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On the brink: librarianship in an age of possibility – Instalment 8

I'm just a librarian who can't say no …

I've been thinking a lot lately about our profession and how it sometimes seems to pay a lot of attention to libraries, but less to the librarians who work there. This, despite all the lip service to libraries not being libraries without people.

Here's one recent example: On Nicole Engard's blog, "What I Learned Today", she posted recently about her decision to limit her association memberships due to common rules specifying that members can't – in any way – be compensated for presenting at association events. As she notes:

"I do a lot of speaking and I have only one rule when it comes to speaking – I will not pay to speak for an association (local libraries – sure – but big associations – fat chance). I will accept a reimbursement of my expenses (without honorarium) in most cases, but I will not pay out of pocket to speak for an association when I can educate librarians at no cost to me via several other venues.

"Today I filled out forms to speak at 3 conferences. Two of them require that members speak without any compensation and I just can't live with that – so I don't join. I spoke at a state conference last year and had to fight to get my mileage reimbursed because they insisted that association members and librarians who work in the state don't get paid to speak. Why?"

Requiring association members to pay out of pocket for the opportunity to do work for free seems a bit unfair. But it's common practice, at least in the US, for associations to require members who present at conferences and other events to pay their own full conference registration for these events. Even if they're coming only to speak. Even if they're not attending the rest of the conference. Even if they're invited to come and speak.

This disincentivizes the most active presenters from becoming active in relevant associations. When they join, they're dinged twice – once for membership, and then again if they choose to give back by doing a presentation or workshop at an association event.

Just say no

Most librarians go along with these sorts of requirements because they want to give back to their associations and to the larger library community – and because that's just the way it has always worked. But in today's economy, it's becoming harder to give, give, and give some more, and associations should take notice. As people find it more difficult to justify association memberships (the number of new and renewing American Library Association members is down 3.5 per cent this year alone!), we need to avoid providing extra reasons to give these up.

The intertwining issue here is that of the ever popular reward for good work being more work. We're really bad at saying no in this profession, because many of us chose this field out of a desire to share information and help others. When we're asked to share information and help out our fellow librarians, our impulse is to always say yes.

What happens, though, is some of us get a reputation for always saying yes. Need a volunteer? Jane will say yes. Need someone to put together a workshop? Jane will say yes. Need someone to organize a conference? Jane will say yes. Eventually, Jane is overloaded with projects and finds herself unable to give her full attention to any of them.

We need to learn to start saying no.

Bring in new blood

One way to do this is to make an active effort to bring in new blood and new ideas. A common complaint among newer librarians is that they feel it's difficult to know how to begin participating in associations; that they don't know how to begin speaking or publishing or be otherwise professionally active.

Those of us who find ourselves overwhelmed with outside volunteer projects can make a conscious effort to mentor new librarians. When someone asks us to volunteer, we can recommend someone new for the job, and push to have her included. When someone asks us to speak or to participate on a panel, and we're already overcommitted, we can suggest an alternative fresh voice. Think about people in your own institution or association who might have something to say to the profession, and encourage them to do so.

Saying no is easier when you're able to recommend alternatives. Then "no" becomes "I'm sorry, I can't, but here's who I could suggest instead".

Value your time

Again, since librarianship is at its heart a service profession, it's sometimes difficult for us to see our own time as valuable – or to put a price on that time. Realize the opportunity cost in saying yes: When you commit to any project, this then consumes time and effort that you could expend elsewhere. When you overcommit to projects, your work and your family life may suffer.

If you're an overcommitter, think hard the next time you're asked to participate on a project, give a talk, write an article, head a committee. Avoid answering right away; take the time to think over the time commitment required and whether you'd truly be able to give the new project your best. If not, then it's best to say now, both for your own sake and for that of the project.

Don't worry about hurting people's feelings or letting them down; this might be the push they need to bring in that new blood. It's just easier to ask someone who generally says yes, and most of us go for the easy first. (We're librarians; we know all about the phenomenon of satisficing!)

So learn to say no. Say no to associations that treat you badly. Say no to commitments that you can't fulfil without doing damage to other responsibilities. But say yes to helping others benefit from the opportunities you turn down.

Rachel Singer Gordon is webmaster,, author of What's the Alternative? Career Options for Librarians and Info Pros, and blogs at The Liminal Librarian (