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truth

Just short of one year ago, I wrote a post for this blog called “Why I’m Leaving Libraries for the Convent“. You can read it. It’s pretty good. You don’t need to read that to understand this. But you should still read it. (I’m trying to increase my hit count).

I really did leave libraries for a convent. I was in nun pre-training for 10 months. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and also the most joyful. I didn’t flunk out. I didn’t find out some horrible secret. It was a wonderful and beautiful place that wasn’t for me – like that guy that you know is great, but you know you just don’t love. So I left at the beginning of June. I found a part-time job as an Adult Librarian at a local library. I’m not sure how much more I want than that right now. I’m happy.

For those ten months, I worked in a home for the “indigent elderly”, which is a nice way of saying women who do not have the resources or family assistance to spend the rest of their lives anywhere but a nursing home. We allow them to live, for free, in home care with a retinue of volunteers and live-ins to love and care for them.

I did a lot of things that I thought impossible. Most of them involved smelly or bloody things. Still, the most impossible thing? I fell in love with each of the three women in our house. It really made everything harder because I wanted the best for them. But, these are adult women, 2 to 3 times my age — what might be best for them in my eyes, is often not what’s best in their eyes. Phrases like, “Are you sure that you want that cookie?” and “It’s your meds, you don’t want to take them that’s your choice” often came out of my mouth. That was my way of expressing the truth without confrontation or acting passive-aggressively if you will. The truth was I thought that what I had was better for them than what they were choosing. So, I had to learn this lesson: Speak the truth in love.

See, I totally tricked you into almost reading the Bible there. That line is drawn from Ephesians 4:15 (Book Chapter: Verse):

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

There I really did trick some of you into reading the Bible!

I know that I cannot get us all behind the whole sentiment of this verse. Some people are probably trying to wash their eyes out and muttering slanderous things about me under their breath for making them read that verse. My response to them is, “look, if you can quote Twilight on your Twitter feed, then I can quote the Bible in my blog post.”

Back to the point. What I found over the last year is that true servant leadership is intertwined with this one line: “Speak the truth in love“. Working the reference desk is a constant attempt to find the right way to do this.

“No sir, unfortunately your hygiene is causing a problem for other people, so I’m going to have to ask you to leave for until you can correct the issue.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand that your friend’s mole looks just like that cancerous one on Google images, but unfortunately I am not a doctor so I can’t call to tell her that.”

“Sadly, no. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer is not in the biography section. It is over here in the fiction section. Let me show you.”

How do you tell someone a hard truth? Something that you know that they do not want to hear? Speak the truth in love.

Don’t pussy-foot around it. You are doing no favors for them, for yourselves, or for other people at your library. Alternately, don’t take great pleasure or joy in it. Speak with tact and grace that transforms into genuine caring for another person’s well-being. Speak the truth in love.

Every library manager knows this, too. A large portion of management is learning how to navigate difficult situations with tact and grace.

“Jeanine, I know that things have been hard at home lately. Unfortunately, by coming in late and leaving early you’re compromising your effectiveness and that of your co-workers. Is there a way that we can work out a more convenient schedule during this time?”

“Bob, will you please read this section of the employee handbook? See here, jean shorts are actually against two portions of the dress code: no denim and no shorts. I can see why you like them, they’re very flattering, but maybe we can arrange for you to have a locker so you can change at the beginning and end of your shift?

“Sarah, please stop picking your earwax during televised Library Board meetings. Here, have some hand sanitizer.”

Ok, I haven’t actually had to say any of these things to employees in the past, which is more than I can say for the three reference desk examples.

Many managers have a fear of confronting employees about problem behavior. The same can be said for librarians who will not confront difficult patrons. We think that, somehow, letting people engage in bad behavior is better than talking to them about it. “Maybe he won’t smell as much tomorrow?” “Perhaps Jeanine’s family issues will sort themselves out soon?” “Maybe it will be too cold for Bob to wear his shorts to work?” Let’s be clear, Bob’s legs look great in those shorts, and he is going to keep wearing them unless you tell him otherwise. And he’s hurting your library and your staff while they wonder, “are his legs naturally hairless?” and “woah, where was he keeping that yardstick?” By avoiding telling people the truth, you are not loving them. You are not sparing them. You’re letting them walk down a path that may lead to shame, ridicule, or even termination.

