Michael Stephens.

Have you ever had someone in your career that has shown compassion and joy in the way they lead and asked yourself how you can grow in similar characteristics? I have, and know that working in an environment that embraces these values feels truly inspiring.

Today’s guest shares with us how we can cultivate a practice of wholehearted librarianship to create an atmosphere in which others feel empowered and supported. Dr. Michael Stephens is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at San Jose State University and author of the book called WholeheartedLibrarianship: Finding Hope, Inspiration, and Balance.

On this show he shares how we can have a profession that is compassionate, kind, and joyful – and find ways to develop a support network of kindred spirits to mentor new librarians in embracing this motivating style.


This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas.


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 ever had someone in your career that has shown compassion and joy in the way they lead, and asked yourself how you can grow in similar characteristics? I have, and know that working in an environment that embraces these values feels truly inspiring.  

Today’s guest shares with us how we can cultivate our own practice of wholehearted librarianship to create an atmosphere in which others feel empowered and supported. Dr. Michael Stephens is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at San José State University, and author of the book called, Wholehearted Librarianship: Finding Hope, Inspiration, and Balance. On this show he shares how we can have a profession that is compassionate, kind, and joyful, and find ways to develop a support network of kindred spirits to mentor new librarians in embracing this motivating style.   Enjoy the show!

Welcome to the show, Michael. 

Question #1: Your book is called, Wholehearted Librarianship: Finding Hope, Inspiration, and Balance. As a professor and leader in libraries, you encourage evolving and reflective practice for everyone in libraries. Can you start out by sharing with us what wholehearted librarianship is all about, and why it’s important? 01:36 

Dr. Michael Stephens

Absolutely. And Adriane, thank you so much for inviting me onto the podcast. I’m thrilled to be here. I’ve spent the last few months—well maybe even a year, embracing this golden age of podcasting out in the world. I’m like, Oh wow, I get to be on a podcast, too. So, this is supercool to do this.

Let me tell you a little bit about wholehearted librarianship. It is the absolutely lovely title of the book that ALA and I came up with—so resonated with me. The first book, the first collection of my writings was called, The Heart of Librarianship. That really touched me as well. And, this is sort of an extension of that, Wholehearted Librarianship. 

But actually in looking at it, it does make me realize that it is very much a way to think about my philosophy of librarianship. In writing the preface, not the forward, but the preface—Karen Synder wrote the forward for me and I was so touched by some of the things she wrote in that forward.

But in the preface, I write about the idea of taking care. That we take care of our users. It goes all the way back. I share a story about being in my reference class back in the mid-90’s at Indiana University South Bend. I was so sick with a sinus infection. The professor, the teacher of the reference class, had us doing our scavenger hunt. Okay, this was the 90’s when this is what we did in reference classes. We answered that list of questions, like, How tall is Mt. Rainier, or whatever. 

I was so sick, and sitting on the floor in the reference section, and she came up to me. She was also the director of the IUSB library. She said, Michael, just go home. Take care of yourself. That came to mind as I was working on the intro to this book. This idea of taking care. That’s something I think we do, sort of taking care, or tending to the needs of our users, such as: offering a safe space for every person who comes through our doors to learn and grow. Designing spaces to bring people together to talk about stuff, have debates, to exchange ideas, to collaborate. As well as building digital communities and whatever participatory services we might need to get folks really engaged around what the library provides, or just engage in the community.

Now, when I saw that I mean community as the people we serve. That might be in the public library, it might be in the university setting—so, that would be the campus community. It might even be in the special library as well as in all the places we may find libraries, school K through 12, absolutely, etc., etc., all the way into the museums and archives area.


Question #2: I long thought that libraries were the heart of a community. We have people who work here who do want to take care of others and those in their service areas. I’ve worked and led in libraries for many years and have appreciated those who have come before me and guided me in a way that was wholehearted, and also compassionate, which you write about. What are the characteristics of compassionate leadership? 05:25 

Dr. Michael Stephens

That’s a great question. Oh, wow, okay, I believe it was in the Urban Libraries Council, yeah. They put out a brief called, Library Leaders Owning Leadership. I like stuff like that where you get to hear from library leaders and what they’re doing.

