Thursday, October 27, 2011

The most personal thing to write about

I've been putting this off and putting this off, since it's one of those topics that's incredibly tricky to write about. But the further away from it I move, the more I realize it's one of those things that should be talked about. Even if it's for no one's sake but my own.

I quit my job.

My last day was almost exactly three weeks ago, and no, I didn't switch jobs. I quit without a backup plan.

There are a whole host of reasons why I decided it was time, but the real thing it came down to was that I wasn't happy. Me. My needs weren't being met.

I think part of what makes this so tricky to write about is that anyone who works in a field like librarianship is so customer focused. Everything is about our communities and meeting the needs of others. That's precisely WHY we get into the field as it is. We want to help other people and we want to do things that other people ask of us. We want to offer them the resources we can because we have the knowledge to do so. We want to provide programs that meet their interests because we have the skills to do so. We want to connect them to the world because we ourselves have made these connections, and really, there's nothing more exciting than watching someone else feel that spark of understanding, of curiosity, of excitement.

Librarianship is a giving field.

With how much we're dealt as a field when it comes to budgets (that is to say, we get none, and then it gets slashed more), when it comes to staff (we get none, and then it gets slashed), and salary (laughable at best, then it gets slashed), we still rise above it. We can run crazy good programs on shoe string budgets. We can count on colleagues to help us figure out a way to run a crazy good program on no budget because as a field, we thrive on sharing. It's the spirit of librarianship.

We drive ourselves to constantly outdo ourselves. We keep statistics and measure ourselves against ourselves. We look at holes in services and figure out ways to fill them in. We look at our community and figure out where what we do in our buildings can be pushed and brought to other places where the community could benefit. We build programs to bring in every age group we can imagine. We keep our collections up-to-date and we keep tabs on what's coming down the pipe so that we stay on our game. We want to keep our customers happy.

One thing we lose in the process though is ourselves.

We're all giving people by nature. That's why we dive into the field and that's why we strive to keep doing better all the time. That's why I don't know a good librarian who doesn't work 40 hours in the building and another 20 or 30 at home, reading, networking, planning programs, researching, developing, and much much more. All for their job.

We beat ourselves up over the things we can't control. If we aren't getting enough people in the door to our program, we blame ourselves. We could have done more promotion. Could have jumped on an idea quicker. Could have made the program stronger. Could have written that grant application better. Could have recruited and trained more volunteers. Shouldn't have missed that book in that series when it came out.

But do we ever step back and think -- is this making me happy and satisfied? Am I being fulfilled?

It was too easy for me to come home after a day at work, one where I'd easily have done 3 outreach story times, emailed with various teachers about collections or program plans, put together ideas for the next day's program for middle schoolers, done a 4-hour long shift on the reference desk, shelved, and feel like I accomplished nothing. Or worse, feel like I'd accomplished all of the wrong things. It was so easy to beat myself up, especially when I saw or heard things around me. You know what I'm talking about -- the grumblings you hear through the staff grapevine or the community members who'd come into the library and suggest that there be more programs at night, on the weekends, that there be more offerings for one age group. It was so easy to take those things to heart. To want to deliver. To never, ever feel good enough because I was only providing 3 story times at the schools a week, a weekly program for one age group or another, keeping my collection in tip-top condition, performing outreach, keeping an active teen book club fresh and fun, and so forth. I could do more! I could offer more! I should offer more because my community wanted it and isn't my job to serve my community? I'm a failure because I'm not doing everything I can.

I forgot I'm only one person.

But then there's the perennial argument: recruit more volunteers! Get more staff to help out with programs! And those are things I did and thrived on doing. I could do that. The more volunteers, the easier it'll be. The more staff that helps, the easier it will be.

Yep, the easier it'll be to offer more. And the easier it'll be to forget that training and supervising takes time and energy. And it requires being even more conscious and prepared for everything coming up than doing it solo. And sometimes, it means people who shouldn't get chewed out about the stupid things librarians get chewed out about DO get it. Knowing your summer intern got yelled at by a parent because our library couldn't offer every kid at a big program a glue stick of their own sucks. It sucks more than when they yell at you, the librarian. You're not only not doing enough now for your community, but you're not doing enough for your own staff.

