Library Leadership

110. Slow Librarianship with Meredith Farkas

Meredith Farkas

Have you ever wondered if there was a way you could slow down in your professional life while engaging in more meaningful work? On this show Meredith Farkas, Faculty Librarian at Portland Community College, shares how we can do this using slow librarianship – a concept with the characteristics of being good, humane, and thoughtful. It’s not about creating mediocrity. It’s about engaging in our best and most meaningful work.

Transcript

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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

Have you wondered if there was a way to slow down in your professional life while engaging in more meaningful work? On this show Meredith Farkas, Faculty Librarian at Portland Community College, shares how we can do this using slow librarianship—a concept with the characteristics of being good, humane, and thoughtful. It’s not about creating mediocrity. It’s about engaging in our best and most meaningful work.  Enjoy the show!

Meredith, welcome to the show.

Meredith Farkas:

Thanks so much for having me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: Thank you for being here with me and talking about slow librarianship. As we start, will you share about your concept of slow librarianship, and where you took your inspiration?   01:32 

Meredith Farkas:

Sure. For some background, in about 2018 I was feeling pretty burned out on work and I was looking for some hope and a sense of meaning. I entered the profession in the years when we were told to be more like start-ups, and when technological innovation was touted as being more important than getting to know the actual needs of our patron populations, or focusing on social justice in our communities. 

It honestly felt to me at that point that we were just trying to attract people to the library who looked exactly like us, who were white, tech savvy, middle-class, twenty and thirtysomethings, and to do things that were really innovative and flashy, rather than being authentically focused on meeting community needs. I really see slow librarianship as existing in direct opposition to those things. 

I started reading a lot of things like the book How to do Nothing, by Jenny Odell. I was really inspired by the idea that taking control of our attention, and resting could be resistance to capitalism. I read stuff from the Insight Mindfulness movement, slow food, care work, critical librarianship, mutual aid, also worker-directed workplaces—in that soup of ideas I came up with a vision of a slower, more contemplative, more relationship focused, and anti-racist librarianship. 

Then I read an article in In the Library with a Lead Pipe by Julia Glassman that was called The Innovation Fetish and Slow Librarianship. It just clicked, Oh, that’s what this is. This is slow librarianship. She was more focused on critique rather than defining librarianship. So, I feel like I’ve been taking that next step. But I really am standing on her shoulders, for sure. 

In my mind, slow librarianship is really about being driven by reflection, solidarity, and our professional values, rather than achievement culture, individualism, and white supremacy. It’s focused on anti-racism, centering those in our communities who are the most in need, relationship building, learning, collaboration—and really community care and solidarity. It’s about finding a relationship with our work that supports our well-being, which ideally allows us to be better librarians, better serve our community, and be in more solidarity with our fellow library workers.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

You break these down into three areas. Is that right, Meredith? 

Meredith Farkas:

Yeah.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2:  What are these, and how do they work?  04:36 

Meredith Farkas:

I definitely borrowed this idea from the Slow Food Manifesto. When they describe the characteristics of slow food they break them down into good, clean, and fair. That’s about access, and sustainability, supporting food workers, local food systems, appreciating local food culture, and really getting pleasure out of food.

I broke my description similarly into good, human—or humane, and thoughtful. Good is really about critically evaluating our work to make sure we’re not replicating the oppressive structures that already exist in our society. It’s about determining what our professional values are in making sure that we’re guided by those rather than a desire to achieve big things, win awards—things like that. Also it’s about being really laser focused on needs of our patrons, and especially centering on the people who are the most oppressed, and the most in need in our communities. 

Human, or humane, is really about creating humane workplaces where people actually feel supported as whole people, feel psychologically safe, feel like they can set boundaries that nurture their own well-being. They don’t have to be sending emails at 10 pm [laughter] because their boss does, or something like that—where the focus is really on solidarity rather than individualism. 

Then thoughtful is really the contemplative piece. It’s about becoming contemplative as an individual, but also becoming a contemplative organization where people are supported—to take time to reflect and learn. I think, most powerfully, where we reflect together as an organization. That collaborative reflection and learning is often the most powerful piece of it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: You say that slow librarianship means doing less while engaging in more meaningful work. Can you talk to us about this?  06:32 

Meredith Farkas:

I know this is probably the part that’s hardest for people—like the idea of less, of giving up things that we’re doing is very psychologically difficult. I read a book recently about the psychology of less, how even when something is clearly not working people have a very hard time just doing less—giving up their stuff. Less feels like loss.

But because slow librarianship really requires time to reflect, to build relationships, to build humane organizations—those things take time, so obviously we can’t do everything. It’s not that we’re really even necessarily doing less. We’re just refocusing on doing things that may not, traditionally, be deemed as productive. For example, relationship building is the heart of librarianship, right? We can’t know what our communities need unless we are out in our communities talking to people, building partnerships with other community groups that have similar goals. Without spending time doing that we can’t make progress. But, it doesn’t always look like really productive work—going to community meetings, and talking to people. We, sort of, have to give up that idea that this is productive, and this isn’t.

