I’ve worked in and for libraries for the past 8 1/2 years. It’s hard not to notice certain consistencies based on my observation of the behavior, conduct, and attitude of some librarians and staff in various workplaces, professional organizations, and venues for professional discourse (in-person and online), as well as secondhand, anecdotal evidence gleaned through casual conversations with other librarians and non-librarians, too. These observations are cumulative and not based on my experience with any one organization alone.

While “library people” have many positive attributes and generally perform Herculean feats with limited resources, there are also some rather negative traits that seem to keep popping up. From my perspective, these are traits that can define the workplace and poison the well. Since I don’t work on the front lines, I don’t know how many of these characteristics are carried over to public service or to interactions with other stakeholders, nor do I know how pervasive these negative attributes are in other places and in others’ experiences. I also dislike generalizations. And I prefer to see the positive in people rather than the negative.

That said, here are ten defining negative characteristics that I have identified:

“An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others”–freedictionary.com

“an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object”–merriam-webster.com

Fear of failure

Planning for every contingency
A fear of failure leads directly to over thinking and planning for every contingency imaginable, which can stymie efforts at moving forward with necessary change.

Expecting the worst
Pessimism versus optimism

Living in the past
I am often amazed at the number of times incidents from years and years ago are rehashed and reexamined and relived. Having an awareness of history is a good thing. Serving it up for lunch every day is not.

Keeping score
Maintaining a mental tally sheet of those past incidents–who “won” and who “lost”

Holding on to control
Being territorial or withholding information; undermining

Intolerance for mistakes or perceived incompetence
Judging, ridiculing, holding someone to your standards

My way or the highway thinking
I know best and don’t you dare contradict me.

After I started this post and got my ideas down in writing, I saw this–Naked Librarianship shared by Bobbi Newman via Facebook. The post discusses the importance of vulnerability, and I realized that the combined effect of these negative qualities that I have identified represents a resistance to vulnerability in the workplace.

If we’re cynical or skeptical, no one can get one over on us. If we plan for every contingency and avoid failure at all costs, then no one can tell us that we don’t measure up. If we expect the worst, then we are not disappointed. If we live in the past and keep score, then we don’t have to acknowledge new opportunities for growth, which may or may not succeed. If we hold on to control and do not tolerate differences in work style, thinking, or processes, then we do not have to see the weaknesses in our own, comfortable ways.

A poisoned well is not fit to drink from. Toxicity in the water can literally kill. Toxicity in the workplace can kill creativity, trust, open communication, necessary change, relationship-building, risk-taking, and joy.

Being vulnerable can be scary. The thought of being poisoned is scarier.

None of these conclusions represents new, original thinking. This is actually common sense. But how many of us have thought about what we personally bring to our workplaces and how it affects those we work with every day?

As I said at the outset, I am speaking to the culture of the library as workplace–the interaction between co-workers. But if there is toxicity or dysfunction internally, doesn’t it make sense that some of that negativity trickles down and invades our service orientation? Or our ability to speak positively about our institutions?

Perhaps you are lucky enough to have never experienced negativity in your workplace. Perhaps negativity in the library workplace is not any greater than negativity in other work environments.

But it’s something to think about and remedy, if necessary.

There is often an effective antidote to poison. The key to its success is timing. There is usually a point of no return.

Fortunately, we’re talking about rhetorical (metaphorical?) poison. There is always time to reverse the effects and make the well safe and healthy.