All things to all people: An unjust suggestion and its inverse

In a letter to the Corinthians, Paul discusses winning others to Christianity by making himself like the individuals with which he comes into contact.  “To the weak I become weak, to win the weak.  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22, NIV).  This verse was the focus of Sunday school lessons and podcast episodes of my childhood and sometimes it slips into my head when I’m at work.  Paul appears to be recommending flexibility, a quality that may as well be included in the title of Public Services Librarian.  When a student asks me to look over their citations and mentions that I might, also, read the paper to see if it makes sense – I, like many other amenable librarians (I bet), am tempted to do so.  For some, this may not be seen as a fault.  Librarians aren’t converting others to a religion, but the profession puts such a strong emphasis on service that  I often feel like I’m trying to create library converts so that the value of the institution, and essentially my role at the university, is recognized.  I submit that the ‘all things to all people’ model is alive in librarianship because it is alive in me, but this post is a reminder to myself that it is a disservice to myself and my constituents.

Most importantly, I feel like the ‘All things to all people’ model lacks integrity and is the opposite of cultural humility.  Sara Zettervall (2016) calls to librarians to stand up for the experience of others: “Our responsibility as human servants committed to social justice, whether we are social workers or librarians, is to foster awareness in ourselves that our perspective isn’t the only one and trust others when they speak about their own lives.” I am so proud to have this responsibility.  If I were to follow Paul’s example and change the components of my experience in order to connect with others I would be decreasing the importance of their experience.  Instead, I need to listen and support, provide space for other individual’s truth to be heard.  I need to recognize the authority of another’s experience and think about how their experiences have created information that is a valid, important part of the world.

‘All things to all people’ decreases the position with which I see myself.  I need to value myself enough to know my talents, interests, perspective, and schedule and allow my actions to be consequences of these components of my personality.  This will reduce burnout, increase passion, and likely increase the effectiveness of my career.

‘All things to all people’ does not allow me to exhibit inter-relational humility.  When a student requests help in an area where I am not an expert, it is my best course of action to humble myself before them and place value in their endeavor.  I can suggest additional expert resources so that they are receiving the best help and have the best chance at the best result.

I will be content with being some things to some people.  I will seek to exhibit cultural humility, relational humility, and personal strength.  This isn’t anything new, but arguing against the tired monologue in my head that tells me to try to be everything for everyone is freeing.  I needed to hear, from myself, that it is alright to direct my professional life by staying true, being honest, and placing value on both my experience and authority and the experiences and authority of others.  I am only one person, and I have the opportunity to place importance on my community by emphasizing the humility of my situation – I’m good at some things but often need to defer to others.  And, in that way, I can be a good example to all people.

Author: Jess Denke

Assessment and Outreach Librarian at Muhlenberg College

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