One of the things that really popped out is a simple little phrase, leadership is more art than science. That totally fits my view that we should bring our hearts with us to the work we do. It really means that if we bring all of our stuff to how we lead, all of the things that make us who we are—and that’s our skill sets, that’s our knowledge, and it’s also our emotional type thing. That can be very beneficial. 

I’d argue that compassionate leaders have really good listening skills. They aren’t just sitting there thinking about the next smart thing they’re going to say. They have follow-through. That means that stuff just doesn’t disappear after the meeting—whoever’s in charge. You might be the manager of the department, or you might be the leader of the entire library—that there is follow through, integrity, and strong emotional intelligence. That’s understanding how we read people, and how we present ourselves to each other.

It means understanding how best to encourage those around you, and the people who work for you. All right, I’m going to tell a story. I spent the last few days here, and this is the start of my semester, re-recording lectures for a class I teach called the Hyperlinked Library at San José State University School of Information. It’s really a class entirely about what we’re talking about today. It’s about all the things I’ve written about. It’s about all the presentations I’ve done when I’ve traveled around the world. Talking about the library should encourage the heart and The Hyperlinked Library. 

I’ve told this story for many, many, many, many years, since it happened in 1996 in my public library time. I was just named into a brand new position. This was in ’96, so I’m dating myself. This was right when the internet had come to the library. I had just been interviewed and given the position Network Resources Trainer. Meaning I would do internet training, and database training, and CD Rom training, all that stuff we had back then. 

I was so excited. I was walking through the lobby of the library before we opened one day. Suddenly a manager appeared in front of me, one of the library leaders. I thought, Oh, boy. Okay I’m a brand new librarian too. I just finished my degree the December before, kind of new. I’m kind of a shy person so this is a big deal for me. And I said, I’m going to say something. I’m going to say thank you for this opportunity, super excited about what we’re doing. It was getting the internet into the public library, blah, blah, blah.

As I got closer that person said, You don’t need to disturb me, and kept on walking. I was crushed. We’ll just cut to the chase here. I’ve told that story for years, since I had the opportunity to tell that story to rooms full of librarians, of library managers, library directors, and people who may someday be managers. 

So, fast-forward to me recording this lecture last week. I told that story and—I do this and they see me. I’m recording with my hands flailing around, because I talk with my hands. And I said, Here’s why I’m telling you this, you all. I’m talking to my students who are soon going to graduate. You all will soon be in positions of leadership, and remember this, please. If you take a few things away from my class please remember this, don’t be this person. All it takes is—wow, thank you. I appreciate that. Or, I hear you, supercool. I have to go to a meeting right now. But, I’m glad to hear that, and let’s catch up about that, you know, whatever.

That to me is that emotional intelligence thing. That’s being aware that you do have to be ‘on’ to a certain degree to take care of the needs, as well as the overall needs of the group, if that makes sense. That to me is compassionate leadership.


Question #3: Right. I think one of the pitfalls it’s easy to get into as we move ahead in libraries, is the feeling that as we come up through the ranks we have to prove ourselves, become heavy-hitters, always be on top of our game, and lead with seriousness. What are your thoughts on that? I mean, your story kind of exhibits it. Is there a way to do things that include what you’re talking about? 10:21 

Dr. Michael Stephens:

Okay. Wow. Yeah. A few things to follow up on the story I just told. I ran to my current supervisor at that time, and I told her what had happened, and she was horrified. She was absolutely horrified, but she became a mentor to me, and was so instrumental in putting me on the path to me sitting in this chair talking to you right now.

One of the many, many, things that she taught me, and she said this all the time, because we were working in technology in the public library, and she was like, This is not the Pentagon. It is not the end of the world. It seemed like managers sometimes just get so wrapped up in their world, any little thing is like this huge, gigantic, blown out of proportion thing.

What I was going to say, as you grow into a leadership position, or you’re there. Take a step back, take a breath. Some things are super serious, and super important, and I recognize that, but not everything is. So, take a breath. Don’t be the person on the management team that is known as the person that sucks every ounce of fun out of the room when they walk into it. 

Because it’s really hard to get things done in that kind of environment, I think it’s okay to bring a little bit of a sense of play to our jobs. I think that it’s important. That concept of play—we could say that’s experimenting with things to solve a problem. There’s all these management styles, these flavors of the month that say, Oh, have fun, play. I don’t really mean that. I mean more, bringing that sort of playful aspect of things. Yeah, we will make mistakes, and we will experiment and this is not a culture of perfect. It is a culture of—we are going to learn things together, and that it’s okay to make mistakes, and this is a safe space, other than screwing up things, or doing things against library policy, whatever.

