Getting unstuck

librarianship

Do you ever get stuck? You’re working on a project and, suddenly, you don’t know how to proceed? Or, perhaps, you’re just bored with how you think about things- you find yourself doing the same things over and over and life is suddenly getting… boring.

Boredom is a killer. So many of the professional dissatisfactions I’ve experienced can be linked back to boredom. Back when I got hired as a library page many years ago, I was excited about the opportunity to shelve books. And then it got boring, because it gradually became monotonous. Then I was hired on as a clerk, and I got to work the customer service desk. This was exciting for a while, but then it got boring. And then, after a decade or so, I took my current position, and I’ve loved just about every day of it.  What happened?

I didn’t suddenly become a different person, but found myself forced into new circumstances. I have one of those jobs that is primarily user-defined. My work is primarily creative, and I find it to be incredibly fulfilling. In this environment, I’ve been able to do some really cool things.

Looking back, one of the common traits of the work I’ve been really proud of in the past three years is atypicality. These things have all been projects that aren’t typically done in day-to-day library happenings. I recently read an article on Lifehacker called “Train Your Brain toThink Like a Creative Genius” that shed some light on why these things mean so much to me (and why they happened).

The gist of the article is that you don’t have innate genius to do cool, creative things; you merely have to have experiences and use them accordingly:

  • When you’re trying to develop a good customer service practice, you should tap into the memory you have of that one time you ducked into Nordstrom’s to get out of the rain. Don’t focus on your own good service in the library setting.
  • When you’re trying to make a cool teen program, recall the hundreds of hours you spent in the smoky basement of the Nile Theater. Don’t try to figure out what’s cool in a culture you don’t completely comprehend.
  • When you’re trying to develop a better summer reading program, think back on that book you read about videogames and why they’re cool.  Don’t try to get the budget increased to buy a slightly more expensive incentive prize.

Creativity makes my work fun. I wish I would have had this knowledge earlier in my career. It seems obvious, but it really isn’t. Sometimes we get stuck in the cobwebs that are institutional practices and stagnant work culture. You can find a way out of those things by going on vacation, reading books, and running out of gas in a scary part of town. You just have to put your experiences to work for you.

You can do this anywhere. You don’t have to have an inherently creative job. When I was a page, I could have gamified my shelving duties. As a clerk, I could have emulated any number of great customer service experiences I’d had.  But I didn’t. And that was what made me unhappy.

The problem with monotony

design, librarianship

When I was in college, there was a video rental place near my apartment that I frequented. I liked it because it had a nice horror section made up primarily of new releases, as opposed to the core “classic” horror films Blockbuster carried. This section featured a lot of straight-to-video crap, and that was fine by me.

As time went by, though, I started to become disenchanted with the collection. I’d still go there every week, but I wouldn’t enjoy myself. The thrill of discovery was gone. Even when that month’s shipment of new releases hit the shelf, I was still uninterested. New titles didn’t necessarily mean new content. Instead, I saw a lot of repackaged plot lines and predictable mockbusters that held fast to tropes I knew all too well. In spite of the new titles, the place didn’t ever deliver anything new. I’d become acclimated to the selection (and the types of films that would always make up that selection), and it started to bore me.

“Monotony reveals our limitations.” – Dale Carnegie

I came across that quote yesterday as I was reading The Art of Public Speaking. In it, Carnegie is arguing that constantly speaking about the same things in the same way makes you lose the favor of your audience. This seems fairly obvious when we’re watching someone speak. I had many college professors who committed this grievous sin, and their classes were always torturous. But the reason Carnegie brings it up (and puts it front and center in the book) is that it isn’t always easy to avoid monotony when we are the ones doing the speaking. To maintain some semblance of comfort, we’ll fall back on the arguments we’ve always made and present the material in the manner that is easiest for us to talk about. It’s scary to take risks, but sticking to the well-traveled road causes us to produce speech that feels like the product of an assembly line. It’s boring.

I’m trying to become a better public speaker, which was why I started reading the book in the first place. But, immediately, this discussion of monotony took me in other directions- primarily because “monotony” is a word that readily describes a lot of library services and practices. And that doesn’t have to be.

Signage

Library signs are huge problems. Why? Well, in general:

  • There are too many of them
  • They don’t follow a standard template
  • There are too many of them
  • They are haphazardly designed
  • There are too many of them

Making signage less monotonous is actually pretty easy when you consider the state of affairs. Library folks put signs everywhere in order to post rules, pass along important information, give directions, explain policies, and advertise services. At the previous library I worked at, one day I counted up more that ten informational signs on the front door. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty common problem.

To reduce monotony, eliminate the sameness of the message you’re delivering to your customers.

  • Using a lot of different fonts for emphasis? Try using one font with different weights.
  • Putting signs everywhere? Take them all down and start anew.
  • Need signs to explain complicated policies? Simplify your policies.
  • Using formal, factual statements all the time? Get conversational.
  • Signs covered in text? Have someone edit and embrace the art of brevity.

Below is an example of a sign in McMaster University ‘s Thode Library. This is an example of a librarian attempting to address this problem:

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 3.18.07 PM

Collections

Remember my video store story? That applies to your collection, too. It is a really safe bet to populate your shelves with current bestsellers. But the idea is to not be safe. Remember that ranking on a best seller list is not necessarily a mark of quality, but, rather, an indication of good marketing. Your goal (where your collection is concerned) is to put good stuff in the hands of your customers. So do it. Empower your collection development staff to take risks. Buy stuff that’s different; take that risk. Shock your customers out of their acclimation to your monotony.

Programming

Raise your hand if your library has a book club? Multiple book clubs? Movie nights? Storytimes? Basic computer classes? Occasional jugglers, magicians, or lecturers? Okay, now raise your hand if your library does something else.

Programming gets monotonous very fast. The demands made of library staff result in the same programs populating the events calendar every month, because you are required to put on four per month, you have exactly half and hour in which to plan them, and your budget amounts to exactly one fistful of peanuts. It’s hard.

But it’s not insurmountable.

  • Give hacker-oriented computer classes
  • Bring in free local talent to lead maker workshops
  • Add MuVChat to your film screenings
  • Go local with your bookclubs and bring authors in every month
  • Bring bands into the library- and let them get loud

Conclusion

This brief primer merely scratches the surface of the issues surrounding monotony in the library setting, but I hope it gives you some things to consider. Libraries need to continue to evolve, and it’s up to you to spearhead that change. This is an area where, I think, most of us could stand to improve.