Column Description: This isn't how I imagined my job, though oddly enough I like it enough to stick around. Join me as I explore the dysfunctional junction that's library land.

Before I got my first job at a library, I worked in another thriving industry – newspapers! For a couple of years during my tenure at a local daily, I was an editor. We had two editorial meetings a day (at least), and at each, I was the youngest at the table, as well as the only female. I sat there, mute, too intimidated to do more than blurt out what my reporters were writing for the next day’s issue as quickly as possible.

Fast forward a few years and I’m at my first Directors’ Association meeting at my library system, a deer in the headlights, cowed by the rapid-fire exchange of whatever heated debate was going on. And I can’t remember the topic of that meeting’s conversation, but I can assure you it was a debate, and I promise you it was heated. Because that’s the way all our Directors’ Association meetings go. 

One might ask – why? We’re a community of like-minded individuals, striving for the same goal….to fulfill the information-seeking needs of our cardholders. We’re librarians - not enlisted military personnel putting our lives on the line, or acute care workers trying to save someone else’s. You’d think we’d be a chill group. Alas.

We don’t sit there arguing amongst ourselves indiscriminately. Usually, the spark that ignites a dispute is the result of a question asked by a library director, which seems to be interpreted as a criticism by library system staff, who then become defensive, forgetting that their job is to serve their member libraries. 

The environment this philosophy inspires is the exact opposite of collaborative at exactly the worst time for libraries and their systems to be at odds with one another. Recently I attended a meeting where it was suggested by two different colleagues that one of the library directors should not participate in a subcommittee because she didn’t seem “supportive” of the system. Translated, this means she asks questions at meetings and thinks critically, instead of nodding like a bobblehead at everything system staff want the DA to approve. Here we are, a group of allegedly intelligent people – most of us claiming to be liberal-minded, by the way – and we’re conducting ourselves like an autocracy. 

Back at the newspaper, there were arguments that broke out during the editorial meetings, of course. Usually involving which story was worthy of the front page, which should be relegated further back, what should be a brief, what should be booted to the Saturday edition. But when all was said and done, we didn’t leave the table refusing to work together. In fact, most of us went out for drinks together once our deadlines were met. 

It can be intimidating to sit at these DA meetings when things go pear-shaped. In my experience, you hear a colleague make what you consider an excellent point, watch that colleague get completely torn to shreds by system staff and the few directors who mysteriously back them, and consider yourself lucky that you didn’t speak up yourself, even if your library is paying 40 percent more for eBooks than the year previous; even if you don’t think the system’s IT budget should include the cost of a cataloger; even if your system’s director recommends DA members steer clear of joining NYLA. You see that retaliatory aggression seems to be directed toward your more vocal colleagues. But eventually, you get so angry you no longer care, and then you speak, and speak and speak and speak, and watch as nothing changes.

All the same, I remind myself, librarians are like newspaper people in that we’re a group of introverts doing what’s become an extrovert’s job. We should feel a sense of camaraderie in our struggle to promote services that are needed now more than ever. So my hope for my own system (and yours, if you need it) is that we can overcome this bizarre animosity before we make things worse for ourselves. Because if people think the death of libraries will come at the hands of irrelevancy, they’ve never been to a DA meeting. It might very well be a suicide.

Lisa Palmer hasn't received her MLIS yet, so, everything she says is meaningless. Read at your own risk.