But there still should be that safe space, that space of radical trust and chaos where we can learn from each other. And, oh, my gosh—and it is okay as someone who moves up the ranks. You know what it’s like when you’re promoted in libraries. It’s like they squeeze every bit—oh, that sounds so bad [laughter] so sorry. But I’ve seen this. Maybe this doesn’t happen this much because I’ve been out of libraries for awhile. But, it’s like all the creativity, and the excitement of a supercool reference librarian fades away as they anecdotally—that I’ve experienced, as they climb that ladder. I hope that still isn’t happening. 

You know, the cool leaders, or the interesting managers to me—and, I just actually talked with someone I used to work with many years ago. She seemed so focused on—things could be fun and they can get stuff done and it can be like a really engaging and creative atmosphere. I think that’s what we should aim for. And again, it’s not the Pentagon.


Question #4: One of the things I like about your story is that you had a mentor, someone to talk to in that moment, and then you’re sharing it with us. So, how can we develop and empower kindness in our own practice? And then also empower it in others? 14:02 

Dr. Michael Stephens

Oh, I love that. Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, kindness is a big deal. I’ve written about it for a while. But then, it really came home to me watching a series on Netflix. I think it’s on Netflix called, The Kindness Diaries

This fellow from the UK named Leon, who drives around looking for people to be kind to him like, I need a place to stay. I don’t have any money. I need some food. It’s absolutely fascinating, some of the people he’s met, and some of the stories he’s told. And, that was last winter. We had a long winter up here in Northern Michigan. That was really warm and fun to get into every evening, and binge the two seasons of that.

Kindness is a big deal. When we talk about kindness, we can broaden those things out to include something we’ve already mentioned, like compassion, and empathy. I really think that curiosity and creativity go into that as well. Those things, I really think, can help us understand how we can approach our work with our hearts, or with an air of kindness.

When we talk about those—and, I just wrote a little column for Public Libraries Magazine called, Heart Skills are Soft Skills, that tap into this too. I think compassion and empathy, etc., are heart skills. I would suggest that we work on those individually, then as groups, like a departmental activity, or something like that.

Think about empathy, and understanding where another person might be coming from. I really enjoy—I’ll mention podcasts. One way to hear other people’s experience. I think This American Life is a good example of that. It really might help you understand the different point of views that people bring to the world. 

In the group setting, or the departmental setting, think about getting your group together and just having a discussion about something like, Describe a time you learned a valuable lesson about other people. Think about that for a second. You might have somebody tell a story about some really human thing that happened. For the folks listening to this podcast try this out at your next staff meeting and listen to what they have to say. You might hear some really touching things. You might hear empathy. You might hear understanding. 

With understanding, understanding the human experience with compassion and empathy, I think that helps us come around to bringing that kindness aspect forward first. If somebody’s being kind of mean—what did Michelle Obama say when they got low, we go high? That’s kind of a thing to think about too. To always try to take the high road. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say much at all, or whatever you have to do.

I have to work on that myself. I try, as a professor—for me, of course it’s being collegial to my colleagues in the faculty. But also, I feel that I should practice radical trust and kindness with my students. If they’re trying, if they’re putting in the effort, and there’s initiative there, absolutely, then I’m going to do my best to offer them that space of radical trust and kindness, and understanding as well—and empathy. That’s why I say, Tell me what is going on. 

You might have that person on your staff that always, like is not doing a good job, seems distracted, or whatever. Don’t just run to somebody and say, They’re not doing their job. Maybe think for a second. What could they be dealing with? Put yourself in their shoes. So, we come back to empathy again, getting in the other person’s mindset just to see how they might help us understand them and each other.


Question #5: It is. Tell me about comfort, joy, and hygge in the library. Michael, did I get that last one anywhere close to correctly pronounced? 18:49 

Dr. Michael Stephens

That’s kind of how I say it, I say hygge, hygge. It’s so hard to say. I was just in Denmark—library this summer. It was so nice to hear people say it who know how to say it. Yeah, let’s talk about that, comfort, joy, and hygge. Oh, I’m saying it so wrong, it’s okay. 

