Meredith Farkas – Slow Librarianship

Steve Thomas: Meredith, welcome back to Circulating Ideas.

Meredith Farkas: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Steve.

Steve Thomas: I wanted to have you on to talk about a topic that’s come up recently and you’ve been writing about it, but I’ve been hearing it more and more recently, especially around social media, about slow librarianship. The first thing I wanted to ask, cause I don’t think I asked this in my other interview with you, but how did you come to librarianship in the first place?

Meredith Farkas: Oh, so I was a social worker. I was a child and family therapist living down in south , and I loved being in a helping profession, but like the work itself was eating me alive. I felt like I couldn’t actually like make a real difference. And I was experiencing all of the terrible burnout feelings, but so much worse because, unlike in libraries, you know, we think there are library emergencies, but they’re really mostly are not. Yeah. But I was worried about kids being beaten or harming other children or just terrible things. And I wanted to find work that was meaningful where I still felt like I could help people, but in a way that felt more concrete. I remembered how much I’d loved libraries growing up. And I had read some article in the New York Times about cool stuff that libraries were doing with technology. And I was like, wow, that sounds really interesting. So I took a part-time job at a public library and ended up loving it. Like, I worked in circulation, which is not super glamorous work, but I just loved interacting with the public. I loved helping people. It felt incredibly meaningful to me. And, yeah, so then I went to library school and, I have not regretted that choice switching careers at any point, it’s been wonderful.

Steve Thomas: And the funny thing is, is that you talking about all this stress and everything, then you wanted a career that you would not have that, but then you almost put that back onto yourself in librarianship too. You talked about being a workaholic and just the general achievement culture that happens in libraries. A lot of that was when social media was coming up, and the Movers and Shakers in Library Journal and just everybody flipping out about that. What kind of circumstances did you kind of feel yourself in before you came to your realization about slow librarianship? How was your work life up until then?

Meredith Farkas: So I was one of those people who was always chasing the gold star and the pat on the head. And I think a lot of people who’ve experienced trauma in their early years or obviously, racism and other sorts of oppressive situations, I think are always chasing that, always feel like if I do enough, if I work hard enough, I’m going to get the validation that makes me feel like I’m good enough. And I had so many great experiences in the profession of achieving things and people giving me opportunities to do stuff.

And, by any normal objective means of measuring, I should have been happy with what I’d achieved and never felt that, like every achievement just made me feel embarrassed and like I didn’t deserve it. It just got to a place where I, and now being in a secure job where I have continuous employment and I don’t have to worry about pleasing people or doing things that are meaningful to others to get tenure or whatever I started really thinking about like, what is actually meaningful to me, separating out, like, what do I do to please my boss or my colleagues or other people? What do I actually want to do? What work really gives me joy? And I honestly had a really hard time figuring that out because I think I was so built from the outside in, I was so focused on making other people happy and doing the things that met these external norms of good librarian, good person. Yeah. I just realized, wow, this was a really hollow way of living one’s life.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. But I think it sounds familiar to a lot of people. A lot of times we’ve been reluctant to talk about mental health issues, but I think that’s important to embrace that conversation and feel like we can talk about it.

And I think, in your writing, you have been fairly open about things. On one of your blog posts that you wrote you felt weird admitting that you feel depressed. So it’s like, even though you’re aware that it’s okay to talk about it, it still feels weird to talk about it.

Meredith Farkas: Yeah. And I find personally that I’m much more comfortable talking about it in hindsight than when it’s going on. Like recently talking about how I’ve been feeling depressed. This is one of the first times I’ve actually spoken about dealing with that during the time when it was happening. And that felt really freeing to me because I always felt so much shame, and when I’d go through a depression, like I remember when I had postpartum depression with my son, I would just bury myself in work. That would be my way of coping and it never fixed anything, of course, but that was how I coped. I just go back to my workaholism and I’m finding now that I don’t use that as a crutch, it’s so much easier for me to deal with my feelings and, and question them and be curious about why I’m feeling the way I am instead of like, I’m just going to bury these feelings.

Steve Thomas: Right. If I don’t think about them, then it’s okay.

Meredith Farkas: For sure. I just need to win another award and everything will be fine.

Steve Thomas: That’s always worked in the past.

Meredith Farkas: Yeah totally, no, no, no, no.

