Perspective and Doing Good Work

Paul Farmer speaks at IDEO by Global X / CC-BY

“Paul Farmer speaks at IDEO” photo by Flickr user Global X (CC BY 2.0)

This post is adapted from a speech I gave at Drexel University’s Beta Phi Mu initiation on December 6, 2011. The text of the original is available on Scribd, and a video of my speech, which includes a brief introduction by Helen Snowden is available on Vimeo.


Greek Picnic is a reunion and gathering of the alumni and current members of the nine historically African-American fraternities and sororities. It was first celebrated in Philadelphia in 1974, where it has been celebrated every year since. For most of its history it was a well attended event, but in the mid-1990s it got to be really big. I’ve read estimates that 100,000 people would register and another 100,000–200,000 would attend some events around the city during Greek Week each July.

The City of Philadelphia didn’t seem to know what to do with this sudden influx of college students and alumni. It seemed like they just wanted to drink and party all night, and most Philadelphians seemed to see the situation as a public safety issue that should be handed over to the police. Businesses would close for the week and gate their doors and windows, so each night bored students and alumni would cruise up and down Broad Street and South Street. Sometimes things got out of hand.

What do you do with a bunch of people who just want to drink and party all night?

Which leads to my first point: Perspective.

So you have this annual crush of African-American fraternity and sorority members and alumni who want to drink and party all night. You know who else likes to drink and party all night?


If you’re unfamiliar with the Mummers parade, think of it as Philadelphia’s version of the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade, only it’s held on New Year’s Day. Philadelphia hasn’t always handled its relationship with the Mummers as well as it should, but on the whole we do pretty well. I think most Philadelphians agree that New Year’s Day wouldn’t be the same without boisterous people in feathers strutting down Broad Street playing banjos.

You know another group that just likes to drink and party all night?

Delegates at political conventions.

Around the same time the City had no idea what to do with all these college students and alumni who visited us each July, we were getting ready to host the 2000 Republican National Convention, the one where George W. Bush was nominated for the first time. We were building hotels and fixing up the Convention Center. Just across the Delaware River, New Jersey was rebuilding Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden.

The Republican National Convention lasted four days, from July 31 until August 3, and then everyone went home. Which is what you would expect. You don’t get to be a delegate without putting down roots. It’s not like the delegates were going to spend three or four nights in Philadelphia, fall in love with the city, and decide to relocate.

You know who does that? College students. When I was a first-year undergraduate at Rutgers, one of my friends from summer camp came up to visit me for a few days. I introduced him to my friends, we went to my classes together, and he transferred to Rutgers from Virginia Tech and became my college roommate.

I realize that’s just one data point. Here’s another. One winter break, I went out to visit a friend in Albuquerque. He showed me around and I fell in love with the place and resolved to move there as soon as I could. Within a couple of years I had graduated from Rutgers, packed everything I owned in my new Saturn, and I had an apartment in Albuquerque and a job at Page One Bookstore.

That’s the kind of thing college students will do. And that’s exactly what Philadelphia needed in the mid-1990’s. Its population had been declining for decades. There were thousands of abandoned houses all over the city that would eventually get bulldozed. Students at Drexel and Penn and Temple and all of its other schools would leave the moment they graduated.

The City of Philadelphia should have realized those hundreds of thousands of college students and alumni coming to Greek Picnic every July could help to revitalize things. Government officials should have been working with employers and real estate agents and mortgage brokers and sports teams and musicians and dance clubs and theaters and restaurants and everyone else who could have made them feel like VIPs. Instead, Philadelphia treated them like criminals. And Greek Picnic got smaller again.

It could have been racism that clouded Philadelphia’s perspective. But that doesn’t explain Love Park.

Love Park, which is about a block from City Hall, has been internationally recognized for almost two decades as one of the world’s truly legendary skate parks. It was the main reason Philadelphia was chosen as the site for the 2001 and 2002 X Games. So what did Philadelphia do? It started enforcing a ban on skateboarding in Love Park.

A group called Friends of Love Park proposed a popular solution that would have kept certain paths clear for pedestrians and only allowed skating after 3:00 p.m. on weekdays. A company out of California called DC Shoes offered the City a $1 million donation if it backed the plan. The City turned it down.

Again, we have this dying city with a steadily declining economy and population. As with the sudden popularity of Greek Picnic in the mid-90’s, through no planning of its own, Philadelphia got a fantastic opportunity to become younger and hipper and economically stronger. And we blew it.

