Spring 2001

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Librarian Talks To Herself

by Dr. William Taber, NYSALB Trustee

Spring 2001 issue of Trustee

Have you ever noticed your librarian talking to herself (or to himself as the case may be)? Does she talk out loud at her desk in her office, or perhaps does she mutter quietly in a low continuing conversation, especially with--or perhaps at-- her computer? Does she shake her head at times, put down a pencil or a mouse a bit too hard as she goes through papers, scowl at the computer screen, spin around abruptly toward the file cabinet to grab something, and perhaps share with you (whether you are still in the room or not) various arcane problematics of interlibrary loan systems, changing computer programs, accounting minutia? Do you occasionally hear agonized, albeit controlled, outbursts of "How am I supposed to know THAT?!"

If so, how do you interpret this behavior? Is it a sign of impending breakdown; should the board check the medical insurance (if any) for the staff? Hire a counselor? Or perhaps this is a normal part of running a small library in today's environment?

I think that a clue to our diagnosis is to see if there are some critical cyclical elements in this phenomenon. Does it happen all the time regardless of the hour, place, or circumstance? If so, then perhaps the library board should check out some of the medical responses noted above. On the other hand, if it appears most evident at certain times (and she or he is quite normal the rest of the time) we might suspect that this symptom reflects other aspects of modern librarianship in the small public library (where the librarian has to do everything). I can't diagnose your librarian, but I have noticed generally that January and February are months of intensified presentation of these symptoms. The "Annual Report" required by the state is prepared during this time, and the marvels of changing technology have led our governmental masters to change the rules nearly every year.

This year, they required that the report be done on a computer (not all computers will do it!) connected to a special web page somewhere out there in Internet Land that presents its questions in a form that must have been formulated with large libraries and big staffs in mind. "One page fits all" is a nice approach for those who receive the final document but not for those who must answer questions that at times verge upon the meaningless in the context of a really small library. In addition, the web page itself developed problems that prevented for days the final filing of the report and thereafter getting a printed copy of it. (A printed copy to check your facts prior to the final filing of the report is not permitted, since the web page actually disables the printer as long as the computer is connected to the web page! You have no choice. Paper is verboten! Hmmm. Interesting. Is the world already run only by kids?)

If the self-conversing librarian is more audible in February, our suspicions are aroused that it is not the librarian who is breaking down. What is it then? Perhaps what we are hearing is more related to the increasing workload and the growing complexity of technology, missions, services, regulations, legal vulnerabilities, and political sensitivities that the librarian (usually alone) has to juggle in the small library. There are no resources or staff to whom she can "farm out" part of the load of exasperation.

So, if your librarian talks to herself especially in February, don't call for the white coats right away. Are there other occasions during the year when the muttering seems to be equally benign? Real suspects seem to be whenever the library system changes its basic computer programs so that the tried-and-true systems are suddenly outmoded by wholly new techniques. They're called "programs" but actually they are languages. Think of your life as it would be if you were permitted to speak English for only one more year; thereafter you must speak French. A year later, you have no choice but to speak only in German. Learn it or perish. Better start working on Italian for soon after and pray that they don't switch to Chinese eventually. This is the kind of flexibility that is required of the small town librarians nowadays. It is called progress.

Other circumstances that can precipitate muttering: offices so cramped that three things have to be moved in order to find one thing -- where did it go?! The budget years of the library, village, and town are all on different schedules but they are all interdependent and have to be integrated. Board members who sometimes... and so on.

Where is the real craziness? Gee, I'm talking to myself just thinking about it all. So -- when your librarian talks to herself, be kind to her. She is on the cutting edge of the millennium.

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