Others librarians have the opposite problem. Perhaps in their discomfort with confrontation or perhaps because they’re a little bit of a sociopath, they are blunt and harsh with patrons or employees. “Jeanine, show up on time tomorrow or you’ll be fired.” “You smell. Leave immediately, or I’ll call the police.” “Yeah, we’ve established what cancerous moles look like, so there is nothing else that I can do. Please leave so that I can I page lazily through Publisher’s Weekly.” Speaking the truth is not enough. We must accompany it with an acknowledgment that the people that we see every day, co-workers or patrons, they are real people who deserve our love and respect.

Not sure how to have respect for other people? Fake it until you make it. Imagine what excuse you’d make for yourself if you were seen doing the same thing, and apply it to them in your mind. “Oh, you know, he probably just came from the gym.” “That guy is likely just confused because Abraham Lincoln was really so mythically awesome that he must also be a super-hero.”

With my ladies at the home for the elderly, I had to learn to say, “Ma’am, I love you and I would like you to take your meds because I want you to be happy and healthy. That being said, please eat a cookie instead if that is what will make you happy. You have the right to make that choice.” Speak the truth in love.

This is our call and our mission as librarians. It is a profession more about people than it is about books. We want to be there for our employees, our co-workers, and our patrons. To all those people that we encounter in the day to day, we are called to this: Speak the truth in love.

GIF of West Wing character with text "Well, you go girl"I’ve been listening to a new podcast. New to me at least. It’s called The West Wing Weekly. I am, of course, a huge West Wing fan, so I am, of course, loving this podcast. Still, it’s giving me pause. Not really, I just make weird connections between random things in my head.

I was thinking the other day about what sets leaders apart from the pack. There are a lot of answers to that question, and I couldn’t come up with one answer. Frankly, I still can’t come up with one answer. But, at the end of every episode of the West Wing Weekly they say the same thing: “What’s next?”

Animation of West Wing character with text "When I ask what's next it means I'm ready to move on to other things."Now, if you love The West Wing, you’ll understand why they do that. But even if you’ve never seen an episode, it’s a good message. “What’s next?”

One aspect of what distinguishes a library leader from a library employee is that the leader is always asking, “What’s next?”

They ask many other questions and do many other things, but I’d argue that asking, “What’s next?” is one key to library leadership. There is something satisfying about finishing a big task, but it is not enough to bask in that accomplishment. Sooner (rather then later) you have to ask yourself: “What’s next?”

Thinking about the future shows initiative; it shows knowledge of the library environment around you; and it shows that you’re thinking not just about what’s on your to-do list, but on what can be done to improve your library for your patrons.

If you want to be a library leader then make your new mantra “What’s next?”

animation of West Wing character with text "Bring it on."

Write Your Own Story

kathrynabergeron —  September 6, 2016 — 9 Comments

Hands writing in journal with caption Write Your Own Story

Since I left the convent and returned to working in libraries, I’ve been reading a lot of fascinatingly trashy books.

Very pink book cover for Down the Rabbit HoleI am almost finished with my current read. The book is so pink, I couldn’t resist. The book? Down the Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison. Yes, Holly Madison is a former Hugh Hefner girlfriend, a star of The Girls Next Door tv show, a four-time Playboy cover girl, and a former contestant on Dancing With the Stars. While the book is interesting, it is this quote that has stayed with me:

I always thought it would be classy to not kiss and tell . . . but after a while you just get sick of having other people trying to tell your story for you.

Being a library leader, or any kind of leader, means taking control of your story and owning it. It’s about having the self-reflection of knowing (a) who you are; (b) you’re not perfect; and (c) it doesn’t matter. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about shame.

Book cover for So You've Been Publicly ShamedHave you read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? What about watching Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk The Price of Shame?

What is it with contemporary society and shame? Why is it that we are often either the shamer or the shamed?

This blog post isn’t about the “shamer”. Listen to Monica Lewinsky’s talk to hear more about that. (Start at 13:50 in you’re in a time crunch.)

