I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.~Mohammed Ali

My son has been taking a boxing fitness class (no contact), so I guess I have boxing on the brain, hence the metaphor. But it is well suited to this post.

One thing I’ve noticed about librarians is that most are passionate about what they do and why they do it. If a poor, unsuspecting non-believer happens to make a comment about libraries or librarians that can be remotely interpreted as derogatory or insulting or ignorant as to the mission of libraries or the services they offer, well, may the spirit of Andrew Carnegie help them. We’ve all seen it happen; maybe we’ve all done it ourselves. By “it” I mean any combination or variation of the following reactions-

  • Giving “the look.” The look that says, you are incredibly stupid, and it is up to me to educate you
  • Heaving a great, disappointed sigh that reveals a general intolerance for dissension
  • The eye roll
  • Becoming reticent and conveying silent disapproval with a tight, grim frown/smile
  • Offering an impassioned speech about how libraries are going to save the world
  • Reciting a laundry list of the things libraries do–we’re more than just books!
  • Cheerleading the cause–libraries are awesome!
  • Becoming angry, flustered, condescending, and exasperated when they just don’t seem to get it

Even if you don’t have these reactions in the moment–maybe you just walk away without engaging–these are the kinds of behaviors that I’ve witnessed after the fact when librarians talk about the ill-informed, misinformed, obviously delusional people out there who are completely oblivious to virtues of libraries. How dare they not like us, not use us, not support us. How dare they!

I suggest instead that any time you encounter someone who does not support libraries or believe in their value, it is not the time to advocate, educate, or get your hackles up. It is, however, the perfect time to listen and ask questions. Questions like-

  • When was the last time you visited a library? What did you see? What do you remember about your visit?
  • When was the last time you used a library service? What service did you use? Was your experience a good one? Why or why not?
  • When you hear the word library, what do you think of first?
  • Who do you think uses libraries and why do you think they use them?
  • How do you think libraries should be funded?
  • What costs do you think go into running a library?

By listening and gathering information from our non-users and non-supporters, we can use that information to bolster our case overall. We don’t have to convert people one by one–we can’t. There are many who will never be swayed. And arguing with these people is the worst thing we can do. Being lectured is off-putting and usually has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of seeing the light, the antagonist may walk away feeling the same way about you that you feel about them–you just don’t get it. You don’t have a clue.

I asked some of these questions last year, but sadly, I did nothing to follow up with my results. Surveys are only useful to a point, anyway. I think it’s better to have these conversations in person, not to convince, but to learn. It’s disarming to be asked for your perspective instead of being told why you’re wrong. Even though you may be tempted to speak to the virtues of libraries, if you’re talking to someone who just doesn’t care, then maybe it’s best to express interest in their opinion rather than offering them yours. They may walk away feeling perplexed, which is better than feeling annoyed.

It has been said that telling a story with some emotional impact will achieve a better result than simply relaying facts, and I agree. But the truth is that many people are never going to care about libraries no matter what. We can learn a lot from them.

If my son ever decides to go to the next level and step into the ring (gulp), then I suppose he would rather get a knockout than go the distance because that’s the fastest way to win. But if he goes the distance he will score points along the way, which in the end could add up to a victory, too.

Maybe you already do this–express curiosity rather than disdain when confronted by someone who is not “one of us.” If not, maybe it’s time to change your strategy. Sometimes we think we have all the answers when we don’t. We can’t convince every person of our value, but we can convince them that we listen and try to learn.

There’s definitely value in that.