Managing Terror

Ed.Note.  I’m real excited by this post.   This week, a good friend and colleague, Brian Dewar, of Luther College High School in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, gives us some advice on taking on a new position when you’re a brand new librarian.  Look for more posts by Brian in the weeks to come.


I’m Brian Dewar, and I recently took a job managing a library at a private high school in Regina. After some initial reservations (not the least of which was confronting an inherent – and unfounded – prejudice against high school libraries), I pursued the opportunity. What I found once I got to Regina was surprising: no OPAC or ILS, circulation was exclusively done via cards, students and teachers were regularly circulating library materials outside of a controlled system, and the collection had not been properly organized for some time. Needless to say, upon finding my library in this state, I was intimidated by the enormity of the tasks and my morale was low.

Managing Terror

If you were anything like me, you did not emerge from library school brimming with confidence. I had a vague idea of how things are, a notion of how things should be, and no idea whatever about how to get from here to there. There were (and honestly, still are,) a lot of unknowns in my library. And there’s no denying it – unknowns are scary. But it’s not really the unknowns themselves that are frightening, it’s the implication of powerlessness that comes with them. It’s incredibly difficult to solve problems that you don’t understand and can’t define. So to regain a sense of control, I needed to answer these questions:

  • What are this library’s problems?
  • How can I solve them?
  • In what order do they need to be solved?

I decided that I needed library infrastructure in order to accomplish anything in my library in terms of outreach, collection-building, or research support. Developing this foundation has included surveying the collection to determine the capacity an ILS would need to have, researching available systems and matching those systems to the library’s needs, buying the system, and then inputting all of the cataloguing data into the system. After I finish accomplishing these tasks, I can begin to build the collections in earnest, and then use those resources to aid students.

The basic strategy of:

Acquire and utilize an ILS ==> Begin to rebuild the collection, using the newly acquired infrastructure ==> Use those newfound resources to educate and perform outreach for students

has enabled me to move from the terrified position of helplessness that I felt on my first day. I now have a benchmark against which to weigh any action – I can ask myself, “is doing this thing going to further my goals? Does it follow the order of the plan?” Being able to ask myself those questions allows me to filter the sheer amount of things that need to be done into more manageable, discrete segments. Would I like to be teaching a mandatory anti-plagiarism course for students caught cheating? I’d love to – but I haven’t advanced to that part of the plan yet. These things have been prioritized, and the plan must be respected in order to have any value at all.

So, for any other new librarians out there: making a plan alleviated my anxiety in a new position. While admittedly I have more autonomy than most, within the constraints of any job, making (and owning!) a plan can make all the difference. Speaking personally, too, I’m so much happier knowing that it’s my plan that I’m carrying out. And because of that control, my morale couldn’t be higher.

Brian Dewar is the Librarian at Luther College High School in Regina. He enjoys boxing, baking, and biking.

talking tech

I’m here in Montreal, QC, to attend the 2009 CLA Conference.  But before the big show got going, I first sat in on the Emerging Technologies Interest Group‘s pre-conference session, which was spectacularily rescued and then hosted by some fine people over at McGill’s SLIS.  You guys are awesome – thanks.

I had to step out at the lunch hour since I had to bring to bring some work along on the trip  – there are many papers to mark this week, and my own deadlines to return them are fast approaching – but it was all in all a nice little morning.  Although I don’t think the three speakers (John Fink, Jason Hammond, and Jessamyn West) really had anything revolutionary to say this morning (that’s not necessarily a bad thing, guys), they all spoke on the difficulties us librarians can have dealing with, tech, tech people, and the people we serve.

I think there is something more to these problems than just “dealing with tech”, and it becomes evident if you were to mash up the speakers’ talks into one.  The problems we encounter when dealing with tech isn’t necessarily tech so much as it is “translating” the needs of our patrons/clients/neighbours to the tech people who get their feet dirty dealing with code and hardware all day long.  Our profession may not be tech experts, but we can at least speak their language. Likewise, we can also evaluate how to best fill the “tech needs” (if their is such as a thing – I’d rather just say “needs”) of the people we serve.  We can mediate between the two groups to achieve vibrant, happy endings full of mini-successes and rainbows.

We do an alright job of this most of the time, but as Jessamnyn noted, sometimes we falter and we don’t see the forest for the trees.  we need to remember that we try to implement tech and social media not because its cool or savvy or hip with the kids, but rather because these tools can sometimes actually help people.  If the tech isn’t going to help a person, then let’s find another way to use our skill sets to enlighten some one’s day.  That might be teaching them  to differentiate between files and folders on a desktop, or it may also be explaining how to just use an OPAC or even how to best compile (dare i say it) print sources.

i suppose what i’m trying to say is that yes, tech is awesome, and yes, i love the tech very much.  And i also want to use it to make my job easier and other people’s lives better. but in the end, i’m in this job for the people.  i want to help people.  librarians can bridge the gap between tech and people because we have a foot in each camp.  let’s just be sure that we’re always attuned to the needs of the latter..