You see, I casually neglected to mention in my post about leaving libraries for the convent that I had previously been in a convent. I spent 2-3 months with a different order of Sisters right after I received my Masters in Information Science. It didn’t work out, and I was devastated. My whole life plan had fallen apart. I had given up everything that I owned. It was 2008, the economy was tanked, and I had no job and no car. But the worst, the very worst part, were these comments.

  • “They didn’t seem very nice, anyways.”
  • “They were totally wrong for you.”
  • “Thank goodness you left, you had made such a mistake.”

Really? Your need to be smug trumps my emotional loss of all of my hopes and dreams? Do you think that I really needed you to point out how wrong I was?

Fast forward to 2016. This time leaving the convent was much less dramatic. I had the experience and maturity of seven years in the jungle of life. This decision was very mutual; I loved the individual Sisters, but I didn’t fit in. And I couldn’t figure out who I was when I was with them. I had gotten rid of my stuff (clothing, mementoes, etc.) and my career knowing that leaving the convent was a possibility, but when I got home, I had no shame or guilt; I felt relieved to be able to move forward.

But I still feared the sting of what people would say. How would I respond to the comments of surprise when I walked in the room? How would I explain my homecoming or my absence?

But, at some point, you have to tell your own story. My story isn’t that I tried something and failed. That’s not how I feel about it, at least. My story is that I was willing to give up everything for a chance at happiness, and I only found more happiness . . . and a new job.

I know that I haven’t had any comparison of the shaming received by Holly Madison, Monica Lewinsky, or the people profiled in Jon Ronson’s book. In fact, in the last two months I’ve received amazing support from my family, friends, and colleagues.

But that doesn’t stop me, some days, from waking up and forgetting (a) who I am; (b) I’m not perfect; and (c) it doesn’t matter. Those mornings, I have to remind myself that I write my own story. I choose to remember my life choices, good and bad, as stepping stones to who I am today. And that person’s pretty awesome.

Leadership does not mean being perfect in everyone’s eyes, it means taking ownership of your choices, learning from them, and using them to make better choices. You use them to stand up and approach new tasks with knowledge and enthusiasm. Imperfections are not failures when you’re writing your own story.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Monica Lewinsky TED Talk that you’ve been avoiding watching though I’ve linked to it twice and embedded it once:

In the past nine months, the question I’ve been asked the most is why. Why now? Why was I sticking my head above the parapet? You can read between the lines in those questions, and the answer has nothing to do with politics. The top note answer was and is because it’s time: time to stop tip-toeing around my past; time to stop living a life of opprobrium; and time to take back my narrative.

Photo of the author with her sisters from the convent

Sr. Laura, myself, Sr. Tina (back), Sr. Mary, Sr. Rachel, and Sr. Stacy (front) who attended my going away party at the library and met all of my coworkers

A few months ago I wrote a note to my library contacts that went something like this: “Before word went entirely public, I wanted to pass along a message that I am leaving my position as the Associate Director at the library. While leaving a job is not unusual, the reason that I am leaving is. God willing, in August, I will be entering a Catholic religious order (The Servants of God’s Love).”

Most people responded with, “Congratulations?” To which I replied, “Thank you. Yes, that is the right answer.” One editor of this dear blog, though, responded with, “WOW! This sounds great!… Any chance you could write one more blog post about this decision?”

So, here I am, blogging one last time for Library Lost and Found on my last day of work. You see, I contemplated many options for topics:

  • Becoming a Nun: A How-To Guide – That seemed kind of insulting to this library blog and kind of misleading because I’m hoping to become a Sister (not a nun).
  • Decision Making 101: How To Make Big Life Decisions – This idea makes me laugh. For me, mostly, this decision took a deep love of the person of Christ Jesus and the Trinity, a group of amazing women who magnify my prayers and still get over-competitive playing Euchre, and a foolhardy nature that people keep mistaking for “courage”.
  • Beware: There Are Conservatives Among You: I know. It’s a scary thought. In spite of the stereotypes, I have found that the most outspoken librarians tend to be fairly…loose with words. Sometimes they forget that there are librarians that live more conservative lives amongst you. So, maybe edit your tweets before you post them. #notintobookburning #notintoexcessiveswearing

Instead, I wanted to highlight what I really saw about my life as a librarian as I walked through this decision: At its heart, librarianship is service.

