on heroism

People who follow my other online adventures may already know that I quit my library job, the automation project that I was so proud of. I didn’t really quit, I’ll still be helping, but I took myself off the project as “the person in charge of the project.”

It’s a not-entirely-long story but the upshot was that once we finished the obvious To Do list [getting books scanned and item and patron records into the catalog] the remainder of the work was muddy. The librarian and I had different opinions on what needed to happen next [in my mind: flip the switch and work out the bugs; in her mind: get the data clean and do staff training and write documentation and then flip the switch]. I realized that the quick and dirty automation project which I’d been doing for low pay, about 2-4 hours per week, that I was hoping to be finished with by early this year, was likely to go on sort of forever. I didn’t want a forever-job and couldn’t see a way to wrap it up with only my own toolkit.

I’m not entirely comfortable with the way everything worked out, unclearly and with an uncertain “what next” point. I’ve suggested someone who I think can pick up where I left off, but he’s not me and the library really seemed to like me. That said, after a lot of thinking on this, I realized that I was trying too hard to be the hero, the librarian that sweeps in and takes the tiny rural library and automates it in something akin to the rural electrification project. Cracking the whip, keeping the momentum up all the way to the end.

I really wanted to do this job, without thinking hard enough about whether the non-me aspects of this project were amenable to the task. As Alex Payne says in his “Don’t be a Hero” essay (about programming but it applies everywhere)

Heroes are damaging to a team because they become a crutch. As soon as you have someone who’s always willing to work at all hours, the motivation from the rest of the team to produce reliable, trouble-free software drops. The hero is a human patch. Sure, you might sit around talking about how reliability is a priority, but in the back of your mind you know that the hero will be there to fix what doesn’t work.

For whatever reason, I didn’t get the feeling that the library was learning to use the tools themselves, I got the feeling that they were getting used to me being available to solve problems and answer questions. I’m certain this problem is as much my responsibility, if not more, than theirs, but I’d gotten to a point where I literally could not see a way out of it. And I dreaded going to work. And I couldn’t see a solution.

The Koha consortium project in the state is doing well and I have no doubt the library will automate. The librarian wants it to happen, though her timeline is unclear. I vacillate back and forth between thinking that the work I did was uniquely valuable and integral to the library being able to automate at all, ever, and feeling like a bit of a quitter, leaving the project when it started to bog down and get tough. I’m lucky in that I have a lot of real-life and online friends who have been supportive of my decision, but it’s still one of the tougher ones I’ve made in the last few months. [rc3]

14 thoughts on “on heroism

  1. “The hero is a human patch.” Ouch, I think you just described the role I’ve been given in my library. We’re small and rural also and over the years I’ve been the one to do it all—bring in computers, get local Internet access to come in, networking, automation, website, getting grants to pay for it all, maintaining & repairing said computers, etc., etc. All for my low, barely above minimum wage salary. Should I decide to retire or just plain quit I seriously doubt the Board could find any one person to replace what I do for the salary I get. Have I done them any favor? It had occurred to me I haven’t and your post just backs that up. Now I’m getting sucked into a similar position with the Fire Dept. It’s hard to get out once you’re in. Your post has provided some enlightenment.

  2. I don’t know if you have read this post by Chris Brogan (www.chrisbrogan.com/never-give-up-no-give-up/)but it may give you another perspective on “quitting”. It’s a good take on what it means to quit.

    Good luck with your future endeavors. Stay warm up there.

  3. Thanks for that Matt. I just met Brogan’s co-author Julien Smith and I’ve been enjoying some of their lessons.

  4. ah, “I didn’t get the feeling that the library was learning to use the tools themselves, I got the feeling that they were getting used to me being available to solve problems and answer questions”… I am stuck in this same frame where it seems people are quick to “call it a technology problem” and set it aside and quit trying. I was asking just this morning if they would do the same with history research or business reference, they are not historian or MBAs but they still help patrons with that type of questions. They (not all of them, but many) do however have no problem with telling someone who just got an ebook for christmas that “they just can’t help them with that…”


    we have to recognize that having separate tech teams, tech plans, Tech budgets and often even tech directors; has created the perfect climate for that.

    it’s just that it’s time for everyone to see tech as part of everyone’s job.

    a few days ago, michael casey blogged about a HBR article that stated satisfaction at work comes not from praise, not from money but from PROGRESS. Good luck and go forth.

  5. “Flip the switch and work out the bugs” is a perfect description of our switch to Koha, and we were doing it ourselves with a much less mature version. I think your instinct is correct with regard to what a small library is capable of (at least in the abstract). Willingness is another matter.

  6. We chatted about this, and I think you did the right thing — and the library will flip the switch to automating, even if it waits until the consortium version is ready. I’m nothing about persistent.

    Plus, don’t be so hard on yourself. We think you’re awesome.

  7. Jessamyn.

    Sometimes it is hard to let go. It is also hard to know when to let go. I admire that not only did you let go, but that you reflected on the “whys” of what was going on.

    As someone who has gone from “let’s make it perfect before we switch it on” to one who says “that’s good enough, we can fix it later” I can understand both where you are, and where the librarian is.

    That being said, I am glad that you did what is right for you.

  8. Jessamyn,

    That must have been a difficult choice to make. Ultimately, it seems like making a change is often harder than continuing to do the same thing. Strategies aside, it sounds like you were careful to consider the future impacts on the project, something we should all try to do.

  9. Seems like a good move. The tricky thing is that you can still feel like a hero FOR bowing out, because in doing so you give them what they _really_ need.

  10. rambleonsylvie said: “it’s just that it’s time for everyone to see tech as part of everyone’s job”

    I hope you’re not suggesting that the role of “technology librarian” is already obsolete. It’s true that tech is “part of everyone’s job,” in the sense that learning how to use the phone system, search the databases, and gracefully shutdown a computer are everyone’s job, but there’s much more to the job, and there will always be people who don’t have the inclination or desire to learn any more than that. And that’s okay. Should we not have a “business librarian” or a “science librarian” or an “associate director,” either, because it should be everybody’s job? I can do all those things–after a fashion–but maybe I’m not going to give the best answer or find the best solution. I know how to change the oil in my car, too–I did it all the time when I was in my 20s–but that might not be the best use of my time anymore.

  11. sharon, i just meant not to set all the questions/problems aside without even trying (at least a graceful shutdown ;)

  12. I commend you for your willingness to let go. Realize that the fact that you CAN let go of this one project is because you have other work waiting for you, and you have other work waiting for you because of all the projects you have followed through to their ends throughout your career. Having been a “human patch” myself (not in library work), I can understand some of what you were going through.

  13. Quitting is probably good for all concerned. Particularly for the person who will eventually manage and use the new ILS. There’s nothing like being put in the position of actually having to do a task yourself to understand what the task is.

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