What Running Can Teach You About Librarianship

On July 4, 1998, I happened upon live television coverage of one of Atlanta’s legendary sporting events, the Peachtree Road Race. In spite of the fact I have never had an ounce of athletic ability in my life other than being the hula hoop champion of Midway Elementary from 1976–1983, I was transfixed and inspired by the grace, strength, and determination of the multitude of runners fighting the hills, heat, and humidity for 6.2 miles.   I remember watching the race and thinking to myself, “I want to do that.” And within a year, not only did I go from being a walker to someone who ran a 10K ,but I also ran my first half-marathon in 1999 because this goal was something I really believed in with all my heart, a goal that required dedication and perseverance.  Before going back to graduate school while working full time in 2001, I ran countless 10Ks, several half-marathons, and one full marathon before giving up my 50 mile a week running habit to have more time to devote to travel and study to the University of Georgia. After a ten year hiatus, I began reclaiming my running life last year.  It has been a slow road and taken longer than I anticipated to finally get into a regular running groove (things feel a lot different when you are nearly 40 as opposed to 30), but it is a joy to experience running as a regular part of my life these days.    For the last few months, I’ve been thinking about what running can teach us about librarianship, so here are a few observations:

  • The First Steps Are Sometimes the Hardest:  even when you know the run will be good for you, sometimes the most difficult part is actually getting out there on the road or the track.    We can easily find all kinds of challenges in making time for running:  adverse weather, other life commitments, not feeling energetic, nagging aches and pains.   It is just as easy in library life to find reasons to stay on the sidelines and stay off the road:  lack of funding, lack of support from stakeholders, lack of time, fear of failure or the sting from a previous less than successful effort at a particular project.  I find that motivation comes much more easily when I focus on the benefits of the run and envisioning success; the same is true when I’m knee-deep in a new library project or learning initiative.  Keep your energy focused what you CAN do and visualize yourself accomplishing those goals successfully.
  • Embrace Discomfort: some days, running feels effortless.  Most days, though, I find myself working through some level of discomfort at various points in my run.   Now that I’m older, I find it sometimes takes me a good mile into the run to get warmed up and feeling good; through experience, I have learned to work through the initial feeling that I am a slug and to feel confident in knowing that with a little time and distance, my muscles will start firing up and that I’ll soon feel good.  The same is true when I’m starting a new unit or library project—at first, I may feel awkward, less than graceful, and uncomfortable, but before long—with patience and practice—I find my rhythm and settle into an optimal zone.
  • Tuning Out is Dangerous: While many people I know enjoy listening to music while running, I never have, and I never will.  Why?  It is dangerous to tune out your running environment.  Noise from your headphones allows unseen dangers, such as a car, approaching you.   In addition, by focusing on the noise, you miss out hearing other noises, such as birds singing, that might soothe your spirit, or you may be distracted from noticing important elements in your running environment.  The same principle is true in our work as librarians–it’s easy to be distracted by “noise” and to not pay attention to the things that really matter in our immediate professional environment as well as the information world at large.  I find that by tuning into the environment around me and my own thoughts while running, I can better channel those energies, which translates into a better and more satisfying run; by tuning into the landscape around as library professionals and reflecting on what that might mean for our own practice, we can run stronger and more efficiently.
  • Learn to Love the Hills:  if you only run flat courses or trails, you  miss the opportunity to build endurance and only work a certain set of muscles, which limits your ability as a runner.  By building hills into your regular running routine, you learn how to deal with a challenging running terrain while building strength, stamina, and a broader range of muscles.   This is true in our work as library professionals—if we avoid difficult situations, if we choose to not take on challenges in our work, we become stagnant and unable to grow our professional selves.  We also will find ourselves unprepared when we encounter difficult situations and have no option but to tackle that “hill” directly.   Prepare yourself for adversity and become a better rounded librarian by regularly tackling those hills head-on rather than avoiding them.
  • You Are Going to Fall Down Sometimes: sometimes, in spite of your best efforts to avoid them, there will be environmental factors that will cause you to fall.    I’ve skidded on loose gravel and taken a few tumbles that resulted in scraped knees and hips.  However, some falls are more devastating, such as the time that I failed to notice an obscure and nearly invisible hubcap wire on Peachtree Street—after momentarily blacking out, I realized I had hit the pavement face first and was lucky to not lose a few teeth or have a serious head injury.  I could have let these tumbles stopped me from running, but I did not.   Instead, I learned from experience about these potential hazards/pitfalls, and I learned to watch for them in my running environment.   The same is true in your work as a librarian:  sometimes, you are going get tripped up by unseen obstacles, and sometimes, it is going to hurt.  However, you have to get up, do damage control, and learn from the experience, and keep moving ahead.
