porcelainandporcupines

in which we induldge in a little well-earned negativity

Posted on: January 21, 2013

One question I was asked over and over again the last time I was interviewing for a job was “What made you decide to become a librarian?” I did not at the time realize that the interviewers were likely looking to account for my sudden career shift as a way to buttress my limited library experience, but even if I had, I don’t think that would have altered by response in any way : that I was not happy with the direction my career was headed and, one day, on investigating the jobs on the B.U. website, the first 3 that popped up were in the library. And suddenly I realized “Oh, the library; I should be a librarian.” And then the interview would move on to my meagre library experience, the first part of my answer completely forgotten.

However, it cannot be overstated just how unhappy I was with where my career was headed : I hated the job that I had at the time. Although I very much enjoyed the way the lobby looked like The Movie Theater of the Future, as designed in 1950, I wanted to cry every day when I walked into the building. And, in addition to my job striking me as particularly useless – both in the sense of how it might benefit society in general (it wouldn’t, ever), as well as in a local sense of the value it presented to the company (none) – I was also incredibly bad at it. I’m sure the fact that I did not want to be good at it played a part, but, in fairness to myself, the skill set required of that position is completely outside the realm of things at which I am good : a Sweet Valley High reference would land just about as well as that plane Olivia’s flight instructor crashed, killing himself and paralyzing her and thus wrenching her plan to break up with Roger, who she no longer loved regardless of his newfound place in the Patman family, and the fact that I just mixed up plots and characters from several different books would have gone completely unnoticed.

Yet, despite my vast unhappiness, there were actually several positives to that job. For one thing, I made a lot of money; a lot. Upon receipt of the job offer, I may have exclaimed “Oh my god, I can buy everything I’ve ever wanted and a pony!” aloud, to an otherwise empty room, although several years having passed since the potential incident renders positive confirmation difficult.

In addition to elevating my lifestyle to an extravagance I can no longer afford, that job also provided a very interesting view into an organization that believes they can actually achieve a goal. Or, actually, that’s not entirely correct; most companies probably think that can achieve goals; otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. What was different about this place was that their goal was 100%.

And they took it seriously. There were reports about which I can provide absolutely no detail of systems running at 99.486% accuracy, and it was stunning not only that they would investigate into the decimals following the 99, which I think in and of itself would be enough of a measure for most organizations (at least the ones that are not Ivory soap), but also that that number, decimal and all, still represented room for improvement.

The most amazing thing about that was how quickly I got used to it. I mean, I was never going to be one of the people getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning for a software release, and I found it completely baffling that the people who were would follow up that release by coming in to work for a full 9+ hour day, a practice in which I also did not participate, despite the frequent urgings of my boss. Yet, however much I might have questioned their passion for a product that I thought ridiculous, I had come from an environment where we frequently set the bar at about 60 and were perfectly content to miss it most of the time. Working with these people was inspiring – their intensity, devotion and focus to their job was like watching Olympians. Of work, but still; it was impressive.

So, even though I was extremely happy to leave that job, yea the entire corporate world, behind, I did have within me a small glimmer of hope that, doing something I was devoted to, something I had actually chosen rather than happened into by default, I might one day be a finalist of some sort; perhaps even the winner of the work bronze.

Were I the sort of person who cottoned to things a bit faster, I might have noticed that this attitude did not especially pervade library school. Which : is strange. Librarians for the most part like to tout themselves as busy and engaged, up on what’s going on and passionate about connecting people and information. But the loudest voices in library school are the ones that stay with you, and so what rings in my ears is a refrain I heard from several instructors, who would follow up the description of any particular Librarian’s task with a put-upon “Which you’ll do in all of your free time”.

Of course, budget cuts have left libraries understaffed, and that is a very real issue, but this self-image of the Librarian who is just too busy to actually do her job bothers the hell out of me. For one thing, it often results in an Ur-Millenial need for praise whenever something gets done, which offends my latch-key Generation X sensibilities to such an extent that it might lead to a rumble if I weren’t so desperately in need of a nap.

More serious is the frequency with which this attitude affects users. Obviously, an underfunded library does not have the same resources to divert toward a problem as does a large multi-national profit-driven entity. However, the number of times I have received a response of “We know,” to a report of a problem is extremely discouraging. That’s a difficult message to pass on to a user who points out that our system is confusing – yes, it certainly is confusing. No, we’re not going to anything about it. Because we’ve gotten to a point where something works well enough; there’s no need to push it to actually working well.

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2 Responses to "in which we induldge in a little well-earned negativity"

I find that the “we know” answer happens for most for-profit companies in one form or another. It is just more prevalent with those that aren’t wildly profitable.

Getting past it comes down to numbers, how much does the change cost and how much will it save the institution and/or result in happy customers/users. If you can quantify it, then it may be easier to overcome institutional inertia if not this year, than in next year’s budget. That said, management could then discount the benefit or inflate the cost.

Of course going over your manager’s head will win you enmity from your manager and may not move the change any further.

I know there are some business school types who have researched managing change in institutions, but I don’t have time to find any good papers. Sorry I don’t have a more hopeful insight.

Hope your nap goes well. 😉

Unfortunately, up with those numbers is another thing that would be wildly outside of my skill set. At present, the best I can do is record and report instances of dissatisfaction. But I do thank you for your input – it is a little comforting to know that I’m not just making up a problem.

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