Gavia Libraria

When heroes fall

’Tis better to be a live dog than a dead Loon—er, lion1. Yet another of the things they (we, now, the Loon supposes) don’t tell you in library school is that you may actually have to make the choice.

Sometimes “the worst that could happen” is damnably, grievously bad. Sometimes you’re not the protagonist, you’re not Achilles. You, too, can be Hector, bidding everyone you love farewell to walk calmly to your own death-battle, after which your mutilated corpse will be gleefully dragged around by the hair in the dust of your murderer’s chariot… all because of larger fights you didn’t even pick, but found yourself enmeshed in anyway.

Your shade will then spend its Letheless afterlife wondering what the hell you could, should, have done to avoid that fate. Moreover, it’s not exactly a comfort that Aeneas will go on to found Rome; you’re still dead in a ditch, Hector.

That is the worst that could happen. Does happen. Has happened.

The Loon is of course talking about herself, haunted shade that she is. She isn’t only talking about herself, though. She remembers a conversation she had with her duly-assigned new-employee mentor, once long ago. The Loon explained that she was feeling constricted, blocked, unable to accomplish anything for lack of resources and lack of autonomy. Her mentor nodded sadly, and brought up a recently-retired librarian who had pioneered a different service area. “She spent thirty years fighting for that,” said the Loon’s mentor. And didn’t actually get anywhere much, the environment being as deeply and essentially hostile as it was, was the left-unspoken subtext.

In hindsight, that’s when the Loon should have started making escape plans. Instead, she told herself she could be a hero. After many a clash and fray, she lost her death-battle. Even now, the victors gloat; the Loon’s no fool, she knows that. She should have cut her losses much earlier than she did. She’s not a hero because she didn’t, and her reasons for eventually doing so aren’t “excuses” (the only moment in which the Loon violently disagreed with Rogers’s otherwise-excellent series). What she is, because she didn’t cut and run soon enough? Is broken, that’s what.

The cohort of librarians the Loon fell in with as she started her career—many of them as new as the Loon herself, some of them well-seasoned, all of them smart and thoughtful and forward-looking—would make an interesting study. A substantial portion of them have joined the librarian exodus to vendors, to consulting, to IT, to ed-tech, to publishing, to any number of places that aren’t the library. How many of them lost their death-battles too?

It’s easy to frame that exodus in terms of individual failures, and in the Loon’s specific case that’s well-warranted. (The Loon has spent a lot of time in the Letheless afterlife, self-recriminating. Be glad she’s kept that off-blog. It’s not pretty.) The aforementioned recently-retired librarian, however, was a paragon, to the Loon’s best knowledge. The larger pattern therefore warrants scrutiny. The Loon finds that pattern rather hopeful for librarians, rather less hopeful for libraries.

If we can’t defend Troy, we’ll found Rome. Perhaps the topless tow’rs of Ilium are indeed past their useful life as configured, but they are too hard for even Hector the hero to rebuild from within. Very well. Let us see what sort of tent-city we can erect between the walls and the sea.

The Loon hasn’t any sage advice for fallen heroes—the most she dares do in the daily run of things is warn students gently that some heroes do fall—nor does she think herself any sort of model for the ideal afterlife. All she can say for herself is that she’s still swimming, though she misses her old ponds. She’ll close, then, with all the advice she has, and it’s poor enough:

The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing—for the sheer fun and joy of it—to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.

—I.F. Stone

  1. After Ecclesiastes 9:4

11 thoughts on “When heroes fall

  1. Stephen Francoeur

    I wonder if as a profession we librarians are in any dramatically worse spot than those in other professions. I’m afraid that I only have anecdata to offer, but I know that of the dozens of my colleagues who started out with me in the book publishing industry here in NYC right out of college in the late 80s/early 90s, only a handful remain there; many of us went to to be librarians, teachers, lawyers, etc. And I don’t have nearly enough fingers to count my friends in the financial services industry here in NYC that have been burned out or fired.

    BTW, the I.F. Stone quotation is great, although I’m afraid that if I put it on my door as I’d like to I’d be asking for grief.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Perhaps not, indeed. The Loon does find some consolation in failing at something that was intrinsically morally/ethically worthwhile; it’s that much less to reproach herself with.

  2. Sometime Lion

    I don’t think your mentor gets to sit in anonymous judgment over the accomplishments of others. Maybe in casual conversation, but not in a public forum. To me, this 30-year person was more of an Achilles, as evidenced by accolades outside the library and influence over long-term vision.

    There is no shame in leaving the library and no payoff in spending decades as a martyr. I’ve been a big supporter of yours. But it takes incredible perseverance to change culture, and if someone else does it, let’s give respect where it’s due. I think you need to look at the bigger picture on this particular issue (as well as a few others). For your students, many of whom will be entering these environments.

    Not intending to take you on personally, just this particular example. And I’m urging that we model the kind of discourse we’d prefer to see in the world (I mean library).

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      On rereading, the Loon finds that she has traduced the emotional tenor of that conversation, for which she apologizes. Neither she nor her mentor had anything but sincere and affectionate respect for the 30-year veteran, who was a damn good (and damn tough) librarian.

      But she wasn’t Achilles. Achilles won. Good and tough though that veteran was, she lost. The service area she represented is to this day a disregarded, underresourced backwater in that particular library system. That’s assuredly not the veteran’s fault! But it’s still true.

      Sometimes heroes don’t win. Sometimes that means nobody does. The Loon isn’t sure how we ameliorate that truth without first acknowledging it… so in that sense, she is modeling the kind of discourse she would prefer to see.

      Thanks for commenting, by the way.

    2. LibraryLoon Post author

      The Loon added a clause and a sentence to (with luck) clarify the story as it deserves.

      1. Sometime Lion

        Thanks. Maybe “won” is hyperbolic, but I think the reality is that we work toward an ideal. But having lost very big a few times, I know it when I see it, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

        1. LibraryLoon Post author

          Intermediate wins do sometimes happen; they even managed to happen to the Loon, once or twice. When they keep good people going, that’s inspiring! But the Loon still hurts when good people can’t capitalize better on their accomplishments because their environments won’t let them.

  3. CB

    All I can say is thank you. When that other blogger asked, “what’s the worse that could happen?” I had similar thoughts. Why do they always ask that, as if somehow the worse could not happen? Or if it did, no big deal? Anyhow, you have said much that I have pondered now and then but can’t say.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      In fairness, Rogers was not speaking to heroes. Also, keynote addresses are their own weird genre, to whose conventions she was faithfully adhering.

    2. Jenica

      I would also note that I propose that after identifying the worst, you assess whether or not you can bear, handle, or deal with that. If the answer is no, then there’s too much risk. If the answer is yes, then … why say no?

      I’m not so naive as to think that the worst never happens. I’m just suggesting that we actively and thoughtfully analyze what the worst is before we make our choices. Because, as I said and the Loon elaborates, sometimes the worst is BAD.