Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: Sometimes We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

When I was in high school, the movie Platoon came out. I had the soundtrack and on one of the tracks there was a bit of spoken dialogue in it. It went like this:

I think now, looking back
We did not fight the enemy
But we fought ourselves
And the enemy, was in us

And after working in public libraries for 20 years, I can’t help but think that sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We put up so many obstacles and stumbling blocks for ourselves that it can become impossible to be successful at what we do. We run campaigns to remind communities how important we are and then we put processes in place that make it impossible for us to be successful at the very things we claim make us relevant.

Let’s take, for example, the subject of programming. As a young adult librarian, programming has always and probably always will be a huge part of what I do. And yet I have worked at libraries where they have made it difficult to be successful at it. And by difficult I sometimes mean virtually impossible. And when I talk to my fellow YA librarians I hear the same types of stories over and over again . . .

Staff aren’t given the number of hours they need to develop successful programs.

They aren’t given the financial resources to develop and implement successful programs.

They have to jump through too many hoops to get the approval of people who know nothing about teens, what’s popular with teens, or even what makes a program successful.

They have to jump through death defying hoops to purchase supplies for programs.

And many of the same arguments can be made for collection development, reader’s advisory, outreach, etc.

Here’s an example. At one of the libraries that I worked at, the library had no budget for programming, it was entirely dependent on the Friends of the Library. Because of this, the way programs were financed was odd, to say the least. I had to buy all programming supplies with my own money and then submit my receipts to the Friends to get reimbursed. Yes, you read that right – WITH MY OWN MONEY. As a YA librarian with a new baby at home, there was no extra money in my personal budget to pre-finance library programs. After years of campaigning, we finally got the process changed and though it was still imperfect, it was certainly better than being asked to front my own checkbook for library programming.

For two years at a recent library job, my yearly programming budget was $500.00 and the only place I could order from was Oriental Trading. Those are some serious limitations and obstacles in place; suddenly your programming sprint becomes a hurdles race and the hurdles, they are seriously tall.

At ALA recently, I heard the same complaints over and over again: I have these great ideas, but my library system makes it almost impossible to do successful library programming. We don’t have the staff. We don’t have the funding. The wrong people are responsible for approving programs and they are afraid to try new things, they lack innovation, they lack knowledge of the target audience, they lack knowledge of current popular culture. The hoops I have to jump through are insurmountable. So we take the time to hire educated, experienced librarians hoping they will do great things for our library and then we put them on a path full of hurdles and roadblocks. We become our own worst enemies.

It’s always interesting for me to compare it to The Mr.s journey in his field. He was a store manager for a large grocery store chain and now works in the warehousing end of things. Sometimes he is in charge of putting together staff morale and appreciation events, something libraries should do more of by the way. He is given a task, given a budget, and then sent on his way. He has the resources he needs and gets it done. He’s given a corporate credit card so that he can make the purchases he needs to make from the places he needs to make them from. He turns in his receipts, makes sure he comes in at or slightly under budget, and he does what he needs to do to meet the goals of the task. But there are no real hurdles. I’ve watched him do this for almost 10 years now and I’m not going to lie, I get a little bit jealous.

In comparison, at a recent library position, the only one in my library branch authorized to make purchases was my branch manager. And she was only authorized up to a certain dollar amount. So I had to put all my orders together, forward them to someone else to place the order, and then there is a lot of back and forth as an item might be out of stock, prices might have changed, etc. And if I wanted to have food at a teen program, I had to make a really detailed grocery list and my branch manager, the highest paid person in the building, had to go to the grocery store and make my purchases. Or we both had to go. As you can imagine, I tended to try and avoid having food at my programs, which means that I didn’t repeat some of my most successful programs from previous libraries like Iron Chef and Cupcake Wars. And if you found you needed a last minute item, forget about it.

The processes we have in place can affect our decision making. They can limit our choices.  They can push the finish lines so far back that we have no chance of successfully pushing off the starting blocks.

Not every library, of course, is their own worst enemy. There are libraries out there doing it well and one of the reasons that they are successful is because they hire the right person to do the job, they trust them to do it, and then they give them the tools to do it successfully. They don’t put hurdles up, they take them down. Successful libraries get out of their own way, they choose not to be their own worst enemy and in doing so, they create a formula for success.

For reasons that I don’t fully understand, I listened to that bit of spoken dialogue from Platoon over and over again. I can recite the entire thing from memory. And throughout my career, I think often of this little bit about the enemy being in us because I see it all around me and I hear it in the stories of my professional peers: We fought ourselves and the enemy was in us. I realize that this bit of dialogue really has nothing to do with the public library, and yet it speaks so profoundly to this fundamental truth: sometimes libraries – our policies and processes – are, in fact, our own worst enemy.