Friday, July 30, 2004

Open-letter to my PLS librarian colleagues

(Otherwise known as “Rantings of a PLS Librarian Hyped on Caffeine.”)
 * Every blogger seems to write an open-letter sooner or later. The tone of this letter may be exaggerated, but not by much.

Dear PLS librarian,

Let’s call a cow a cow: Many of us in PLS think that we are the poorer professional cousins to our colleagues in Reference and Technical Services. The crux of the matter is this – we often derive our self-worth from the things we do. And with that, we think handling irate readers and pointing directions to toilets are demeaning. 

In PLS, there are the inevitable Self-Important-People (SIP) who sap so much of our time and energy dealing with their endless complaints (many of them are simply using us as an outlet for their vehemence against the government and society at large).

We cannot control what these SIP say or do. But we can control how we react. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote: "Don't burn a blanket because of one flea! Don't waste a day on trivial irritation, some gnat's headache."

When we talk about offering bigger and better services and information products, I’ve heard many of us say that we are not ready. I wonder what is it that we are “not ready”? For failure? We are always ready for that. It seems that we procrastinate because we are not ready for the possibility of success.

Librarians have the notion that “top management” must initiate projects and give direction. Who is “top management”? What can they do for us? Why can't we give them directions for a change?

Many of us expect to be given money, time, and staff in order for things to happen. We proclaim that no budget equals no initiative. But is this just a convenient excuse for inaction? When one is in danger of dying of thirst, one does not wait for a well to be dug.

Many of us claim that we don’t have time to read or write; to hone our professional skills. Yes, there are many things that tie us down like administrative duties. But I say we show them the money first. Let’s simply write what we can, and if we’re good enough, they will be compelled to give us money, time and more staff to do even more. But first, we need to start writing. And to write well, we need to read. A lot.

I know we tend to be introverts & thinned-skinned – which is a liability as a large part of the job requires us to aggressively sell our products. What we “sell” is exactly like Insurance. It’s something which benefits people, but they don’t instantly see its value. The value of our work may not be evident til much much later, and even then, perhaps only cherished by its absence.

But unlike Insurance Agents, we in the public service do not have huge financial rewards and bonuses to entice us to work. Each of us has to delve down deep into our insides and ask why we are in this line of work.

What is the VISION for the team, we ask? We don't think we all know the BIG PICTURE and DIRECTION. But hey, if the direction is not there, what is stopping us from creating it? Some of us actually prefer situations where directions are not clear. It means we get to define what we want to do.

Bosses need to set examples too. If they expect librarians to write and read and share, why not start from them and cascade downwards? Seriously, if bosses themselves say they have no time, then should they be surprised that staff down the line also say they have no time?

And why stop there? Why not have our board of directors to form Book clubs? Get them to get other Movers & Shakers in Singapore to also read. Do what our Thai counterparts have managed to do – get their Prime Minister to read a story on national radio.

Not all of us have that same philosophical outlook nor equal levels of “mental stamina”. Not all have the staying power to see results in long term. 

How do we get comfortable with failing and trying again? That which doesn’t kill us, will only make us stronger. And if we have to perish professionally, then let’s go down with guns blazing. What have we to lose?

I’m convinced that our Public Library Service is on the edge of a quiet revolution – there will be no fanfare, no high-powered government-initiated commissions and report like Library 2000. In fact, I think it has already started. We are at a professional crossroad where we must, simply, make a choice.

Not least, let's consider what legacy we would like to leave behind. Here’s something out of a passage in "Transforming the Organization" by Francis J. Gouillart & James N. Kelly (1995):
"It's a hundred years later and you've been in your grave for years. So let's talk about the legacy you left. What? You've never heard of Martin Van Buren or James Monroe? They were American presidents, but almost no one remembers anything about them. Now, why should anyone care that you created the best customer service in the cosmetics industry?"
So adapting that, let’s fill in the following blanks: 
Why should we invest so much time and effort in ________?
Because by doing so, at the end of _________ years, our customers & users will be able to say _________.

Yours Sincerely,
The Rambling Librarian

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