A Ladder, A Rope, or the Stairs: Choose Your Own Career

Last week at MPOW, we had two leadership training days with Maureen Sullivan (who is a great facilitator). Most librarians under a certain age or a certain level in the organization were included in the sessions. It was interesting, frustrating, and medicinal. It was frustrating because a lot of the organizational culture issues we were talking about last year and the year before that are still crippling issues. It was medicinal because there was some laundry airing that felt good. None of the things we discussed are unique to my library.

Much of the discussion, however, was very interesting. The conversations that made me ponder most my place in this library and this profession was the generational discussion. We had everything from Boomers to Millenials in the room. Our ideas of what should be were so different that it was again brought home to me that I may not have the patience to wait for my library to change.

One of the conversations was about “paying one’s dues.” I said that my weakness was maintaining a patience level that would pace me with my organization. I stated that I wanted things to start changing now, I wanted flexibility, and I wanted to be more effective in my efforts. One of my older colleagues replied that I had to wait 10 years until I am in management to effect my idea of The Library. I retorted that I did not want to wait 10 years! I am here now!

At the time I was angry and frustrated, but the more I thought about his response, I knew this was the difference that holds many of us who want change now back. There is a strong divide between the “pay your dues crowd” and those of us that think we should have the opportunity and power to effect change RIGHT NOW. This small, but heated, conversation was the perfect example of generational differences.

I do not want to wait. Gone are the days when the majority of us will stay at the same library for years on end, retiring after a long service to the same organization. The reality is that I will mostly likely only be at my current library for a small number of years before I move on. I want to make this library better NOW, not after I leave. I want MPOW to be fabulous, I want to think big and be able to do something with those dreams, and I want to do it now. There is only so much subterfuge and subversion that can go on before you must gain official permission for things and all that dealing is exhausting.

A friend and co-worker pointed me to a new blog and this post in particular. Penelope Trunk is talking about the changing idea’s of paying one’s dues. There are some other good themes, like the amount of family time that must be sacrificed to achieve the pinnacle of most careers, but the majority of the post is about people who are succeeding well because they are hopping up and around the ladder of success. The climb no longer has to be drudgery and serfdom. The climb to success can vary immensely because there are so many more options available to us. Organizations that plan for this new model will be the one’s that succeed. Ones that do not will continue to drop by the wayside, waiting for a Good Samaritan to take pity and haul them out of their ditch.

The question most administrators should be asking themselves is how can they provide a flexible working environment for staff, especially younger or driven staff, that can and will choose to move in a different direction to attain the flexibility they want and need?

The question for librarians gazing at the top of the ladder from the bottom is thus: Do you want to go straight up, waiting your turn for others to vacate the upper rungs, or would you rather forgo the ladder and try the rope or the stairs?

–Jane, looks around for a rope

30 thoughts on “A Ladder, A Rope, or the Stairs: Choose Your Own Career

  • May 2, 2007 at 8:58 am

    Hi, Jane.

    Thank you for linking to Brazen Careerist.

    Your post is excellent. I read it twice. You capture a moment in the history of work so well. Maybe you should submit this to a trade journal.


  • May 2, 2007 at 9:15 am

    I appreciate that you say “younger or driven,” because some of us wrinkled Millenials have issues with traditional workplaces as well. For one thing, it’s bad news for librarianship if we don’t change our core models. But librarianship is largely built around the premise of workplace hierarchies/time-in-service; the commitment to excellence is all too often missing. If that doesn’t change, all the management exercises in the world won’t keep the young/driven at the library.

    Paying dues indeed… to whom, I ask?

  • May 2, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Hi Jane,

    You make a very important point, and having read your blog I for one, hope that you get to help make changes now – not in 10 years time.

    I think things are a little different in the UK, with less emphasis on time serving – but I’m sure some of my colleagues feel the same as you.

    What I do know is that for the profession to develop and have the impact in organisations and society that WE know it should have, we must harness the talents and skills of all our staff – otherwise we’ll be left behind.

    So, don’t give up – keep fighting your corner, and build alliances with others. There is strength in numbers.

