Your PLN: Source of Inspiration or Thief of Joy?

Long before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The more recent phrase that expresses this idea, especially as it relates to social media, is “Compare and Despair.” When we see pictures of our friends’ fabulous vacations or beautiful new homes, we feel despondent because we don’t travel as much and our perfectly nice homes are smaller and less beautifully decorated.

If you have a personal learning network (PLN) — as many educators do — you might occasionally suffer from professional “compare and despair.” Perhaps you follow one or more rock star librarians (RSLs) on social media. These RSLs might be nationally known names or they might be librarians in your district or region you know and admire. Your goal in following them is to get new ideas for your school library, and you do because these RSLs and their ideas are sources of inspiration. But sometimes, instead of feeling inspired by members of your PLN, you feel downright depressed because it seems like they are doing creative, wonderful, and exciting things in their libraries while you feel you are barely able to juggle your job responsibilities.

It happens to all of us. For example, every year I attend the Missouri Association of School Librarians Spring Conference and, let me tell you, there are lots of RSLs in Missouri. Two of them are friends of mine from the other side of the state who always present a workshop on a program, promotion, or series of lessons they offer in their library. Sometimes, while I’m sitting in their session, I think to myself, “I’m a terrible librarian compared to these two.” Now, I know I’m not a terrible librarian. I also know that my co-librarian and I offer some great opportunities to our students that my two friends don’t offer. That’s as it should be. Each school has its own culture and needs. As librarians, our goal must be to support the the needs of our patrons and the goals of our school. A successful program that addresses a need at one school might not be necessary or successful at another school. Yet, I have moments when I compare myself to other librarians and feel inferior.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had conversations with two colleagues, both outstanding and hard-working librarians who run top-notch school libraries. Both told me they feel they aren’t doing enough in their libraries. They read articles in professional journals or see posts on social media about amazing activities and programs other school librarians offer in their spaces, and they feel inadequate in comparison. As they focus on what these other librarians are doing, they seem to forget their own successes. For example, one of these colleagues does a great job advocating for libraries by serving on numerous district-level committees. The other colleague engages her elementary students by implementing creative lessons involving station activities that incorporate multiple learning styles, literature, and STEAM, allowing students make curricular connections and have fun as they learn.


If, like my two colleagues and me, you’re a successful, hard-working, and dedicated school librarian who sometimes feels like you are the “slacker librarian” in the illustration above, I’m here to offer a couple of important reminders.

First, when you look at what other librarians share, don’t compare yourself to them. Sure, they are doing wonderful work, but they are only sharing their successes. They experience failures, too, just like the rest of us. Yes, they may be offering their students an experience that you don’t, but you are providing your patrons with programs and events they aren’t. Like everyone else, you have only twenty-four hours in your day. You can’t possibly implement every program, idea, and lesson you hear about. No one can, not even the RSLs you admire.

So what if that RSL you follow on social media uses a new technology every week and you don’t? Maybe her school has a huge technology budget and yours doesn’t; you have no control over that. However, maybe you use the technology you have to create engaging and meaningful learning experiences your students love. Or, maybe you foster an amazing culture of reading in your building that gets kids excited about books. What’s important is that you are making a difference for the students you serve. That’s the goal we should all have; we don’t all have to accomplish it in exactly the same way.

Second, give yourself credit for your successes, even the ones that seem ordinary or insignificant. Did you help a teacher find a perfect resource today? If so, you’re probably a rock star to that teacher. Did a student tell you how much he loves the book he’s reading, a title that you recommended to him? If so, you’re probably a rock star to that student. Did a fellow librarian thank you for sharing an idea or lesson that she implemented successfully? If so, you’re probably a rock star to that librarian. And, even if none of those people think of you as a rock star, they undoubtedly appreciate you. Maybe you don’t consider that tweet-worthy, but it’s important and you should give yourself a little pat on the back for it.

Third, remember that your PLN and professional reading should provide a menu of options. When you look at a menu in a restaurant, you might be tempted to order five different entrees, but you don’t. You know you can’t eat that much, so you choose what’s best for you at the time or what appeals to you at that moment. If you return to the restaurant a week or month later, you might choose a different entree. The ideas you learn about from your PLN are a like entrees. You can’t tackle all of them at once. So, choose one inspiring idea, tweak it to fit your needs, and implement it. Then, at a later date, when you are hungry for a new inspiring idea, visit your PLN (or the ideas you’ve jotted down from your PLN) to select another idea.

Don’t let your PLN lead you to feelings of “compare and despair.” If you remember that even RSLs aren’t successful 100% of the time, if you spend a few moments at the end of every day reflecting on your professional successes, and if you approach the ideas shared through your PLN as an array of options, you might realize that you’re a rock star librarian, too.