  • Learn to Love the Sweat: running is messy and sweaty because you are working hard.  You are putting your body into motion and pushing your body systems to work harder than normal, which will often lead to varying degrees of discomfort.  However, I often find that this is where I find joy, even when it sometimes feels uncomfortable, because I’m working hard and pushing the boundaries of what I thought I could do.    In our work as librarians, it is not enough to merely talk about ideas, but to put them in motion and to immerse ourselves in the actual effort, the “sweat”, of acting on those ideas and then sharing that evidence based practice with others via social media, articles, or presentations.  In this case, people do need to see you sweat so that they can learn from your experiences.
  • Set a Goal and Go After It:  whether your goal is to run five days a week or to run a marathon, set a goal and develop a game plan for going after that goal.    I find that setting both short-term and long-term running goals helps me stay motivated and energized.   In my work as a school librarian, short-term and long-term goals for myself as a professional as well as my program prevent stagnation and complacency.    Find inspiration from others in thinking about goals and drawing upon their help and wisdom as you devise strategies for reaching a goal.
  • Cross Training: most runners I know supplement their running with another activity, whether it be walking, cycling, swimming, yoga, weightlifting, or a team sport.  The cross-training stimulates a different muscle set and can also improve coordination, balance, and stamina.  As librarians, we need additional creative outlets to “cross train” our librarian brains, whether it be art, music, a hobby, or recreational activity; this “cross-training” gives us perspective on challenges we face in our daily work and helps us find creative solutions.  Variety is also needed in our diet—you obviously want to follow a healthy diet, but you also need to allow the periodic treat, such as dark chocolate, in moderation.    The same is true when we think about constructing our personal learning networks—we need diversity in our “diet” of people and places from whom we draw idea and inspiration as well as  “healthy” voices that will both inform and challenge our thinking.  I tune in to a diverse range of librarians, educators, and authors as well as leaders and innovators outside the world of K-12 education to expand my world view and “cross train” my thinking.
  • Everything in Moderation: your body needs rest days to recover and repair from the workouts of your week.  The same is true in our work as librarians—no matter how much you love what you do, how passionately you feel about it, you need to periodically step back, unplug, and “rest” so that you can function more effectively when you return to your daily work.
  • Half of Running is Mental: I have found this maxim to be true, especially for distance running.  When I trained for my marathon, I found that developing concentration and mental stamina was just as important as developing my physical endurance.    If you are in librarianship for the long haul, you have to develop this mental toughness as well because you will encounter many highs and lows over the course of your career.  Attitude, perseverance, and the ability to focus on what really matters will carry you through even the most trying of situations and help you pace yourself in your work.
  • Just a Few More Steps Makes the Difference:  you will find days in which you think you can’t go another step and the thought of another half mile, mile, or five miles seems overwhelming.  So it goes in our profession—all of us face overwhelming and daunting challenges at times and feel discouraged to the point that we think we cannot go any further.  This is where we have to draw on our inner mental strength and focus on baby steps that eventually lead to significant gains.   When I am running and feel like stopping, I tell myself, “Run to that mailbox” or “Just five more minutes” and focus on that short-term goal.  I usually find that I work through the discomfort or sense of wanting to bail and can push myself further than I thought I could go; before I know it, I have run another mile and the discomfort has passed.  As Mary Ann Fitzgerald has oft told me, “Eat the elephant one piece at a time.”
  • Leave It All on the Road:  when you go for that run, give the best effort you can that do and don’t hold back.  The same is true in our work as librarians—you owe it to yourself, the patrons you serve, and the profession to give your best effort for that given day, whatever it may be.  Celebrate your passionate and your unique abilities that you bring to the table by being the best “you” that you can be.
Inspiration via My Friend Fran, Kiawah Island Marathon Training 2000

In running, I find that I often experience a sense of flow or what runners often refer to as “running zen.”  For me, it is the experience in which I feel strong, creative, and free as my mind and body transact in ways that release happy endorphins and stimulate my thinking during the run.  Not every day is a “zen” kind of day on the road, but I live for the days that are, which thankfully, happen more often than not.  So it goes in my work as a librarian—when everything comes together, when I am immersed in my work, and I see our library program making a real difference, all the hard work, struggles,  and pain (yes, everyone experiences it) are worth the joy you feel when you spread the library and learning zen to those with whom you work (in my case, teachers, students, administrators).  When I have a successful and empowering run, I can’t wait to get back out there and do it again; that is the exact same experience when I see the “aha!” moment with a student or I see one of my students blossoming into an independent, savvy, and engaged learner—I can’t wait to get to work the next day to see what will happen next.

If you are a running librarian, what other lesson or insights would you add to this list?