    Best wishes, Ian (from London, UK)

  • May 2, 2007 at 9:29 am

    Yes – it is all well and good to want the power to change things now – but how do you know that your changes will be for the better?

    Maybe some of us who have been in the workplace longer have a better perspective of what will work and what will cause problems down the road for those of us who stick around.

    Just a thought.

  • May 2, 2007 at 9:38 am

    You are right, time and hindsight can grow wisdom, but it also breeds caution. Caution can be good. It can give one time to think and ponder outcomes. However, caution and fear can be crippling. I would point to Helene Blowers recent post in response:

    Who does the no hurt?

  • May 2, 2007 at 9:47 am

    Hiya. If those at the top who have paid their dues cared about their libraries, they’d be making positions for those of us who are younger and care passionately about making those libraries better. Why?

    According to the article The Click and Clash of Generations>from LibraryJournal.com in 2003: “ALA predicts that 58 percent of professional librarians will retire by 2019. A 2000 LJ survey found that 40 percent intend to retire in the next nine years or less.”

    If we don’t have experience running the place and then they all retire, no way will we know how to take care of the libraries they have worked so hard to build for so long.

  • May 2, 2007 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for reminding me how incredibly damned lucky I am that the leadership at my institution cleared the ladder for me, and threw me a rope so I could skip a few rungs, in recognition of my drive and my goals.

    I should never forget how unique that experience is compared to that of many of my peers.

    That said, my administration proves that it’s possible to make room for the drive and goals of driven younger librarians while still respecting the roles and needs of the long-time members of our staff. It CAN be done.

  • May 2, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Long and ranty:

    Who is to say we haven’t paid our dues? We are educated, we have that Masters degree, we have work experience, we are qualified to do the work, how much more in dues must we pay? So somebody is suggesting that you/we must wait 10 years to get a management position and that, only with that management position, can you influence change. First, change can be influenced from any position (I vaguely recall a book I read years ago called “leading from behind) and, more importantly, in 10 years we are likely to be tired, cynical, and possibly complacent. Are we going to be effective that way? Does the head of the organization really want ineffective, tired, bitter staff that are sick of fighting the system? Who knows, maybe that is the unspoken goal. But, I doubt it. I can’t believe that any decent library director would really want that. I sometimes wonder if the “pay your dues” line comes from a people that put up their own fight a few years back and have just been beaten down by a crappy system.

    But things are a bit different now. Everything has changed or been affected by change in some way. Maybe we can bounce up the ladder of success. It’s a different kind of ladder now; one that allows for one to take a position of leadership and influence sooner or differently than the old ladder allowed. Just because it’s a different ladder, doesn’t mean it’s not a good ladder.

    Story time: I’m part of a family that has this amazing bread they make every Christmas. It’s “grandma’s recipe” from Czechoslovakia. It’s a long process to make it the way grandma did. My SIL figured out how to do it in the bread machine. Her father was livid. He raged, “That’s not how your grandmother made it.” My SIL is very sweet, but very direct. She explained, “Grandma didn’t have a breadmaker. She didn’t even have electricity. Believe me, if she had a breakmaker, she would have used it.” It got him to rest up.

    The point, though, is that the path to becoming a person of influence in our workplace or in our profession is different than it was a decade ago. I’m suggesting that the path(s) to leadership and influence are currently paved with some time-saving tools that simply weren’t available a decade ago. (A decade ago, I wouldn’t have known about an academic librarian from Texas when I work primarily w/ public libraries in Idaho.) I am NOT suggesting that there is nothing to learn from our coworkers and from all those that entered this profession ahead of us. They have so much to share. I do, however, think it’s possible to make change now while still honoring the values and experience of those that have laid the foundation for us.

  • May 2, 2007 at 10:21 am

    I believe that leadership takes many forms and you can lead from the bottom, for awhile. At some point, you have to be given “authority.” Usually, this comes when work flow needs to be changed or other resources must be given.

    You rant is spot on. There is a faster way. We just have to find it. (or create it)

  • May 2, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Getting out my chalk, pick ax and climbing shoes…

  • May 2, 2007 at 11:22 am

    First of all, thanks for linking to booktruck! I’m really glad to see this conversation happening here, and on this scale.