Similarly if we’re going to build inclusive organizations, that takes time, trust building, reflect a lot of critical reflection. I really see slow librarianship as being about doing less in order to do our most meaningful work, definitely not about embracing mediocrity, [laughter] as some people might have suggested. In our libraries we’re so focused on being busy. Getting a lot done doesn’t necessarily, or mean that we’re getting the right things done.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: When implementing slow librarianship, why is it important to look beyond ourselves?  08:38 

Meredith Farkas:

I’m one of those people in our profession who has a lot of privilege. I have tenure. I’m in a full-time position. I don’t feel a sense of precarity in my work, so it’s easy for me to set boundaries in my work. But that’s not true of everyone. I think slow librarianship, just like slow food, and mindfulness, are just so at risk of being just individualized, and being about self-care.

And yes, these things are about maximizing our well-being, but if we do nothing to change the system that prevents others from doing so, we’re really just solidifying class distinctions. So we’ll have full-time librarians, professional staff, tenured people. We’ll be able to set the boundaries for their well-being and everyone else won’t be able to. We really need to focus on community care so that everyone has the ability to slow down. I really see that if we just are doing slow librarianship for ourselves, we’re doing it wrong because it’s really about solidarity.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: When you’ve shared this concept with other librarians, what kinds of reactions have you received?  09:45 

Meredith Farkas:

I had a funny one last fall [laughter]. I was keynoting a conference online and somebody basically stormed out, or the equivalent online of storming out. They said in the chat that I was telling people to embrace mediocrity, and I was what is wrong with this country, and why this country’s going to hell in a handbasket [laughter]. Oh, my gosh [laughter] I took it as a point of pride. But, for most people this has really resonated with a lot of people, more than I even thought it would. 

I think with the pandemic, and grind culture, and increasing austerity in libraries, so many library workers are questioning so much, like how our profession supports our workers, and how well our profession is really like operationalizing its values. I think a lot of us who were real go-getters early in our careers, realize that the only reward we got for that was more work. So, not really what most of us were hoping for.

I think we all want to do our best work and a lot of us are questioning whether always focusing on measurable outcomes, and doing and doing big innovative things, and just always being busy—whether that was really getting us there.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  11:17 

Meredith Farkas:

I think the most important aspect of slow librarianship is critical reflective practice. If we can’t see the oppressive structures that are—and problematic assumptions that undergird what we do, we’re never going to be able to create change. So, I think, when people ask me how to get started, really working on our attention, questioning the things we do, being less reactive, and more contemplative—I think that’s a critical first step in doing this work. Everything really flows from that. If we’re too busy running around and just doing, doing, doing we won’t have the space we need to see the problems that we have to address.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Do you have any favorite management, or leadership books or resources and why?  12:04 

Meredith Farkas:

I have two that I wanted to recommend. The first is, and probably a lot of people already know about this is John Kotter’s 8 Steps—change leadership process. He’s written about it in tons of books in amazing detail, but you can also read his really great Harvard Business Review article, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. This is an oldie, but a goodie, but it really gets to the challenges of creating change and shepherding change. I think a lot of libraries really rush change and brand people who are resistant as malcontents—they hate change, when there might be very legitimate reasons for resisting these things.

The other one is Tema Okun’s, White Supremacy Culture website, and her original documents from 1999. She wrote this great document that, sort of, describes how white supremacy culture shows up in organizations, which was so eye opening to me because the first time I read it I thought, Oh, that sounds like every place I’ve ever worked, then like, Ohhh, okay. [laughter] Like, I hadn’t realized how much I, sort of, embodied white supremacy culture with a lot of my perfectionism, my sense of urgency always, like, We have to get this done, we have to do this thing. Just being so outcome focused. It’s really, really changed my approach to work, and hugely influenced my vision of slow librarianship, which I really hope is the antithesis of everything that she described.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  13:51 

Meredith Farkas:

So for me, growing up, libraries were a really safe refuge from the chaos in my childhood. There were spaces where I felt safe, and I felt like I belonged, which for somebody with anxiety is pretty rare. So the idea for me, that so many people feel like libraries represent oppressive spaces, or spaces where they don’t feel like they belong, that they are white spaces that really, I mean, it honestly breaks my heart. Because if nothing else, libraries should feel safe for everyone in our community. 

That’s really like an active thing. It requires a deep focus on social justice, and relationship building, a lot of the slow librarianship thing. And also, building diversity in our library staff so that we look like the communities we serve—certainly more than being friendly and smiling. It definitely requires a lot more than being neutral, especially when some members of our communities are trying to make the library less safe, or less welcoming for marginalized groups. Yeah, I really see the library as a refuge, and I want it to be that for everyone.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Libraries as a refuge. I like what we’ve talked about today. Slow librarianship allows us to create those spaces, and reflect on our work, and make it work for us, and for our communities in a way that makes a lot of sense.  Thank you for being with me on the show.

Meredith Farkas:

Oh, thank you so much.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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