What librarians do is not a job: It is an act of love performed for our patrons. It is a moment of kind grace given to a stranger or a friend. It is a moment of hope in a world that often seems hopeless.

I became a librarian because I loved the chase. I worked in ILL in college, and I loved finding ridiculous books in languages that I couldn’t speak (let alone write). That search for hard-to-find information is what motivated me to go to information school. It was a fine motivation. But once I started working as a librarian with the public, I realized that librarianship could be so much more. I interned for a small resource center attached to the U of M Depression Center. I wanted to work on the catalog, but I spent some of my time in the resource center, sometimes with patients, but mostly with friends and family of patients. They’d come to wait during the appointment, and mostly they wanted someone to talk to. I learned how to start every sentence with, “I’m not a mental health professional…” and end every conversation with, “…let me give you a pamphlet.” I don’t think that I ever said anything helpful, but I was there. In a moment of panic and fear, they needed an ear, and I was wearing silver hoops. It was an act of service.

Photo of Kathryn Bergeron holding a microphone at a library event with the character Madeline

Kathryn (right) at a library event

Then I started as an Adult Services Librarian in a public library. While I did a lot of electronic and systems work, I loved working with the public. The older lady who read every thriller book that came out and still, without fail, ran out of books each week. The middle school girls who liked to come and sit at the desk and talk about their days while looking up ridiculous saint names (see St. Ulfrid). The widow who came and interloaned the best mormon fiction books you’ve ever read. The group who gave up their Thursday nights for three months to learn about the Civil Rights movement. No matter how many books I ordered or computers I fixed, those people are what made me excited to come into work in the morning. It was an act of friendship.

When I became Associate Director, it was hard. I didn’t have management ambitions, but I wanted to try. Unfortunately, that meant giving up most of my programming and all of my time on the reference desk. I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I no longer had the thing that made me most excited to show up to work in the morning.

Then we hired a few new managers. Training them and helping them feel confident about their new jobs. Making small changes to our ILS to ease a little bit of the load from my Circulation staff. Bringing a new perspective to a policy debate. These became my new acts of service. I was no longer directly serving my patrons, but I was helping to make the library better for them. And I was directly serving my staff, particularly my managers. When they needed advice, they got advice. When they needed an ear, I gave them an ear. When they needed a kick in the pants, they got a figurative kick in the pants. Watching them grow and develop is probably one of the things about which I am most proud in my time as a librarian. It was an act of love.

When I look back on my 6.5 years as a certified librarian, I don’t think about the books that I ordered or the meetings that I went to; I look back on the people that I served and that I served with. Any impact that I might have had on them, they had 100x the impact on me. Their patience, their kindness, and their willingness to give me a kick in the pants when I needed it helped me to grow and mature into the (still kind of immature) person that I am today. I could not be here, taking this step in my life, about which I am bananas excited, without all that they did for me.

Librarianship for me, has been an act of service and a labor of love. But, somehow, I feel like I received far more than I ever gave, and I have unending gratitude for those who served me so well.

photo of a book with pages tucked to create a heart shape

cc by-sa Mummelgrummel

We’ve recently been interviewing candidates at my library. One of the most important questions that we ask is, “What do you love?”

Ok, that’s not exactly how we phrase it, but that’s what we want. What do you love?

One of the things that makes my library the vibrant and extraordinary place that it is, is that, as much as we are a community of staff members coming together for a common goal, we’re a community of individuals, and that individuality is important to us.

photo of Harry Potter themed yarn bombing display table

Two loves come together: Harry Potter and yarnbombing!

Today, I designed a display for our Harry Potter themed yarn bombing. #craftinglove

Next month, my boss will do a book club about a WWI book that I cannot imagine reading. #historybuff

In May, my Head of Adult will bring in an author who wrote about his life in the punk scene. #alternativeeducation

We are all different. And it’s those differences that allow our library to be an ever evolving organization. We can meet the needs of the many history aficionados in our service area, but we can also reach the crafters and the musicians.

It is not only in our unity that we are strong, but also in our diversity.