Oh Meredith, why can’t you just write a nice, short, concise post?

I really don’t know what happens! I start writing and my fingers just seem to take over. This is what happens when my husband goes away and leaves me alone with my thoughts. Sorry folks!

Something I frequently think about when I go to conferences is the whole idea of “service to the profession.” I’m not a fan of the idea that librarians must provide service outside of their daily work and I think, for way too long, there was a very specific prescription for how one even could provide service to the profession. I guess it’s the obstinate anti-authoritarian in me that hates being told that I need to do anything. On the flip side, I have discovered that helping and sharing with other librarians is really fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge or code, serving on a committee, teaching, writing or just sitting down with a colleague and showing them how something works. Even if it wasn’t fun, it’s worth helping your colleagues, because we would want someone to do the same for us (and we may need them to do the same for us one day).

I don’t like the term “service to the profession” because it feels so impersonal. We are the profession. Me. You. Your colleagues. The other library bloggers you read. The people you see at conferences. When you do something good for the profession, more often than not, you are doing something good for librarians. You’re not usually doing something for ALA, ACRL, PLA or some other organization; you’re doing it to benefit people just like you.

There are so many generous librarians out there who are putting their time and their passion into making things better for other librarians (usually for nothing). Sharing just seems to be the norm in this profession, which is why we really should be more into open source software and the open source development model than we are (maybe we’re better at sharing than we are at collaborating?). I’m amazed by the generosity of the people I meet in this profession. I have only e-mailed one “important person” in this field for help who blew me off; everyone else has been willing to help and offer advice when I ask for it. Librarians are frequently willing to take that hard-won knowledge and give it away. I do it all the time. Maybe I shouldn’t? It’s hard to be an expert when you give people the tools to learn as much as (if not more than) you about a subject. From experience, it feels much better to see someone you taught using the tools successfully and passing that knowledge on to others than it is to hold onto knowledge with a death grip.

This sharing is not the norm in many other fields. In some fields, people hold onto their knowledge as if it were made of gold. Knowledge is power. Knowledge is money. Knowledge is job security. I’m friendly with the University Webmaster and he once told me that he has a huge list of resources for web design. When I suggested he put his collection on del.icio.us, he balked, saying that he doesn’t share that information; he just gives it out to people he likes in drips and drabs. I’ve gotten a few of those drips and drabs, so I guess I should consider myself lucky. He’s a great guy, very willing to help me when I’m trying to figure something out. But he feels, like many, that his knowledge is what gives him an edge over the competition and that giving it away completely will make him lose his edge. I can’t entirely disagree with all that. I know that my tech knowledge helped me get my job and does give me an edge in my work. It makes me indispensable (or at least less dispensable than I would be otherwise). So why would I want to give away my intellectual capital so freely? I’ll tell you a secret… it feels really good. I remember the first time I heard that someone started a wiki because of what I taught them. It was an amazing feeling. Giving it all away is a whole lot more satisfying than hoarding it.

Maybe it’s because sharing is so natural in our field that some people reacted so negatively to the idea of a library charging librarians to attend webinars offered by their staff. The Orange County Library System in Orlando, Florida is one of the most innovative and technology-forward systems in the country. I am constantly impressed with the things they do, from creating online tutorials to offering classes on podcasting to getting young people using technology creatively. Clearly, they have a lot to teach all of us. However, instead of freely sharing that information, they are charging librarians for it:

PUSHING IT FORWARD: TAKING YOUR LIBRARY TO THE NEXT LEVEL!
Our technology series can give you the edge you need. The Orange County Library System is a recognized leader in information technology. Grab lunch (or breakfast!), login and join colleagues from around the country for presentations by OCLS staff, discussion and idea sharing online. RESERVE YOUR SEAT TODAY! $75 per session or $199 for entire series

My initial reaction, like Helene’s, was quite negative. I felt that it was awful to be making money that way off your fellow librarians. I especially felt that way when I saw that they are currently doing Helene’s Learning 2.0 program, for which she has generously shared the model, the materials and her expertise. I am not against libraries charging a bit for Webinars to cover the costs of the technology infrastructure or to get people to show up, but at $75 a pop, I can’t imagine they aren’t trying to turn a profit. Even if just 20 people attended each session, they would make $4,500. I guess it adds insult to injury to know that they used to offer these webinars for free.

