You ever start Googling “[library topic] for dummies,” desperately trying to find some blog post from 2007 that explains what a threshold concept is, or how a proxy server works? It’s particularly awkward when you get the sense it’s a 101 topic that everyone around you seems to understand. That scenario makes me feel like I’m in an old cartoon, where I’m a cat dressed up in a dog costume trying to mingle with other dogs without getting caught.
The first time I noticed myself doing this as a librarian was with my first mentor and manager. She’s sharp, well-read, and has a background in education so she’d mention things like critical librarianship and I’d pretend to know what she was talking about until I could get back to my office and Google it. Looking back, I could have admitted my ignorance and been fine, but trying to keep up with her fierce intellect did bring my librarianship game up.
The second time I realized I was a penguin tap-dancing on increasingly fractured ice was when I took over managing electronic resources at an old job. When database links would break or there’d be authentication issues, I’d start the same process of answer-seeking — piecing together information from OCLC’s website, the notes my previous manager left, and my own trial and error. Eventually I learned enough to be confident, but in both of these examples I notice a troubling tendency: tell NO ONE you don’t know what you’re doing, and try to muddle through it on my own.
I don’t think I’m the only person who operates like this, and there’s plenty of reasons why we fake it. Sometimes you feel like there’s no one you can ask. Your library might not have another expert, or that person might not be very approachable. Maybe it’s something you said you understood in the interview process, thinking you had it under control, and finding the task more complicated than you expected. (See: every meme about pretending to understand Excel.)
Sometimes the reason you hide your lack of knowledge is because you fear being exposed as ignorant or undeserving. There’s a sense of shame that accompanies this. Not knowing things seems acceptable when you first start a job, but a year in, you feel more shy about admitting what you don’t know and asking questions.
The problem with this approach is that you’re on your own, and you don’t have to be. Even if you’re a solo librarian, there’s ALA listservs, library Twitter, and simply reaching out to someone at a nearby library. Lately I have been trying to think of myself as I would a student. Would I judge a student for not knowing what a database is the first time they walk into the classroom? Would I make a student feel stupid for asking a clarifying question? Writing this blog post is as much a reminder to myself as it is to you: it’s okay not to know things. Asking your manager to explain what an acronym stands for doesn’t reveal that you’re an impostor and don’t deserve your job.
All this is coming up because I’ve taken on an exciting role at my job, planning and executing a photo digitization project, and taking charge of the college archive. I studied archives in my MLS program, but as I get into the weeds of this project I realize there are gaps in my knowledge and that’s scary. But this time, I’m not going to try to hide it. This time, I’m going to ask for help.
If you feel this is a safe space to confess something you feel like you should understand by now but still don’t really get, share! I promise I won’t judge, and maybe we can help each other out.