One of the things the pandemic codified for most people is our relationship to our people, or to any and all people, really. Months of imposed isolation redefined relationships for us: how we need them, how we want to experience them, how we can meet our needs for communion safely. If we came to understand anything from how COVID flipped our lives, it is how we show up. The pandemic certainly flipped how the library shows up for its community and vice versa. Remember the word of 2020? Pivot? Libraries did so in spades.
It is also undeniable that since December 2019 as our world redefined interpersonal boundaries, preferences and requirements, we all came to understand, even more than anything else, that we are all still learning.
When my son was much younger and we still did things like show up at playgrounds, I met a fellow mom who gave me that phrase, that perspective. It was a gift and I thanked her for it: We are all still learning. That phrase reframed critiques, criticism and expectations for me. It loosened the grip of my negativity bias and set me free. It gave me the positive language with which I could help my young child, and my middle-aged self, continue to grow. Eight years in, we still both find ourselves adjusting our lens by uttering when we need it most: “I am still learning.”
We, the people, are all still learning.
I think libraries embody that phrase in such a beautiful way. The library is the place of infinite learning, not only for users, but also for staff. For me, the CYOA module on Infinite Learning Professional Learning Experiences (PLEs) showcased how librarians show up for themselves and each other to keep learning. It is not surprising, then, given all of this and human nature that Stephens et al. (2019b) found that “despite the convenience of ‘anywhere, anytime’ learning, …the literature reveals that library staff and library school faculty consistently prefer F2F [face to face] training over online modality” (Content section, para 2). And yet, how F2F times have changed! Despite this, I think it is safe to assume that what was true before the pandemic, that “librarians crave a chance to come together in a small group for active discussion, learning and hands-on play with ideas and technology” (Stephens, 2019a, p. 46) is still true after. Makes sense: The teachers and facilitators of lifelong learning love to learn together.
This aligns with the core characteristics of a 21st-century librarian. As Stephens (2019a) explained: “Librarians certainly need skills such as empathy, curiosity, confidence and adaptability … ‘soft skills’ [that] are hard to teach.” He continued, when “groups of information professionals in our workshop ‘built a librarian’ … it seemed like the soft skills outweighed the hard skills” (p. 30). “Empathy,” Sofer (2018) said, “is the resonant capacity of our heart” (p. 158-159). It is a person-centered capacity. It is, at its most basic, showing up for any and all people, including your people. Within their daily work, librarians and information professionals point these soft skills outward. I think it is especially important for librarians to shine these characteristics inward, too.
This makes me think about Simon’s (2020) idea about libraries cultivating a “frontstage” and a “backstage” for its information professionals. The frontstage is the place where the “emotional labor” of service work take place and the backstage is the place for librarians and staff can let go, vent and engage in the “social sharing” coping mechanism. Simon (2020) emphasized the need for “providing proper training to librarians about emotional labor and paying special attention to creating a culture that is accepting of healthy sharing” (Conclusion, para 3). A research participant in Stephens’ (2021) study put it in another way: “‘People are our most important asset and it is so important that they feel valued and safe to do their jobs and learn’” (p. 14). The emphasis here is mine. We all need to take care of each other and use our natural tendencies to help each other learn together, especially on the inside.
Stephens (2019a), in a recent PLE–a dynamic moment of learning together with other librarians and information professionals that he called “one of the best professional conferences” he “ever attended”–learned from “HRH Princess Laurentien of The Netherlands … to ask the right questions of our users” (p. 54). She “said ‘How’ questions are the best way to begin a conversation’” (Stephens, 2019a, p. 54). The pandemic has asked us all a global and granular HOW question. How do we show up, for each other and for ourselves? How do we keep learning?
Well, guess what? We are all still learning the answers. Together.
Simon, K. (2020). Emotional Labor, Stressors, and Librarians Who Work with the Public. SJSU School of Information Student Research Journal, 10(1). DOI: 10.31979/2575-2499.100106
Stephens, M. (2019a). Wholehearted Librarianship: Finding Hope, Inspiration, and Balance. ALA Editions.
Stephens, M. (2019b). Technology, Collaboration, and Learning: Perceptions and Preferences of US Public Library Staff Professional Development. Library Leadership & Management. https://287.hyperlib.sjsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/USPDStudyArticle.pdf
Stephens, M. (2021). The Strategic, Curious & Skeptical Learner. Public Library Quarterly https://doi.org/10.1080/01616846.2021.1893114
Sofer, O. J. (2018). Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. Boulder, CO: Shambala.