Steve Thomas: You and I both were kind of coming up in the profession around the same time and that’s the same time as social media was coming up, and so that sort of feeds into that in both ways. Like. ” Oh, look, I have thousands of Twitter followers. Wow. That’s really great.” But then people can also tear you down quite a bit on social media, especially around things like the awards, like the Movers and Shakers. You want to feel good for getting an award, but then everybody else has these feelings of jealousy, inadequacy themselves, and take it out on the people who actually do get it.

Meredith Farkas: Yeah. I usually say in that case, hate the game, not the player. It’s not the fault of the people who are getting these awards. It is the system that prioritizes like innovation and like individual achievement, rather than how most great things happen in libraries, which is collaborative work and not sexy work.

Steve Thomas: Right, and slow work a lot of times. To win an award like that, a lot of times you have to have, “well, here’s the project that I did that changed everything.” It’s like, well, sometimes it’s a years long process of slowly changing things. And those people don’t get often recognized. You don’t want to wait for your lifetime achievement award.

Meredith Farkas: Yeah. I find the work that I’m most proud of these days, it’s like deeply unexciting, but deeply meaningful to our students. Like we did this work where we assessed students in our credit classes and how they evaluate sources on the web and then completely redesigned our course around what we learned and then did some additional assessment afterwards to see how they did.

And like it took years and it was a cast of thousands working on, well, I mean, we’re still a small library, not a cast of thousands. It was amazingly collaborative and unsexy and wonderful. I feel so good about the work we did. And I know in a few years we’ll redesign the course again and it will all be gone, but I just feel like if we’re so wrapped up in doing things that other people find exciting, we’re not going to be doing the work that’s really meaningful to our patrons.

Steve Thomas: Right. And that need for external validation, you have to be proud of yourself.

Meredith Farkas: Yeah. Literally nobody patted me on the back for this work. I feel incredibly good about it because I know what I did.

Steve Thomas: What is slow librarianship? I know you didn’t come up with the initial concept, but how did you come to the concept and how have you worked through it?

Meredith Farkas: Sure. So, about two years ago. Yeah, no, no. Three years ago I had this realization, because I had this problem with my heart that ended up, nobody could figure out what it was and it ended up going away on its own, but at the time, like it was extremely scary because, like, heart stuff? And I just like, started thinking about how shallow the things I’d been chasing were and around that same time, I discovered a YouTube video by Jenny O’Dell called “How to do Nothing.” And it was a talk that she’d given at this conference, and it wasn’t really about doing nothing. It was just about taking control of your attention and choosing the things that are meaningful to pay attention to. And for her, that was watching birds and being in nature in Oakland where she lives and it was just about thinking about, why are we constantly churning and focused on productivity and these external markers of success and why don’t we start really questioning and thinking about what is really meaningful in our lives?

And that was just so important to me. I don’t know. It just woke me up and it came at just the right time. And I started reading more about mindfulness and attention. And then I rediscovered that article by Julia Glassman. I remember reading it back in 2017, but I think it wasn’t the right time for me really to make a dent. And then I started reading about slow food and other aspects of slow culture. And I was just so inspired by all of these various threads coming together.

 So for me, I really see slow librarianship is about being driven by our values, by mindfulness and solidarity rather than achievement culture and individualism and neo-liberalism. I feel like this is very much a response to those trends in our society, but it’s about so many things. When you start to become more aware of what’s going on around you, you can start to dismantle white supremacy in your library. You can start to better center the people most in need in your communities. If you slow down, you can focus more on building relationships, both within your library and within your community. You’ll focus more on learning and reflection, collaboration and community care, and all of these things. To me, it’s about doing the most meaningful work rather than focusing on doing the most work.

I think vocational awe keeps us from really recognizing that libraries are not always good for everybody. We have caused harm in this profession. I’m working on an article right now for a special issue of our state libraries journal on privacy, just how we talk about these values that we have around privacy, but obviously there are other values that are much more important because we’re constantly like licensing these databases that are surveilling our patrons, and then giving that information to data brokers so something is clearly more important there than the value that we are saying is deeply important.

Steve Thomas: Right, we’re valuing convenience over anything else.

