do you understand me now?

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

-Robert Browning, from “Andrea del Sarto”

That is one of the most famous lines in all of literature, but what does it mean? To me, it means that  you should always strive for more than you can accomplish at a given moment. You have to go too far before you know you’ve gone far enough. It is easier to edit too many words than it is to add more.

I believe in that line from Browning’s poem. I believe that men and women both should have a reach that exceeds their grasp. I also believe that organizations and institutions have the same obligation.

In graduate school, a phrase I heard assiduously was “change agent“, a six-sigma buzz-word that has permeated many professional cultures in recent years. In almost every class I took, my professors charged me and my classmates with the task of being change agents in our future or present libraries. In one class, Information Ethics, I was encouraged to have ethical courage*–the courage to speak out when I felt something was ethically wrong, whether in a personal or professional context. In almost every class I took, our heads were filled with images of ideal libraries– paragons of intellectual freedom, teamwork, innovation and exploration.

In reality, libraries are just like any other workplace. The confluence of myriad generations, backgrounds, cultural and social norms, work experiences, professional philosophies, and educations in an organization can either lead to tremendous conflict or amazing growth. I believe that this conflict or growth is a choice that the leaders of any given institution must make.

I believe that change agents can either be seen by their organizations as troublemakers and rebels dissatisfied with the status quo, who voice their opinions simply for the sake of being combative, or they can be seen as catalysts (in the figurative sense of the term) eager to spark change for the betterment of the organization and all the people that comprise it (in the case of libraries, both employees and patrons).

You might say that ethical courage seems like an overblown phrase+ to use when it comes to libraries. I suppose you could see it that way. I believe that depends on how important you believe your work to be. I think everyone in every workplace, from cashiers at Wal-mart to librarians to teachers to senators, needs to value themselves and their work enough that they won’t flinch at using words such as ethics and courage. Would the housing crisis and recession have happened if people had the ethical courage to speak out against questionable practices? Would Fritzl have managed to rape his daughter in a dungeon for over twenty years if one of his neighbors had had the courage to tell someone that they felt in their gut that something was not quite right at the house next door?

I believe that my work is important. I believe that my coworkers are important. I believe that my patrons are important. I believe that all of them deserve the best that can be achieved–better materials, better facilities, better service. Achievement cannot happen without change, and change cannot happen without a catalyst, and catalysts will not exist if their hunger for change that they are instilled with during their graduate work isn’t fed.

Yet the enthusiasm of change agents often needs to be tempered, just as the ethical courage of less vocal employees needs to be encouraged to flourish. This is where skilled managers come into play. I have been told more than once in my brief career as a librarian that I could be a manager, at this very moment, and I respectfully disagree. I do not have the skill or talent to negotiate the extreme differences that exist in the standard workplace.

If I were a manager, I would probably charge about like a bull in a china shop, rearranging the mental and physical furniture of the workplace until it was unrecognizable. I am a change agent that needs to be skillfully reigned in. I can either be seen as a positive force that can encourage growth, or I can be seen as a threat. My actions can be interpreted as either positive or negative, and that interpretation needs to be informed by my intentions (which are good, but very often misunderstood).

*Ethical courage is the strength to act appropriately in questionable situations.

+ I’ve also been told that using the term “censorship” when a librarian refuses to order books because of their content, even when those books have been requested by patrons. I believed it to be accurate. But that is another post for another time.

One response to “do you understand me now?”

  1. […] [couple of years] ago I was thinking about ethical courage, conformity, and what it all means for me, my profession, and everyone else–you know, your usual fluffy [end of summer] […]


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