Early in my career, my colleagues would frequently refer to me as “the guy who wears the bow tie.” It infuriated me. “Seriously,” I would say to myself, “is that the only thing you can say about me? What about all this great librarian work I’m doing?” This of course led me to question my own abilities: “Damn, maybe my work isn’t that great after all?” There was a long spell of a few years when I refused to wear a bow tie except when a tie was required, which in Southern California is a rare event. I even tried to give it up altogether in my last position, but by that point the badge was so integrated into my professional identity that not wearing a bow tie always elicited awkward comments and questions.

This is why Dani B. Cook’s latest post at the Rule Number One blog speaks to me:

“Baking is just one example, but what other parts of ourselves do we have to deny in order to be taken seriously in the workplace? Is it worth it? What does it mean to elide parts of yourself so that you aren’t just described as “the girl who bakes”? At what point does my work speak for itself and I don’t have to worry about this anymore?”

I don’t want to suggest that my experience as a cis-gendered male equates with the gendering that often occurs to women in the library work space. However, I can relate to the frustration of loving something and feeling that that love needs to be suppressed for the purpose of advancing my career. Thankfully, I am in a place now where I feel both my professional capabilities and my personal passions can merge seamlessly into a unified identify. Bring on the bow ties!


This weekend, the California Library Association’s Student Interest Group sponsored a collaborative, informal workshop on professional development. The event was headed up by Young Lee and I served as one of the panelists along with Cynthia, Mary, and Allison. We spent a good amount of time talking about networking and getting the most out of professional organizations so I thought I would share some of what we discussed. Here is a brief slideshow (with storm troopers).* Main points and bullets below.

1. Join digital communities. Great way to keep up with the latest discourse and trends. Also a way to introduce yourself to others in field and begin building relationship that can flourish IRL. Specific communities mentioned included: ALA ThinkTank, active listservs, and #libchat on Twitter.

2. Give away your time for free. We didn’t get into this profession for the money. Your best work will often be “off the clock” (cf. the invisible college). Develop your reputation as a willing leader and dependable colleague.

3. Build something. Eventually, you want to be know for what you can ship. Thankfully, we live in a startup-friendly culture that encourages fast prototyping and beta stages. Be willing to fail, but also be willing to put as much out there as you can until something sticks. You are what you make.

4. Build you own community. Determine what your own interests are and build communities around them (cloning yourself helps). Leverage the low cost of digital technologies to bring interested parties together to work on #3 above.

5. Limit yourself. It easy to spread yourself thin in our profession. Limit the number of professional organizations you work with so that you have the time and attention to dive into the nitty-gritty of each. Also, consider alternating the perspective from which you interact with the organization: top-down vs. bottom-up, e.g. get involved with the leadership of one organization and the ground work of another.


*Ok, so actually this was a presentation I prepared but didn’t have the chance to present. But these slides were too much fun to just cast aside so I hope you enjoy them.

I’ve been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. In one chapter, he describes the campus layout of Pixar Animation Studios up north of Oakland. At the center of the facility is a vast, open space that Lehrer calls “the atrium.” It’s a place where employees come together on their way to coffee/lunch/bar/bathroom. Having the atrium (and all the connecting facilities) centrally located within the Pixar campus, employees encounter each other unexpectedly and often. As a result, these serendipitous encounters more often than not lead to creative thought and  innovative conversations (in other words, solutions).

The concept behind the atrium is related to the idea of “third space”: that place which is neither work nor home, but fluid, interactive, and energized (also, usually fueled by caffeine and alcohol; cf. the coffeehouses of France and the pubs of England in the eighteenth century). Lehrer cites the research of Tom Allen, professor of organization studies at MIT, who discovered that the highest-performing employees in an organization (i.e. “those with the most useful new ideas”) where those that had the most interactions with colleagues. Lehrer concludes:

This suggests that the most important place in every office is not the boardroom, or the lab, or the library. It’s the coffee machine.

As librarians, we know this. We’ve been talking for years about the importance of creating “third spaces,” especially in the form of Information Commons that inspire collaboration and help our users to seamlessly interact with information, technology, and each other.

But what about the librarians? Where are our third spaces?

I work for university library system that includes 14 distinct library buildings. Like many multi-branch university libraries, the division of our collections mirrors the academic structure of the university (e.g. the science library, the music library) and the needs of the collection (e.g. rare books, low-use materials, high-use materials). Accordingly, our staffing structure is predominantly based on these divisions, with some overlap for services like library IT and instruction.

Our collections (and the buildings that house them) are not going anywhere anytime soon. So where is our atrium? Where can we have the type of serendipitous run-ins that Pixar Studios has managed to facilitate? It takes me 15 minutes to walk to the closest branch from my library. I don’t exactly have the time to constantly be traveling across campus.

Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. I’ve been wondering how it might be possible in a multi-branch system to get librarians to bump into each other on a daily basis with the intent that conversations will happen, ideas will get out into the open, and the organization can begin to transform itself into a more nimble, vibrant entity.

Here are a few suggestions:


1) Create a Virtual Water Cooler

Librarians spend much of their time in front of a computer. But despite how easy it is to have conversations online, most employees only communicate via email. Why not create an always-open virtual space for library employees similar to IRC chat, the online classroom, or a Facebook group? Furthermore, encourage employees to stay logged in as long as their “on the clock.” All conversation would be public and open to anyone who wanted to join in. Librarians could use the virtual space to ask for help, share news, invite colleagues to events, throw out ideas, or just shoot the breeze.

2) Schedule Weekly Mobile Coffee-Breaks

Every week, one library branch sponsors a coffee break and invites all librarians to attend. The cost of coffee is minimal and if there is a concern about desk coverage, well, then have the coffee set up at the reference desk. Who knows: you may even have some students join the conversation.

3) Start a Lunch-n-Learn Series

One a month, sponsor a 1-hour bring-your-own lunch event that allows librarians to share their experiences and ideas with their colleagues. This could be set up as a formal lecture or a round-table discussion. We recently started this at MPOW and it has been a huge success.

4) Break Down Those Cubicle/Office Walls

While I recognize the need for private meetings spaces, the structure of many offices makes it too easy for librarians to huddle in their offices/cubicles. Let’s take a cue from other creative industries (this and this and this and this) and open up our work spaces to light and conversation.


What you can do as individual librarians:


1) Take it outside

As a rule, I never eat lunch at my desk. If I have to work while I eat, I either take my laptop with me or print out what I need. Nine times out of ten, I’ll run into someone I work with and start having a conversation. This usually turns out to be more beneficial than working through my lunch. 😉

2) Make house calls

Once a week, visit a different colleague. Maybe there is someone you haven’t seen in a few days (weeks?). Maybe you heard that a colleague won an award or published a paper. Stop by just to say congrats. At worst, you’ll just be “that really nice guy who always stops by.”

3) Attend university events

Go listen to a lecture. Watch the marching band perform. Check out the unveiling of the new statue on campus. You never know who you might run into!


I could go on, but I want to hear from you, dear reader…

What do you do as a librarian to create spaces for conversation within your institutions? What barriers have you encountered?

I want to see more librarians on pedestals. I want to see them holding trophies, making speeches, and talking about their work on a global stage. I want the world to see the work we do and be glad we’re here.

There have been a number of grassroots initiatives to increase our visibility and highlight our skills. PC Sweeney created the Great Librarian Write-Out, which offers a cash incentive to librarians who write articles for non-librarian publications. Jenny Levine formed Library Boing-Boing, an effort to bring together librarians and the readers of the popular BB site to raise interest in libraries. Bill Pardue organized Slam the Boards, a monthly event (and habit) that organizes librarians to answer questions on sites like AskMetafilter and Yahoo Answers.

To add to this, I want to see individuals in the spotlight. I’ve written about this before in the context of academia. The goal is to change the way the world sees librarians through individual personalities: human platforms, if you like. To that end, I’m offering you a challenge:

Choose 1 colleague and nominate him/her for an award.

That means:

  1. Pick a colleague who you think ought to be recognized for their work.
  2. Find an appropriate award (see below).
  3. Start the application process.

You may need to get additional information from your nominee in order to fill out the application, but take it upon yourself to do the brunt of the work. This is your gift to them. It can be anonymous, if you like, but letting that person know how much you admire them and what they do rarely has ill effects.

As to choosing an award, here are some recommendations:

Local awards: Take a look at your community. What awards are handed out annually within your unit, your organization, or your city?

Regional awards: This includes state, national, and international awards. Look at your professional organizations, state agencies, federal agencies, consortia, etc.

Awards outside the profession: Don’t limit your search to organizations for librarians. In fact, the ultimate goal of my challenge is to raise awareness of the work librarians do so reaching beyond the profession is almost a requirement. Look at teaching organizations, technology groups, research foundations, non-profits, alumni associations, historical societies, private institutions, etc.

Bonus Level: Create your own award and recommend that a colleague be recognized for their work. This is actually much easier than it sounds as long as you contact the right administrator (i.e. one who has the time and attention to take your request with gravity). Or if you are an administrator: well, what’s stopping you?

So again, I challenge you to nominate 1 colleague for an award. Pledge yourself to do this before the end of the year. A simple goal, but one with benefits in spades for your colleague (recognition), for you (feel good), and for the profession (change the way the world sees us).

Go out into the world, dear reader, and spread the word.