Meredith Farkas: Yeah. Yeah. Or like in academic libraries, it’s so much about like, “oh, well, gosh, these faculty members would be so mad if we didn’t have this.” Well, should we maybe care more about the undocumented students who might be put at risk by the surveillance that is happening in the databases they’re using for their research for their class. Like we are saying, the one thing is more important. And I think with slow librarianship, instead of just being outraged by this, which I am, for sure, it makes me curious. Okay. What’s really going on under the surface? What are the values that we’re saying with our actions are actually more important and maybe if we can bring those out and really interrogate them, maybe we can get to a better place. I hope.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. It’s always a journey. It’s not a destination that we’re getting to. It’s not like, “oh, I have achieved slow librarianship!”

Meredith Farkas: Yeah, for sure. For sure. I constantly take one step forward and two steps back with this stuff like . When COVID hit, I totally became a workaholic again because I was like, “oh my gosh, I have so much experience teaching online.” I’ve been teaching online and being a distance librarian, learning librarians since the beginning of my career. And I basically worked myself to the bone that first few months after COVID hit and then realized like, “oh my God, what am I doing?” Like I had these values. I had like this way I wanted to be going. And I totally dropped that, but you have to just say, why did I do that?

And how can I avoid doing it again instead of just beating myself up or saying, “oh, well, slow librarianship doesn’t work for me.” I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better since then and hopefully I’ll keep going in that direction. I sat through like a half day meeting and I did not volunteer for a single committee or work group that came out of that. I was like, yes.

Yeah, that’s always difficult sometimes cause you get that urge of, “I must contribute to this!” and “I can do it!” But just because you are able to do something doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you, especially mental health wise. I did a similar thing to what you talked about at the beginning of the pandemic. If people go back and look at the archive of this, I did this podcast weekly for a while cause I was like, “oh, I can just go do it, do it, do it, do it, do it!” I think it all, it all leads to burn out and then you’re not going to enjoy anything.

Yeah. Yeah. And it always feels hard to like step back from things, but usually once you’ve done it, you just feel so much better. You just feel so much relief. And there are moments where I’m like, oh, I feel really bad because I want to be in solidarity with my colleagues. But until they realize that they are spinning off too many work groups and too many projects, I have to take care of me and gently remind them like, wow, maybe five work groups shouldn’t come out of one meeting. But I can’t control anyone but myself in the end.

Steve Thomas: Right, and you can try to be a good role model for other people. And like you said, if they’re your friends, you can talk about how much better you feel now as you’re doing how you’re doing.

So you talked about you got some inspiration from the slow food movement, and they break down their philosophy into three different areas and you’ve sort of adopted that. Can you talk about those three areas, how you’re thinking through that?

Meredith Farkas: Sure, sure. So, the slow food movement in their manifesto broke it down into good, clean and fair. And that was about not just local food, which I think a lot of people, when they think of slow food, it’s like, oh, it’s eating local food and foraging mushrooms and getting the finest local cuisine or whatever.

But it’s also about social justice and environmental sustainability and yes, it’s pleasure as well, and I think that’s a powerful thing. I think in helping professions, we don’t think about our pleasure in the work, but yeah, we should enjoy it too. We’re better at our job when we are enjoying the work that we’re doing, and we don’t have to be martyrs.

So I took that and I separated my thoughts on slow librarianship into good, humane or human, and thoughtful. And I think of “good” as really trying to make up for the harms that we have caused in libraries, really dismantling oppressive structures that exclude that keep our profession, and sometimes the people who visit the library, not very diverse. And really to get rid of those oppressive structures and also really centering the people in our community who are the most in need and really centering our work around our values. Like the ones that we actually say are our values and not like the hidden ones that really often drive what we do.

And then “humane or human,” I really see that as creating a humane workplace where people feel like they can bring their whole selves to work. Like they don’t have to hide that they’re a parent or that they have a chronic illness. They don’t have to muscle through things that they’re struggling with and pretend that they’re just okay and don’t have bodies and needs and all of that. I think it’s about people feeling safe, creating boundaries that nurture their wellbeing but not just so that they can take care of themselves, but because when you take care of yourself, you can also better take care of others.

And then “thoughtful” is focused around just slowing down and removing that sense of urgency we all have, which is very much part of white supremacy culture. And reflecting and being more mindful and curious about why things are the way they are, how we can do things differently, focusing on building relationships, and learning and just focusing on being better instead of constantly doing, doing, doing.

