Today I had a bad today. It wasn’t from some horrible event, or some terrible injustice. In fact it was from a meeting. It was a meeting that should have been dull, and uninteresting, but instead surprisingly had a lot of substance. It was the surprise part that was bad, not the substance. I won’t get into the details of the meeting, but suffice to say I had a choice to make – be silent or speak.
You may imagine the choice would be easy for me, but it was not. I too face decisions between easy discontent and uncomfortable action. To stand up invites more work, or derision, and in either case courts conflict. It is just easier sometimes to let things pass.
I know I am not alone in having these choices to make. As I go around the country I encounter too many librarians who see the vision, who embrace change, but have grown too tired and discouraged to hope again. They are quieted by the scars of past optimism. These are the conversations that I have the hardest time with. I want to “go all inspirational” and call them to action, but I too have those scars, and have plenty of times when I tried and failed. It is not a good feeling. I would like to avoid it too. So I never want to fault others for their decisions.
When I was in Denver, someone asked me how anyone can stay optimistic. Between the Annoyed Librarians of the world and the perceived resistance to change in the field, isn’t it all just a lost cause? How can we overcome? How can we continue to step over the rubble of past initiatives, and broken momentum, and ignore the anticipation of disappointment while once again stepping into the firing line of positive change?
It may sound simplistic, but for me it comes down to needing some encouragement. We need to know that we are not alone. We are not. There is a whole pool of fellow librarians that “get it.” We also need to realize that those who get it aren’t just new librarians, but directors, managers, and policy makers. We have a lot of good examples to show the way as well. When I have those bad days, the first thing I have to do is decide to speak up. Then I have to do something. Even if whatever I decide to do is wrong, it is something. Finally, I listen to Shakespeare. Seriously.
For some people when they need to get a pick me up it is music, for others a movie, for still others it is “the story” I’ve talked about before (that time that you as a librarian changed someone’s life for the better). But for me, Shakespeare … Henry V’s St. Crispen’s Day Speech. I have to thank George Needham for introducing me to it.
I’ve said before we live in Shakespearian times. I know it sounds grandiose. However, the issues we face today from economic disaster to terrorism, to attacks on civil liberties, to uninformed policy makers, to simple apathy and ignorance are so great they rival any other time in history. Think about the issues raised in this past presidential election. Global warming, the cost of energy, salary disparities as great as the gilded age of the 20′s, and all of it showing up right at the doorstep of our public libraries, schools, and colleges. If you don’t know someone who has been laid off, you will soon. These themes and issues are not just fodder for book club conversations, they are real and now – and your problems to wrestle with as an essential social good. To think that somehow what we do today is of any less impact on the future of our children than anything in the past is simply wrong.
As I have said before, we too often undersell the importance and raw power of what we do. We are a noble profession. We don’t shelve books, and change toner cartridges – we maintain an infrastructure for social action. We don’t reference resources, and catalog artifacts – we teach and inspire. While Henry’s men were cloaked in armor and carried swords, we are wrapped in the trappings of intellect and wield the passion of knowledge. Henry faced an overwhelming and arrogant force, a seemingly insurmountable legion. Henry’s men despaired. Yet, Henry’s army won – they won through superior technology (the long bow), experience, and superior tactics. They won also, because they believed that they could. So too can librarians overcome the crushing forces of mediocrity and cynicism – but we must believe that we can.
Faced with the enormities of these tasks – terrorism, economic disaster, apathy – standing up at a meeting and speaking truth to power? Simple. Faced with the real issues we must face – I can take on the added committee assignment, or backhand comment. How do I stay optimistic? I realize first the issues I face are miniscule to the good I can do. How do I get inspired to face intransigence, or laziness, or ineptitude? I look right past them at the real goal, and those who really need me.
Block me, and I will go around you. Build a wall, and I will build a door. Lock the door and I will break a window. And if I don’t have have a leader to inspire me, I will lead. If I don’t have a team that will support me, I will recruit a team from beyond the organizational boundaries – every policy has a loophole, every system has a hidden reward.
That’s how I stay optimistic. As Henry said
“Let me speak proudly: tell the constable
We are but warriors for the working-day;
Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch’d
With rainy marching in the painful field;
There’s not a piece of feather in our host–
But, by the mass, our hearts are in the trim;”
This is what inspires me. Let me speak proudly – we are librarians, and we have struggled and some dismiss us. We fight with meager budgets, and out-moded structures. But our hearts are in the trim. This time, this information age? This is our age. Credibility, expertise, and compassion are our weapons, and we will fight ferociously for knowledge, for compassion, for better communities in our towns, states, colleges, schools, and businesses. Every day we will fight in the hospitals, and law firms, and classrooms. On the web, or in the halls of power we are the soldiers for a better day.
What inspires you?
Jeff Penka sent me this link, and while it is a bit of a spoof, it certainly does a good job too: