Being Open-Minded: A post career reflection

Leigh Hallingby

by Leigh

In September 2014, I retired from a satisfying 36-year library career which began in January 1979. I felt truly fortunate to have been employed all those years in a series of five traditional information profession positions after I finished my MLS degree at the School of Library Service at Columbia University in December 1978.  All of my jobs were with non-profit organizations. I spent the last 20 years at the Open Society Foundations (OSF), the grant-making institution of the financier and philanthropist George Soros. The Open Society Foundations was an amazing place to work in every respect, from the mission, ambiance, and quality of my co-workers, to employee benefits, opportunities for professional travel, and much more.

As I look back on my career, I often wonder why I had the good fortune to be constantly employed at interesting organizations that were doing important work? I am surely no more or less smart than the next person. I think that I was often just plain lucky to be in the right place at the right time. However, there is one quality that I am willing to give myself credit for, and which I think stood me in really good stead in terms of the positions that I sought and held. This was being open-minded. Open-mindedness played a role in several ways.

First, there was open-mindedness in terms of the subject matter of the libraries where I worked and my willingness to deal with loaded topics. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (SIECUS) hired me right out of library school to set up a library on sex education and all aspects of human sexuality. I was offered a position there way back in 1979 (only ten years post Stonewall) when attitudes about human sexuality were not as enlightened as they are today. As it turned out, I loved my nine years at SIECUS and learned so much while I was there. My knowledge about human sexuality was continually expanded, and the attitudes that I was brought up with were constantly challenged. I moved on from SIECUS to two non-controversial organizations: the National Center for Children in Poverty, for three years, and then the Psychology Library at Columbia, for two years. Then in 1992, the opportunity to deal with another loaded topic presented itself in the form of a position setting up and managing a new library for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), where I ended up spending three years. Toward the end of my time there, I was presented with the opportunity to set up and manage another new library on drug use and abuse, this time for the drug policy reform project at the Open Society Foundations. These hot button topics of sexuality and drugs may not be for everyone. Being open to them was the key to the two best and longest positions of my career: SIECUS from 1979-1987 and the Open Society Foundations from 1995-2014.

Second, there was open-mindedness about working on different sides of the same issue. My first drug and alcohol library position, with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, landed me at an organization which generally supports U.S. government policy on drugs, which includes “The War on Drugs” and the “Just Say No” campaign. While I was employed there, I was unexpectedly approached by a staff member named Ethan from the Open Society Foundations asking if I might be interested in talking to him about setting up new a library on drug use and abuse for the OSF’s drug policy reform initiative.

Specifically, Ethan’s project would involve looking at alternatives to US government drug policy. When Ethan approached me in the summer of 1994, the nuances of drug policy reform were mostly not well understood by the general public, myself included. A popular and simplistic view of drug policy reform at the time was that it is a campaign to “legalize drugs.” In fact, drug policy reform involves a whole array of policies which fall under the general heading of “harm reduction” and include methadone maintenance, needle exchange, and decriminalization of marijuana. I was not remotely sophisticated about any of this then. Nonetheless, I decided that both sides of the drug policy debate need good information on which to base their opinions, and decided to proceed with an interview.

Third, there was open-mindedness about exploring a professional opportunity that was presented to me out of the blue when I was not even looking for a job. Ethan approached me unexpectedly at a time when I felt content at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Also, George Soros and the OSF did not have nearly the high profile in 1994 that they do now, and I had actually never heard of Mr. Soros. The path of least resistance would have been to turn down the opportunity to explore with Ethan the position at the Open Society Foundations. But mercifully, I decided that there could be no disadvantage in examining another employment option.

It turns out that the decision to talk to Ethan was one of the best that I ever made in my information professional career and, in fact, in my life. The drug policy reform librarian spot was fascinating and rewarding in itself, and morphed eventually into my being head librarian for the whole Open Society Foundations. Ultimately, deciding to talk with Ethan gave me the opportunity to move from a series of four previous positions in single issue libraries to being librarian for a huge international foundation dealing with a vast array of fascinating and important issues. Talk about learning and expanding my mind — I was off on a two-decade journey of MUCH more of that. Actually, I cannot even bear to think how my librarian career might have turned out had I not “just said yes” to talking to Ethan about going to work at the OSF!

So open-mindedness turned out to be the key for me to an interesting and satisfying career. I am grateful to have had the wonderful information professional positions that I held and also grateful that my mind was open to them as they came along.