On Awards & Recognition

[Note: this post is an expansion of thoughts from a previous post on the topic of awards and recognition within the librarian field.-A]

Back in 2010, I had the privilege of attending the Library Journal Movers & Shakers luncheon at that year’s ALA annual in Washington DC. I had been looking forward to the luncheon ever since I received the award and could attend the conference. The luncheon itself was held in the National Press Club, a few blocks from the White House and on a floor high enough to make me not look outside much.

In settling in for lunch, I was at a table full of (for lack of a better term) my personal library heroes. These were people that I had only read about or heard about and now I was sitting in their company. It was a great and exciting experience for me since I got a chance to get to know them in a social setting.

The conclusion of the entrée brought on the luncheon’s speaker, some reporter/author talking about their love of libraries as conference orators are wont to do. Following this speech, one of the Library Journal editors took the podium and announced they were going to introduce each year’s awardee and their accomplishments. Cool, I thought, not know what was in store for me.

In listening to each person’s name and accomplishments, I started to get a sinking feeling in my stomach. As I sat and listened, it felt as if every person’s achievement topped the next one’s on the moral and selflessness scale.

“Linda is a tireless worker in the impoverished regions of West Virginia, where she drives a satellite internet rig from town to town to provide them with internet service and library services.”

“Bob is a intercity librarian working with the homeless. He also volunteers to mentor HIV positive teens, bring peace to street gangs, and fosters abandoned kittens.”

“Lucy is a champion for literacy in the Middle East, reading books to blind orphans while fighting off rabid giant hawks and aggressive monkey-eating spiders with only a knife tied to a stick.”

With each successive person, the feeling of sheepishness slowly spread throughout my body. I’m one of the fifty people picked by the magazine as someone who is shaping the dialogue in the library world? No. No way. It can’t be.

“Jane has used recycled discarded materials to provide abused disadvantaged children of Africa with books as well as food, shelter, and energy. When she’s not saving endangered animals from extinction by personally rehabilitating their populations, she’s volunteering her time to cure cancer, depression, and the common cold. Jane also gave both of her kidneys to a set of twins so they would always be alike. She has reduced her carbon footprint to zero by eating only sunshine and expelling euphoria.”

Oh. Gawd. Then, in the curse that is alphabetical order, it’s my turn. I rise up from my seat as all eyes turn to me, feeling like a well known sinner standing up in church.

“Here’s Andy. He made a Facebook group about ice cream and libraries. Every year, we include someone whose accomplishments are questionable at best. It’s our insurance policy in case the rest of you get a big ego. We’ll just send you a reminder that you got it the same year as this guy.

Or so I heard in my head. Here was a group of people who airlifted books to children in need, had created movements within their communities, and defied common beliefs and protocols… and I made a Facebook group. I sat back down and made the best of the rest of the luncheon, pondering my inclusion in this group.

In the luxury of hindsight, I realize that what I was being recognized for was worthy of the award. The awful feeling of being a fraud, an all-too-common sensation that I have noticed and spoken about with my peers, was simply having its moment in the sun. I had done something unique, something different, and something that got national and international notice. Sure, it might not end up as an actual Ben & Jerry’s flavor, but I got people considering the library in a new light and for some renewing their support for the institution. There were also some other things I worked on that were included in the award, so the Facebook group was not the sum total of my efforts.

I can only guess where the fraudulent feelings came from; most likely for myself they were the product of a self-esteem that hesitated at the recognition. In taking on other projects and causes over the last eighteen months, I have proven to myself that I am not simply a flash in the pan when it comes to doing things worthy of notice in the library community. I have grown comfortable with choice of my platforms, the notion of being a public figure, and having a megaphone which broadcasts issues that I think are important reliably to portions of the online librarian world. Not everyone wants or needs the spotlight, but I feel alright about attention and recognition.

As I mentioned before, I’m not the first of my professional peers to contend with feeling like a fraud when it comes to being given awards and/or recognition. I don’t think it’s unusual to have a moment of doubt in which one wonders if there is someone more deserving out there or if what they’ve done is worth all the fuss. Surely there is someone out there doing something more worthy of notice and accolades, our lovely-yet-still-irrational brains think despite having no evidence to the contrary. But the feeling still persists until overcome or abated, and not always in favor of the recipient.

