Too Eager to Please

Librarians must learn how to say no

March 13, 2013

Pity the poor library director, whose job description includes ensuring the work gets done, the patrons are happy, the powers that be (trustees, city managers, regents, deans, principals, school board members, city council members, county commissioners, etc.) are also happy, and library employees are happy. Oh, I forgot one thing: Do all this with a 10% budget cut.

We often talk about the librarian image, and this conversation often morphs into a debate about the dreaded librarian stereotype. We all know where that leads: We need to get a new wardrobe, we need to lose the comfy shoes, we need to update the 19th-century hairdo, we need to go on a diet, and most of all, we need to chill.

Personally, I think that’s bad advice. Our dumpy, frumpy, lumpy, homely, mousy, dour image may not be exactly appealing, but it’s also benign, serious, and sincere—which trumps a lot of other professional stereotypes, such as those of bankers (loan sharks), lawyers (barracudas), politicians (liars), stock brokers (con artists), and physicians (quacks).

There is, however, one thing I would like to change about librarians. I’m fine with sensible shoes, frumpy frocks, and boring bunheads, but let’s stop pretending we can move mountains and perform miracles. We are, quite frankly, too eager to please. It seems to be ingrained in our professional DNA. We just can’t say no.

What did we say to one of the best-funded and most powerful of all federal agencies, the IRS? “Oh, you can’t afford to set up or staff your own tax form distribution centers? Don’t worry, we’ll rescue you. Our library is a central gathering place, and we have a staff full of reference librarians willing to explain the intricacies of the US tax code to anyone who stumbles in and doesn’t know a capital gain from an itemized deduction. We live to serve.”

The US Postal Service has apparently learned from its IRS brethren. After going billions of dollars into debt and being almost aced out of business by the double whammy of email and private-sector carriers that actually deliver your letters and packages on time and in good condition, the USPS is finally thinking outside of the post office box: The agency has hatched the concept of putting post office kiosks in libraries. It can’t be that much different than readers’ advisory work, can it? It’s called leveraging staff or pooling resources. Here’s how it works. Library staffers who have had their hours cut and their salaries slashed are asked to take on yet one more service.

Yes, it’s important to forge community partnerships. But can you think of two more undesirable partners than the IRS and the USPS?

Even worse than partnering with unpopular government agencies are library directors who kowtow when city managers and mayors insist that libraries slash their budget by 10% without cutting services. At what point will we realize that those who care most about serving the public should respond with a firm “no” rather than a wimpy “yes”?

WILL MANLEY has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for more than 30 years and has written nine books on the lighter side of library science. Contact him at wmanley[at]


Maureen Sullivan

Community Building

Libraries must innovate and engage