21 Things for 21st Century Teens: What Would You Include?


21 Things for 21st Century Parents | DarienLibrary.org via kwout

The Darien Library’s awesome new 21 Things for 21st Century Parents has me thinking about designing a 21 Things for 21st Century Teens that could be offered before or after school, one evening a week, and/or during summer hours.     Right now I am thinking about topics and tools related to digital footprints/digital citizenship, cloud computing, mobile computing, and tools for creating content.   What would you include in a program like this?


Training Wheels

training wheels
Image used under a Creative Commons license from http://www.flickr.com/photos/adwriter/467754255/sizes/o/

Seth Godin’s post, “The Reason Riding a Unicycle is Difficult”, struck home with me and reminded me of the importance of scaffolding.  How many times have we said, “It doesn’t make sense just yet, but you’ll love it once it does” when introducing a database or web 2.0 tool to students or teachers?

Learning things that are binary like this is quite difficult. They are difficult to market because people don’t like to fail. They’re difficult to master because people don’t like to fall. “You don’t get it, but you will,” is a hard sell.

How do we create the “non-unicycle” moments?  How do we provide that appropriate scaffolding so that our students and teachers don’t have to take that huge leap of faith in our promises that something will be easy once they get the hang of it?  How do we provide training wheels (or in Seth’s case, Rollerblades) to help our students gain confidence and fluency when we are introducing a new skill?

Thank you, Seth for reminding me to provide more training wheels and fewer unicycle moments.


Image used under a Creative Commons license from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nyllows/3475906797/sizes/l/

While I take great pride in my professional growth of the last three years, especially the last 12 months, I frequently worry I am not growing enough or as quickly as I’d like.

I read a diverse range of blogs and articles that I discover through my wonderfully insightful PLN (personal learning network) via Google Reader, Facebook, and Twitter, and it seems the more I read and dialogue with others, the more I worry that I may not be adapting quickly enough to the changing information landscape.  On a bigger scale, technology is changing our society and culture whether we acknowledge this change or not.

How might these changes affect the role(s) I have to play in the lives of my students?  My role within our school?  How do I need to respond to these changes to make my library program even more relevant and meaningful in our learning community here at Creekview?  What technologies or cultural shifts do I need to give more attention that might change the way a school library may function in the next year or the next five years?

Three different pieces have caused me take pause and wish I had a better ability to peer into the future and to figure out what I need to do to stay ahead of the curve and to better adapt my current concept of a school library to the changes that are taking place around me.

Howard Kurtz had this to say in “The Death of Print?” in yesterday’s Washington Post:

The people who run such companies bear a considerable share of the blame. In 1993, just before the Internet became a consumer force, I argued in a book that newspapers had become too cautious, too incremental and too dull, tailored largely for insiders. The rise of hugely profitable monopoly papers in most cities made them increasingly bland, seemingly allergic to controversy.

Then the Net changed America, but newspapers remained mired in two-dimensional thinking. They created sites that were largely a static replica of their print editions. There was little updating, little sense of the dynamism of the Web, and when I started writing a blog for washingtonpost.com in 2000, I had little company in the mainstream media.

The missed opportunities were endless.

On April 30, Joyce Valenza had this to say in her Neverending Search blog:

What is clear is that a lot of smart people–people who are out there teaching, speaking, moving, and shaking–are disappointed in what they see when they see school librarians.  Either we have a perception problem or we need to do some serious retooling.  I’d say we have to deal with both.  In a hurry.

Being an information (or media) specialist today means being an expert in how information and media flow TODAY!  It is about knowing how information and media are created and communicated. How to evalute, synthesize, and ethically use information and media in all their varied forms.  It is about being able to communicate knowlege in new ways for new audiences using powerful new information and communication tools.

Forgive me if it hurts.

In my mind, if you are not an expert in new information and communication tools, you are NOT a media specialist for today.

Doug Johnson shared this worry on May 10 in his Blue Skunk blog:

Some days I feel great about what I do – when someone e-mails or comes up to me at a conference to say that I have been helpful to them. But I also wonder what the hell I have been doing for the past 20 years when more school library positions and programs are in greater peril than ever. Either my strategies are flawed or the message hasn’t gotten through in my work trying to make the profession more relevant, more critical, and less dispensable to schools.

These three pieces have me stirred up this morning—I’m  trying to think hard, to reflect deeply, to see beyond the familiar—am I missing opportunities to make my library program more relevant to our students, teachers, administrators, and community?  Are we ignoring the warning signs and tremors that may portend major changes in the way school libraries function in the not so distant future?  Are we willing to think outside our comfort zone, to possibly give up the way school libraries function now for something that may be far different but even more powerful for 21st century learning?

I’ll be thinking long, hard, and critically about this question while I look diligently for opportunities this next year to make my library an authentic agent of change in my school.