Protecting the Future of Libraries is Ruining My Life

If you’ve been following my blog for the past year, then you know my professional life has been a bit hectic. Last January, I started as a Supervisory Librarian at the Northside Library. Finally full time, I was able to quit substitute teaching for a new position that was envisioned as 20% supervisory and 80% librarian. Sadly, the title quickly evolved and my true role ended up being 100% supervisory… and still 80% librarian. In addition to acting as manager at all times, I was also the adult librarian, in charge of local and off-site book clubs, building the adult programming department, working the reference desk, maintaining and weeding a quarter of the collection, and performing readers’ advisory. After eight exhausting months, I tearfully explained to my manager that a good week was one in which I was the only person crying in my office… and that I was stepping down, internally.

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This took a bit longer than I thought it would. I assumed I was the obvious choice for the adult librarian position in Cherokee and was rather overdramatically devastated when the job went to a woman who I now know was the more qualified candidate. Then, just north of Cherokee, a position opened in Jackson, also for an adult librarian. While teens have always been my passion, my experience at the Northside Library in adult librarianship just seemed to go further than my bachelor’s degree in education or my six years of substitute teaching or even all the teen-centered classes I took in grad school. No one cared about my goals or theoretical experience as much as they did my actual experience. Since I enjoyed working with seniors and I hated being a manager, it seemed unwise to be picky. Exactly 11 months after my first day, I celebrated my last as a Supervisory Librarian, before starting as just a Librarian at the Eastside Library. Life was good… for a fucking minute and a half.

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Towards the end of January, came the announcement: my library system is undergoing a grassroots restructuring. Literally everyone’s title and job description are changing… no matter how new they might be. Less than two month’s, y’all. I had my position at a small town library with a touch of adult programming for less than two months… which was still enough time to relocate.

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The Jackson Library is unique in that it’s grouped with the Lakeville, Harmon, and Nada libraries, which all serve small, almost rural, communities around a thriving metropolitan city. Together, these libraries comprise the Satellite Libraries of my system, which until very recently, have been treated as the Hillbilly Annex, when it comes to resources and funding.

Me: “I just hate the way everyone talks about these libraries. My bachelor’s degree was in home-ec. I constantly had to defend it, even to those in the education field, and here I am again, defending the Satellite Libraries to the rest of the system.”
Boss: “How do you mean?”
Me: “We’re part of a fifty million dollar system and we didn’t have color printing here, until 2017. I had a color printer in 1997.”

This is one reason why I asked my managers to see if I could be transferred to a new branch as part of the restructuring, since it seemed at least two librarians would be moved from the Satellite Libraries and no one else wanted to leave. Additionally, despite my asking before the interview and during the interview, if my position would require traveling to every Satellite branch and being told no, it seems this position has also evolved. Instead of doing the occasional adult program and working as a librarian, as promised, I would be expected to spend my days in meetings with city officials and schmoozing business owners in four different communities.

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Me to my boss: “This is exactly why I got out of management. I spent all my time in meetings, talking about changing the world instead of actually changing the world.”

The restructuring, however, isn’t just about revising the positions themselves, but also deciding who fits best within them. We were asked to evaluate our strengths and truly consider with which population we could make the biggest difference: children, adults, or teens.

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Children’s library has never even been a consideration of mine. I only like the children I’m required to like and sometimes, not even them. I’ll like my own. I probably won’t like their friends. As a whole, I don’t like kids and I’m not sorry.

While I sort of fell into adult librarianship, I did enjoy it, especially seniors. I had a group of ladies I visited at the nursing home, and they fun, sassy, and opinionated. I was the first stop at the Northside Library if a senior needed help with an iPad or Kindle Fire, because I loved reassuring them that they weren’t stupid, technology is hard, and they could do it. Still… my heart has always belonged to teens.

For the same reason I love seniors, I love teens. They’re the forgotten population. We push them aside in favor of the most active tax payers. When they’re children, we love them because they’re cute (or so I hear) and we cater to them because their parents are watching and voting.  As teens, however, they come in alone, make a ruckus, and can’t vote. Most people view teens as little adults who have not yet learned to behave. I know that their brains are just as different from adult brains as those of children. One of the most miserable parts of management was watching the teen librarian plan and orchestrate programs and mentor volunteers, when I had missed the chance.