Author: Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan is a librarian at Rockwood Summit High School and also serves as the Lead Librarian for the Rockwood School District. A past president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, Margaret’s professional interests include advocacy, teacher collaboration, professional development, equity, and YA literature. You can connect with her on Twitter @mm_sullivan.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Professional Development

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11 replies

  1. This is such great advice! We’re all guilty of comparing ourselves to others and it’s always great to be reminded that we need to step back and look at our achievements within the context of our individual situations. Thank you!

  2. I love this article. As someone who has been referred to as a RSL (although I’m uncomfortable with the title), I’ve fallen into the comparison game before too. It’s so easy to feel that pressure to be good at everything, especially when so many in your PLN are doing amazing things. But while makerspaces are my jam, there are other areas of librarianship that I’m not as strong at – like building collaborations with teachers and planning author visits. Meanwhile I’ve seen and met other librarians who absolutely rock these areas but struggle in others. We always want to share the awesome things that happen, not the things that are mediocre or just don’t work out. I think this is something that I need to work on.

  3. I needed to read this. I am working under an emergency certification while I complete my degree in library science. At one point I felt like I was doing the students a disservice because of what I saw other librarians doing. I know with experience comes wisdom. I have to be patient and continue to increase my PLN in order for me to grow as a librarian.

  4. I find this article problematic, though I recognize the space it’s coming from. Many if not most of us in the school library profession work almost completely alone. We don’t have colleagues in the building doing what we do, understanding the many varied responsibilities we have. Working in K-5, I teach regularly scheduled classes and share that in common with our classroom teachers, but there is so much more to my daily and weekly that no one would not if not for my want to be visible and have others know that the work I do in the library ripples out to the work being done throughout the school at large. Classroom teachers work on a team. They may compare themselves easily to their teammates or to others in the building, but that’s a little different than what’s going on in the school library. Because so many of us work alone we turn to social media as our PLN, our lifeline, our support. But, social media being what it is, we often are met with an onslaught of accomplishments and celebrations and wins. We follow people online that we find interesting or inspiring or doing things in line with what we envision for our own libraries. But I think many, myself included, struggle with creating safe boundaries on social media. The quote used, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”, feels quite passive in the context of this article. As if social media is doing this thing to you, making you feel a certain way, and that you should just look yourself in the mirror and tell yourself that you’re doing a good job and are not “a terrible librarian”. But what if the focus is turned to a different quote? Dr. Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” What if instead of checking ourselves when caught comparing we instead asked “what can I do to make this space, how I serve this population, how I make this space more inclusive, better?”. It seems to me that we all have a great deal more to gain by looking not to what others are doing that we are not, but rather what we can be doing in our own spaces to our programs and our organizations stronger given our unique skills, interests, and passions. It requires a mindset shift, but it can also yield much greater career longevity and help to avoid the ever-threatening risk of burnout.

  5. mm

    Karin and Diana, thank you for your kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

  6. Thank you for this encouragement! As a rural school librarian (rsl as opposed to RSL) I rely so much on my online PLN for continuing ed and growth.

    One way that I manage compare and despair are lists in Twitter. I have a techie list, a leader list, a boarding school library list, and one I call sympatico. Sympatico is the list of librarians and educators that are closest to my educational philosophy. When I need inspiration I go straight to this list.

  7. mm

    I love your list idea, Hannah! I save tweets from my PLN in Google Keep for future reference. You’ve given me an excellent idea for how to organize them.

  8. mm

    Nikki, I’m glad that as a new librarian you are working on your library science degree and that already have a PLN you are trying to grow! Focus on meeting the needs of your students and choose ideas from your PLN you believe will help you do that.

    I like your comment, “I know with experience comes wisdom.” I think you are making a point similar to the one Matthew is making with the Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

  9. Margaret, wonderful words of inspiration. It seems that many librarians are often reluctant to recognize their own expertise, leadership, and amazing work. They see it as “doing their job” and not worthy of recognition. So when librarians who are not so shy come along, they seem to be doing so much more. Not true at all!

    I think we need to celebrate how so many of us are kicking but as an #EveryDayLibrarian getting the job done in amazing individual ways. For every $10k makerspace grant winner, I know there are dozens of librarians who have been quietly changing lives and building a culture of love, respect, and making with cardboard, yarn, and other found materials. No matter how much money you throw at a problem, if you don’t end up with a positive culture nothing will stick.

  10. Thank you! I needed to read this today. :)

  11. mm

    Christopher, thank you. I agree with your comments, especially “if you don’t end up with a positive culture nothing will stick.”

    Thanks, Amy. It sounds like the article resonated with you, and I’m glad.

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