This internal dialogue is bad enough before you factor in contending with other librarians. I’ve been told (both explicitly and implied) that I shouldn’t have received a particular award. I hadn’t “paid my dues” either in experience or longevity or haven’t done anything worthy of recognition. (Ouch.) In examining the underlying implications of such (bogus) assertions, it suggests that there is a special sort of calculus to whether someone is worthy of professional accolades. That it must be a culmination of experience (the more years, the better), an aspect of librarianship that should be promoted (with books and reading being at the vanguard), and that they are a person worth commending in a public forum (insert vague connotations of looking or acting the part). It also discourages anyone from actively seeking recognition themselves, as if there is more merit and inherent value to being discovered and raised up by your peers. I’d warrant that’s why the profession has very few people in the national eye. With such exacting conditions and intangible requisites, it’s putting forth an ideal that rarely matches the reality of those who are working in different ways to move libraries forward.

In addition, I do want to make mention of an alternative to “Deserving” assertion which is the “there is no ‘I’ in team” pronouncement that raises its head every now and again. In the overly egalitarian application of this premise, it denigrates the stature of any award on the basis that there is no possible way that a person could have done this on their own without support staff, fellow librarians, and/or other forms of outside assistance. While collective efforts should be lauded and rewarded accordingly, this kind of subtle award assassination frowns upon individual efforts as if they are incompatible with the overarching library value of cooperation. Furthermore, this “no one can rise above the rest” does not encourage innovation; where can you go if there are people actively working to bring you down by downplaying your efforts?

(Honorable mention goes to the “my heroes are the regular folks who staff desks, shelve books, and do the mundane operations of the library” affirmation. I must say that that sentiment sounds better when applied to members of the armed forces or public safety officials rather than some of minimum wage minimal training enthusiasm-not-required workers we tend to put in these positions. They might be the people who make sure the library keeps working, but I’m guessing some are motivated by a paycheck more than the values of the library.)

Personally, for the undeserved flak I’ve taken, I’ve managed to shake most of it off and let my words, works, and projects speak for themselves. While I’m certain that some will see this next statement as arrogance or ego (or both), I take the approach that I’m always in the running for Mover & Shaker or Librarian of the Year or some other award (yes, I want to be the first repeat for that first one). It’s a reminder to me that when I do take on projects or causes, that when I do step into the spotlight or soapbox, and when I do promote an issue or stance, that what I am doing should always be something that is progressive for the mission and values of libraries and/or librarians. It ensures that I give my best effort, use all my talents and resources, and try to make the biggest impact possible. If the desire to change the hearts and minds of fellow librarians to see ourselves as part of a greater consensus and a sworn knight of a digital information future, to rally the public around the ideals of literacy and the collective shared information good, and to leave this worlds with a bitchin’ awesome obituary in Library Journal is considered a product of big ego, then well, I guess I have a big ego. And the problem in this situation is not me, but the ones who think that in this case it’s a bad thing.

Overall, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around some of the negative sentiments around awards and recognition within the librarian profession, but it might be that I’m trying to apply logic and reason to illogical and unreasonable attitudes. While I could dismiss it as “haters gonna hate”, it still doesn’t provide a remedy the resistance to showcasing individuals with exceptional talents or ideas. Nor does it provide an ample explanation for such an aversion to merit based rewards. What happened to create such cynicism, such contempt? Is it the companion to risk aversion embodied as reward aversion? How can we attract achievers to the profession when recognition and awards are considered with such begrudging acceptance?

If quiet mediocrity is considered the acceptable and desired norm for librarians, then perhaps once more I am unsuited for the career I have chosen.

(Don’t worry, it’s too late for me to start over yet again.)

9 thoughts on “On Awards & Recognition

  1. I think you put your finger on it. There’s a large subset of librarians who believe we are supposed to be quiet and, if not mediocre, then at least unassuming. As far as I can tell, they believe this because society believes this.

    And it’s ridiculous. Keep rocking on!

  2. I don’t think mediocre is quite the right term either, but yes, definitely unassuming. We’re not really conditioned to toot our own horns and promote ourselves. I also think there is a difference in reception between people who do cool things and receive recognition and people who actively promote a personal brand. I hesitate to suggest this lest I be jumped on by colleagues who actually studied social sciences, but I wonder if some of the distaste for self-promotion stems from the gender breakdown of the profession. I think many librarians have a bit of a doormat-mother complex. We bask in the reflected glow of our libraries but take only blame for their failures, no individual glory in their successes.

