The Toxic Middle

Posted Monday, October 7, 2013 - 13:14
Here’s to the new blood surging into the profession
Joseph Janes

Wasn’t it considerate of the folks in Chicago to arrange for that unexpected (and most welcome) stretch of lovely, clement weather? I was steeling myself for the typical onslaught, packing the sweater for icily over-air-conditioned meeting rooms, only to be greeted by blue skies and 70 degrees. And a couple million hockey fans.

So I’m blissfully making my way through the weekend, when I find myself ascending an escalator at the convention center (Egads! I’ve led seminars that were shorter some of those bus rides to the convention center). I start noticing that everybody descending looks about 15 years old. Those of us on college campuses get used to this, but after that moment, I couldn’t help being struck by the number of young faces everywhere at Annual.

It’s the same thing I see in our recent graduates and in programs like Emerging Leaders and Movers and Shakers; it’s heartwarming and reassuring to witness new librarians making their way in the profession. I also see, time and again, strong leadership at the top of so many of our institutions, and am privileged to know a number of heads of public and academic libraries, big and small. In large part these are smart, talented people who see the potential in what libraries and librarians can be and want to navigate their organizations towards brighter futures.

If only it were that easy. If only our profession would authentically and wholeheartedly embrace the ideas and enthusiasm of our new colleagues. If only our leaders could engage those ideas and use them to effect change. If only. 

I’ve heard this story so many times. A new idea, proposed by a recent hire, floats across the table at a meeting. There’s a moment, pregnant with possibilities, as the assembled staff considers. Then a voice from the corner emerges, from a face weary with decades of experience, perched above a body leaning back, arms folded: “I don’t know….We tried something like that 20 years ago, and it didn’t work then, so….”

I don’t know if I just coined the phrase “toxic middle” for this layer of people—often of my generation—who act like wet blankets all the time. Is it any wonder some of our newly minted colleagues blog and tweet about restlessness, disillusionment, and even despair? Or worse yet, leave for greener pastures in other professions?

If you recognize yourself in this portrait, it’s not too late. Engage these newbies. Mentor them. They really do want the benefit of your experience. But bear in mind that they have a lot to share with you as well, and their ideas are worth serious consideration. They see the world differently than those of us who learned Dialog as a survival skill, and that’s good. We are stronger professionally with all these generations and worldviews, and we’ll serve our clienteles and communities more effectively together.

For those who don’t see themselves here but who nonetheless block and dodge and defer and discourage: Knock it off, or get out. It’s not nice and it’s not fair.

I can’t help recalling my own first ALA conference: Philadelphia 1982. I got sick as a dog, won a Guinness Book, and dragged home a few dozen publisher catalogs, ready to take on the world. At the 2014 Annual Conference, in Vegas (20,000 of us laden with tote bags trudging up and down the Strip), what first-timers will get the innovation bug and begin forging exciting new paths for libraries? I hope I get to meet them . . . but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor and chair of the MLIS program at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.

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