Volunteering at the 18th National Book Festival

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Meeting Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Meeting Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the festival.

This year marks my tenth anniversary with both LAC Federal and the National Book Festival.  In that decade at the festival, I have been everything from an information booth attendant to a “bouncer” at the children’s stage preventing overeager parents from sneaking their children backstage to meet the talent.  Despite protestations that they were the author’s long-lost roommate’s second cousin’s girlfriend, I had to turn them all away.

The last decade has taught me much not just about the information profession, but also about leadership.  Ten years ago, I was a library technician just starting my Master’s in Library and Information Science program at the University of Maryland, College Park.  Since then I have graduated, managed teams of dozens of librarians and technicians, worked with multiple federal libraries and served as a proposal manager, a contract manager and everything in between.

I bring this up because I have found in my life that our past sets the parameters through we experience the present.  Robert Frost noted that we cannot return to the decisions of the past, for “way leads on to way.”  Historian Philippe Ariès said that the past is an ever-receding sea that leaves its traces and patterns on the shore of the present.  The festival and I have grown up together, and each year as I learn, my experience at the festival is shaped by experience in the previous year.

This year, I was privileged to be an usher to the main stage where the festival puts their “rockstars.”  My primary duty was to stand at the doors to the 3rd-floor ballroom and direct attendees where to sit and then close the door once we reached capacity.  I suspect they gave me this because at 6’ 2”, I look much more intimidating than I genuinely am.  The lineup was Dave Eggers, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, memoirist Amy Tan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and journalist/historian Jon Meacham.

I suspect that if you polled the audiences, they would each find different themes that spoke to them based on their own lives. For me, the inescapable topic was leadership, not just in the author’s words, but in my experience as a volunteer and my decade of service with LAC Federal.  Multiple authors spoke about their own experiences as leaders or, in the case of historians Goodwin and Meacham, the common traits of the leaders they studied.  Goodwin, in her study of Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Lyndon Johnson said the great leaders shared certain common traits: empathy, humility, humor, and communication.  Meacham had a similar list adding curiosity.

In my own life and career, I have found these all to be true, but I would add that good leaders are also teachers in both word and example.  As the leader goes, so goes the team.  Those we lead look to us to see how to behave.  Ethical, hardworking leadership attracts and inspires ethical, hardworking teams.  I learned quickly as a manager at the Library of Congress that every action I took was a signal to my team on how to act both for good and bad.  An empathetic understanding of those we lead, a certain curiosity and humility to learn and grow, and the ability to communicate clearly the goals we are pursuing and the method we will take to get there are essential for successful leadership.  This is true whether we are organizing 1,200 volunteers to pull off a book festival with 200,000 attendees or managing a team of technicians performing quality control of library records.

Jonathan Barney

Jonathan Barney

VP of Capture and Proposal Development at LAC Federal.
Jonathan Barney

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