Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done

This post has been a long time in the making. Several weeks ago, my fellow librarian and friend, Meg Ecclestone, wrote about maintaining subject expertise in LIS. This is a good topic to discuss in any profession, but it’s especially so within academic librarianship since we’re constantly interacting with researchers from so many different fields. Of course, how exactly a librarian should maintain subject expertise is not a new concern that’s recently bubbled to the surface, so I won’t speak too much about it, especially since Meg did a good job summarizing some tips on this issue. Instead, it got me thinking about Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done (which are two unofficial slogans of the MLIS programme at Dalhousie University’s School of Information Management).

At the heart of things, Meg was talking about professional development. How do you stay ahead of the game? How do you keep up with new developments in your field, or how do you stay proficient in your work? Some professions require constant credential re-certification (which is a good thing – think about that the next time you’re in hospital), while others have a more informal approach. Recently, I’ve been fortunate enough to have started a new position, so I’ve had a number of conversations with people about how to keep your skills sharp and find positive gain. For those of you looking for a quick way out of this post, know that the answer is found in hard work and perseverance. For those of you looking for detail, I offer some advice, below. These suggestions are not new, profound, or original. But I think they bear repeating because they are so consequential to getting ahead and finding personal fulfillment on the job.

Steeleworthy’s Advice on Making Things Happen and Getting Things Done (Regardless of Your Profession)

  • Meet People.

Whatever you want to do in life, you’ll never get to do it unless you get out there and meet people. Most people are good people, most people want to meet other people, and most people want other people to succeed. We are social creatures. People like to share knowledge, expertise, and experience, so you have a lot to gain by going to events, arranging informational interviews, and developing a presence on social media. The message here is clear: meeting people helps you learn things and do things. You stand to live and work in an echo chamber if you do not meet others inside and outside the library. And you never know what sort of opportunity these new colleagues might bring. If you are not convinced, I invite you to read Graham Lavender’s post on how networking brought clear gains to his everyday life.

  • Do Things (or: Make Mistakes) (or: Learn).

My advice is to just do things. Understand that some mistakes will happen along the way, and that is okay. Do not be afraid to try a new workflow, to take on a new project, or to state an opinion. If you don’t give yourself the opportunity to try new things, it will be very difficult to master anything at all. I promise you that you will make mistakes. There will be times when you will do something wrong or will be completely misinformed. But so long as you keep yourself open to new ideas and are willing to treat these experiences as learning moments, you will likely come out ahead in the long run. Have faith in your ability to get the job done and in your colleagues’ ability to offer help and guidance along the way. And remember, there is no try. Only do. It’s cliché now, but it’s true.

  • Read. Write. Learn.

I don’t care if you prefer the scroll to the codex or the stone tablet to the electronic tablet; your preference for format is inconsequential. What matters is that you read. You must read and you must stay informed on advances and arguments and debates in your field. But it doesn’t end there. For the love of all things holy and sacred in your world, write. Reading the latest material and the classic volumes is not going to get you anywhere if you cannot explain your opinions on the subject matter. The act of writing will help you understand what you have read, and it will help you express your thoughts on the matter. This is why I blog. When I blog, I force myself to think closely about a subject and to express an opinion. That opinion may be wrong or misinformed at times (see: Do Things, above), but it’s part of the learning experience. Reading – and writing – is how you can take command of your subject matter. So start a journal or a blog, or create a Tumblr to get all your thoughts in one place (like commonplace books of old). And consider writing for publication. You will be better for it, and you will help others better themselves, too.

  • Form Opinions.

Open mouth, insert foot. This kid is going in for the kill.

This is related to reading and writing, but it’s important enough to be its own action. It’s important that you formulate opinions on topics, and not only in your writing. Remember to speak up, be heard, and contribute to the teams you are a part of. The workplace is a team environment and people are going to want to know what you think. Don’t worry too much about being misinformed. It’s worse to be stubborn than it is to be misinformed, because those who are misinformed still have the chance of taking in the bigger picture and learning an issue fully. I want you, whoever you are right now, to not be afraid to open your mouth and insert your foot at your next meeting.  You can always take your foot out and apologize and learn from the mistake (see: Do things, above).

