Career Strategies for Librarians
Oh, the Things I’ve Learned! Navigating the Labyrinth of Library Personalities
by Lisa A. Ennis

Growing up, my dad and I had this game I like to call “let’s see who can make whom the most
frustrated.” It took me years to figure out that this was just a game and that my dad didn’t really believe
the things he was saying; he was just trying to get my goat. However, sometime around my junior year of
high school, I started getting his goat – I could match him point for point and argument for argument.
Much to Mom’s chagrin, Dad and I often stayed up into the late hours of the night “debating” issues, both
current and historical. Sometimes things would become so heated that Mom would just storm off to bed.
I learned to think quickly on my feet and stand my ground, and I developed an uncanny ability to carry out
an idea to the most absurd conclusion possible, noting every little thing that could go wrong along the
way.  We still play this game, and Mom still storms off to bed.

It never occurred to me that other people might find this behavior confrontational, hostile or aggressive. I
think one of the reasons I was so drawn to academia was because I like to argue and debate things –
practically anything. However, my style, for the lack of a better word, hasn’t always been welcomed or
appreciated. My point here is that this fun Dad and I have has created a pretty strong part of my
personality, and while I don’t mean any harm or disrespect when I question people, it is often interpreted
negatively by folks who aren’t used to expressing themselves so freely.

My strong personality is not only my dad’s fault; Mom is also to blame. She is a strong, powerful,
outspoken woman. She taught me to speak my mind and express my feelings. As a result, when people
ask me what I think, I believe they really want to know what I think. While experience tells me that people
seldom really want to know what I think, I cannot help but tell them. So, now I find myself a librarian with a
strong and powerful personality dealing with other librarians of all makes and models. This has
provided me with some insight into librarian personalities and some experience charting the
treacherous waters of interpersonal skills. What I offer here is a list of four things I’ve observed and tried
to practice in the last seven years since I graduated from library school. These are particularly important
for people in new jobs, whether they are a new library assistant or director.

Active Listening

Active listening not only means that you pay attention and listen to the person speaking, but you hear and
empathize with what they are saying. One of worst things you can do is interrupt someone and dismiss
what they are saying and feeling. Active listening requires patience, tolerance, and an understanding that
you could never know what it feels like to be that other person. Don’t compare what they are going
through or went through to something that happened to you. It isn’t about you; it is about the person
sitting across from you. Even if you did have the exact same experience, you cannot understand what
anything feels like to another person. Under no circumstance should you ever tell someone that they
should or should not feel a certain way.  

Aretha Was Right

When Aretha Franklin belted out “you better think,” she was right.  You’d better think before you speak, or
e-mail for that matter.  It is easy to say or write something in the heat of the moment that you’ll regret
later. If things do start to get heated, suggest that the topic be tabled for later. If at all possible give folks,
including yourself, a chance to cool down. The 24-hour rule is really good for e-mail. Go ahead and write
the heated response if you want to, then save it, re-read it the next day, trash it, and then write a less
heated response. If things do get of hand, an apology goes a long way toward making things better.  

Tone Counts

There is a delicate balance between giving someone the room to be who they are and allowing bad
behavior. For instance, I know a librarian who, no matter what the situation or circumstance, comes
across as condescending. Whether giving directions to the bathroom or answering a complicated
reference question, this person sounds just awful. The problem is, do we let this person continue to put
people off or do we let him or her know that he or she often puts people on the defensive? This is a
tough situation that could probably be handled with some gentle mentoring. This person has no idea
why people react badly to him or her and really doesn’t understand that his or her tone is, well, just not
nice. However, by allowing him or her to continue, we are not only hurting how the library is perceived but
we are also allowing that person to continue to hurt himself or herself.

The Golden Rule

The foundation of good interpersonal relationships is treating others how you want to be treated. Part of
the problem with this, though, is that not everyone wants to be treated the same.  For instance, I don’t
mind being questioned, and as I’ve noted, I don’t mind a good heated debate. However, sometimes
questioning others too aggressively can be viewed as disrespectful, threatening, rude, or even insolent.
So whereas I’d much rather someone tell me I’m about to make a mistake than sit by and watch me
make it, I’ve learned that a good number of people do not appreciate this sort of candor.  


What to do? Libraries often have a very unique and strange variety of people – it is one of the things I like
best about libraries. So I try to remind myself that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and
everyone has something to offer. Often a good manager can channel others’ strengths and weakness
into productive energy. You don’t have to be a director to manage others. Notice what people do and
what they do well. For instance, take the people that like structure, rules, and order and give them the
tasks that require those characteristics. Take the people that like the spontaneity and uncertainty of
working with the public and put them to work on outreach. Use peoples’ strengths and treat them all with
respect and dignity.

About the Author:

Lisa A. Ennis is the Government Documents Coordinator at Georgia College & State University in
Milledgeville, GA. She received her M.S. in Information Sciences from the University of Tennessee in
1997 and her M.A. in history from Georgia College & State University in 1994.  

Article published December 2004

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