REVY Article on saying 'no'

I like REVY, a very stylishly put together magazine / journal for info pros. They asked me to rework my just say no blogpost (which had some really interesting comments) from a while back into an article, which I was very happy to do! You can see the issue embedded below - mine is the first article - or find it on issuu.com here.

Five questions to ask yourself before you say 'yes'


There's a big thing in librarianship about the importance of saying 'no'. On Twitter especially I see it discussed a lot (and I take part in those discussions sometimes): it's really, really hard to say no to exciting opportunities, or even, frankly, unexciting ones, for all sorts of reasons. But if you say yes to everything you can end up burnt out. So how do you strike the balance? Here are some useful questions to ask yourself when weighing up a decision. I'd be very interested if anyone wants to leave a comment offering more advice on this.

(ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM KLAXON: it's hard to write about saying no to CPD offers without it sounding like one big humblebrag. Oh man, all these people want me to do these cool things but I'm so busy doing cool things already! Nightmare!

That's not what this is intended to be so I hope it doesn't come across that way.)

Is this going to add to *MY* professional development specifically?

By which I mean, does it feed into your specific goals and interests, or does it fall into the category of 'generic CPD'? I think a lot of stuff we feel like we should do actually turns out not to be something we can USE in our professional development. Job applications in our profession are all about tailoring your experience and skills to the specific role being offered - there's little room, in most cases (not all) for general experiences which sound quite nice but won't be used in the job itself. So if you get asked to chair or take part in a conference panel on The Future of Libraries, for example, does that help you tick off an essential personal specification on a job application? If so, great; if not, even if the conference is prestigious, it might not actually turn out to mean much, in real terms, that you were on the panel.

So ask yourself, where do I want to go next? And does this thing I've been asked to do potentially help me get there, or not?

Do I have the emotional energy to throw myself into this?

I really put my all into each workshop I run or talk I give. It's not just the time spent preparing, it's the emotional energy of being 'on' all day, as an introvert. I can't do this 50 times a year, it would stop it being fun. So even if something is on the surface a really exciting opportunity, you have to ask yourself if you have enough in the tank to do it justice given the number of other things you may already be doing.

Where does this fit with my wider calendar?

This is so obvious, but easy to ignore. It's not just about whether there are things the day before or after the event you're being offered; it's more about your professional life-cycle. If you're coming to the end of a massive project on a Friday, chances are doing a talk the following Monday will cause you stress about both activities because you need the emotional space to focus on each one individually.

Are there big events in your personal life going on? Sometimes they can be all consuming and the last thing you need is to plan a talk. Other times planning a talk can be the escape you need.

Does this have the potential to lead to other exciting things?

Are you going to find a new or extended network, or audience, by taking this opportunity? Or is it a no-through-road in terms of what might happen next?

Sometimes it can be worth finding a way to say yes to something if you can see more opportunities opening up as a result - as long as those opportunities are specifically relevant to your interests and goals, of course. I wrote an entire book mostly for that exact reason - it was a nightmare to do, too... But worth it for the doors it opened. 

Is this something new, or more of the same?

One of the best ways to eliminate an opportunity which seems like it will be great but you know you simply don't have time to do, is to ask what it offers that nothing else does. And if, for all its excitingness, it's not going to introduce you to new people or force you to do research into an area you don't know as much about as you'd like or make you explore new ways of presenting, or whatever, that can be enough of a reason to say no.

I don't want to give the same talk over and over again. Laura Woods and I did that with the echo chamber thing back in 2010 / 2011 and we felt really spent after a while - even though we varied the content, we felt we'd said all we had to say. So we stopped saying it.

Bonus question: would it be fun?

I added this one after asking my friend Céline on Twitter what advice she'd give. As she says, "you're allowed to say yes to things just because they'd be fun" which is very, very true. Fun is important! Sometimes it can trump all of the considerations above, because a fun experience leaves you fizzing with energy and motivation.

Extra bonus question for white males

Something I've just started doing with conferences invites is finding out a little bit about the other speakers. I'm giving a Keynote at LIANZA in New Zealand this year, and I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to be the all-too-common library conference situation where all the keynotes are male and white. Thankfully that was definitely not the case for this event, they have it covered. 