  • Ask Questions and Take Advice (See Also: Meet People).

When you’re new to the workplace or the field, you will be surrounding yourself with people who have a lot of knowledge to share, so pick up this wisdom whenever you can. Show yourself as willing to listen and learn (be willing to listen and learn, for that matter). Don’t be afraid to ask questions; there are no stupid questions. And though you may have to schedule a different time, never turn down an invitation for coffee with a colleague. Listening to people and taking advice are the first steps you can take to turn your book-smarts to street-smarts.

  • Make goals, set timelines, and assess your work.

I’m not asking that you let Google Calendar rule your life. I am suggesting that you’ll never get something done until you turn it into something you can work toward and schedule time for. And be prepared to assess your work. Don’t aim for perfection on all things or you will start suffering from the law of diminished returns. Instead, aim for excellence, pat yourself on the back when you get it, and evaluate how you can do better the times you wish you did.

So there you are: good pieces of advice to live by. I’ll summarize it all by mentioning the official slogan from the university where I took my BA: Age quod agis, or, What you do, do wellI am certainly no wunderkind in my field and I don’t profess to be one at all. But I do give it my all at work to carry my load, contribute to the team, learn from my colleagues, and make a difference in my field.  And there is fulfillment in that.

The former director of my library school once playfully remarked that many people are ultimately hired based on whether the hiring committee wants to work with them at 8:30 on a Monday morning, and I think there’s some truth to that. So many of my suggestions above are social in nature. They are about learning from and contributing to the workplace.  And that’s how you make things happen and get things done: find your niche and do whatever you can to make a meaningful contribution and to make yourself amenable to your peers.  That’s how you make positive results for yourself in the end.

Library School Grads Know Nothing : thoughts on the shift from Thinking to Doing

This week of “contemplation posts” ends on the subject of knowing nothing, or at least on knowing very little.   Terri Tomchyshyn, the 2010 Outstanding Alumna of Dalhousie University‘s School of Information Management, recently blogged that LIS students and recent grads must remember that the first few years of their professional lives will be a constant learning experience.  Although LIS students will learn a lot of things during graduate school, all their book-learning will yet be refined by real work experience because:

don’t get all cranky on me when you read it – when you graduate, you still don’t know much.  You’ll have had two years of theory, maybe a practicum, and may be even some “real” experience in part time jobs, but all that theory really needs to be put to the practical test.  You’re not quite ready to run a library or information centre on your own – experience needs to come into play, as do good work mentors and colleagues from whom you can learn how to be a professional in a work environment.

Terri’s words struck a chord with me.  My graduate program taught me a lot about librarianship and organizational management, but I knew I wasn’t going to enter the workforce as some sort of David Beckham of LIS, ready to change the way others play the game.  I understood I was going to be the freshest, greenest (and perhaps most lost) librarian during my first few weeks on the job, but I don’t think I could have fully prepared myself for the stress that comes with determining how I could best improve the organization or with determining my colleague’s expectations of my work and then trying to exceed them.  As I mentioned earlier this week, we all want to do well on the job, but in the case of recent grads and recent hires, we often have only theory and ambition to drive us forward.  We’re taking each day on a wing and a prayer, hoping each week is better than the last.

The problem lies in turning our schooling – all of our theory – into practice.  Librarians, on the whole, are practitioners.  We have our graduate schooling, and we research, write, and publish, but by and large we are part of a profession that puts our knowledge to use.  Those first few weeks on the job for a librarian (or any professional) are difficult because the movement from using knowledge-sets to using skill-sets is awkward.  We must reconsider everything we’ve been taught and determine when it’s best to use what we’ve learned in one class and when it’s best to avoid what we’ve learned in another.  We have to truly start thinking for ourselves about the knowledge we’ve learned by evaluating when it’s appropriate to do one thing or another.

