libraries:

The ego, we concluded, can be a very damaging thing. Inflated. Overbearing. Egos create rules for rules’ sake. Egos complicate procedures and keep good people down. Egos squash good ideas and can take the best of an organization and turn it on itself.

But they really refer to over-inflated egos.  I argue that a healthy, reasonable ego is a good thing. For all of us. Perhaps this is semantics: since the word ego has some pretty negative connotations, maybe I really mean to suggest that librarians need more professional self-confidence or self-esteem.

Because librarians are smart. Damned smart. They are talented, knowledgable, hardworking and willing to go out their way to help others out. If you want to find something out or get something done you should definitely ask a librarian.

But I’ve seen colleagues acquiesce without any discussion to poorly thought out faculty demands regarding library instruction. I’ve seen librarians sit quietly through meetings with bosses or administrators and then provide intelligent, thoughtful criticism after the meeting when the boss isn’t listening.  I’ve heard colleagues at conferences complain about faculty not including them in learning management systems and I find out that they never asked.

What contributes to this quietness, this passivity, this inability to assert ourselves even in the areas of our expertise?

Is it gender? Over 80% of librarians are female, and workplace gender dynamics might come into play.  I’m certainly no expert on this topic, but books like Nice Girls Never Get the Corner Office and Lean In seem to suggest that women need to be more assertive at work and stop confusing “being nice” with asking questions and stating opinions. NPR has an interesting new series called the Changing Lives of Women. As a part of that series, they have created a tumblr project called She Works: Notes to Self encouraging women to share their slogans, affirmations and advice. Many of submitted slogans encourage women to speak up, “Sit at the table and speak up,” and “Don’t be shy. Promote your accomplishments.”  But there are also of slogans encouraging women to be nice or be quiet, “Smile on the outside, tell them off on the inside” or “Work hard and be nice to people,” advice that I’d bet wouldn’t be posted a similar site geared to men.

Sit at the table and speak up

Is it education?  Although librarians often have faculty status, we most often do not have PhDs like most of the rest of the faculty. I routinely call professors by their first name since we are colleagues and that’s what colleagues do these days.  But other librarians routinely call professors “Professor Smith” even when the professor uses the librarian’s first name.  Are librarians intimidated by the title or the degree? Are some folks less likely to state opposing opinions or ask challenging questions?

Is it the library’s place within the institution?  Although we are often faculty, we are different than classroom faculty. No matter how robust our library instruction programs, we sit outside of the classroom and teacher model that serves as the core of most high education institutions. And in a digital world, some faculty start to question the ongoing relevance of the brick-and-mortar library.  Are we stymied by our kind-of-outsider status?

I don’t know what the answer is.  But I’ve met and spoken with lots of librarians, and I know what they are capable of.  They are amazing, articulate professionals with a deep understanding of how folks search for information and the knowledge of what kinds of information is out there. We know about scholarly publishing, instructional design, data resources, pedagogy and a gazillion other things.

Let’s dust off those egos. Let’s make sure other folks know our strengths. Let’s stand up for our accomplishments.

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2 Comments
  1. One of my favorite books – Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman.

    Written on a post it in my office, “Stride into the room, sit down, and look large.”

  2. An observant reader pointed out this book to me via email: The Assertive Librarian, from 1984.

    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/10727384

    It seems librarians have been struggling with these issues for a while.

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