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Career Strategies for Librarians
Designated for Assignment
by Sally Gore

Imagine. Bart reports to work this morning to his job as a reference librarian at the local liberal arts
college. It’s a position he’s held for a few years now. He hangs up his coat, gets his morning cup of
coffee, and is on his way to the reference desk when his manager calls him into her office. She closes
the door behind him and asks him to take a seat.

“This is tough for me to say, Bart,” she begins. “We first called you to this position because we saw such
potential in you. Your skills, though somewhat untested, were so promising. It was obvious you would
catch on quickly. You were creative, innovative, willing and able to learn new things. You had such
enthusiasm for your work.

“But lately, you seem to be in a slump, your performance not what we expect. The number of reference
requests you fulfill daily is down from previous years. Your average for correct or complete answers has
fallen below 50%. Patrons are complaining that you’re not pointing them in the right direction for service,
not giving them what they’ve asked for.

“I’ve spoken with the director and we both feel that perhaps a change of scenery would do you good.
Perhaps even rejuvenate your career. What I’m saying is… we’ve decided to let you go, Bart. The library
director at the university across town has agreed to take you. We’ll be trading you for one of their staff.

“I hope you won’t take this too personally. This is a business, you know, and this is a business decision.
We’re looking to do what’s best for our team here. And what’s best for you. I’m sure, in time, you’ll
understand.”

And so Bart heads back to his desk, grabbing an empty box from the storage room on the way. He packs
up his belongings, makes the rounds with his co-workers, and heads out the door, designated for
assignment elsewhere.

I am not a manager in my library. Truth be told, the ink on my diploma from library school is only a little
more than a year old. I’ve been in my very first professional library position – for that matter, any library
role other than intern, volunteer shelver or patron – for just shy of a year. I love my job, enjoy coming to
work, and look forward to the tasks that await me each day. And I certainly hope that even in 5, 10, or 20
years I’ll be singing the same tune.

But I was hardly a stranger to libraries before I worked in one and unfortunately had too many
experiences that told me for sure that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for landing employment in
these great places. There seem to be people who work in libraries, as there are surely folks working in
every profession, who just don’t like what they do. Everything is a bother and they seem to go out of their
way to be unhelpful. They’d rather be doing something else with their time, but rather than doing that
something, they just put in the time at their job. Unhappy and unfulfilled and eventually, underperforming.

I am also a huge fan of major league baseball. I love the game despite the fact that it’s a bastion for
blatant sexism, a haven for too many overpaid, over-inflated egos. But the thrill and excitement of
following my team throughout the course of innings, games, and seasons is something I truly enjoy. I
am quite happy spending most summer evenings cheering on my beloved Red Sox.

And it was a recent announcement by the Sox that got me to thinking about how it might be if my work
world was more like that of a major league player, a world in which personnel are easily exchanged,
traded, released from contracts, all to make the team better. In one of his columns in American Libraries,
Will Manley lamented the inability of managers to easily get rid of employees who performed poorly
(December 2004). He wished for a world like Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” where one could easily
say, “You’re fired!”  I wonder about another option, one like that found in the world of major league
baseball.

What might it be like if managers could trade employees? What if they could let go of those not meeting
expectations, hoping all the while that someone picks up their contract? If not, they merely buy it out and
move on.

And from the “player’s” perspective, what might it be like to be traded, to come to work one morning, like
poor Bart, not fully aware of all that’s about to unfold? Imagine being packed up and shipped off, halfway
across the country, to a new job where you’re expected to report to work tomorrow. Never mind that you
have no place to live and probably don’t even know how to get to work. Everyone knows this is a
business. Would it change anything about the way we do our jobs? Make us perform better? Make us try
harder? Make us want to put in the effort needed to improve our skills and abilities? I wonder.

I also wonder what it might be like to go to work in a setting where people stand up and cheer for you
and hold up banners with your name on them, pat you on the backside for that great answer you just
gave. And just as easily call you a bum when you ignore them, scream at the top of their lungs when you
can’t provide them access to the free full-text of that journal article they want, say awful things about your
mother when you tell them they’ve exceeded their 30-minute time limit on the computer. But this is all
quite a different thought.

Perhaps there is something to the world of trade deadlines and the off-season meetings of general
managers. After all, these people are purposefully trying their very best to wheel and deal and do
whatever is necessary to put together the best team that they can. Sometimes that means getting rid of
those who just don’t fit well within the system, those that are underachieving, and those not living up to
either their potential or the expectations of their boss.

Honestly, no one thinks twice about this when it comes to professional sports. It is accepted as the way
business is done. But when you think about it, it’s such an odd thing, really. What other business
operates in such a way? And could it actually work anywhere else?  

Still, there must be some way, some arrangement that could really encourage and lead folks to make
the most of who they are and to use all of their talents in their work. There must be something that would
push us all to be our very best in our profession. Maybe we don’t need to adopt the culture of “trade
talks”, but perhaps there is something we can learn from the great American pastime, perhaps
something found in an idea as simple as playing a game.

Riding the train into Boston recently, I overheard a father say to his daughter, “Look up ahead and you’ll
see Fenway Park. That’s where the Red Sox play.”

That’s where the Red Sox play. We don’t say “that’s where the Red Sox work” despite the fact that their
play is certainly their vocation. They are professionals, highly skilled in what they do at work (not unlike
librarians) and they have to work hard to keep their place, hold onto their position, lest someone else
take their spot.  

Libraries and librarians, like baseball and its players, are institutions in our culture. Maybe we need not
take on the trade culture, but we could adopt and nurture the feeling that any library – like any ballpark –
is a magical place in which to work. We could remember that it’s not everyone who gets the opportunity
to work in such a place. Not everyone has the talent for it and not everyone the good fortune to land a job
there. To appreciate our place, to see our role it in this light, is one step toward keeping a positive
attitude in our work – something that benefits the librarian, his or her coworkers, and the patrons that we
all seek to serve. And perhaps also makes coming to work each day as enjoyable as playing our favorite
game.

About the Author:

Sally Gore is a librarian at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where she oversees two web-
based resources that provide quality consumer health information to the public. Her career in libraries
began a year ago after completion of her library degree from Syracuse University. Her subject specialty is
in exercise physiology and yes… she is a baseball fan!

Article published Feb 2006

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