Death by Risk Aversion – A TTW Guest Post by Stephen Walker

What makes what I’ll call an A librarian? Most librarians—most people in any profession—are what I take to be average, or C librarians. A small percentage, around 10, are B librarians or above average. Perhaps 10 percent of those number are A librarians, though maybe such an exalted condition as I will describe is mythical.

What goes into making an A librarian? These are the characteristics, in my opinion. I’ll begin by outlining the hindrances that prevent a librarian from reaching his potential (I’ll use the masculine pronoun throughout).

Through the years I’ve heard, in reference to tenure, that once achieved a currently non-tenured faculty can give views frankly. It is as if this were the one thing that kept him from this freedom of expression. I think that this is an honest self-delusion or mis-perception.

To wit, there are faculty who have reached tenure and risen to the top of the promotion ladder, so such people should have no hesitancy in speaking the most opinionated blasphemies. Yet even assuming that they had the motive, they likely wouldn’t. Whatever their situation, few care to get criticized or challenge the status quo; or to put it another way, all want to be loved and validated. In general, people prefer not to risk.

At the 2008 ALA annual conference I saw a phrase at one presentation, and again at another conference (by the same speaker). The phrase was, “Death by Risk Aversion.” In my interpretation, this would mean, for example, that the catastrophe that has befallen the car industry is a result of its failure to produce alternative-energy automobiles due to its sticking with what is safe and its lack of vision. The two feed off one another.

To be an A librarian one must overcome the fear of having an original opinion as well as other fears: the fear of failure or of differing with the accepted wisdom. The hindrance, then, is really psychological rather than the “practical” excuse of not having tenure or worrying about promotion.

So far I’ve put this in the negative. However, it is not sufficient to overcome what holds one back. There must be positive traits to achieve A status.

One must be creative, willing to try what nobody else has (perhaps either due to prudence or a sense of self-preservation). Put another way, one must have vision and a willingness to communicate that vision; and act upon it.

The A librarian must be a person of conviction, believing in what he does. Idealism brings fuel to this, and his reach exceeds his grasp. Not only does he have great aspirations, but he seeks to consistently inspire and help others through providing a supportive atmosphere. He remains upbeat, especially when the going gets rough and the temptation to react negatively is great.

His place is not in the majority, but the minority. He must have courage, willing to rock the boat good and hard, regardless of potential criticism from colleagues, administrators, or who have you; although disturbing for the sake of disturbing should be avoided.

Suppose despite his efforts there is active or passive resistance from others, as when nobody pays attention to his best endeavors and continues to act in the same old way. He must not give in to discouragement—this is somewhat of an understandable, but perhaps evasive and lazy reaction.

The A librarian has resilience and a positive outlook. To him all job data is at worst neutral and at best an opportunity to transform or improve. Data examples could range from the budget and client behavior to usage statistics and room temperature.

I think that also an A librarian should find fun in what he does.

It would be pleasant to report that attempting equals accomplishing, but that is not the case. Recognition from others is a reward that comes to accomplishment and success, but this is secondary for the A librarian. His triumph is in trying and doing his best. As Isaac Asimov said when asked how he wanted to be remembered, it was for trying. And I believe that this should be the A librarian’s guiding principle.

So, how do you become an A librarian, assuming this is a goal? Unless you are born with this gene, you work at it constantly and tenaciously, though this is no guarantee. If it were easy, the world would be full of such people. But it is not.

—Stephen Walker, James C. Kirkpatrick Library, University of Central Missouri