I'm not trying to preach that if you're white and male like I am you should turn down your dream conference talk because the other two speakers are both white blokes too - but I do think it's important to ask the question and ensure the organisers have considered it.

Of course, it's not just you who features in this equation, it's the people or body who are asking you to do something in the first place. If you can, as well doing the obvious helpful things like replying promptly, recommend someone else. If I know enough about the event from the description I've been given, I'll always try and match it with a name who I know would be great. Often the organisers are really pleased to have a new lead to pursue. 

It feels GREAT to say no. Knowing you're not adding additional pressure to your work-life balance. In my experience, opportunities still come up. It's not like saying no once forever puts the CPD genie back in the bottle.

There's a lot of rhetoric around the idea of being the best you can be, making the best of all the opportunities you have, and how you only regret the things you don't do. I can see the merit in all of that but I treat it all with caution. I keep a list of things I've said no to (partly because I want to show my employer that when I do ask to attend a conference in work time, it's for a good, considered reason, and not just  something I do at every opportunity) and honestly there's some pretty cool stuff on there which it would have been fun to be a part of. But I don't for a minute sit around wishing I'd said 'yes'. Because if I had, who knows how much I'd've been able to enjoy the things I DID agree to - maybe I would have been too busy to prepare properly (I HATE being under-prepared for a talk, even by a tiny amount) or I would have been so exhausted by All The Things that I wouldn't have truly enjoyed any of them.

So to maintain a healthy relationship between work, life, day job, CPD, creativity, energy reserves and all of that, learning to say no is a genuinely important skill. Don't always say no! But at least ask yourself some questions before you say yes...

Do you do conference talks and library events in work time?


As of this week I've gone part time! Only a little bit part-time - I still do 90% of full time at York. That leaves me 1 day off in 10 to do freelance work. So now the vast majority of my public speaking happens outside of work-time, but it wasn't always that way, so I feel like I can objectively write a post about the thorny issue of doing talks and workshops in work time.

I've only ever worked for two libraries. One didn't allow me to do much in the way of CPD things on work time (I took annual leave to do a lot of talks, prior to 2011) and my current employer does allow me to. The first employer's argument was basically, what do we get out of it if you're off doing a talk? My current employer's argument is, we want people out there representing the University, talking about what they're doing. I can see both sides of the argument.

For me there are several reasons why libraries allowing employees to speak at events in work time is a good idea. It helped my professional development a lot - I learnt about areas of librarianship in more detail by virture of having to do enough research to present on them, and it boosted my confidence. I also got to hear a lot of other presentations at the events I was speaking at, so my knowledge and understanding grew. And I've talked a lot about what we do at York, and that's led others to talk about what we're doing here too. It's also made me a happier employee. I'm more contented knowing we're encouraged to get out there and do stuff, rather than frustrated about having to use holiday to speak at conferences.

There's another side to this too, which is that people who present at events are constantly keeping their hand in, and learning, about presenting and teaching. There's nothing like doing something regularly to make you feel more comfortable with it, and you don't get that 'I need a few sessions to get back in the groove with this' thing when October comes and all the teaching starts. Several things I've developed as part of my wider workshops I now incorparate into my information literacy courses at York. So the external and the internal feed each other and both develop.

Ultimately allowing people to talk at events can make them not just happier in their roles but better at their jobs, so I hope that in the unlikely event I ever get into some sort of management position, I'll let people out of the building so they can spread their wings...

I'd be interested to hear from staff and managers for their perspectives on this.


Aim your professional development output at '1 Year Ago You'


What do you know now, that is useful and pertinent to your professional life (or even your personal life) that you didn't know 1 year ago?

Whatever it is, the chances are there are plenty of people still at the '1 Year Ago You' stage who could do with hearing about it. So why not blog about it, write an article about it, or submit a proposal to speak about it at a conference or event?

I know lots of people who don't do any of those things because they consider that they simply don't have anything to say. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you have nothing to contribute - there's so much dialogue already, after all. And Imposter Syndrome runs through our profession like a vein. 