    To me, our current hierarchical management structure seems so inherently sexist and outdated. Instead of becoming leaders on our own terms- being allowed to set our own priorities and contribute to the profession in the way that we want to, we’re given a top-down model of predetermined roles, and some vague yet non-negotiable requirements to become managers. This shuts out so many people- most notably, women with young children, but also anyone who’s simply not interested in spending their working life chasing this goal, from having any real stake in this profession.

    I want to be part of a working culture that can draw great things from its workers, not one that systematically shuts them out.

  • May 2, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Yes – it is all well and good to want the power to change things now – but how do you know that your changes will be for the better?

    So, who decides how long these dues must be paid and Jane (for example) is finally experienced enough to know what change is good and what change is bad? 10 years? 15? 25? Is there some standard by which working for 10 years in a profession automatically means you know what changes to make and when? I’ve been working in libraries since 1990, but I’ve only been a degreed librarian since 2005. Who should I ask as to whether or not I’ve paid my dues yet?

    Another thought: the libraries I’ve worked in and around don’t deal with life or death situations. Making a change just to try something new won’t hurt anyone or fatally damage the library. I’ve been reading Jane’s blog for a while now, hung out with her in person, and seen what she can do. If anyone says she needs to work for 10 years before she can make changes she wants to see, those people are seriously losing out. Libraries need Jane (and people like her) far more than Jane needs a particular library.

  • May 2, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Another problem with the top-down model is it encourages more of the same. What else can you do when you get to the top except preserve your place by insisting that the system works?

    As for Amy’s comment about “what will cause problems down the road for those of us who stick around,” that was a direct echo of things I heard as a new librarian. The implicit message is that new librarians, if allowed to facilitate change, will muck up everyone’s comfort zone and then head for another job.

    Well, yeah. It’s called disruption. It’s also a reminder that we aren’t in libraries to make ourselves comfortable, we’re here to provide service to our users.

    Again, there are roles for expertise and experience, and I appreciate working with newer librarians who are open to hearing from some of us who may have perspectives they haven’t thought of, facts they don’t yet have access to, experiences they haven’t acquired. But it should be a partnership–like fresh bread and a well-aged wine.

  • May 2, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    Well said, Jane! But, as you well know, there are a myriad of ways to lead without a “leadership position”. For instance, many of us have discovered that if you do cool, inventive, and interesting things, people take notice and start paying attention to you.

    Or, you can just do what you want, without “formal” blessing, and see if they can keep up. I know you’re familiar with that. 😉

  • May 2, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    You are too kind. This coming from the man who started the Library Association of the World! http://librarysociety.pbwiki.com/

    There are many ways to lead. Some of them involve Super Secret Projects. Mwahahaaaa.

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  • May 2, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks, Jane! I liked the link to the Brazen Careerist post. I’m feeling a need to read some more in _Re-Imagine!_ by Tom Peters. I can only take his style in small doses, but he has really great stuff on focusing on WOW projects that are under the radar.

    My long honeymoon on my job ended with a discouraging thud recently. The honeymoon was so long that I thought I was always going to hear “you are so right, Joy, go right ahead with that!” So now, I’m setting out to learn the delicious fun of the secret project.

    Also, taking great hope in a recent rumor that our unit is going to get “blown up.” Being at Ground Zero for that should be an interesting experience–I suspect more easily handled by the young and/or driven (myself in the 2nd category–commenting semi-anonymously here) than by the people who “paid dues.”

    And, GinaP, absolutely! The MLS was our dues.

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  • May 3, 2007 at 10:21 am

    Came here via T. Scott. I have to echo Amelia’s comment about traditional hierarchies beyond outmoded. I see so many library “mgmt” positions asking for 5-7 years of experience w/ increasing responsibility–and a narrow definition of what responsibility means. I think there are a lot of X and Y-ers, particularly in libraries, who aren’t particularly attracted to traditional mgmt. What we’re interested in is flexibility–not only in work-life balance, but in our day-to-day jobs. I want to have the flexibility to work for a while on projects that will help my users, and not have to ask permission of my supervisor (or balance the demands of supervising other professionals) to do it.