This is why it’s good for us to find mentors, colleagues, friends, and others who can give us some guidance on the job.  It’s not that recent grads need to hear that “Everything you know is wrong” so much as they need to see how everything they’ve been taught needs to be tested in the workplace.  Every organization is different, so all these theories we’ve learned much be reconciled to our work environment, work culture, and organizational structure.

Memory Banks. Or: Why I’m Here

I’ve been revising and editing this post for several days now.  It has shifted back and forth from its original faux-flowery-rhetoric to become a “mission statement”, but has more or less developed into a middle-of-the-road affirmation of sorts.  On the one hand, one could say it declares to the world what I’m interested in and why ‘m interested in it.  On the other, it might be a sideways declaration to myself that interests such as these are in fact interesting and thought-provoking in their own right.

I’ve been interested in the plastic, unreliable nature of memory for several years now.  Our ability to think, remember, and forget has always been a bit of a secondary curiosity throughout my academic career, but it began to hog the limelight in the last year of my BA when I was researching in one course early modern conceptions of memory and mnemonic devices, and in another course the unreliable, ahistorical, and permeable nature of memory – as evidenced in so much post-modern and sci-fi literature.  Memory and the post-modern condition became my little pet projects for a good eighteen months or so, since these themes carried over into term papers I wrote when I began my MA.  To a certain degree, they both remain threads that tie my thoughts together (or loosen them).

Somewhere along the way, I became intrigued with the concept of the mind as a mental storehouse.  There is a nice little metaphor of this in the second book of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where Guyon, the hero, makes his way with Arthur through a castle which is an allegorical structure of the mind and body.  Guyon eventually encounters three wise old sages, who together the parts of the mind – foresight, advice and memory.  Memory sits in a room full of manuscripts, texts, scrolls and rolls, constantly recording that which the parts of the body encounter (or something to that effect).  Within an elegant twist of time, Spenser has Memory shift to a future-past tense in order recount the future-history of Arthur, Guyon, and Britain to the heroes and to the reader.  Beyond these particular details, however, lie Spenser’s important characterization of memory as a room full to the brim of records and books waiting to be accessed.  And these texts are a record not only of the person, but of the entire nation.

Independent of my time in “Faeryland”, I began to look upon the libraries I walked in and researched in for so long as similar physical storehouses of cultural and literary memory.  The books we look for in the stacks of our libraries are simple remembrances to be reconsidered whenever our society looks to recall that knowledge.  The setting of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient reinforced this idea with a poetic polish and rhetorical flourish I could only dream of: the text, we recall, is set predominantly in the bombed shell of a house.  Its characters read the books in the house’s library, take on the characteristics of these characters, and even rebuild the house from the books themselves.  Important to the plot is the Patient’s own journal, a palimpsest of excerpts, pages, notes and remembrances from other books and from his own travails.  Ondaatje created characters and settings that are archives of other people and of other settings; reading his text was akin to adding kindle to the idea in my own mind of people and places as their own sites of memory.

So it is then that I find myself espousing the metaphor of the archive as our storehouse of thoughts and remembrances.  Although  this archive-as-memory concept wasn’t my main motivation to enroll in an MLIS programme, and I understand that the courses I will eventually take in Archiving will likely be more practical in nature, I’m allowing myself to hold onto this metaphor because it keeps in mind many of the larger cultural and theoretical issues that drive my person.  The profound changes in librarianship and in the physical design of libraries in the past twenty years demand that we reconsider the notion of the archive as the site of cultural memory.  On the one hand, open libraries are making access to this memory easier and more accessible; on the other, the digitization of so much information is potentially filling our minds with too much knowledge (some of it potentially misleading) to sift through.  These are only two considerations within in a host of others, of course.  As public spaces, archives and libraries are in many ways contested sites of power, authority and legitimacy.  What is entered into the archive, by which mandate and under which funding agreement, for instance, can severely affect that which we choose, or even persuaded to remember.

I’m not going to speak exclusively to these concerns in this blog, and I’m certainly not going to limit myself to archiving and memory.  But I think that for at least the next little while, until I reconcile some of the arguments being teased out in my own mind or until I move on to another interesting subject, that these issues will often be brought to the fore on this particular site.  (We’ll see..)