Sunday, March 12, 2017
Deb Smith-Cohen, President
Fairfax County Public Library Employee Association
Statement to Library Board of Trustees March 8, 2017
I had a really packed hour on the information desk the other day. A computer user was having trouble printing from Google Docs. A parent needed books on eclipses for a second grader. A student was doing a report on the Navajo code talkers of WWII. A civic group representative came in to pick up the key to use our meeting room after hours. And that was just what I did. My colleague at the desk was kept hopping too. Her questions included help finding tax assistance, registering someone for our 1:1 English conversation program, locating a multi-author children’s series, and instructing someone searching our catalog for historical novels set in a specific time period. Everyone waiting was eager but patient. It was the best kind of busy you can dream of.
On a quieter day, I was able to spend more time with someone looking for books on handling bereavement, someone doing research on Internet security issues, a preschooler looking for books about “cavemen,” and an avid mystery reader in need of a new detective. Each of these had a slower pace and required more fine-tuned listening. It was also a great way to be busy.
In each case, I felt the uncertainty that comes with facing questions you didn’t get in advance, but no sense of disorder or anxiety. Each person, staff or patron, was patient and present in the process.
My dream for staff and for our system as a whole is to continue to build a culture that sees uncertainty as opportunity, not as chaos or as frightening. Uncertainty can be the best kind of motivator and the best laboratory for creativity. And really, it’s just the way things are: permanence and certainty are illusions and yearning for them inevitably disappoints and creates unhappiness.
It takes work to build the resilience, operational and experiential agility, and mutual trust that enable us to function at our best in the midst of uncertainty. If you’ve ever had that kind of work experience, you will always remember it and yearn to reach it again.
When public movements face high odds but, undaunted by uncertainty, achieve small, substantive, and decisive progress toward their goals, they are succeeding. Some will encourage the false choice that we should either define the new “reality” as sufficient victory and stop fighting or reject it as insufficient and refuse to celebrate. Neither attitude serves us well.
That our situation is uncertain is neither new nor news. Our budget is flat at best. Users’ expectations are growing. Our competition (by various definitions) is expanding. What we need is not so much to reverse those changes as to reverse their outcomes by leaning into uncertainty with shared confidence, fierce determination, and unity of purpose.
Let’s embrace uncertainty with the sense that there is no known limit to our potential, not merely that nothing is guaranteed. When you meet with our Supervisors and other stakeholders, please remind them that every success counts and that a track record of small, consistent successes has always been the hallmark of real progress. Thank you.