Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; if I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them.
“Entitled” is an epithet that gets tossed around a lot these days. Professors bemoan students’ sense of entitlement, administrators bemoan professors’ sense of entitlement, and if I told you I’d never bemoaned a library member’s sense of entitlement, you’d be right to call me a liar. However, blanket attitudes of entitlement are very rare among the members of the small college library where I work. Almost everyone who walks through our doors expects to cooperate with others, not to blame them. For a long time, I’ve thought that was because our overall campus culture is one of fervent engagement with just about everything. But as I read the Facilitation thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship, I started to see things differently. In the course of a discussion about broadening literacy, R. David Lankes drew on practical examples, along with some of Saul Alinsky’s insights about power, to advocate for a flexible definition of librarians’ roles as facilitators, a definition that focuses on member empowerment. As I considered Lankes’ claim that “[t]o be ‘literate in’ means to be able to use something to gain power,” (2011, p. 75), and mulled over our local context, I developed a new explanation: the reason why relatively few of our library members act entitled is that relatively many of our library members feel empowered.
At this moment, gentle readers, I am imagining you with deeply wrinkled brows. “Entitled” and “empowered” are synonyms, after all. When we talk about entitlement pejoratively, though, what we’re really talking about is the appearance that people care too much about their own power, not power itself. What if most of the people who seem to think that they deserve the world on a plate are bluffing? What if their dominant emotions are not contempt, or selfishness, but anxiety, fear, or even despair?
During the first year I supervised carrel sign-ups for our thesis and capstone students, I noticed a pattern. While our carrel-using seniors started the year with smiles on their faces and flexible attitudes, by the time mid-March rolled around, a sizable minority of these students became overemotional, demanding, and downright rude. No one I talked to was surprised by my observation; the thesis preparation process was harrowing and stressful, they said, and we at the service desks were an easy target for blowing off steam. What could we do?
Here’s what I did. First, I started listening to what the students had to say, instead of how they were saying it. They needed that carrel right now, not just during their thesis block; they had trouble keeping track of everything they were required to do; they felt frustrated, and confused, and as if their whole lives were dangling by a thread. Then, I convinced my coworkers to eliminate our byzantine rules about thesis carrel assignment. We did need some system, because there wasn’t enough space for every senior student to have a carrel, but the original process was built around gatekeeping. In theory, a subject librarian let circulation know that a particular faculty member had acknowledged that a particular student was working on a thesis in a particular month. In practice, there were always workarounds, exceptions, and delays. The new system widened access so that any student with senior standing could sign up for a thesis carrel, and then keep it for as long as they wanted. Responsibility for signing up, and for renewing that signup each month, was placed firmly on the shoulders of each student, where it belonged. We do email our carrel holders every month to remind them about the renewal period, but mostly because it’s a great excuse to let them know about the resources and support they have available, and to encourage them to talk back to us.
My conscious motivation for seeking this change had nothing to do with increasing equitable access, creating a supportive environment, or any of the other noble goals that Lankes identified as aspects of successful facilitation. I was operating from instinct, in response to my feelings of empathy and irritation. “No more desperate thesis students crying at the circulation desk! I don’t want to deal with rich kids asking my workstudy employees if they know how much a student has to pay to go to this school!” And yet, when I look back at what we’ve done, and reflect upon what I’ve just read, it seems obvious that our troublesome, “entitled” students were mostly feeling helpless, and that the choices we made worked because we helped them move from helplessness to strength.
Lankes, R. D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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