Steve Thomas: Right. Yeah, and especially during the pandemic, I think that was just to keep us busy and not think about the fact that there’s a pandemic in the world, and you talked about earlier of bury, bury, bury, just bury it. I don’t wanna have to think about that. If I’m thinking about creating this course, then I’m thinking about creating this course.

Meredith Farkas: Exactly. Yeah.

Steve Thomas: And one of the things that you stopped doing during the pandemic was your column in American Libraries, which had been running for a very long time. I remember it early in my career. I that’s where I first had seen your name and started following you on Twitter and all that kind of stuff. What made you want to wrap that up after, what is it? 13, 14 years?

Meredith Farkas: Yeah, I think it was, gosh, I think it was 14 years, which I hadn’t realized until I actually went back. I thought I’d started it later than that. And it was like my God, 2007. That’s wow. Wow. Nobody should have a platform for that long. Honestly, I feel more embarrassed about taking up that much space than anything. I mean, I feel good about the work I did, especially later in the column where I stopped focusing so much on technology and started focusing more on the same sort of values that are part of slow librarianship, but yeah, I decided to stop because I really wanted to make space. I’ve read so many things about what white library workers can do in this profession to support our colleagues of color. And I think making space is one of the most important, so I told the editor in chief at American Libraries that I was doing this because I wanted to make space for more diverse voices, and I know that that is something that she is really passionate about and she has already been bringing in more diverse voices into the publication.

Also columns… it’s like so old school, it looks like thought leaders and all of that. And I hate that stuff. I hate futurists and thought leaders and I don’t want to be one of those people, and I realized in continuing to do this, I was one of those people. So I wanted to do something that hopefully would make a difference and maybe it did. I don’t know. Maybe in modeling that some other people who take up a lot of space in our field and are constantly keynoting things and doing stuff, maybe they will also take notice and maybe change what they do and start recommending more BIPOC library workers for these prestigious opportunities.

Steve Thomas: I know you said that your column was about technology for a long time, but that you started to have a problem with techno saviorism.

Meredith Farkas: Well, I remember like when I first came into the profession, all of the rhetoric was, libraries have to adopt web 2.0 or they’re going to cease to exist. And we need to adopt the practices of startup culture. Like there was this awful white paper. I remember in like 2010 or 2011, “Think Like a Startup”, the idea that oh yeah, the practices of Silicon Valley are definitely what we want to be emulating in this field. They come into these spaces and like, I just learned recently that there’s an app that mixes formula for your baby. I don’t know when I had my son and he was allergic to everything, we had to give him this hypoallergenic formula. I just put water in to a bottle and put the stuff in and mixed it, but no, no, no. Silicon Valley has a better way. And it turns out this great tool that they created, for some reason, not giving the babies enough formula and there’s all these failure to thrive cases from these wealthy parents who bought this thing. It’s like the Juicero. We’ve solved this problem that is literally not a problem, but now we’ve actually caused a completely different problem.

No, these are not the practices we want to bring into our library. Oh yeah. Move fast and break things. Sometimes the things we’re breaking are our patrons. I bought in to it to some extent at the time, I mean the whole Library 2.0 thing. I was like, this is not that innovative. Just give me a break. And people who don’t think library 2.0 is amazing are not Luddites. These false dichotomies I was always uncomfortable with, but yeah, I was really into, oh, libraries should be innovative and blah, blah, blah. And it took me a long time to realize that that rarely was the most meaningful work we did. Oh, cool, we made the catalog more social so people could put tags in it. Is that really what is making our patrons lives better?

Steve Thomas: Do we need to see their Good Reads reviews?

Meredith Farkas: So important, so important.

Steve Thomas: And, the big thing that I wanted to wrap up with is if people are finding all of this familiar, this conversation of, this is what goes on inside of my head, how do you suggest somebody gets started down the path of slow librarianship?

Meredith Farkas: I think the place to get started is to really start thinking about your own attention and how you deploy it in your current life. Are you letting the attention economy and things like anxiety rule what you pay attention to, or are you choosing to pay attention to the things that are important to you?

And I think by harnessing our attention, we can start seeing the structures that underlie a lot of the bad decisions that we make in libraries and the bad priorities that we have. And we can see the oppressive structures that are harming our patrons and our BIPOC colleagues. So I think it starts really with working on ourselves, but it can’t end there. Somebody suggested that slow librarianship was a very privileged thing only for people who have job security. And I think that’s a very real concern.