As much as I didn’t want to travel to a different library every day, I decided to chance it. I tossed my hat into an unknown ring and claimed teens. I could end up staying and travelling or leaving for any of our other 14 system libraries… but I’d get to be a teen librarian. Management has assured me the decision isn’t permanent, but I don’t see how it couldn’t be. No one will ever be more qualified for a position than someone who’s already doing it. Nevertheless, I was assured that they could probably still find a new place for me to serve teens, in system,  but outside of the Satellite Libraries… or so they thought.

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The next week, I was informed that I would probably be staying with the Satellite Libraries, as the teen librarian, despite the fact that two librarians will still need to leave and no one else wants out. I felt like management was trying to make a point that this wasn’t about me, but was it really so unreasonable to think I could still benefit, if someone had to leave anyway? Furthermore, why did they even open the Jackson Library in December, filling three positions, if they knew they were going to pull the rug out from under us all? After what happened with the Supervisory Librarian position, how could they do this to me, again? For the last six months, I’ve had no idea what my professional future holds. On the one hand, I understand the importance of the restructuring and I’m thrilled we have a director will to take it on to keep our libraries relevant… on the other, I’m trying to move and plan a wedding and prepare for marriage and management is ruining my life!

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I’ve gotta give some credit to Jake, here, y’all, because as much as I tried to keep my cool, I… so… horribly… failed. You have not seen dramatic Belle, until you’ve threatened her future as a librarian and at this point, the back and forth was just too much. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to do teens for sure. There was still a chance I’d have to spend all day in meetings with city officials and lead book club discussions over boring grownup books about the Civil War and economics. If they made me travel and sit in meetings all day, I was seriously considering look for teaching jobs… and education in my state is not looking good. I’ve said it before, folks. I am the old man declaring that what you do is who you are and if I’m not a librarian, who am I? I spent days in bed, sleeping and crying over the stress of just not knowing.

Finally, I was able to sit down with my own Supervisory Librarian and the manager above her, where they explained that it’s unlikely anyone will be leaving the Satellite Libraries, but if they do, it just wouldn’t make sense for it to be their only passionate teen librarian. I was even informed that no one actually knew the restructuring would be so drastic, until after the Jackson Library was opened. My manager also made the point that, despite all this stress and upheaval, the teens in these communities need someone to champion them and I could be the best person to do so, considering the similarities between these towns and Shetland, my upbringing and theirs.

As icing on the cake, amidst all of this craziness, we received some other news: IMLS (Institute of Museums and Library Services) might lose their funding, because President Donald Trump is ignorant and shortsighted and wants to give the appearance that he’s cutting real spending when the only impact from defunding libraries at a federal level, will be a negative one. It’s a drop in the bucket as far as government spending goes, but if it’s eliminated, libraries all over the country will have to cut staff, hours, and resources and some will probably have to close their doors for good. I, myself, am fortunate enough to work in a library system that receives zero federal funding. While we benefit from a state database resource funded by IMLS, my job and that of everyone in our system, is secure.

So, over this past weekend, I was really able to process what my manager said, now that I’ve been assured that there are no hidden agendas and I can at least count on being the teen librarian for the Satellite Libraries. Maybe I really can make a difference out here and be truly fulfilled. Would the traveling even be so bad, once I’ve gotten used to each branch? After my talk with management, I realized that everyone in the system is facing major changes in their title. If I moved, I’d just be in the same trailer, different park. I told my Supervisory Librarian as much on Monday morning only to hear that the wheels are still turning and the Cherokee Library is now considered a Satellite Library, as well. I may end up working there as a teen librarian after all.

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As exasperating as they may be, however, these changes are the reason we’ll be thriving in five years. They’re going to be the reason we’re still standing as other libraries fall, because while I’ve been crying in bed like a fucking Disney Princess, because I don’t know the future of my library, others in my field have been crying because their library has no future. This isn’t just a great chance, because it’s my opportunity to work with teens.

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– I GET TO BE A TEEN LIBRARIAN, Y’ALL! –

It’s reassurance that I can still even be a librarian… because for many in my field, it ain’t looking good.

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To the Women Who Tried to Ruin My Career

At 25 years old, I’d just begun my career as a real librarian, in my current system, when I excitedly accepted a second job at the neighboring library system. Within two months, I was informed that I wasn’t “a good fit” and that I’d worked my last day there. I was never late. No customer ever complained about me. I did everything I was asked… except go to my immediate supervisor’s house for spaghetti with the rest of the team, share Pinterest recipes, and sport an “I’m With Her” t-shirt. That’s right. Instead of valuing diversity in her staff, this woman sought employees who were just like her, a modern day Heather willing to abuse her power to the detriment of the community she served.

