Sorting out why

If you’ve been to library school, you can probably articulate why you went in a sentence or two, though admissions offices make you turn that nice concise statement into an entire essay. It’s not entirely sadism; part of the reason for that essay is that it strengthens (or may even create) your commitment to learning. Learners who know why they’re in class and what they want out of it are easier to motivate, more open-minded—just plain better learners.

As you read this section, make a note of what applies to you, along with any details specific to your situation. (I can only write in generalities; the specifics of your situation are for you to explain.) When you’re done, take a few minutes to write down any motivations you hold that I missed. Hold on to your list, and reread it to renew your commitment to learning when you’re feeling tired or discouraged.

“Nobody taught me that in library school!”

In a mere twelve to fourteen courses, library school can’t teach everything a librarian will ever need to know on the job, not with the best will in the world. The other thing library school can’t do is predict the future; the inevitable corollary is that the older your degree is, the more you need to assimilate as you refresh your skills and environmental awareness.

If you are part of law or medical librarianship, you may have more structure to work with as you work through your learning needs; professional associations in these areas build their continuing-education offerings around actual curricula. Unfortunately, everyone else is more or less on their own.

If being angry at your library school motivates you to learn, that’s fine—go learn! By all means write gloating emails to your old instructors once you’ve surpassed them. If all your anger does is make you grumble a lot or feel helpless, though, do your best to let it go and look toward the future rather than the past. You, not your library school, are responsible for your skills and knowledge now.

Orders from above

If there’s a less-motivating motivation for learning than being baldly ordered to, I don’t know what it is. If orders from above are what brought you to this book, I ask that you please put aside whatever resentment you feel about the orders or those who gave them, difficult though that may be. That resentment can prevent you from learning. Take a deep breath, let the anger go, and find or make a reason to learn that comes from within, not without.

Tool mastery

Tablets. Ebook readers. Smartphones. Game gadgets. 3D printers. Book machines. And that’s before software and web services come into the picture. Upgrades? Don’t talk to me about upgrades.

The less-irritable way to look at this is that humanity is devilishly clever about making new tools and refreshing old ones to accomplish more things. The downside of this cleverness is the neverending learning curve (or hamster wheel, as one of my former colleagues used to say). With luck and good management, you can learn enough to make your tools work for you rather than the other way ’round.

Feeling stale or scared

If you suspect that your newer colleagues, librarians and paraprofessionals alike, are rolling their eyes behind your back because you don’t understand what they talk about—unfortunately, judging from some of my students who work as paraprofessionals, you may well be right.

You can, as some of the librarians my students work for do, respond with scorn for what they’re learning, or keep them and what they know at arms-length by insisting that they are “the future” and you are—what? the dead past? the dying present? I encourage you to do neither. Instead, do what they are doing: open your mind and learn.

Process improvement

If you have ever grumbled to yourself, “there has got to be a better way to do this!” you have discovered a process-improvement motivation. Often there genuinely is a better way—but getting there will take some learning.

Process improvement is why I learned to program computers. Cutting-and-pasting the same thing a million times over is boring and error-prone. At the beginning, learning to make the computer do the work took me as much time as doing the task at hand myself would have, but as I learned, I saved myself many hours of grotesquely boring, repetitive actions. I’m not an expert computer programmer; I never will be, either. You don’t have to be expert at some things for what you know about them to save you wonderful amounts of time.

This is also why I hit the books about meeting management. I don’t like meetings. You probably don’t like meetings either. Do they have to be so bad? I’m not great with people (ask anyone), but many people who are better with people than I am have written plenty about running a good meeting, so all I had to do was read their sage advice and put it into practice. I learned enough about meetings to run them without bloodshed, end them early, and cancel them whenever possible.

Chances are someone has written sage and pragmatic advice about whatever process at your workplace drives you around the bend. Why not learn how to make it better?

Job or job type in danger

Academic librarians may remember the three-or-four-year stretch when the Taiga Forum took inexplicable glee in beating the doom gong for librarian jobs. They’ve thankfully cut that nonsense out lately, but the kernel of truth buried in their noisemaking is that the world changes, libraries change with it, and that means the library job mix shifts over time.

This isn’t anybody’s fault—you didn’t choose foolishly, and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with your professionalism—but nobody is immune to it (except possibly Taiga). Please resist the considerable temptation to feel put-upon and undervalued. The world doesn’t change at us; it just changes! The right response is to change alongside it.

If you’ve come here because you have concluded that your job or your kind of job is fading into obscurity, good for you; you’re reacting productively and with an open mind, and that all by itself should improve your chances.

Job or job type changing

Even if your job isn’t disappearing, it’s a safe bet that its contours are shifting. If you have an old job description filed away somewhere, pull it out just to chuckle at it. Sometimes with change come uncomfortable feelings of insufficient knowledge, or rusty inadequacy. To be quite honest, as often as not these feelings are just our own inner demons jabbing at us… but if that’s the case, learning can boost confidence, and if it’s not, learning can fix the problem.


As job contours shift and staff budgets shrink, it’s easy for librarians to find themselves doing bits and pieces of each other’s jobs, on a regular basis or just when someone goes to a conference or takes a leave of absence. Few workplaces formally crosstrain their employees, but all kinds of informal crosstraining opportunities—or necessities—pop up. If this is your motivation for learning, you may well be fortunate to have a trusted colleague ready to help you learn.

Change management

Your library and its staff can’t change in the right directions—can’t even make shrewd guesses about what the right directions are—without understanding what’s going on in the outside world. For almost anything new that’s happening, that requires new knowledge; for some things, it means new skill acquisition.

Environmental scanning, feasibility studies, strategic planning—all of that, when properly conducted, is a veneer of process over a solid base of learning.

Supporting your colleagues

If you’re here to learn enough to support a colleague doing a different job from yours, I want to thank you personally. My first library job after graduation was an entirely novel venture for the library that hired me. The absolute worst aspect of trying to get something brand-new off the ground was the indifference and even active resentment from some of my colleagues toward my position and my work. Thank you for wanting to help, instead.


I saved the best for last. It’s a big information world out there! So much that’s happening is utterly fascinating. So much is useful to know. Indulging my curiosity is the best thing about being a library-school instructor. If you’re curious too, good on you!