The Four Habits of Highly Effective Librarians

May 23, 2007

Last fall, when I wrote about why many academic librarians feel unappreciated on their campuses, I pointed to their relationships with professors as a major culprit.

Yet it also has to be said that many of us librarians are our own (or one another's) worst enemies and that if we were more adept at working together, we could improve our lives and those of our colleagues.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey argues that the most effective are those who have moved beyond both independence and dependence to master the art of interdependence -- of working as members of a team, of knowing when two or more heads are better than one. In the spirit of Covey, then, I would like to offer my list of four traits that would not only make librarians more effective, but happier and more productive, too.


All too often, librarians -- like all human beings -- do not listen to one another. In a well-meaning attempt to be proactive we may dutifully invite co-workers or subordinates to weigh in on how we might improve some aspect of our services. If they say things we have already thought of, or agree with (or both), all is well.

But if their responses are not what we expect (read: want) to hear, rather than question our assumptions, we become defensive. We may nod sympathetically while telling ourselves that nothing needs to change. If the responses seem too challenging, we may even angrily defend the status quo.

Let's face it: It's hard to take criticism, even if it's constructive. It's even harder to act on it and try to change our behavior, policies, or procedures.

Consider a specific example. Academic libraries today are witnessing a drastic decrease in the number of in-depth reference questions asked at traditional reference desks -- whether in person, by phone, through e-mail messages, or via virtual reference systems. It's a striking trend, and even frightening to some librarians, because we do not know the cause, what we should be doing about it, or how it may affect staffing in the not-so-distant future.

Are reference librarians becoming obsolete? Surely not in this age of ever-more-complicated searching for information in ever-growing cadres of largely idiosyncratic databases. But are reference desks becoming obsolete? Apparently so, at least as they are currently conceived.

So central has that question become that Columbia University 's 2007 Reference Services Symposium in March devoted a substantial portion of the day's proceedings to a debate between two senior library administrators over whether the academic library reference desk will still exist five years from now ("Be it resolved: There will be no reference desks in large academic libraries in 2012").

Based on a show of hands, the majority of listeners agreed that the reference desk would still exist -- even after hearing all the evidence that gave the remaining listeners pause. Or perhaps the majority defended the reference desk's future precisely because of the evidence they heard.

Did all of those people believe what they voted, or were they, in part, hoping against hope -- trying to revive a dying loved one by wishing her back to life?

Indeed, it is telling that the two debaters themselves chose to focus exclusively on the value of the reference desk, a philosophical question, rather than on the topic as it was given to them: the viability of the reference desk, a practical question of supply and demand.

In any case, aside from those at Columbia that day, and the one-hour panel session that explored the issue at the Association of College & Research Libraries' 13th National Conference in Baltimore the same month, how many academic librarians nationwide are really paying attention and talking to each other about the future of our reference desks?

Openness entails a willingness to listen to what the facts are telling us.


It is what happens once openness has succeeded. Responsiveness means taking appropriate action based on careful listening. Considering alternative models for delivering reference service would be an appropriate response to questions about the long-term viability of the traditional reference desk.

The trend toward Instant Messaging with library users via MSN, Yahoo, and Google Talk -- which needn't be associated with a particular physical space at all -- seems one great hope for assuring the continued relevance of general and/or "drop-in" academic reference. Offering such a service beyond normal business hours could help, too, not just because our students are nocturnal but because our global community of users increasingly works from distant shores.

As William R. Brody, president of the Johns Hopkins University, writes in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs, U.S. university researchers are going where the resources are, propelled by "open borders, jet transportation, instantaneous communications, and over one billion English speakers -- the same factors that are fundamentally reshaping international commerce and the creation and distribution of wealth."

Academic librarians would do well to find ways to be there virtually with them.

A more modest hope might be for reference librarians to promote the concept of individual research-education consultations during "office hours," as teaching faculty members do. Yet another might be for librarians to move physically closer to other sites where students are already comfortable seeking academic or other kinds of assistance -- computer clusters or writing centers, for example -- rather than remaining tethered to the print reference collection, itself increasingly underused.

A willingness to experiment with such models is just one example of the enormous potential of responsiveness.


By that, I refer to the desirability of working -- not in isolation, as so many of us do -- but with one's fellow librarians to get a job done.

Whether it be mounting an exhibit of books and prints to exemplify satire in literature and portraiture; designing a work flow to streamline identification of items for preservation, replacement, or remote storage; strengthening security measures; reassessing the scope of an approval plan; designing a digitization project to promote unusual or unique holdings; managing a campuswide research-education program; refining a problematic job posting to attract better applicants; improving the look and functionality of library Web pages; or considering the acquisition of a major gift that will entail a considerable outlay of time and money for cataloging and other processing, working with others is the way to go.

A great way to encourage a more collaborative attitude generally would be to set up one or more librarywide wikis. With wikis, librarians from all over the campus can collaborate virtually to establish best practices, solve common problems, and generally feel more connected with their peers.

Other social-networking tools (such as Facebook) and social-tagging tools (such as PennTags) that allow community members to collect, annotate, and share resources have enormous potential, too.

No longer should the main library kick itself for continuing to struggle with a technical issue that the medical or law libraries resolved two years ago.

Another way to encourage a more collaborative attitude would be to follow the model of Yale University's recent Collections Collaborative Spring Symposium where librarians and curators convened to help one another identify primary sources available for our readers' research in collections across the campus.


Nothing is more frustrating than business-related e-mail messages going unanswered for weeks at a time -- if indeed they are answered at all. E-mail has made timely communication so much easier than ever before. The mind boggles that some people persist in ignoring it altogether or treating it as though it were back issues of The New Yorker that they hope to get caught up on one day.

No librarian enjoys learning from a campuswide e-mail discussion list that a decision that will dramatically affect his or her whole department was made unilaterally by another department, campus library, or administrator. Ideally, all stakeholders should be consulted before a decision is made -- and their feedback should not only be taken seriously but be seen to be taken seriously.

In the unfortunate event that a controversial decision has to be made quickly, or by fewer people (or both), at the very least stakeholders should be warned that the matter is under consideration. Choosing an open means of communicating the decision (e.g., a public assembly), and in a timely way -- before rumors start and people become upset -- can go a long way toward avoiding ruffled feathers and bringing coworkers on board with you.

Colleagues appreciate being kept in the loop. Again, it's all about interdependence. And although Covey's best seller popularized the idea, it's hardly new. As long ago as the 17th century, the English Renaissance poet John Donne wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent." Or in this case, every librarian.


Todd Gilman is the librarian for literature in English at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library.