Do you own your library?

November 29, 2011, 8:36 pm

Stewardship. This is a word that gets thrown around all the time. The concept being—we (library employees) don’t own the spaces, collections, processes, or technologies—we’re just stewards of the institution’s investment.


It wasn’t until this year that I started to get that. (more on that later) Previously I viewed things very personally: my reference desk, my online chat service, my collection, my learning commons, my website, etc. Well, maybe not mine, but ours, as in those of us who worked in the library owned these assets.


And sure there is a user-centered movement—we want to strive to involve users in design or design with users in mind—but ultimately it is library employees who make decisions and who make changes happen. This is our thing.


Along these lines I was struck by a passage in Nickel & Dimed where the author reflects on her experience working in a clothing department at Wal-Mart:

It’s the clothes I relate to, though, not the customers. And now a funny thing happens to me here on my new shift: I start thinking that they are mine, not mine to take home and wear, because I have no such designs on them, just mine to organize and rule over. I patrol the perimeter with my cart, darting to pick up misplaced and fallen items, making everything look spiffy from the outside. I don’t fondle the clothes, the way customers do; I slap them into place, commanding them to hang straight, at attention, or lie subdued on the shelves in perfect order. In this frame of mind, the last thing I want to see is a customer riffling around, disturbing the place.


Does this sound familiar? I know people who think like this about their libraries . And not just about print books, but digital formats too. I recall negative feelings being expressed toward PDA. “Librarians need to curate the collection because we know what’s good— if we give that power over to the patrons they’ll choose poorly”—I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist.


The point I’m trying to make is – or rather—the question I want to ask is—how do we feel about our libraries? Am I out on my own here or do others also have a sense of ownership too? If you launch a website do you feel it’s yours? If you lead a project is it your project. If you design/redesign space, is it your space? Do we make an emotional investment in our work– and if so, what happens when you leave it?


Becoming a steward
I began feeling different about all this when a colleague of mine recently retired. She was very embedded in the day-to-day operations. Her role and leadership was very essential. Yet the day after she left everything continued as it had been. People filled in and the system adapted to her absence.


This was punctuated by my own departure. Everything that I was invested in now belongs to someone else. The ideas that were mine are now for someone else to develop. The relationships that I formed will be fostered by someone else. And one day, when that person leaves, someone else will pick up from there.


This all sounds pretty obvious, I know—but it boils down to this: we’re all temporary, but the library lives on.


I guess with starting a new job this concept is very much on my mind. And this is where stewardship fits in. This is the first time in my career that I feel I am genuinely serving the interests of my University, rather than my own goals or the library for that matter. It’s liberating. I’m driven now by the question: how can I enhance the legacy of the university? As I mentioned in the previous post my new position is not only library-wide but also campus-wide, with the objective of enhancing teaching and learning across the enterprise. This grants a particular freedom but also a new (wider) perspective.


Pardon my ponderings—I’ll get back on track next post. It’s about learning spaces.

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