Jenny O’Dell talks about something in her book, which came from that talk I mentioned. Her book, How to Do Nothing, she talks about how, it very much could become sort of gated communities of attention. Like, oh, we can harness our attention because we have privilege and we can make choices about our work because we have job security, but I think once we get past the point of being able to see these things and taking care of ourselves and creating boundaries that nurture our wellbeing, we have to then get to that solidarity piece where we are fighting for that to be available to everyone, especially everyone in our workplace, because we know that our workplaces are grossly unequal in most cases.

So yeah, that’s a really good place to start. I love Jenny O’Dell’s book How to Do Nothing, but I think there’s a lot of different ways that people could go with reading. And if they go to my blog, I have like a long bibliography in one of my recent blog posts with lots of things that I read that really influenced me. So if people want to read more or they just want to work on themselves or whatever, there’s lots of different directions they could go in.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I personally have found a lot of stuff in mindfulness to be helpful in getting my attention and keeping my attention from getting off in too many different directions. And I found that particular has been really useful to me.

Meredith Farkas: And I think people think of mindfulness as just being meditation, but it can be whatever it can just be about paying attention to what you pay attention to, or it can be going for walks or swimming, or it can be anything that you want it to be, but it’s about taking control of your attention.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, and one of the things you mentioned that people were talking about it being privileged and then another drawback that people have talked about with this is, “Oh you just want to be boring and mediocre.” and like you were saying,

Meredith Farkas: I do!

Steve Thomas: Can you talk through about your desire to be boring and mediocre?

Meredith Farkas: Yes. I don’t think I have to work too hard to be boring, but it’s not a struggle, but yeah, I gave a talk at the Nebraska Library Association conference and this woman stormed out of the online talk because she thought what I was saying was like why our country is terrible and why we’re so mediocre, and I’m like, okay. But yeah, I don’t think it’s about being mediocre. I think for some of us slow librarianship might mean doing less. Like for me, definitely it has meant doing less for other people. It might mean doing more. There was a great… Adam Grant, he’s a organizational psychologist and he has a podcast, and I can’t remember what it’s called something someplace on his last name, Grant, but he was talking about burnout and how for some people to combat burnout, it means doing more work that is truly meaningful to you, that is like centered around your values.

So for a lot of us, it may not mean doing less work or being mediocre. It might mean just recentering on work that is values driven, that is truly meaningful. And we can’t know what those things are until we slow down and really take stock of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what really are libraries’ most strongly held values. So, yeah, we could keep running on a hamster wheel and doing a bunch of things that are not really having a great impact on our patrons, or we can think about what is truly most important.

Steve Thomas: Right. And Adam Grant’s podcast is Taken for Granted.

Meredith Farkas: I knew it was a play on his name. Yes. And that one on burnout is terrific. There are a lot of really good ones, especially for people who are managers or library, administrators. He has some great desks and, they give some really good advice.

Steve Thomas: Well, if people would want to continue this conversation, how can they get in touch with you?

Meredith Farkas: Sure. Well, I’m on Twitter. I’m @librarianmer, M E R. I have a blog called Information Wants to be Free, and I’ve recently written some stuff about the librarianship there. So those are great places to engage me. My contact information is on the blog, so you can feel free to get in touch.

I really do love talking about this stuff. Someone recently told me, after a talk I gave last February, they formed like a slow librarianship support group, this group of librarians. I’m so jealous. I need this slow librarianship support group. That sounds so amazing. I would love a community of people to talk about how we’re trying to get rid of workaholism and try to make our work more meaningful. That sounds great. So if folks are game to do that, let me know.

Steve Thomas: Just don’t do it as a Facebook group, though, because they’re the ones that are moving fast and breaking things

Meredith Farkas: That is real, yeah.

Steve Thomas: Thank you so much, Meredith, for talking to me about this and for the listeners. I think it’s a really great topic and I hope the conversation does continue. I know you mentioned that at some point that you might put this into a book and I hope that does happen.

Meredith Farkas: Thanks me too. This was really fun.

Steve Thomas: Right, talk to you later.

Meredith Farkas: Thanks. Bye-bye.