I started to think more about my reaction to this last night. What’s wrong with making money this way? Lots of other organizations offer for-pay trainings for their peers. Some non-profits offer classes in their subject areas for money. Also, our library organizations offer classes that we have to pay for. Like Helene, I find it frustrating to see people charging for what we’re willing to give away for free. However, while it’s not something I’d do, it’s not wrong. It just doesn’t fit into our view of professional service. I may be totally off-base, but maybe we’re reacting to this in the same way some people reacted to that library in Arizona getting rid of Dewey numbers? It’s certainly not something I’d ever do at my library, but you can’t blame ‘em for trying, especially in Florida with the budget disasters going on there.

I guess this feels to me like someone using open source code in a proprietary and costly application. We all got our ideas from somewhere. None of us can pretend that we do not owe someone a debt of gratitude for some of the cool things we’ve implemented in our work or outside-of-work professional life. I got the idea for Five Weeks to a Social Library from the ALA 2.0 Bootcamp. I got the inspiration for using del.icio.us to create annotated web guides that are syndicated on the library website by looking at the Washington State Library’s blog. Helene Blowers was inspired to do Learning 2.0 by something Stephen Abrams wrote. Whether we copy an idea wholesale, make it our own, or just use it for inspiration, we can’t pretend that there isn’t someone in this profession we don’t owe a debt of gratitude to. If someone was willing to freely share their knowledge with us, why not pay it forward?

When we were choosing participants for Five Weeks to a Social Library, I really had my eye out for people whose applications indicated they would pay it forward. I think we chose well, because many of our former participants are teaching their colleagues about social software and are even spreading the gospel beyond their library. One of our participants, Holly Ristau, gave a talk this month on wikis at the Tribal College Librarians Institute meeting. How cool is that? It’s really gratifying for all of us who were involved in making Five Weeks happen, to see our participants using what they’ve learned and giving back to the profession.

The other great thing that comes from sharing are the connections you make with other people. Had I not chosen this path, I would never have met all the wonderful people I’m now connected to; many of whom I consider friends. They have inspired me, challenged me, supported me, made me laugh, and held me up in tough times. I’ve connected to a much bigger world outside of my library and I think that is a huge benefit that comes from “professional service.” I feel unbelievably lucky to have the friends in the profession I do, and I can’t imagine how different my life would have been had I kept things locked up inside.

We all have something to offer others in the profession. If you think you don’t, it’s more a reflection of your self-esteem than any reality. Have you ever had a good idea? Do you know about some really cool technology, product or idea that could benefit libraries? Have you done something at your library that was successful (a program, service, technology, etc.)? No matter how small you may think that achievement is, there may be someone out there right now looking for what you already know or trying to do what you’ve already achieved. Why not share it? Share it on the Library Success Wiki. Share it on listservs. Share it on a blog. Share it in a journal. Share it at a conference. Whatever you do, just please do share it. Think of how much easier our lives would be if we stopped reinventing the wheel and started sharing more.

On the flip side, I think there is a danger of giving too much. On the panel I was a part of for PLA, Tom Peters described “Second Life burnout.” Lots of people would volunteer for the Second Life Library 2.0 and would spend hours there, staffing the reference desk and just generally making things great. They’d spend so much time that they’d end up neglecting their first life. Finally, something would have to give and many of them left the Second Life Library never to return. I think people who are very excited about something can run the risk of working on it with a level of intensity that is unsustainable in the long term. Second Lifers do it. Wikipedians do it. Lots of people involved in online communities do it. I do it. It’s important to find that balance that allows you to work on the projects you’re passionate about and not let go of the other things in your life.

It was telling for me how exhausted I felt throughout the ALA conference; like I’d been run over by a bus. It’s been a crazy few years and I haven’t really had the chance to stop and take stock in a long time. I’ve been feeling kind of at loose ends lately; like I’m not sure what my next step should be and what I should be moving towards in the long term. I first started writing and speaking to establish myself professionally (I had no idea at the time how much I would enjoy both activities). I was working towards something. I’m at a point where I feel like I have a lot of options, but I’m not sure which direction to move in. I’ve discovered that I’m most passionate about something (teaching and online education) that I never thought was “my thing” before, and now I don’t know how to reorganize my priorities and get to do the sorts of things I want to do (like adjunct instruction for a library school program or technology training). My career sort of took on a life of its own over the past two years and now I need to make real decisions in order to move towards the career I want two, five, ten and twenty years from now. But I’m not sure what my next step should be. As I told Andrew Pace at ALA, “I just need someone to tell me what I should be doing!” Pretty ironic for someone who hates to be told what to do as much as I do.

But whatever I’m doing, I will be sure to share it with you. The connections I have made with you all through these magical tubes we call the Internet make me feel so excited about my work and this profession. To all of you who read blogs and listservs but never comment, consider sharing ideas. Consider connecting to others. While it may seem like “just more work” the value of the connections you make to other (both on an emotional and professional level) are immeasurable.