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Reflection vs. Urgency

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

I opened Outlook this morning, as I do every morning, to check my email. As I scroll through my inbox past publisher spam, updates from the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed, and calendar invitations I see emails with words like ASAP, URGENT, IMPORTANT, FEEDBACK NEEDED, DEADLINE, etc. There is a strong sense of urgency in each of these VERY IMPORTANT emails that upon close reading, as really just questions. They are questions that people would like answers to, and, in some cases, might even need, but they are often phrased as demands that are URGENT URGENT URGENT. So I slowly triage my email, determining what actually needs my immediate attention, sorting messages into folders, and getting ready to reply with calm, polite, measured responses. What I really want to do is clear all messages from my inbox and blast myself into the sun but that is neither safe nor productive. The sun seems like a poor choice of a vacation spot.

I am struck by how much of our jobs as librarians is shaped by the urgency of a few–the class that needs to happen on Friday, the reference question that needs to be answered ASAP, the professor who needs their materials yesterday–rather than the needs of our greater community. As a profession we pride ourselves on embracing reflective practice, that set of questioning, thinking, and shaping future action that we know will help us improve our teaching and research. We encourage students to take their time and think through their work because we know that thoughtful research is better research, but we often practice the complete opposite. There are moments, despite our best efforts at intentionality and reflection, where we have to simply react react react. And where does that leave us? It leaves me feeling exhausted, emotionally and mentally drained, and prone to making mistakes and bad judgement calls.

I try to offer others the benefit of the doubt, and remind myself of the concept coined by Harriet Schwartz, “asymmetrical primacy,” which is the difference in weight/importance that people place on the same interaction. Schwartz writes about visiting her doctor as an important moment where she would like the doctor’s full attention; but for the doctor, Schwartz is one of many patients they see throughout the day. The person messaging me with a strong sense of urgency may indeed see that email to me as extremely important, while to me, that message is just one of dozens that claim equal importance. They turn into background noise. The chorus of URGENT URGENT URGENT constantly playing in my head all day long. When things get that noisy it’s almost impossible to sit and just think, much less reflect.

I do, however, have sympathy for the ASAP email crowd. This is a big university and a large library and they have likely learned that the only emails and phone calls that garner a response are those that are urgent, or threatening, or desperate. I get it. I really do. But it doesn’t make those emails any less exhausting. So how do I/we balance the urgency of demands against the need to reflect and spend time thinking about our work? I am fortunate enough to work in place that values time spent thinking and planning, so I know that I have administrative support to set aside so-called urgencies for a time. I try to encourage my team to do the same. Yes, it will upset some people, and lead to more follow up phone calls than we care to answer, but if we don’t take time to think, reflect, and plan, our work suffers. Urgency is the enemy of good work in librarianship and I wish we would push back against the urge to react and instead spend time reflecting, planning, and creating change.

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