#151: Librarians are superheroes

When I was a child, my parents had a friend who visited most Decembers. Over the years it became customary that I was given time to ask in detail about her year, how she’d spent her budget, and what acquisitions she’d planned for the next. She was a librarian. It seemed to me that she owned the universe.

A few years ago, I walked into Cape Town’s public library, stopped, and smiled. The librarians’ t-shirts declared “The Original Google”. Exactly.

The best librarians are those that conjure book towers on the whisper of a word. Curators of a world woven together by threads that only they can see, simultaneously idiosyncratic to them and meaningful to the reader.

They’re the ones that before you’ve finished “Could you recommend something like…” they’re striding through the stacks, a curt ‘follow me’ pulling you in tow, whilst their hands – seemingly without looking – snare books, constructing and intuiting the answer to your question, a question that you know only partially represents your hope.

To be a librarian is to be immersed in knowledge, it is to be a pattern maker, it is to be able to blend the familiar to give the reader courage and the unfamiliar to inspire them into learning to be a better, richer human.

But as master strategist, Jim Collins, and the 20th-century’s greatest economist, John Maynard Keynes, teach us, the librarian’s ability to see the whole is essential not just in the library, but in the world – to understand how to build businesses, to understand how to transform economies and society.

/ strategy – read fewer management books

To be a better leader, read fewer management books.

That’s the advice of one of the world’s leading business strategists, the author of multiple business best-sellers, and advisor to some of the world’s largest business, Jim Collins (the New York Times tells us that companies pay Collins $60,000 for two half-day strategy sessions. And that was back in 2009!)

He says, “Executives should read fewer management books…only one book in 20 should be a business book”.

But this is not an anti-reading rant. Collins, after all, describes Winston Churchill’s 5,000-page, six volume autobiography as the best book on leadership he’s ever read. I’ve never read a 5,000-page book. Not ever. Probably never.

He tells us that the greatest leaders have often gotten their best insights by reading outside their primary field and that it is the best way to improve our leadership skills. He advises us to read widely with the intent to understand our world.

After all, to lead, and to live, is to be human with other humans, mostly in organisations, located in history, in a natural world, in the cosmos, all whilst being material, spiritual, psychological, neurological, and biological beings that ought to relate to other beings a bit better. It is complex stuff. The more we understand, the better we are placed to have impact.

This is his recommended reading list. You’ll be astounded by its breadth.

If you have a moment, I’d love to know which non-business books have most strongly influenced your leadership.

// self – reject specialization

John Kenneth Galbraith’s essay calls Keynes the “most influential economist of this century and, with Smith, Marx, and possibly Ricardo, one of the three or four greatest economists who ever lived”.

Galbraith tells us “Keynes rejected specialization” and “In no necessary order of importance his pursuits included the following: his public career in the treasury during two wars; his long association with King’s College, Cambridge… speculation with his own money, at first disastrous, then remunerative; the chairmanship of a major insurance company; journalism… his interest in agriculture and particularly pig farming…” and “though much else might be mentioned, there were his books”.

Whilst other economists fiddled with one or other part of economic or social life, Keynes read, lived, and thought broadly.

His knowledge, drawn from multiple domains, enabled him to see what others missed. His drive was not towards “professional simplification and classroom convenience” but improving the overall effectiveness of systems.

(Think about this in your own business, how often do territorial disputes reduce overall effectiveness?)

His book, General Theory, upended widely held consensus about how the economy functioned.

Galbraith tells us his conclusions were only possible because of his ‘eclecticism’ and had he been a ‘serious specialist’, he would have merely replicated versions that were incorrect.

Galbraith concludes, “Whatever the case in other disciplines, there can be no doubt that, in economics, specialization is the parent not only of boredom but also of irrelevance and error. Certainly, this is so in all practical matters. Widespread influences, many of them from far outside the ‘field’ as it is commonly defined for classroom convenience, bear on every important economic decision”.

There’s a lot in those three sentences. Read them again.

Too narrow a lens on anything will lead to boredom, irrelevance, and error, so connect and collaborate, listen, and learn.

/// soul – the brain of a librarian is a capacious place

In Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts, librarians connect more than people with books. They are quiet guerrillas working in the crevices of a totalitarian state weaving compassionate connection through a world ruled by fear.

Like Keynes, like Collins, they know the power of connection. In this world, connections are forbidden, indeed destroyed.

Ng’s book starts when Noah Gardner, receives a cryptic message from someone that he thinks may be his mother, the person who had – years earlier – ostensibly abandoned him and his father.

As he tries to decode it, he reflects “She was always doing that, telling him stories. Prying open cracks for magic to seep in, making the world a place of possibility”.

Noah, known as Bird, is a twelve-year-old Chinese American. He lives in a world shadowed by the Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act (PACT). An act that allows for the forcible removal of children from families deemed to be dissidents.

Noah’s mother is an accidental activist, a poet whose words unintentionally become a protest calling card. Activism is, initially, something that happens to her. Repression accelerates her transformation. She leaves her family to protect them.

In this world, books are dangerous.

Bird’s father, once a linguist, now shelving books in a university library, takes him to work, “Bird passes shelf after shelf, slotting his fingers into the spaces, where removed books once stood. There are fewer missing here than at the public library, where some shelves had been more gap than books. But still nearly every shelf is missing one, sometimes more. He wonders who decided which books were too dangerous to keep, and who it was that had to hunt down and collect the condemned books, like an executioner, ferrying them to their doom.”

In a later scene, Bird asks a librarian where the books have gone, she responds “We pulp them, much more civilized, right? Mash them up, recycle them into toilet paper. Those books wiped someone’s rear end a long time ago.”

Forcible adoptions. Destroyed books. Ng’s genius is in evoking close-by terrors, reminding us how easily they could return.

In her telling, the librarians are silent dissidents, helping families find their stolen children.

“All over the country, a scattered network of librarians would note this information, collating it with the Rolodex in their minds, cross-referencing it with the re-placed children they might have learned about. Some kept a running written list, but most, wary, simply trusted to memory. An imperfect system, but the brain of a librarian was a capacious place. Each of them had reasons of their own for taking this risk, and though most of them would never share these reasons with the others, would never even meet them face-to-face, all of them shared the same desperate hope of making a match, of sending a note back, sandwiched between pages, with a child’s new location.”

I wish you a week of curiosity about the world; let the magic seep in and possibilities unfold.

Pause here. Who are the people who have expanded your world? Take a moment today to thank them, they’ll appreciate it.

All the best


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