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A response to Joe Janes’s American Libraries article “The Toxic Middle”

I fell into the field of librarianship about three years ago when I took a part-time adult services position in a public library and I’ll finish my MLIS in May. I still consider myself a newbie in the field. As a relatively young person, new to librarianship, I hear a lot about the great things that other relatively young, new people are doing.

I also hear a lot about how resistant older librarians are to new ideas. I’ve heard about how difficult it will be to get my new ideas implemented and how much negativity I’ll be forced to deal with in the field. Janes’s wish that “If only our profession would authentically and wholeheartedly embrace the ideas and enthusiasm of our new colleagues” is one that has popped up in articles that I have read, message boards I’ve participated in, and even casual conversations at conferences.

I appreciate the concern of librarians like Janes who genuinely want to see new librarians succeed and to see them remain excited and eager to improve the field. I appreciate the support that librarians like Janes give to new librarians like myself. It’s encouraging to know that there are a lot of librarians who are as eager to me succeed as I am to be successful.

However, I firmly believe that this idea of the toxic middle that seems to be batted around on a regular basis is incredibly detrimental to new librarians. In librarianship, as with all career fields, there will always be negative people who don’t want to implement new ideas and who prefer to maintain the status quo. But by focusing on this population and constantly warning new librarians about the toxic middle, it can create a combative environment that doesn’t need to exist.

I spent a good portion of my first year working in a library assuming that because I was new and young, that my ideas wouldn’t be respected because that was what people kept telling me. I pitched ideas very aggressively because I thought it was the only way to get them accepted and implemented. And then I started to realize that while I was getting some negativity, I was mostly getting a lot of support and encouragement. My older and more experienced co-workers were offering ideas to make my ideas better. I learned that if I went to my co-workers with my ideas, they would work with me to make sure they make ideas that we could implement. And if my idea bombed, they were there to help me pick it apart to see what I could do better next time. 

Is there a toxic middle that exists in librarianship? Yes. But focusing on this isn’t helping anyone. Instead of focusing on the negativity that we may run into as new librarians, let’s focus on teaching new librarians how to have confidence in their ideas and how to stay determined. Instead of telling stories about the co-worker who hated new ideas, focus on the co-workers and managers who love new ideas. Anyone going into any field knows that there will be a certain amount of strife, conflict, and resistance; being constantly reminded of that is actually more demotivating than the actual conflict and resistance that we encounter. As a new librarian, I need to hear more stories about success and fewer stories about all the roadblocks I’m going to hit.



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