I don’t mean to pick on Philadelphia. We also have examples of stepping back, getting a better perspective, and making great decisions. The Free Library’s turned its “homeless problem” into one of its greatest successes by partnering with Project H.O.M.E. Now the library’s bathrooms and its cafe are among the nicest in the city and, just as significantly, formerly homeless workers have good jobs and new skills.

Another reason not to pick on the City of Philadelphia is that all of us occasionally need help with our perspective. Drexel, for instance, specifically its library school.

Can you name the most famous and historically significant graduate of the Drexel library program?

Barbara Rose Johns Powell.

It’s a little bit of a trick question, because she’s not famous for what she did after she graduated. She’s famous for what she did before. That’s a point I always try to make to library students and new librarians, and to anyone thinking about going to library school. What you do before you get your library degree matters, which is one of the reasons ALA only accredits Masters-level programs. You’re expected to have worked a bit before becoming a librarian, at the very least as an undergraduate, and ideally a bit after as well. For instance, I was a fundraiser and web developer before I went to library school. Those skills helped me get my current job and I still use them all the time.

So here’s what Barbara Rose Johns Powell did before she went to library school.

She helped end segregation in this country.

Seriously. Barbara Rose Johns attended a segregated high school in Farmville, Virginia. On April 23, 1951, she led her classmates in a strike to protest the school’s inadequate conditions. She had turned 17 only one month earlier and was a junior in high school, which didn’t stop her from convincing her classmates’ parents to support the strike. She also went to the NAACP and persuaded them to provide legal assistance. Three years later, in 1954, Farmville’s was one of the five cases the Supreme Court considered in Brown v. Board of Education when it ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.

After marrying Reverend William Powell, and after Drexel, Barbara Rose Johns Powell worked as a school librarian in the Philadelphia public school system (she was admitted to Drexel on September 27, 1976, and was awarded her Master of Science on June 2, 1979). For her, working as a school librarian wasn’t all that different from what she’d done as a high school student. For her it was all about education. She was born on March 6, 1934, and died on September 25, 1991, just 57 years old.

How cool would it have been to have her as your school librarian? Mrs. Powell, can you help me with my paper on racism? Can you help me get over my fear of public speaking?

I also like to imagine her getting called in for one of those interrogations last spring led by attorneys from the Los Angeles Unified School District. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “A court reporter takes down testimony. A judge grants or denies objections from attorneys. Armed police officers hover nearby. On the witness stand, one librarian at a time is summoned to explain why she—the vast majority are women—should be allowed to keep her job.” Can you imagine Barbara Rose Johns Powell on the witness stand?

Mrs. Powell, can you tell us what you contribute to student education? What have you done to improve educational outcomes?

I think those Los Angeles lawyers would have had a pretty difficult time pushing Mrs. Powell aside. Unfortunately, that’s sort of what Drexel has done. Those of us who want to change librarianship for the better, and see librarianship as our best chance to change the world for the better, have a role model in Barbara Rose Johns Powell. I’d like to see Drexel start celebrating its connection to her sensibility and her legacy. I’d like to see the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians do the same.

So that’s perspective in the abstract. Let’s bring it home. What does all this talk about perspective have to do with you?

We’re in a rough economy. It’s a tight job market. Libraries are in transition. Google and Amazon and ebooks, oh my. The sky is falling.

That’s one way to look at it. As you might imagine, at least for you, I don’t see any of these situations as bad things.

Public libraries are counter-cyclical. Higher education is counter-cyclical. In a down economy, people use public libraries more. They go back to school. Transitions are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to make a real and lasting difference. For instance, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement was originally issued in 1953, during the time the case initiated by Barbara Rose Johns was working its way through the Federal Courts. Change was in the air, just like it is now.

Which leads me to my second point: No one can stop you from doing good work.

Getting a good job and doing good work are not the same thing. They’re correlated. But it’s not clear to me which is the cause and which is the effect.

Here’s how I describe my decision to become a librarian. If I could help end deaths associated with HIV, if I thought I had the ability to further the research or reduce the harm caused by the virus, that’s what I would be doing. But I’m squeamish, vegan, and not the least bit handy. So I do what I can to help people, and I try very hard to take my work just as seriously as someone whose work contributes more directly to public health. This is what I have to contribute.

Paul Farmer didn’t have to become a librarian because he’s amazingly good at keeping healthy people healthy and helping sick people become as healthy as possible. As with Barbara Rose Johns Powell, I’m not comparing myself to Paul Farmer. But both of them are role models for me, and I hope they’ll be role models for you as well.