You're not taking care of yourself in the process at all.

Offering a million programs is great. I was offering a million and a half as the only staff person for youth in my library. It never felt like I was good enough. I could do more. I should do more. I'm told to do more. I'm told I'm not doing enough. I'm not giving up enough. As a newbie librarian -- I'm 27, librarianship my only career, having gone for my MS as soon as I finished undergrad -- I felt I had a lot to prove. I wasn't trying to prove anything to myself, but rather, trying to prove myself to my job, to my community, to the field as a whole. I was justifying coming home feeling crummy every night with the notion that it was just how it was. It was going to be hard and unsatisfying sometimes. It's easy to run yourself into the ground. Especially when you're new and unestablished. Especially when people are skeptical of you. If, for example, you've entered into a position after someone who left a legacy. Who people loved because of what they brought to the job. To what they brought to the staff. You feel like you need to fill that hole and then do it even more. Because that's how you establish yourself in a job, right?

You can love something you do and still forget you're not loving your job.

After summer reading this year, I felt let down and unsatisfied. I wasn't getting what I needed to be getting. I didn't feel like what I needed to be doing was being done, and I came to realize that this wasn't the right job for me. I wasn't fitting into the hole that I felt I should be. I was wearing myself thread bare with little satisfaction. Pressure inside and outside made me work harder and longer, but I wasn't feeling happy. I wasn't finding the challenge something worth pursuing. Instead, every day became another thing to get through. Another obstacle in the way of a weekend of reading which, you know, is another way of saying more work.

I worked hard to build my own knowledge, my own connections, establish a wealth of ideas worth trying. I was lucky -- I got to try them. I was in an ideal situation where nearly any and all of my wacky ideas were not only not laughed at, but they were implemented. It never felt good, though. It never felt like it they were mine or that my knowledge was valued for what it was. I don't expect parades, but not as much as a thank you for programs, for the hours of toil and worry and stress, it hurt. It hurt a lot.

I took it took personally.

I didn't take it personally enough.

That breaking point made me realize it was time to go. That jumping out while I still had most of myself in tact was what I needed to do to be happy and satisfied.

It wasn't easy.

More than one person got the oh-shit email from me.

More than one person told me I made the right call.

Three weeks later, I'm still wavering on whether I've dove into the crazy end of the pool or not. But I do know one thing, and that's that I don't feel awful at the end of the day, even if I've not achieved anything. Even if I'm not working. Even if I know that finding a job that fits my needs as a librarian might be challenging. What I've walked away with is an intense understanding of what I need in a work place. It's so easy to ignore our own needs. It's so easy to ignore our own happiness and need for fulfillment in the name of serving others. In the name of the idea that it's just how it goes. That work is work and isn't meant to be a place where we're going to be satisfied and happy.

I beg to differ.

I love librarianship. I love working with teenagers. I want to continue on that path specifically. But I need to find that place where what I bring -- my knowledge, my skills, my talents and my passions -- meld with what the library/community needs are. I wasn't melding in my last job. I was coming home fatigued, not energized.

I want to be energized by what I do.

This is the world I know I do well in and in which I can thrive. It's a field where there is much to do and explore. A field where what we bring as individuals matters a LOT more than we're ever admitting. It's a field where you can go on and on and do any and everything.

Stepping away from a job was the scariest thing in the world. Admitting it this openly was the second scariest. I've always been a hyper-involved person. Even in this sabbatical of sorts, I'm keeping myself busy in the librarianship world. Last week, I submitted an article with a colleague to be published in February's issue of VOYA. I purchased my tickets to attend ALA in Dallas this winter, and I'm presenting at ALA Annual this coming summer in Anaheim. I've also got plans to put together a proposal for Yalsa's Lit Symposium next fall. I'm always willing to go the extra ten miles for anyone.