  3. Pingback: Thinking « Thoughts from the Window

  4. excellent piece, and reminded me that the only two fellow ‘professionals’ who ever tried to stab me in the back by calling my Senior Management and accusing me of actions which were taken out of context and entirely defensible, even lauded in one case, are also the only two who have ever called me up and asked me to take on some joint committee work in my local area, because I was the only one up to it :S Jealous much? Suffice to say polite and cool is now hoe they are treated :S

  5. Those bits in italics are hilarious…

    I find it extraordinary that you crazy North Americans actually SAY this stuff to each other, out loud. The idea of going up to someone and telling them they are unworthy of the award they won (and it’s not like they even applied for it, it was bestowed upon them) – who does that?! In Britain we have a system of unspoken, lingering and barely supressed resentment, which is much more civalised. ;-)

    Part of this is surely just that the more people know who you are, the more people there are to take issue with you. If 1% of people you are exposed to dislike what you do, then winning an award that adds 1000 people to the total figure means you add 10 more people who don’t like you, and if all 10 of those express their feelings about it then… well, it’s human nature for that to feel like a deluge of criticism. I remember being amazed reading Bobbi’s haters gonna hate post, because I thought of all people who on earth would take issue with her? The good she does the library community is inarguable. But then I thought, well, she probably has three or four thousand people reading every blog post etc – the sheer number of people knowing her views means some people are bound to read them and not like them, or the way they are expressed, or whatever. If you do anything of any significance, it can’t NOT offend some people or it wouldn’t be worth talking about in the first place – it would have to be bland by definition.

    The self-promotion thing is really tricky. I don’t think I am a big self-promoter, but I bet a lot of people do think I am. I think I promote the stuff I DO and am involved with, but I see that as different. It’s a fine line clearly. One person I’ve interacted with on Twitter is known as a bit of a self-promoter, all style and little substance, in the field, so I was told – but I’ve seen absolutely zero evidence of this whatsoever in all their tweets. Other people seem very popular but are far too gratuitous in their self-promotion for my taste. I think everyone has different views on the same issue.

    I’m sure there is a perception that one has to hang with the right crowd to get a Mover & Shaker award, but ANYONE can be nominated. Someone just has to contact LJ and say: check out what this person is doing. Even if they aren’t doing something at national level, they can still get a nomination, and then if they get featured their work BECOMES national.

    As to the larger question you are asking, I’m not sure it’s that lots of librarians believe we should be quiet. I just think that awards tend to happen nationally or internationally, but day-to-day we exist very locally with our colleagues. It’s not always a comfortable mix.

  6. I’ve never really understood professional jealousy. Accolades and recognition given to someone else does not take anything away from one’s own status. It’s not like the scales of justice where the elevation of one side weighs down the other. What matters, maybe, is how a person accepts praise, awards, etc., which is hopefully gratefully, humbly, and with the acknowledgment that there are others doing significant work–better work–who simply never get noticed for one reason or another. Handled in that fashion, I don’t think anyone can complain about it, and if they do, then it’s a reflection on them rather than on anyone else.

  7. Thanks for this Andy – it sums up many of my own thoughts. Having just been honoured by the award of an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in the Queen’s New Year Honours it was so very pertinent.
    I use the term professional generosity to signify our way of helping others and perhaps this should be extended. It takes someone to do the work to put someone’s name forward for most of our professional awards and prizes, or to support their self submitted applications. A good Professional New Year resolution would be to ensure that we do just that. Think of others and put their names forward.
    All good wishes for 2012

  8. I’ve known two Movers and Shakers, and perhaps it was just “coincidence”, but both had egos too large to be tolerable. One of them was brought to my library system with great fanfare only to be fired a few months later (this person subsequently concocted an elaborate coverup story on their blog, no surprise). In both cases, the librarians treated their day job as an afterthought and their colleagues and patrons as unworthy of their attention, between all of the tweeting during meetings, blogging and commenting all throughout the workday but never having time to complete projects, constant absences by traveling to conferences, etc, and generally not putting reasonable effort into their local position but rather spending the majority of their time and attention in building their resume and reputation elsewhere. We were willing to support the recent hire’s extracurriculars (hey, we benefit from their notoriety as well!) but it soon became evident by this person’s actions and dismissive attitude that this person was there only to collect a paycheck from us. We’ve got work to do… no time for divas!

    I’m sure that there are librarians who receive national awards who manage to maintain their humility and who are genuinely treasured by their local colleagues, but based on my experiences, I can certainly understand why winning awards comes with a stigma. It’s unfortunate.

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