    I’m at an academic library w/ a large staff, and until recently we were in very traditional units (tech services, instruction, reference, etc). But on top of that we’re liaisons. So if you were an effective liaison, that meant you got pulled away from “unit” responsibilities, which, depending on your supervisor, was not always approved of. This created tensions for a number of people.

    We’ve recently moved to a less hierarchical and more flexible, team-based structure, which is great–except that now only a few people are actual supervisors. What we have is a bunch of solo librarians/liaisons working under one roof. The organization is much more flexible and responsive to change–but it may be harder for people to move on & up to other organizations w/ traditional hierarchies.

    The focus of ALA, MLA, and other orgs, is currently on “recruitment and retention of managers.” But I really think that as long as libraries stick to these traditional notions of leadership & mgmt, it’s going to be a hard sell to those who are looking for that flexible organization.

  • May 3, 2007 at 2:31 pm

    I agree with so many things that people have said here. Change can happen (and often does) in many different ways, from change being mandated from a heriarchal committee structure to being driven by a grass-roots effort from deep within the system. Change can be scary to people as well, and as Jane mentioned, you sometimes do need to have the authority to do things. Sure, I do a lot of innovative things on a small scale and occasionally have to ask for forgiveness later. But pursuing many creative ideas, such as wanting to implement something like the 5 Weeks to a Social Library or Learning 2.0, require other people’s time, energy, and skills.

    At MPOW, I hear complaints from almost everyone on how they are overwhelmed and too busy to possibly take on additional work. But who isn’t busy? But when work blends in with the rest of my life, I find time to read and post to blogs, play with new technologies, think about things, play WoW or SL, because these are things that are important to me. I like being aware of what’s going on in libraryland and being challenged to think in new ways by interacting with my library colleagues all over the world. I can’t separate many of my interests into work and non-work piles. But is having the authority enough when it comes to developing and implementing bigger ideas, programs, services? Library management may not be on the same page I’m on or share my perspective on where we should really be focusing our energy and time. But if they were, what do you do when many of your colleagues are still risk-averse, technophobic, and not wanting to participate or make those changes that Jane so desperately wants to happen now? Or what if everyone IS really just too busy?

    There are going to be many retirements in libraryland (and including MPOW) over the next 5 years, and I really don’t want to wait to move into a management position to effect change. Why can’t we change now? Why can’t I help contribute to the vision of where the library is headed? Are my ideas less meaningful because I am younger or have only been here 3 years, or have been a librarian about 6 years? Waiting only puts us further behind and less in touch with our users. Why can’t library management capitalize on those who are eager, fresh with ideas, and willing to put their strengths and interests to work for the good of the whole system?

    I also know several people who have the ideas, vision, and enthusiasm, but their fire has died down from getting beaten by the system. They have become cynical or have given up completely in trying to make a difference. It’s so sad, and I hope to never feel trapped or so beaten down that I give up trying.

    What am I getting at? A shift is looming – in attitude and awareness that organizations need to be run differently, and that all staff, whether new or seasoned, have something to contribute. (Or at least I hope it is!)

  • May 3, 2007 at 9:39 pm

    Excellent post Jane, sorry to have come at it so late. Albeit petty, I think the “pay your dues” theme will continue to happen alot because folks who had to live the hierarchy for so long are going to remain jealous of the upcoming generation whose career paths and general quality of life (even in the library world) are skyrocketting.

    But libraries need to be making sure that new librarians are learning as much and as fast as they can. About technology, yes — but about everything else too — from “where do we normally store the plunger to prevent mould build-up near the stacks”? to “how does Sarah HRPerson traditionally deal with grant employees who are term, non-permanent seasonal and appointed with a weekly ‘pat on the head’ written into their contract?” Libraries are hell-bound if they do not start bringing the learning (of all kinds) in and around the whole organization. The silo/hierarchy method of handling things is not really going to cut it in the long run.

  • May 4, 2007 at 1:09 am

    At MFPOW, where I was a senior manager, I did expect people to pay their dues. But the dues were not paid in time, but in trust.

