Collateral Damage

How bad can it get?  This example began with a casual statement from the director to the relatively new supervisor of an inconsequential department.  “You should apply for the head of public services here,” he said.  The supervisor was intensely flattered, had some doubts about readiness for such exalted work, but did apply.  And, of course could not compete with outsiders with more experience and did not get the job.  So she suffered the humiliation of the unsuccessful internal candidate.  But, it got worse. 

The organization was in the midst of a restructuring.  And the director then called the supervisor and asked her to become head of circulation.  (Circulation in then-class system of libraries was not highly thought of; indeed it wasn’t usually headed by a professional.)  Knowing the other open positions, she said, “No, I’d rather be head of reference.”  Director, however, indicates that a more experienced and highly respected colleague had asked for that position.  So supervisor says, “Then I’d rather keep my current position.”  Director says, “I already promised that to the (non-professional but very good) reserves supervisor.”  This story ultimately has a happy ending – although it is not relevant to the purpose here. 

What is illustrated here is that good and very well-meaning leaders can inadvertently injure some of their best people by making statements they cannot follow through on.  When faced with a promising employee, the urge to praise and encourage is strong.  But the line between acknowledging good work and implying promises is a fine one.  And we have all crossed it at one point or other in our career.  Catching yourself in this – especially if you have ever been on the receiving end – is a humbling experience.

Writing compellingly and speaking clearly

I am passionate about clarity in speaking and especially in writing.  If I am preparing a public presentation, I always go through multiple drafts looking for clarity and brevity.  I try to avoid acronymns and jargon, although in our acronym-ridden profession, complete avoidance is hard.  Even within an individual library, the jargon of one unit may be incomprehensible to another, especially for non-librarian staff. 

Here are some things I try to avoid.  Thanks to word processing, there is no excuse for using acronyms in writing and not much use for using them in speaking.  You don’t have to type “Arabic Manuscript Collection” every time you want to refer to it.  Many people will write Arabic Manuscript Collection (AMC) on the first mention and ever after use AMC.  Don’t!  Or do it in your draft, but for your final text, use find and replace and insert the full phrase.  If that feels cumbersome, then occasionally say “the Collection” or “the Manuscript Collection”.  Each of these flows off the tongue more smoothly than A..M..C – and conveys meaning.  Anything that stops the reader’s eye and causes him or her to look back in the article for explanation interferes with absorption of your argument.  People reading or listening do not want to (and should not have to) master acronyms to follow your meaning.

Admittedly, in libraries some acronyms are so common as to be impossible to avoid – maybe LC, ALA, ACRL, OCLC.  But keep your list short.

As a leader, public speaking is something you must do.  And you must do it well.  It isn’t hard, once you realize that you will be talking about what you know – your library, your plans, the needs of your community.  You do need to sort through what you might say to insure that it resonates with an audience of intelligent civilians.  This is not the place for esoteric language.  Some people think esoteric terms convey professionalism.  Often academics speak and write for each other and use words that laypersons must look up to understand.  And in doing so they limit their audience to insiders.  We librarians certainly talk to each other in the jargon of our profession, saying monographs and continuations rather than books and journals.  The word continuations has a definite meaning but not one that adds value to general discussion with users, administrators, or our non-librarians friends.  So strive for plain English, even when talking with close colleagues.  It is good practice. 

Remember that few non-librarians really understand libraries.  They might think they do, but the size and complexity of a contemporary library is not part of their imagination.  And the stereotypes of librarians are strong.  When I became a librarian, my younger brother used to say, “My sister is a librarian but she’s not like that.”  Indeed, many people pictured me at the front desk checking out books.  The older ones probably imagined me doing it with one of those pencils with a date due stamp at the eraser end. (Indeed, when I worked – in computing – for AT&T, my grandmother pictured me as Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the switchboard operator.)

So, when I am the “entertainment” for a group of non-librarians, I start with the size of my budget (tens of millions) and the number of my staff (hundreds).  Most people get “money” and “people”.  Then we can talk about the details.