Avoiding the “Toxic Middle”

I read an article today about librarians (and I’m sure this is not unique to our profession) who are the jaded voice of been-there, done-that pessimism and anti-innovation.  The Toxic Middle by Joseph Janes, a Library Science professor, was an interesting one for me.  I have certainly come up against these “wet blanket” librarians in my short tenure in the profession, and I’d like to think that most of them really truly meant well when they brought their cynical and jaded opinions to the table.  I went to a workshop at the ALA Conference that put a snappy acronym to something that I’ve been working hard to embrace – QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally.  When I meet “wet blankets,” I try to just hear the useful advice buried within their crabby comments, and not take the idea heckling personally.

What got me thinking when I read this article though, is that we all do this.  Here’s the thing: it’s hard to know when your past experience is relevant and useful, and when it’s just coloring your perception to the point that you don’t see possibilities and opportunities.  Sometimes what you know about a situation, a patron, a plan of action is really useful – the way things have been done in the past might really smooth the future path, might help you be more empathetic and accepting of a person’s behavior, or might help you avoid pitfalls, time sucks, and wasted energy.  Sometimes though, the information you have in your head about how it went down last time might stop you from seeing possibilities.  At what point does the past experience you bring to the table shift from being valuable to being a liability?  There isn’t a clear line there, and it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed it.

I don’t think this cautionary tale should be aimed solely at older, established librarians – it’s really just a good reminder to all of us that regardless of where we are in our career, we are all bringing something valuable to the table.  I have been lucky enough to be mentored by some truly inspiring librarians, and I hope to be able to pay that forward at some point in my career.  I’ve also been very lucky to be taken seriously, listened to, and supported quite actively by those around me.  I really can’t complain about toxic middle layers in my personal experience, but it’s worth a reminder that I don’t want to find myself in the position of knocking someone’s experience or ideas just because something in my past experience sours my perception.

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