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Archive for February, 2011

I should start by saying this is quite a personal post, but I don’t think I want to apologise for that.

Have you ever had the feeling that people know you are there but they can’t quite see you or hear you, that there is a barrier between you and them. That you are behind the waterfall. Maybe they don’t want to see you and subtly push you behind the fall, or maybe you put yourself there because eventually it is easier. A waterfall that drowns your voices and drenches you with cold shock when you try to step through its concealing veil, sending you back to the relative safety of the dry space behind the rush.

When I was a child my Dad called me “Little Miss Chatterbox”, and would say “my word, your tongue must be glad of the rest when you go to sleep”. I would talk to anyone and everyone, animal, vegetable or mineral. I wanted to find out all about them, and my questions were none stop. As I got older I wasn’t afraid of tackling people I thought were behaving badly, teasing a cat, bullying a playmate, wearing fur or being involved in unethical farming. I was passionate and I was vocal.

It was fine if people didn’t agree with me, there were lots of debates, and I was prepared to be persuaded – well, sometimes. I was young and I really believed that some things were important enough to stand up for and to speak out for. I have never condoned any intimidation or violence in the debates, always thinking it weakened the argument and made both protagonists as bad as each other. Likewise I always felt that everybody should be allowed to state their viewpoint so there can be no accusations of bias. I truly believed the world could change for the better if people just spoke up for what they believe and in their heart of hearts know to be the right thing to do.

As I progressed in my careers I tried to apply my personal ethos to each role I undertook. Especially as a manager. I tried very hard, and sometimes it was almost impossible, to put aside personal feelings and be even handed and fair. I believe that rules apply to everyone, and nobody should receive preferential treatment. This didn’t make me popular, with some of the people I managed or with all my managers, but I could sleep at night and look myself in the eye in the mirror. I even left jobs because I could not respect my manager or the ethos of the organisation. I was young, I was confident and I always walked into another job.

I eventually walked away from a reasonable career as an IT consultant to go to university to study Library and Information Management, sold my beloved sports car  to fund it. I loved those three years like I have never loved anything I have done before. Partly because I had always assumed I wasn’t academic, but it turned out I was. 1st class Honours, awards, respect and most of all a passion for my profession. I even started a PhD, but it wasn’t for me, and both my mentor and I recognised that in time for us both to gain something useful from the process but not waste time on it.

I was getting older. I was just as passionate and had all the same beliefs but I started to find it harder to be taken seriously and my professional judgement was doubted. Because I was a librarian. Through a series of events I can’t go into here I found myself unable to make my voice heard, I started to doubt my abilities, I thought my voice didn’t count, I thought I was irrelevant and maybe so was my profession. I became invisible. I found myself behind the waterfall.

Anybody who knew me in the years since then would not necessarily recognise that. I still worked, still spoke up for what I believed, still tried to do the best I could, up to a point. The point where I would have to step through the waterfall and be focussed on and responded to directly. Then two things happened. I realised I wasn’t the only person in my profession who felt like that. There were people deriding what we did, our values and the fact we really care about what we do, as if that is a weakness. And I registered on Twitter.

I felt I could say what I really felt there, and that people were seeing it, hearing it and responding to it. They might not agree, but they were hearing it. I started to get angry that people who, in the main, were doing a bloody good job in difficult circumstances were becoming the scapegoats for people trying to promote their own flagging careers. The easy target to cut to save money for mismanaged budgets, the target for an unprecedented irrational level of vitriol on forums and blogs. I didn’t want a whole profession to go behind the waterfall. So I started to speak out, in a safe way of course. Then I had the opportunity to do more and use my experience in a new group set up to support public libraries, Voices for the Library . I am hugely proud of what we achieved in a short time, and my contribution to that, and of their continued massive success and influence. It gave me the confidence to step out from behind the waterfall and stand in the elections for CILIP Trustee to give me the chance to work for all sectors of the profession.

I was hugely flattered to be elected and also surprised and unsure that I could live up to expectations. I had to give up my role in VftL, which I have found incredibly hard to do, and change the way I approach things, which I also found hard. I have had to start again, and I have found the legacy of the waterfall hard to beat. I find it hard to stand up for myself, to say “actually I think you’ll find I said that”, to say “no, that’s not my role” to say “listen to me what I say does matter”, but I am finding it easier every day to say “I am here to represent my profession and I will not let you malign, undermine or sideline it” and “I am here on behalf of the communities we serve and I will not let you patronise and belittle them”. I am halfway through the waterfall, and finding the next step easier all the time. What we do is too important to be drowned out in the flood water of the moment. I am finding my courage and my strength from the waterfall behind me, and all the voices behind it.

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