Imposter Syndrome: For a Man, or a Woman

Imposter Syndrome: For a Man, or a Woman

But we want new perspectives. We love to hear others' experiences. We need to know what has worked and what hasn't in professional situations other than our own. In short, we do want to hear from you, and we'd welcome your professional development output. (That's the rather awkward phrase I've come up with to describe the kinds of things we do as part of our online presence, or at professional events.)

Framing what you might choose to say as 'advice for 1 Year Ago You' is often enough to make people realise, actually, yes, they could present a paper or write a blog. The blog you are reading now is almost entirely aimed at Past Me - we're all learning useful stuff all the time and where appropriate I try and repackage that into something others might find useful. Most of the posts on here are about things I wished I'd discovered sooner.

Of course, it doesn't have to be '1 Year Ago You' specifically. It could be '6 Months Ago You'. Or '1 Day Ago You'. But someone, somewhere, will be at the exact stage you were before you learned about that useful tool / technique / concept / article / platform / literature or whatever it might be, that made it all click for you. So 'cascade the knowledge', as they say - you DO have something to say, and there will be an audience for it.

Is the Library degree the best use of your resources? Imagine what else you could do with that time and money

Edit:  Despite my clarifications, people are still misinterpreting my original post as a proposed 'solution' to the problem of the Library degree, so I've rewritten this to stop that happening. ====

To embark upon a Library Masters in 2014 is a huge undertaking. Assuming you do it part-time, whilst working to support yourself, you’ll spend between ten and eighteen thousand pounds over two years, along with, at a conservative estimate, 1500 hours of your time.[1]

The question is, does the Library degree really represent the best use of this investment?

What if you were to spend the same amount of time and money on a self-structured curriculum of study, events, conferences, training, and building an online portfolio, whilst continuing to work in an information role. Would you not emerge as a more rounded, knowledgeable, and relevant information professional?

I think you would. If someone were to try it, the results would certainly be interesting. This is not, however, a solution to the problem.

The problem with the Library degree

I have many issues with the MA/Msc in Library & Information Management (or similar) as it currently stands, in the UK. For the record, I completed mine, via distance learning, in 2009. It was fine, I didn’t hate it, it wasn’t a bad degree in any way. My views on the degree are based on my own experience, and based on talking to others – I realise they may not be universal complaints. But here are the main ones anyway:

1)    Much of the content of the courses does not seem relevant to actually being an information professional

2)    There is one degree that is supposed to cover, in one year of full-time study, all aspects and types of librarianship, including public, academic and special librarianship (not to mention the myriad other potential careers under the information umbrella). As far as I can tell these disciplines are very different from each other

3)    Many of the courses contain modules they contained 10 years ago, despite the information world having undergone seismic shift in that time. Anything you learn on a library degree is likely to be out of date in two to five years anyway

4)    Having completed a Masters in another discipline prior to getting my Library one, I did not find the latter to be postgraduate in nature. It was just like a very short undergraduate course

5)    The piece of paper at the end – the degree certificate which allows you to apply for higher graded jobs for which a qualification is an ‘essential’ on the person spec – seems far more important than what you learn on the course itself

6)    The difference between a ‘qualified’ librarian and an ‘unqualified’ one is very rarely the qualification. It’s more often that the unqualified librarian’s circumstances are such that they have been unable to do the degree, rather than that they are in any way a lesser librarian

7)    The process by which CILIP accredits degrees and the institutions which offer them does not seem to be in any way rigorous, based on the experiences of colleagues who have attended certain institutions…

8)    To add insult to the injury of the points above, there are many more qualified librarians than there are posts for qualified librarians – meaning that in my own institution alone there are several very talented new professionals who have gone to the time and expense of getting the degree, but who are nevertheless in the same roles they were in whilst they studied

Most importantly, the degree is so expensive that it is actively excluding people from good jobs – we are putting a financial price on progress in our profession, and for what? A degree that isn’t particularly relevant or, in some cases, even particularly enjoyable to complete. I don’t think it’s acceptable that we’re all of us complicit in such a flawed system. Employers, students, CILIP, people like me who recognised the issues but did the Masters anyway just to get the piece of paper – we’re all part of the problem with the Library degree.

