How Do You Know When It’s Time?

I’ve long been fascinated by the question: How do you know when it’s time to move on?

For example, my dad spent over 20 years—my entire childhood and into my college years—working at a state university. When he decided to leave, I asked him how he knew it was the right time. There were several factors at play but mostly, he said, it was because he didn’t feel like there was anything new to learn there. Every year, there had been something new to do, something new to learn: a new position, a new committee or task force of some kind, a new challenge. But after 20+ years, he’d gone as far in the organization as he could go. There was nothing new.

I thought about this when I made the decision to leave theater. I’d gone to college with the goal of working professionally in theater in a big city. I did that for over a decade. But I knew when it was time to stop. There were several factors at play—the manual labor of tech work was taking a toll on my body, nonunion freelance work meant I had no health insurance or retirement plan—but mostly it was because I’d reached a point where I needed to take the next step on the career ladder, and move up into technical director and production management roles. But I didn’t want to. In truth, I was a few years past the point when I should have made this transition but those jobs had no appeal for me. In part, it was because TDs and PMs don’t typically run shows, and running shows was what I loved. But if I’m honest… The thought of taking on that much responsibility, the idea of being in charge, filled me with dread.

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Onward & Upward

I’ve written three posts over the past few weeks exploring lessons I’ve learned about customer service through a variety of past jobs and experiences, as well as from my more recent years as a public librarian. I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking back over my working life and mining it for all the wisdom I can.

There’s a reason for this retrospection:

On June 11th, I begin a new job. I’m leaving the Kansas City Public Library—today is my last day, actually.

I’ve accepted a position with the Johnson County Library system in Johnson County, Kansas (the Kansas side of the KC metro area). I’ll be the Branch Manager for three of their locations: Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill.

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Experience & Context

Some years ago, when I was still doing theater work in Chicago, I had gotten off a job late one night and found myself craving a pint of ice cream. So I stopped by a corner market on my way home. Another gentleman—a complete stranger to me—arrived at the same time I did. We approached the door just in time to see the proprietor throw the lock and change the sign to “Closed”. He shrugged at us, pointed to the sign listing the store’s hours, and walked off.

I was disappointed and somewhat miffed. The other guy proceeded to throw a spectacular tantrum.

I stood there nonplussed, unsure what to do. Once this strange man had stopped yelling and stomping around, I asked him, “Are you OK?” (Inane question, I know—clearly he wasn’t—but it was late and I was tired and hungry.)

He proceeded to tell me a Tale of Woe for the Ages. All about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, very bad week, very bad month. Everything that could go wrong in this guy’s life had gone wrong. All he wanted now was some potato chips—crunchy bites of salty comfort. Is that too much to ask?

So I took him to a local bar and bought him a beer.

He apologized for making such a scene. He knew it was a ridiculous overreaction. I assured him I totally understood. And I did understand: for me, having the door locked in my face was annoying. For him, it was ONE MORE THING in a long line of crappy things that had happened to him lately.

For him, it was the one thing too many.

This experience taught me something important:

Context matters.

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Some Thoughts on Libraries & Neutrality

At the 2018 Midwinter Conference of the American Library Association, the President’s Program was a panel discussion titled, “Are Libraries Neutral? Have They Ever Been? Should They Be?” There were debaters and commentators assigned to represent both sides of the argument. This debate inspired a vigorous parallel discussion among librarians and library professionals on Twitter.

I approach the issue of library neutrality from two different directions: ideology and pragmatism. Let’s start with ideology.

When we talk about neutral library spaces and services, we talk about being a place where everyone is welcome, where all views are represented, where everyone has the freedom to make their voices heard and have their needs met. As James LaRue stated for the pro side of the debate: “Everyone gets a seat at the table.”

I passionately agree with Mr. LaRue on this point: libraries should be spaces where everyone gets a seat at the table.

But these words don’t describe neutrality—they describe equality. They envision a space where everyone is equal in access, representation, voice.

The world we all live and serve in is not equal.

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Inherent Bias in Classification Systems

December 10th is Dewey Decimal System Day. Maybe it’s only librarians who care much about it but to us it’s a big deal.

The entire history of our profession has been a quest to organize information. Sometimes organizational schemas were focused on preserving resources, on merely keeping a list of a collection’s holding, and sometimes systems were intended to restrict access. Indeed, for most of our history, knowledge institutions were exclusive and exclusionary.

But beginning with the birth of public libraries in the 1800s, we conceived the idea that knowledge should be accessible for the betterment of all people. The challenge was—and continues to be—to find ways to accomplish this goal through practical application in real-world situations, in day-to-day activities.

Melvil Dewey’s system was a massive paradigm shift. It seems like such an esoteric thing to celebrate but realize this: before Dewey’s organizational scheme, there existed no universal method for organizing collections of materials, and too many systems were obscure and overly complicated, to the point where people were often discouraged from attempting to access them.

Dewey created a system that anyone could understand and use. For the first time, people could walk into a library and find what they wanted on the shelf, or explore the catalog, without the mediation of a specialist. In a real sense, the Dewey system effectively transferred our collections of knowledge out of the hands of specialists and into the hands of the general populace. *

Still, for all my appreciation and admiration of Dewey’s achievement, when a coworker asked if I wanted to participate in Dewey Day activities at my library, my response was this:

“I have no interest in celebrating the Dewey system. It’s an archaic monument to Western superiority and colonial oppression which obscures the diversity of human cultures and silences diverse voices.”

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How Can Libraries Compete with Amazon?

I’m so bored by this question. Let’s talk instead about some things Amazon can’t do:

  • Amazon can’t be part of a community.
  • Amazon can’t build meaningful, multifaceted relationships with people at a local level.
  • Amazon can’t provide communal space.
  • Amazon can’t provide boots-on-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line community services.
  • Amazon can’t provide anything beyond purely commercial transactions.
  • Amazon can’t be assumed to care about the common good.
  • Amazon can’t build trust with people.

Libraries do all these things. Libraries do so much more than these things. All without ever advertising to you, without leveraging your needs for commercial gain.

Amazon values monetization. Libraries value people.

Can libraries compete with Amazon? This isn’t a legitimate question. If you think Amazon is competition for libraries, then you fundamentally don’t understand what libraries do.

The truth is this:

Amazon can’t compete with us.

This Is Why I Love Libraries

In my post about hatred the other day, I mentioned my life motto: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” (In the Latin, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”)

And all at once it strikes me—this is why I have always loved libraries.

Libraries give me access to the full depth and breadth of humanity. All of our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our fears, our creativity and cultures, our histories, our plethora of worldviews and philosophies and beliefs.

All our stories.

I can access all of this through my library. If my library doesn’t have it on the shelf, they can find it and get it for me.

Libraries are where I go to learn how to be human, in all our myriad aspects.