So for one thing, I’ll kind of loop around to these, if you don’t mind. We’ll come back to joy. Let’s talk a little bit about comfort and this concept from Denmark about community, and feeling connected. I wrote about this. I wrote a column about hygge, because I was sitting with a dear colleague of mine, Brian Kenny, who’s director of White Plains Public at ALA Winter Boston. And, we’re talking about, What is the next thing going to be?

And I said, I think it’s going to be like coming back around to people, bringing them together in the physical space. Because, for all these years…and I was a big proponent of this. I talked about all this blogging, and IM, and wikis, and social media, and Facebook, all this stuff for all these years. And, it’s great we’re doing that. There’s libraries with social media presence that are stellar. But, what I think happened is we went so far that way that we have to come back a bit. We have to come back to that point of balance. 

So, comfort and hygge says to me, Yeah, we’re going to have places in the library for people to come together. Quiet spaces, as well as maybe louder spaces. Beautiful spaces that are comfortable. We’re going to do signage on it. I’ve talked about bad signage in libraries for 100 years it seems like. We’re not putting up mean signs on the wall. But, we’re welcoming people in. Absolutely, to make them feel like they are a part of something. 

So now, I want to talk just a little bit about joy, if you will, because I really appreciate that word. I used it. I used that word. I did the closing keynote in 2018 at the—a group conference of Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. Their conference took place in Australia. It was absolutely amazing. Their conference theme was Roar, Leap, and Dare. Which is great. We can unpack each of those words. Librarians certainly need to be vocal advocates. They need to roar. We need to make that leap of faith, and we need to dare to make a difference. 

What I did in thinking about my closing keynote, I wanted to send them out with that for sure, because the conference team was so strong. But also, to make that happen I always come back to this idea of it starts with us. At the conference I said yes to this, but yes to these things, too – reflect, breathe, and love. 

Okay, that’s a big thing to say, okay? As we go forward, I think we should always reflect on our practice. We should take a breath. We should practice that self-care. Oh, my goodness, and center ourselves. And, we should love what we do. And, we should send love out into the world.

Talk about love. We talk about love in libraries. Sometimes it seems weird to me, but it is important. So, those three words are then replaced with a sign that just had the giant word, joy on it. Because isn’t that what we’re after? We want our users to experience joy. If you ask me, that’s what the library should be about. The joy of learning. The joy of exploring. The joy of experience. And the joy of really, to just find yourself deep into an amazing story, whether you’re reading it, or listening to it, or watching it, or participating in it as it happens. So, we should do all of these things with the idea that—and this is what encouraging the hearts means, helping our users find joy.


Question #6: And I think hearing you say this gives us permission to bring that in, which is fantastic. 23:34

Dr. Michael Stephens

All these things—these are such, again I said soft skills, but I would also say, it’s the touchy-feely stuff. And now more than ever, it’s time for the touchy-feely stuff. Absolutely.


Question #7: Right, and so much positivity can come out of this. Which leads me to the fact that we can’t always be positive. Things enter our day and we might find people who don’t buy into this or serve as devil’s advocates in our organizations. How do we deal with that when that starts to come in? 24:02 

Dr. Michael Stephens

Oh, yes, the devil’s advocate. I recall vividly someone that used to do that during my time in libraries. I would say if you have a devil’s advocate, a couple things. First, for the person that has to deal with them, tell your group, if you’re having a meeting about the next big thing you’re going to do, and your devil’s advocate is going to come and say, Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute and rattle off all these things why this is not going to work.

When you invite people to the meeting, tell them to come prepared with all their research, their thoughts. Maybe if they’re looking at what other people are talking about whatever this might be—a youth service initiative, an idea, whatever. Tell them to come with an open mind and say, Yes, sure. Also think about some problems that might pop up. 

Sometimes I think the devil’s advocates, or sometimes when we’re doing something new, that we get too hung up on all the things that could go wrong that we lose sight of all the things that could go right. 

So, if you say, Yeah, come to the meeting. Bring some problems you’ve thought about and please bring three or four solutions to each of those problems so we can talk about them. Then it’s giving that positive spin. 

Now, I’ll talk to the devil’s advocate directly. Maybe you should think about that before you jump into the devil’s advocate train and ride it into the meeting. Think, why am I doing this? Maybe you’re not even aware of it. Maybe talk to a trusted mentor, or co-worker and say, what do you think about this? And it is absolutely fine to say, I don’t know that much about this and I need to learn more. Instead of saying, Here’s what’s wrong with it.


