Anonymous Rex

Emily Ford over at In the Library with the Lead Pipe has written what I think is a fascinating article on anonymous professional librarian discourse. She takes the position of being against the practice for a lot of sensible reasons: one cannot judge the credentials of the author, no professional ramifications for their words, and the vitriol that can sometimes spew forth from such anonymous prose. These are pretty sound evaluation criterions for judging the work as it is presented and its context. Where I differ from Mrs. Ford is with her conclusion that undisclosed publication being the “last resort” of professional librarian discourse.

If you have this well established reasoning basis in place, then to me it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are surrounding the undisclosed authorship. I think that of all people librarians should have a finely tuned (for lack of a better phrase) bullshit detector. Information appraisal is one of our our bread and butter skills and the rationale that we give to when asked what the profession contributes to society. Under this concept, I don’t think it matters whether the author is known or not when it comes to evaluating their writing; it will either stand up for what is written on the page or not. The missing data regarding author background is just another variable in the equation of the weight you give the piece, not a fatal error that prevents it from being taken as serious discourse.

With the rise of the reputation economy, what matters is the establishment of the identity. If they are a consistent writer of meaningful content, then it builds towards that of a contributor. If they are loaded with divisive and invective terms or attacks on one’s person (as opposed to ideas), then it shifts towards a detractor. Of course, nothing is that simple: the presence of both qualities puts people in the position of judging whether they are building or taking away from the topics. It is left to the reader to judge whether they are a credible commentator on the subject matter. Personally, I would like to give people greater credit in their ability to make decisions regarding the value of content, especially in this profession.

In the end, the reputation created matters more than whether or not they disclose their name. I’m not unmoved by the desire to make people accountable for their words; it’s an undeniable social justice urge to attach the negative connotations of their content with their person. Likewise, there is desire to be able to display support for those whose words move you, make you think, and otherwise affect you. But that should not be an eliminating factor in determining the value of professional discourse.

I find it odd that a profession so hell bent on freedom of expression that it has an entire week devoted to it has such issues with anonymous authorship. Is it not simply another form of expression? If one was to remove the names of the authors from some of the books that are held in such high esteem that week, would that make them less worthy of defending? Should libraries only defend the controversial works in which the author is known? (Go Ask Alice, a book attributed to an anonymous author, is on the Banned Books list.) Is there a compelling reason not to extend this courtesy to professional discourse when the content is well written, well reasoned, and within the scope of professional literature?

I should note that I’m not saying that the Lead Pipe people should accept undisclosed articles for consideration. They have defined their editorial controls to include that authors need to be known; that is their well justified prerogative. In my gradually increasing collection of library and librarian blogs, I have found some anonymous or pseudonymous blogs out there that would pass muster for professional writing in my estimation. (In the efforts of full disclosure, there is also a share of blogs that write pure drivel.) To treat their lack of identifying authorship as a slight is the equivalent of judging the book by its cover. Let the words speak for themselves and then determine its worth.

Identity should not be a barrier to contribution. It’s a luxury that has been afforded to us by the creation of an online world, but it is not simply a last resort.

11 thoughts on “Anonymous Rex

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Anonymous Rex « Agnostic, Maybe -- Topsy.com

  2. You pose a really solid counter argument, Andy. I especially like your discussion of the reputation economy and works like Go Ask Alice. Some good food for thought for me. :)

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I really enjoyed yours as well. With the internet being a dominant form of communication within the profession, it does bring up its own identity issues. I mean, imagine if there is someone who is very good yet blogs anonymously; how can we get this person to speak or present or otherwise work in the organization? Perhaps not at all for the first two, maybe as themselves for the last part, but it means that they are trapped in their medium.

      I really do think there is an unequal treatment of anonymous library professional writing and anonymous prose and literature. It seems odd to demand accountability for words in one and gloss over it in the other. This is why I say judge it on the merits first, consider it on the authorship second.

  3. Your comment about Go Ask Alice being on the Banned Books List makes it sound like the libraries who protect freedoms are the ones who put it on the list, which isn’t how it works. In my experience, libraries do indeed protect anonymous works just like any other works. Maybe I just missed the analogy.

    • What I’m asking is that since the book is any less worthy of being defended for inclusion in a collection because it has an anonymous author. The answer is “no”, but I’m asking the question in the context of Emily’s article and anonymous authorship. It’s an observation that there is a case against anonymous authorship in the profession, but when it comes to defending literature or other library materials, there is no such hangup.