In time, I realized that not being “a good fit” was quite flattering and ultimately the best thing for my career, because it allowed me to hone my skills within my own system. Even in that beloved system, however, there once reigned a Regina George… the girl who poured the pigs’ blood in Carrie… a Cersei Lannister, of our very own.  Indeed, this woman was… psychotically vindictive, in the truest sense. She ruined careers when people mispronounced her name. She permanently transferred librarians to branches across the city, with less than 24 hours notice and no explanation. She planted her favorites in positions of power and pulled their strings like the fucking Puppet Master. She even tried to keep my boss at the West Side Library  from hiring me, because I’d had a poor interview for a different job. It was a joyous occasion the day Cersei pissed on the wrong boots and was demoted. It was downright freeing when she and many of her minions retired soon thereafter, to practice augury and gnaw on the bones of kittens.

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I’d like to think these women are the exceptions. The rhetoric these days would have us believe we’re are all far too evolved from a half century of breaking glass ceilings and opening our own pickle jars to still be facing such deliberate workplace sabotage. It remains true, however, that one of a woman’s greatest battles toward professional success is simply… other women. Perhaps this is evolutionary and stems from a time when we each tried to prove ourselves the most valuable gatherer, in an effort to snag the best hunter, but we are long overdue to pull up our big girl panties and crush our baser instincts.

Had the aforementioned Heather and Cersei had their way, I would be… well, I don’t know exactly, because I can’t fathom the goal behind destroying the career of a random 25-year-old fresh out of grad school. Maybe they knew every detail of the devastation that would result from their actions. Maybe the fantasy hadn’t extended that far. All I’ve ever known for sure is that there was something broken inside these women, which required them to tear down another to feel accomplished. Now, years later, I have a simple message for them:

Thank you. Thank you for showing me the worst possible scenario of who I could be as a professional woman. Thank you for inspiring me to be better at a job I hated than you were at a job you treasured like the One Ring. Thank you for the strength it took to build people up, despite the fact that I spent my lunch breaks crying in my office. I could’ve let the wounds of others fester, with the reasoning that I didn’t cause them, but instead, I worked to heal those around me. I could’ve scoffed at the personality traits and communication styles that differ from my own, yet I worked to not only understand, but translate. I will have been a manager for eleven months, to the day, when I step down into my new position as just a librarian, at the East Side Library. I’ll leave the North Side Library in the city, to work in the tiny town of Jackson, under the same library system. I’ll rarely see these people again… and I’ll be leaving them better than I found them. If I’d never cried from the abuse of powerful women, I might never have made a difference in the short time I was one myself and for that, I am thankful.

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The Horrors of Being a Manager That No One Ever Shared

I hate being a manager.

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Before I became a supervisory librarian, I was confident that while official management might be an option several years from now, I wanted to spend some time as a librarian first. Managers can make damned good money, but they’re also the ones who have to deal with personnel issues, fill out paperwork when the police are called, and spend a crazy amount of time in meetings. While that wasn’t off the table entirely, I at least wanted the chance to get my feel for the challenges a librarian faces, before trading them in for new ones of a higher pay grade.

I’ve detailed previously how drastically my position has changed since I started in January. What was advertised as a librarian position with some supervisory duties has, quite literally, become the opposite. I am a manger first, a manager second, and a librarian if there’s time. Now, I’m not gonna lie. At the time, I was exhausted and disheartened by working as a half time librarian and substitute teaching when I’d had a master’s degree for two years. I can’t say with certainty that I wouldn’t have applied for the supervisory position, had I known what it would become… but I can say I’d have only had myself to blame when I realized just how much I hate being a manager… and all the horrors no one ever mentioned.

It’s Us against Them.
I always assumed my boss at the Westside Library didn’t join us for Taco Tuesday, because it would be awkward to mix business with pleasure. You can’t reprimand someone for using inappropriate language, if they’ve heard you use the phrase “bucket of cunts,” over a bottomless basket of tortilla chips. I felt for her, because she was the only manager at our branch and it looked really lonely from the outside. Now, I realize that she wasn’t lonely. She was just perpetually ready for battle.

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In my system, the circulation clerks and library pages are almost as quick to snarl when someone blames the group for the actions of an individual as they are to make sweeping generalizations about how “management doesn’t care/understand/listen.” People constantly air their grievances about how management is a clown that eats children and they do not make exceptions. While I’d hope none exist in my system, I’m certain there are supervisors looking out for number one, too busy stressing about their own duties to care about how anyone else is coping with theirs, maybe just mad with power. I’m just as certain that I’m not one of them.