    If a newish staff member wanted to do a project (and they had a reasonable plan in place) I let them try. If it worked, I would trust them to do another project if they asked – or I would ask them to do one myself. If it didn’t work – we would reassess and I might reconsider how much leash to let them have.

    I was fortunate that my boss was willing to let me do things this way. At my current place of work, my boss works with our department in much the same way. It seems a reasonable way to work.

  • May 4, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    I wish I had read this post two days ago. It’s likely that not a single pair of eyes will see this, or that my words might turn people away (my apologies), but I’ll try anyway.

    (Disclosure: I’m probably the youngest person involved with any aspect of this post.) The profession is not graying. I’ll take the direct approach here. The way I see it, it’s maintaining its grayness (literally and figuratively). Maybe that is preferred or comfortable. Change is difficult, right? Many new librarians are starting out “gray” (again, literally and/or figuratively). It “looks” better to have a new Boomer librarian elevate to management quickly (if not immediately) than it does to have a Millennial like myself make it there within a decade of becoming a professional. (I think this is even more true in the world of public libraries, where I just can’t see myself working right now.)

    One of my co-workers (who is not a librarian himself and has been at MPOW for almost 20 years), with whom I have worked for 2.5 years, once told me that I do more professional development activities than any of our non-professional staff. I’m not a librarian yet; I start library school in August. I would add to that to say that I diversify my professional development in more ways than even some of the professional staff. I’m not even supposed to care about [begin sarcasm] such silly things as reading professional literature, participating in library associations, attending conferences and workshops, and maintaining correspondence with other people working in my field. Why would I waste time and money (each belonging both to myself and my employer) on such things? It won’t matter to anyone, right? [end sarcasm] I don’t ever want to hear anything to the effect of “that’s nice” or “good for you” from a current employer in relation to any of my professional development. I’m not spending their money just for them to receive absolutely no return on investment.

    I wish I could confirm my earlier assertion that the average age of new librarians is actually increasing (and possibly break this down by type of library). That’s just what it feels like to me (and I’ve been working in libraries as my committed career since I was just barely 21.) I could be much more controversial with this take, but I’ll save that for another day. I’ll just say that it has to do with a career/life path for librarians I have seen (but could never follow myself) that would get me stoned to death if I so much as mention it.

    The frustrating thing for me will be waiting. I mentioned somewhere else in the past (I can’t remember exactly where) that it will be difficult for me to feel like I can be taken seriously as a professional (one day, I hope), let alone someone who is employed in a library in any capacity. I hypothesize that this perception (whether it’s mine or indeed that of some of the professional library world) will go away as soon as I turn 40. (Just fifteen short years to go.) I could start racking MLS after JD after MPA after Ph.D, but until I get significantly older, it might be nothing more than “nice.”

    Forget the rope. I’ll just scale the building under my own power.

  • May 12, 2007 at 12:45 pm

    There are three types of people: (1) those who have a job, (2) those who come to work, and (3) those who want to go bed exhausted everyday because everyday they worked to make profound changes in their own life, the lives of others they know, and the lives of people they will never know and they keep on doing this everyday.

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  • June 13, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    I’m coming to this post very late, but I wanted to thank you for it. I’m in my third semester of library school (MSIS Spring 08) and I’m already chomping at the bit to get into management and ruffle some feathers. But I worry that I won’t be able to. That my flame will go out and I’ll be complacent and tired by the time I’ve “paid my dues.”

    @GeekChick – thank you so much for putting into words the dark thing that gnawed at me about the dues paying – every librarian (and I’d venture to say library staff, too) should be given an opportunity to prove themselves, regardless of age. Give us an opportunity to show what we can do for the library and the community. If we succeed, then give us more responsibility because it’s been earned. And if we fail, it’s not a one-shot and your out deal – these are our careers. Each of us is (supposed to be) still learning and growing. If we fail, show us how to retrace our steps and figure out what went wrong. Then give us a pat on the back and send us out again.

    If someone has an idea for change in a library, by gum, let them have a go at it. If you don’t trust them to do good things for the library, then why on earth did you hire them?

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