OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE
by Marylaine Block
I've been spending the last six weeks way outside my comfort zone. I was an academic librarian, and now I'm an internet librarian. Except for the folks at my public library and my library system, the people I know in the profession are academic and internet librarians. We do the same things, worry about the same things, talk about possible solutions for the same problems.
That's what I do online, as well; mostly, I hang out with other internet librarians. I read their weblogs and websites and listserv discussions, and I chat with them by e-mail.
When you hang with your own kind, it's comfortable, no doubt about it. But even when you learn something new there, it's hardly ever bolt-from- the-blue-new. There's a sense of recognition. It makes sense, fits in with your sense of how the world works, almost as if you'd already had it on the tip of your tongue.
But for the past six weeks, I've been writing a profile a day for Library Journal's Movers and Shakers issue, so I've been getting to know some extraordinary people who go about being librarians in entirely different places, entirely different ways.
I research these people. I read the nomination files, and their resumes and whatever else I can find out about them on the web and in the databases. And then I send them a bunch of really nosy questions.
I ask them why they chose librarianship (at least two of these people have law degrees but chose to be librarians instead). I want to know, "what's the most fun thing you've ever done on the job, and what's the most important?" I ask, "are there are any stories you tell about yourself as a way of explaining who you are and what you care about?" I want to know who their heroes are in the profession, and why -- it's a sneaky way of getting concrete answers, rather than vague abstractions, about their professional philosophy.
I need to know this stuff because I can't write about a list of accomplishments, however impressive. I need to understand who these people are so I can describe the real person behind the accomplishments. I want to know enough about them to see a theme running through their lives. When I find it, that's my title for the piece -- and it helps me choose which facets of their careers I'll highlight within the tight word limits. I probably use no more than 5% of what I know about them, but the other 95% determines which 5% I'll select to show off, and how I'll frame their pictures to show them off to maximum advantage.
And it works. I get the most amazing responses from these busy people, four, six, even eight single-space pages of thoughtful, revealing answers. I feel like I really know them.
Only a few of them are internet librarians, incidentally (and most of them have never heard of me, which is kind of humbling). I've written about the woman who's head of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center, and the two women who formed the HBCU Library Alliance (the first meeting ever held between librarians from all the historically black colleges and universities). I've gotten to know a teen librarian whose e-mail name is LunarHunk, and another guy who's a country and western DJ on the side and was the Romance Writers of America's librarian of the year (did anybody say librarians were boring?).
I've gotten to know the director of the Open e-Book Forum, and a librarian/author his friend refer to as "the last public intellectual." I've met a children's librarian who studied early childhood brain development and developed a well-known program that delights toddlers while stretching their minds. And then there are the two intrepid school librarians who taught themselves Linux in order to set up an affordable computer lab for their students, and the woman who explained the ins and outs of library budgets and finance to her staff. I've met advocates for disability services, for multicultural outreach, and for bilingual services.
The wonderful thing about all this is that so many of the things these people are doing are transferable to other libraries, and indeed, to whole other aspects of librarianship. I think creativity is what happens when wildly different facts and ideas and viewpoints bounce around together inside your head and start making connections, and that's what my mind has been doing for the past six weeks.
And I know so much more now about the fantastic variety of ways in which we practice our profession, something I think most of us don't really grasp.
I urge you all to get outside your own comfort zone every once in a while. If you're in a special library, every once in a while read something about public or school libraries. If you're a reference librarian, every now and then try reading an article or listserv or blog about cataloging or knowledge management. If you're resolutely low-tech, read something about web design or digital projects. When you're at a conference, attend at least one event outside your usual specialized track.
It might not be quite as much fun as what I've been doing, but I bet it will jog your brain and give you some interesting new ideas.
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ANNOUNCEMENT: That's why, with your collaboration, I'd like to run an occasional series on ExLibris about the many different species of librarianship. I've already invited some military librarians to write a piece about what their career entails. I invite the rest of you to contribute. Let's hear from medical librarians and readers' advisors and people who work for vendors or state libraries and library systems; from librarians in government agencies, and independent information professionals, and leaders of massive digitizing projects; from library educators and archivists and museum librarians... And from whatever categories haven't occurred to me. From librarians overseas, as well -- most of us in the U.S. have no idea what libraries are like in other countries.
So, what do you say? Would you like to help me out with this?
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The Web is cool, but the library is magic. Where else can the spirit of generations of writers stir your soul? So many writers talk about libraries setting them on their magical paths, it's almost a groaner. But we know it's true. Wander through the stacks and you can feel the dreams, the unique worlds bubbling within each volume. The magic enters you as if by osmosis. On the Web, you may feel clever, lucky and driven to download--but rarely inspired to dream and to write.
Arthur Plotnik. "Who Loves You Like the Library?" The Writer, November, 2003
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2004.
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