The only thing I hate more than being a manager is the fact that I hate being a manager, because someone at every level of staff, from the library pages to the system director, has told me that they hope I have my own branch one day. I refuse to read management theory and put my employees in little boxes labeled by some arbitrary personality test, because I consider these no different than delineators such as gender, race, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. Humans are complicated and we need to stop stereotyping them as a management technique. So, I read my employees and accommodate their individual work and communication styles. I address each and every concern. I champion my staff and they champion me… until they write about how much Management sucks… and it all feels like a wasted effort. No matter how hard I try, I’m still The Man and they still feel like cogs in the machine.

I’m rarely the one who can solve the problem.
Maybe they feel like cogs in the machine, because we’re all cogs in the machine. When someone brings a problem to my office, more often than not, I can’t actually solve it. If I’m lucky, I can set up some kind of committee and delegate tasks, helping the staff to feel involved in the decision making process, while simultaneously addressing the issue. If not, as with personnel issues, I can start doing paperwork. If I’m particularly unfortunate, the staff member causing problems won’t be under me and I can ask their manager to start doing paperwork… confidentially, of course, so I can’t actually clarify this with the person who brought the issue to my attention.

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Bigger picture problems are even less under my control, in the well-oiled machine that is a large library system. You’re upset that the dress code is more problematic for Black women, because they can’t wear head wraps? That’s a policy approved by the commission. You want an urban fiction section? That’s cataloging’s call, not mine. You want to move up, with the degree you received from an unaccredited institution? I’d recommend a smaller library system. You want direct answers from your immediate supervisor? I’d recommend a smaller library system. You want a fifteen thousand dollar pay cut? I’d recommend a smaller library system.

I’m the counselor from Freaks and Geeks.

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Before I became a manager, my Gramma would compare the title to babysitting. It drove her mad to supervise adults who couldn’t get to work on time or wear appropriate clothing or complete basic job tasks. That was in the seventies and eighties when efficiency and work ethic were emphasized. Now it’s all about “morale” and “empowerment” and I wish I could charge a quarter every time someone used either of those words. Years ago, Regina George ruled my library system and people’s livelihoods and careers were the casualties, so I’m not saying that I don’t agree that morale and empowerment are important… just that being responsible for them is exhausting.

I understand that change is hard for people, especially when they’ve been at the same branch, under the same management, for their entire careers, but I occasionally feel like I’m trying to motivate sullen teenagers… beyond my responsibility. There is a point when your unhappiness lies with you, not your manager. I can ask my employees about their lives and build strong work relationships. I can assign projects and tasks that will challenge them, pad their resumes, and make them feel valued. I can sit down with everyone for one-on-one meetings and truly listen to their concerns. If none of that works, though… I think our health insurance covers a few therapy sessions? I’m not being heartless here. I literally don’t know what to do about the level of discontent some of these people seem to feel!

cannot avoid the drama.
I never realized how miserable people in the library world could be, back when a good week wasn’t determined by the number of people crying in my office.

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A perfect week is defined as “just me.”

Call me self-absorbed, but when I was just a librarian, I rarely even knew what feuds were taking place and who was being called into the managers office for what infractions. I, quite literally, didn’t hear about some disputes for years and it… was… glorious! 

Now that I’m a manager, I’m involved in all of the drama and there is just so much of it. Even when my employees aren’t involved in a dispute, their workflow is directly effected, so it becomes my problem, when they come to my office and vent. Then, I have to alert the appropriate immediate supervisor, who gets upset over another personnel conflict, the terror that is addressing the issue directly… and I completely relate. Yet, if they don’t handle the problem satisfactorily, we have to involve our manager and there’s awkwardness between us. 

My worst day at the Northside Library, was the day I held a half naked drug addict until the ambulance arrived, while crying on the phone to the dispatcher. I’ve yet to top it, but the day I have to write up, or worse, fire anyone will be one of the worst days of my professional life. Most problem employees have legitimate struggles in their own lives and many of them are quite likable, personally. Their behavior is just unacceptable and unchangeable and a failure to respond is a discredit to other staff members and, in our case, the community at large. But… I just can’t sit and watch someone cry as I take their livelihood from them… and hopefully, I won’t have to, because I’ve officially set the balls in motion to move down. I suppose there is a silver lining: if I ever decide to be a larger cog in the machine again, I’ll truly be in the know.