Except myself.

I'm going to write more about this in the next few weeks, pointing out the triggers that made me realize it was time for a change, hoping it helps anyone else who might find themselves in that position. I realize, too, that there's an opportunity to talk about what would have made this work better for me, and there's certainly the knowledge that in posting this, I'm putting myself out there to be asked what I've learned from the experience and about myself. These are all things I've mulled over for months, and, I think, things worth sharing. When we own our feelings, it makes them easier to talk about and distill them into knowledge.

After crying on your shoulders, seeking your ever-brilliant advice, and sometimes annoying you to no end with my near-daily crises, a huge thank you goes out to those of you who know who you are. Without your pushing, without your encouragement, I could have never made the plunge. And as much as sometimes the days have sucked and as much as I know more days will suck hereafter, I'm -- for the first time in a long, long time -- happy. I have the best network of colleagues, both those in librarianship and those outside it, I could ask for, and for that I know I'm lucky.


  1. Kelly,
    As a person who supervises all library staff except for my own boss, the director, your experience is a perfect example of what not to do. I know how undervalued you felt in this position and I want to ensure that all of my staff know how much I value them. Just saying thank you for a job well done - so important.

    You are such a rock star librarian and I hope you find a position where you are valued for your immense skill set.

  2. Kelly, I think it is terrific that you managed to do everything that you did, did even more, then realized YOU weren't getting taken care of. It takes a lot of self awareness and bravery to recognize it. You did an amazing job, and will continue to do so.

  3. Kelly, thanks for your honesty. I think many librarians have been where you are and it's so important to know that you're not alone. And you have to do what's best for you. Not every job is a match and it's not worth losing yourself in a job that's killing your soul.

  4. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. I'm sorry that you had such a negative experience. It sounds like the library where you worked was extremely demanding. But all libraries aren't like that, so hopefully you can find a better fit.

  5. I think one of the things that matters a lot is helping librarians feel like they are valued and that the work they do matters. That it is acceptable to expect to be happy and satisfied and energized.

    Otherwise, librarians will keep getting crappy jobs without enough resources and poor, ungrateful management and they'll think that's just how it has to be.

    And it doesn't have to be that way.

    Thanks for a great post - you are such a talented writer.

  6. Wow. I don't know what to say. Godspeed and good luck? i hope you leave this blog up, I love the ideas.

  7. Okay, I am dying to know whether you gave notice, or pulled the old f-you, f-you, I like you... on the way out.

  8. @Java: I gave a month's notice. No need to burn bridges!

  9. You totally did what's best for you and that is SO important. Librarianship is one hundred percent a giving field, and librarians should be mindful that we don't give up our own personal and professional happiness in the process of serving our communities.

    I think you are amazing, brave, and I completely support your decision -- scary as it might be!

    Now, great things are in store for you!

  10. Good for you! Wisconsin libraries are missing out on a great librarian but I know you'll find a job you enjoy and feel invigorated to work once again.

  11. Thank you for having the courage to write about your experience~given your fantastic motivation and zeal for the work you do, I have no doubt that some lucky library is going to snatch you up! Good luck!

  12. I am also a young, new librarian and typically don't read blogs, but I love all of your ideas. I'm in the process of collecting materials for my first recycled craft program and today I came to your blog to borrow some of your storytime suggestions. Good luck to you in whatever path you follow and please continue to blog your ideas. I've really appreciated the help! Thanks so much!

  13. I just came across your page after finding it in VOYA December 2011. As I read your post, I recognized a lot of what you were going through. In June, I gave up teaching in an elementary classroom after being in the biz for almost 10 years. I had some of the same thoughts and feelings that you did. I am now in my school's libraries (as librarian in the elementary and high school), and I am going for my masters in library and information science. Since it has been a few months since you last posted, I hope things are working out. I know that I am much happier. Sometimes you just need a change. I like what Abby said in her comments - "not every job is a match." What a great way to put it. Good luck!