Question #8: Sure. And, I think sometimes my team at least, will take turns putting on the black hat a little bit and just saying, Let’s process this through. It doesn’t have to be a negative either, right? 26:16 

Dr. Michael Stephens

Right. Devil’s advocacy goes back to a philosophical angle of discussion. But in my experience, and again anecdotally, I’ve seen it spin out as a way to bring a meeting to a grinding halt. Where you’re going from full steam ahead to, Oh, we better proceed with baby steps because that’s all we can do because too many things might go wrong.


Question #9: Yeah. Is there a way to develop a support network of kindred spirits in wholehearted librarianship, and mentor new librarians in this? 26:51 

Dr. Michael Stephens

Yeah, nice. That would be a really good place to share—I’m dealing with a devil’s advocate, or if you feel really safe to say, Yeah, I’ve been a devil’s advocate and I need to change. So, look around. That’s great. It might be that group that goes to lunch once a week, or once a month. Or, it might be a group in your region that gets together once a quarter. Or maybe, for a lot of folks it might be a virtual space where as you said, kindred spirits might gather to talk about librarianship. It might be a closed group on Facebook where you can talk a little bit. Or, who knows, even a mail list, or some other space where you can exchange ideas. 

I would like to see mentoring formalized in libraries, individual libraries as well as across the profession. I think we should do more of that. I think it’s very helpful. As I mentioned my mentor a couple of times already today, if we formalize that somehow it might be very useful to have that person to talk to.

So, look around in some of the virtual communities. Look for one that fits you. It might be—there are so many virtual communities right now about people who are librarians that love blank. You might find a group there, or something similar. They’re out there, just take a look around.


Question #10: Great. Anything else you’d like to add? How about a favorite book, or resource you’d like to share about leadership? 28:37 

Dr. Michael Stephens

Okay, I was thinking about this because you mentioned to me you might ask me about this, the book or resource. Okay. Well, a couple things, I am not directly involved as a library leader. I’m not a manager of anyone really, except for myself,  and then of my classes. I’m not going to recommend a specific book because everybody has a different type of management that speaks to them. What I would say is look for something that challenges your thinking about what it means to be a leader. Or, just look for something that challenges your thinking. It might be a book. It might be a series of articles. It might be a person, and their body of work. It might be—you’re at a conference and you see a conference presentation title that you’re like, Oh, what the heck is that? I don’t know if I’d like that. Maybe that’s the one to go to, to see if it gives you different ideas. 

Now, I want to mention very quickly, Next Library, which takes place in Aarhus, Denmark at the Dokk1 Library. They do satellite meetings. They’re doing one in Brisbane, Australia in 2020 that promises to be absolutely amazing because some of the things going on in Australia in libraries are so cool.

One of the things they did in Aarhus this last summer at Next Library was they brought in one of the fellows that runs the Burning Man. He talked about the philosophical center and principles of Burning Man. Some of those include: radical inclusion; communal effort; civic responsibility; and encouraging participation. And wow, isn’t that interesting? And, I totally get why Next Library did this because it’s that outside the box, might challenge library leader type thinking to get you to maybe going down a direction that you hadn’t thought of, like radical inclusion. That is a brilliant thing to think about, again, especially in 2019. 


Question #11: In closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally?  30:51 

Dr. Michael Stephens

Okay. What a great question. All right, I will say this. I’m proud to be a librarian. I’m still there, although I wear the hat of a university professor now. But, I do this. I try to do this myself. Now, I do it for my students. But I like to think that as librarians, we are learners. We make connections of all kinds, not just handing a book to somebody. But, it’s all those different things. It’s all those various ways that hyperlinks can happen, and hyperlinks are people too. We open doors. We listen. We teach. We build community. We welcome everyone in, and that hints toward radical inclusion. 

Everything we do, we do with humanity and heart. So, yeah, we bring our hearts with us. We do use kindness, because I really think we’re in this time of the global profession, the global classroom. We can learn from each other, and we can help our users learn from people all over the world. 

So that’s what we’re doing. We’re still just making connections. We’re learning ourselves and we’re helping others learn.


Wonderful, Michael. This is so inspiring. Thank you for being on the show today.

Dr. Michael Stephens:

Oh, I appreciate it.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.