Monday, June 22, 2009


This will probably be more than you wanted to know about me.

When I started this blog as a Learning 2.0 exercise, I was already a blogger of several years running.

In fact, I've been journaling in one form or another since high school (way back in another century). That means I have a private thirty-some-year archive of more about myself than even I want to know.

The important point, though, is that for me writing is a way of learning about myself. Journaling in the form of a blog is sometimes even more so.

Any writer cleans up his act when he's being autobiographical in print. However, when I started blogging, I challenged myself to tell interesting stories about myself in a way that

  • was humorous and (one hopes) entertaining
  • was honest, even when not literally factual
  • revealed to me, by revealing to my readership, something about myself which I hadn't wanted to have to admit.
The something relevant to librarianship that's been on my mind for the past few months, the something which has been subverting my usual ability to "be professionally nice" to strangers [see blog subtitle], is my chronic sense of VULNERABILITY.

By "vulnerability" I don't mean the introverted temperament I described in "Customer service for curmudgeons." That preference for solitary activities—or for conversation with a few close friends—has always been part of my life, yet it hasn't prevented me from being very effective in a series of service careers: library and business administrative secretarial positions, prison counselor, librarian.

IntrovertThe old friend who first taught me how to intepret the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator also helped me to appreciate the paradox of the Extrovert-Introvert scale, and to understand why I, an introvert, could do so well in professions which call for strong skills at social interaction.

"An introvert," he said, "can watch an extrovert and learn how to behave in an extroverted least till he runs out of energy. However, when an extrovert watches an introvert, all he sees is someone sitting there."

[Note that this also applies to non-readers who watch someone read.]

EmpathyThe vulnerability I'm writing about is something else. You could call it "thinned-skinnedness," except that's not quite it. The issue is personal boundaries and how strong they are, how permeable yet resilient they are.

Perhaps the more relevant term is empathy. Those of us who are sensitive to the wants and feelings of others are also vulnerable to them. At our best we hone the skills of being just open enough to others to be helpful, without being so open that our own boundaries are invaded.

Which brings us to burnout.

I went to library school in 1999, after resigning in despair from the clinical counseling career which I loved, yet which had burned me out (due to a right-wing political "coup" in my home state which undid fifteen years of prison reform).

Well, we discovered in "Intro to Computers in Libraries" that almost half of the 60+ people in the course were either burned out social workers or burned out school teachers. We might have taken that as a warning. At the time we all just thought it was funny.


Now I struggle daily as one anxious, demanding person after another comes to the Ask Here desk, needing help to seek and apply for email accounts, unemployment benefits, jobs, food stamps..."free money." Though this is probably an exaggeration, it seems as if the majority of them are not just digital immigrants but digital refugees.

And I resent them. I catch myself wandering around the stacks muttering, "I HATE this job!" I want them to leave me alone so that I can "get my work done."

What's going on here?

It's taken me months to catch on. Just recently I realized: I've lost the knack of helping-while-sustaining-my-boundaries. As soon as someone comes to the Ask Here desk, I'm feeling as if my privacy has been violated.

Whoa! That's burnout.

And for me, it's a warning of a deeper challenge. I'm realizing how much—way more than I thought—the scars of my earlier burnout have gotten in the way of genuinely practicing empathy.

For the nine years I've been a librarian, I've thought of myself in the way I did when I was a competent clinical counselor: as an open, caring helper with well-maintained personal boundaries.

For the past half a year or so, though, I've felt much more like an old grouch who's lost his sense of humor. Worse, like a "helper" who is at best patronizing and at worst spiteful.

Not what I want.

"Well, counselor. Now that you have a diagnosis, what are you going to do about it?"

"No. The question is, 'What are you going to do about it?' "

I've already scattered clues to myself all through this blog, especially in the "Can I Go Home Now?" pieces and way back in that original, June 28, 2008, curmudgeon piece:

Fortunately, though, they sometimes manage to get through to me as actual people. It might be when they present their questions. It might be later, when my resentment of their "interrupting" me shifts into professional eagerness to search out the solution...

...which sometimes shifts into a genuine exchange of satisfaction with a real human being, when we both realized that we have tracked down—or at least stumbled across—the best answer to the query.

Even though it makes for good jokes in the workroom or on a blog, I'm not too proud of my curmudgeonly resentment of customers.

I am grateful, though, that they insist upon becoming human beings, so that I have to become human, too.

I guess that's another reason I'm in this line of work.

It ain't easy, being human.
Meanwhile, I'm affirming that the new assignment which I've been dreading—managing a neighborhood branch for five weeks while a colleague practices daddy-hood—may be the change of venue I need...especially since I slip out for a week's vacation in the middle of it.

We shall see.

As I said at the start, writing is a way of learning, especially writing I embolden myself to share with others.

Thank you for being readers.

And take a break. Nurse your own incipient burnout, if that's what's bugging you.

"They" are just "us" on the other side of the desk.

Take care,

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