When Paul Farmer was in medical school at Harvard, he started working in Haiti, then the poorest country in the world. His efforts were small at first, given that he was just one person doing what he could, plus he had to divide his time between Haiti and Boston, generally six months a year in each. When he was in Boston he would borrow medicine and resources, and recruit people to help him, and slowly he built the nonprofit he founded, Partners in Health, into one of the world’s most significant international health and social justice organizations. If you gave to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, there’s a good chance you donated to Partners in Health. It’s also a great place to donate if you’d like to help people in Lesotho, Malawi, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, the United States, the Dominican Republic, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Guatemala, or Burundi. I strongly encourage you to read a book that Tracy Kidder wrote about Paul Farmer called Mountains Beyond Mountains. It tells Farmer’s story really well, and it also makes you want to to good work. And it helps you realize there’s nothing stopping you from doing it.

So what do I mean by good work? Here are my three ideals for good work:

  1. You feel so passionate about it that it doesn’t feel like work.
  2. It does so much good for other people that you can’t help but feel good about yourself for having done it.
  3. It gives you a chance to work with people you admire.

I’ve been really fortunate to work on a lot of different projects and with a lot of different groups that meet those criteria. I worked on an open source project when I was a library student at Drexel. I helped found In the Library with the Lead Pipe, and I wrote for Library Journal and ACRLog. In the last two years I’ve worked on a couple of ALA Presidential Task Forces, and even chaired one. I’ve served on a few boards for library organizations. I’m in a calendar called Men of the Stacks that’s raising money for the It Gets Better Project to help end bullying. And, of course, I’ve gotten to help a lot of people at the libraries where I’ve worked.

Some of those things have depended on other people either hiring or electing or choosing me, but a lot of them didn’t.  And I feel like I see new projects all the time that I’d work on if I had the time or that I wish I’d thought of or that I’m glad someone else is doing.

  • The Library As Incubator Project, a new project that highlights the way artists and libraries can work together. It was started by three students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison program.
  • The Hack Library School movement is fantastic, and has accomplished an amazing amount in just over a year.
  • ALA Think Tank, an open group on Facebook, has a lot of energy and ideas, and its members #makeithappen.
  • I would love to take part in anything related to the Digital Public Library of America. One option would be to get involved as an editor at Library News, a new community like Reddit or Hacker News that’s devoted to libraries.
  • I’m also really excited about Gluejar, a company that’s working with authors to get them to release electronic versions of their books with Creative Commons licenses. Founder Eric Hellman has already hired recent library graduate and budding library superstar, Andromeda Yelton, and he appears to have some sort of working relationship with Library of Congress librarian/programmer Ed Summers as well.
  • Code4lib, an anarcho-democratic community of programmers who work with libraries, is the most interesting thing happening in the library world, and I definitely recommend that you become a part of it in a way that suits you.
  • The Open Shelves Classification project is still looking for someone to lead its attempt to compete with Dewey, LC, and BISAC.  They got a lot accomplished a couple of years ago, but they’ve been dormant for a little while. If you want to prove yourself as a cataloger, that’s a great way to get started.
  • Among the newer open source library projects to watch are the eXtensible Catalog at the University of Rochester and the Kuali OLE project that has a bunch of sponsors and partners. And there are another dozen or so library related open source projects that are worth learning and helping to develop or document.

What’s most exciting is that I’m just scratching the surface. There are so many things that are right about libraries today, but there are innumerable things that could be improved. And there’s nothing stopping you from doing it. Whether you have a job lined up already or you have no idea where your next job is going to be, I hope you’ll devote yourself to finding problems you’re passionate about solving, people you’re passionate about helping, and a community of like-minded peers. You just have to look at things from a useful perspective and commit to spending your time doing work that doesn’t feel like work.

It took me a long time to find work that met all of those criteria. I tried a lot of things before I went to library school. As much as I’ve been trying to do it for the previous 3,000 words, I’m not sure I’m capable of expressing how grateful I am to have found librarianship, or how grateful I am to have colleagues and peers like you as readers and, more importantly, as collaborators. The librarians I’ve met in the last few years are the smartest, kindest, most helpful people I’ve ever worked with, and I can’t thank them enough for all the opportunities they’ve given me, for how much they’ve helped me to gain a sensible perspective on how best to approach problems, and how to go about doing good work. I wish the same for you for the remainder of your career and for the rest of your life.

Thanks to Sarah Houghton, Phyllis Bonfield, and Jeffrey Bonfield, and to my Lead Pipe colleagues, Ellie Collier, Erin Dorney, Hilary Davis, and Emily Ford for their help. Thanks also to Terri Breitenstine at the Office of the University Registrar at Drexel University for confirming Barbara Rose Johns Powell’s enrollment and graduation information.