If you are going to create a professional environment in which a ten thousand pound degree is necessary to earn more than £25,000 a year, then the degree itself needs to be a LOT more meaningful than it is at present.

What do we do about it?

If it were up to me, I’d do two things:

A) re-design the Masters to be a Problem Based Learning (PBL) degree, which would allow a much closer connection between study and the reality of library work, and

B) issue some kind of nation-wide edict forcing all hiring library managers to give proper value to the second half of the sentence ‘Library qualification or equivalent experience’ which appears on so many job specs.

There are actually a pleasingly high number of hiring managers who do 'B' already, although it's not that wide-spread. But 'A' is a lot trickier.

I am writing (or was writing - we'll get there eventually!) an article with Alan Carbery about rethinking the degree as PBL. I find PBL incredibly difficult to explain succinctly - basically it's student centered learning, that is used in a lot of Medical Schools around the UK (including the one in my own institution). It's really very different from the traditional HE pedagogy. Here's an excerpt from what the BMJ has to say about it (read the whole page here)

In problem based learning (PBL) students use “triggers” from the problem case or scenario to define their own learning objectives. Subsequently they do independent, self directed study before returning to the group to discuss and refine their acquired knowledge. Thus, PBL is not about problem solving per se, but rather it uses appropriate problems to increase knowledge and understanding. The process is clearly defined, and the several variations that exist all follow a similar series of steps.

It sounds like it shouldn't work, but it does. Students absolutely love it. At my University it is also used, with great success, by the Law School, and it is their approach specifically that I'd like to see emulated with libraries. Here's what the Law School has to say about it:

You and your colleagues decide how your firm operates and determine how to divide up the work.  Through the process you will build working relationships with each other and learn how to deliver on your responsibilities.

For each case you will identify the legal principles involved in the problem and unravel the legal and contextual issues that lie at the heart of it, which will typically involve more than one area of law. All of the problems will be simulated real-life examples brought to you by virtual clients.

In many situations you will have to interact with other student firms, sometimes working alongside them, sometimes in opposition.

For me this notion of operating in firms with real-life examples is key. Based on UCAS applications etc the Law School tailors each firm to suit the personalities and talents of the people involved.

Imagine arriving at Library School and being divided up into Libraries, and then given real-life, pertinent, and up to date examples of problems Libraries face. You'd work cooperatively with your peers (and in the era of constant-contact media, Google hangouts etc, distance-learning shouldn't prohibit this) and deal with things which you really will have to deal with when working in a qualified library post. Issues around web-design and social media, around marketing and communications, around copyright, data protection and FOI, around managing budgets in difficult economic circumstances, around whatever is relevant and important, year on year. It's not just that it allows Library Schools to cover contemporary issues, it's the manner in which it is taught, which seems to relate more directly to the real world. Here's another quote, from the Law School's guide to students on their use of PBL:

The key role of the problem is to trigger your awareness that these issues exist, and create an interest in them by highlighting their real-world ramifications. Once this has happened, the problem then gives you a context which you can use to identify exactly what you need to learn in order to understand the problem and address the issues which it raises.

This, to me, sounds like the kind of approach which has the potential to produce Library Masters graduates who are significantly more qualified, aware, relevant and prepared, for the real-life world of libraries. In fact it's a bit like what we all do with our CPD anyhow.

Clearly this would be a massive shift in how things are done. Any library school attempting to implement this would have to completely scrap the existing degree and build a new one from the ground up. But I'd argue that needs to happen anyway; perhaps a new teaching method would add much needed impetus and inspiration.

I'd be interested if anyone reading this who is familiar with PBL, or with teaching on current Masters courses, has a view on this! Is it the kind of thing we could realistically do?

[1] You are notionally expected to spend 100 hours of study per 10 credits on the Masters – assuming you do the dissertation as well, there are 180 credits in the degree, so the total figure is 1,800 hours. I don’t believe anyone has ever spent 225 full 8-hour days studying for a Library Masters, so I reduced it to 1,500 hours, although that still seems fairly fanciful.