      I think you missed the analogy. I hope that clears it up.

  4. Pingback: Anonymous Rex, Ctd. « Agnostic, Maybe

  5. Yay, I see you gestured at the persistence idea I just blogged about. (Why yes, I’m not only behind on my Google Reader; I’m reading backward, so I am still working my way through this backstory to your subsequent post…)

    Anonymity — generally under persistent identities — has been a big deal for me. I, um, have a name that’s easy to Google for. And my last career was about interacting with — not just the public — but children. I am very, very, very skittish about posting things under my own name. Registering a domain name and joining Twitter were huge deals for me. (I have been shocked at how much I like Twitter — I knew about it early enough to have been one of the three-letter names but was sure it would be far too public for my comfort zone; held out for years.)

    I don’t doubt the negatives of anonymous commenting, especially under non-persistent identities. (There are reasons Slashdot has the “Anonymous Coward” label.) But I also know that …that in our face-to-face life we know who our audiences are and can adjust accordingly, but on the internet we present to many audiences simultaneously, including ones we do not know are there. And those audiences may judge us according to standards that are not the standards of the context in which we speak — but can nonetheless expose us to real harm. Not because we have done anything wrong, or even uncivil; merely because we, out of context, clash with their expectations.

    I have friends with a lot of interesting hobbies. Let’s just put it at that. And they talk about them, sometimes quite openly, online. And I want to be part of my friends’ conversational spheres, but when I was teaching people’s children, did I want my highly-Googleable name to be associated with [redacted], [redacted], and [redacted]? No, I did not. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with [redacted] et al., but because I feared a firestorm of controversy caused by idle Googling on the part of a parent or student with a different set of cultural norms. As you can see, I approach even this paragraph with caution.

    And look, I’m the low-stakes case: this only mattered to me, only resulted in a pack of students harassing me for a week or two when some spheres got crossed. And it matters to everyone online or in public life that way — we all trip up on presenting ourselves to multiple audiences, on being taken out of context, of not being evolutionarily (I think) equipped to deal with so many publics at once — but these are quotidian, low-stakes. If I were a whistleblower, if I had a point of view that needed to be advanced for the public good but I couldn’t advance without bringing down threats on myself or my family, anonymity would be a big deal.

    Yes, it has down sides. Ugly ones. It also has up sides: huge ones. In areas so grey I prefer to tread lightly, to err, if I must err, by placing too few restrictions, not too many.

  6. (And seriously: what’s in a name? I am the wrongest, most ironic person to be asking this, but I have developed so many relationships out there with pseudonymous — but, again, persistently psedonymous — people. If you had read my blog for some months, my Twitter, would you not feel that you’d gotten to know me, that I had a particular point of view and expertise, that I was someone specific? Would it really, truly change your perception of me — your sense that I in fact had an identity — were you suddenly to discover that my real name was actually “Ellen Smith”? And similarly, why would it matter if my blog were not in fact under my real name, but under “Emergent Property” or “Rule Librariana” or “Pack of Unicorns”? You, Andy, you’ve met me in person, but much of the internet must take it for granted that there is any such person as me at all; is it somehow easier to do that when my writing is under a plausible — if only barely ;) — name?)

  7. And having now actually read the Lead Pipe piece ;) — I think there’s a lot of different threads there to untangle (persistence, repercussions, community…) and these threads interact with anonymity in different ways in my mind, so I can’t necessarily make a sweeping statement about them all. But I do think that particular case is interesting in that it’s explicitly a professional sphere, which means there is a defined public you are interacting with (even though others can, of course, see), and it comes with an established set of social norms. I can see that anonymity, especially non-persistent anonymity, is problematic in that context in a way it’s not in less defined, or less public, spheres.

    If I were in their place — which I’m not — I wouldn’t support a blanket policy of refusing anonymous writers. (Of course I support whatever policy they want to promulgate; it’s their blog!) I would be looking to make distinctions on content, using those critical-thinking skills you talk about, more than stated identity. (It sounds like so far those content distinctions would have ruled out all the anonymous pieces anyway, which simplifies things, at least to date.) But hey, that’s me, and again, not my blog :).

    I suppose, for the record, I will happily accept anonymous guest-bloggers who have something interesting to say, if I think my blog is an appropriate forum in which to say it.

  8. Pingback: Anonymous Authorship « the Go Librarians

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