You Told Us *Nothing*

I realize that I had put myself into blogvacation, but this latest entry from the well known pseudonymous librarian at Library Journal pulled me from my writing hibernation. If you can hold your nose and read it, do so. If not, it is basically a rehashing of a old canard in which library videos are the public image villains that will kill the library. The premise is that videos such as ‘Library 101’, ‘Kickass Librarian’, and ‘Libraries will survive’ present a clear and present danger to the image of libraries and librarians that it will result in their eventual closing wherever these videos can be viewed on the planet Earth.

The title to this post is ‘I Told You So’ and the superficial explanation offered is that these kinds of library videos are a detriment to the institution and the profession. It is imagined that those with control over the library budget were sitting on the fence about the library funding when, SUDDENLY, they saw one of these videos. That the real reason for this particular library closing is not local budget woes, a bad economy, or the decline of tax ratables, but that video. The leap of logic to connect these two items is nothing short of breathtaking in the asinine lengths one person will go to bash another.

The real underlying message of the Annoyed Librarian in this post (and perhaps the last year’s worth of blog posts) is “creativity kills libraries”. Period. Do not do anything that could be considered outside of the norm. The profession cannot possibly risk the embarrassment due to the imaginative endeavors of a few. That anyone would have the initiative to tweak the public perception of a librarian is something that should be quelled or smothered. And if you must be expressive, then there are certain strict standards that must be met; the first of these is that when viewed from any angle, it cannot possibly detract from the reputation of the library, librarians, or the field of library science.

Color within the lines, dammit.

Furthermore, in this topsy-turvy demented viewpoint, all advocacy will be seen as a joke and any expressions of humor will be considered deadly serious. Nevermind what the library does for its community. Nevermind the programs, materials, and services that are provided. Nevermind the average return of investment for every dollar spent on the library. Nevermind the importance of information access in a digital knowledge economy. It’s a comical video that made the difference in deciding to close the library. It’s akin to telling a crime victim that the reason they were assaulted and robbed is not because they were in the wrong place at the wrong place, that the assailant has a history of such attacks, or that it was a crime of opportunity, but it happened because they are a bad person.

This kind of reasoning is why we can’t have a library renaissance during the greatest revolution of communication, information, and computation in the history of mankind. In an era that has seen the rise of the knowledge economy, the expansion of educational opportunities to every corner of the planet, and when information can be beamed into a personal handheld device, there is a cornucopia of carping and self doubt that is nothing short of staggering. In an age of potential, the conversation about the library is still controlled by the hyperactive risk adverse. It is one thing to take such risks into the overall calculation; it is another to say that any risk factors are fatal errors to the computation. I think this passage from the Seth Godin blog post, Fear of Bad Ideas, sums up the underlying issue perfectly:

A few people are afraid of good ideas, ideas that make a difference or contribute in some way. Good ideas bring change, that’s frightening.

But many people are petrified of bad ideas. Ideas that make us look stupid or waste time or money or create some sort of backlash.

The problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones.

(Emphasis mine.)

The other point that Mr. Godin makes in his post is that it takes a lot of bad ideas before a good one will emerge. That an idea may go through many generations, refined and rethought, before it emerges through the development process. Should people be allowed to examine these ideas or concepts and offer their critiques? Absolutely. But where it crosses the line is when this criticism is not given in good faith nor acts as a partner in the process.

The Annoyed Librarian is destructive hyperbole masquerading around as dissent. That’s not the tragedy in this instance. The tragedy is that this person is just one of many in the profession who engage in this sort of discourse. So enamored by their own self righteous banality, they seek to tear down the concepts and ideas of others long before they prove their worth or merit. They are the bane of innovation, the scourge of experimentation, and a foe of creation. They are not the voices of well reasoned doubt or Devil’s advocate; they are schadenfreude parasites on any meaningful discourse.

They tell us nothing for they offer nothing.

If parts of this entry sounds familiar, it is because it goes back to my second lesson learned in 2010. The balance between caution and risk has swung too far in the direction of the former. The vocal risk adverse minority are squeezing out the thinkers, creators, explorers, and adventurers within the profession on the basis of their biases and fears. The profession will not meet the challenges of this new century when any attempts at progress are smothered in the cradle. It simply won’t. The time has come to stand up to these bullies and announce them for what they offer the profession: nothing.

In closing, I want to share a quote by Dr. David Lankes that I think really nails the main issue for the profession:

“What will kill this profession is not ebooks, amazon, or Google. It will be a lack of imagination. An inability to see not what is, but what could be. To see only how we are viewed now, but not how that is only a platform for greatness… It [librarianship] only survives if we, librarians and the communities we serve, take it up, renew, refresh it, and constantly engage in what is next.”

(Excerpted from here.)

(I must give credit for some inspiration for this post to Karen Schneider and her post, The Devil Needs No Advocate. In my opinion, it’s a ‘must read’ post.)

25 thoughts on “You Told Us *Nothing*

  1. Thanks for this post, Andy. I have to admit that I didn’t watch the whole “kickass librarian” video that the LJ blogger was upset with because I didn’t like the way she was talking to the patrons. That being said, I totally LOVE some of the others that are out there and feel this is a fun way to promote the library to a group of people who might not otherwise be interested. Not sure if they will inspire folks to use/fund/keep open libraries, but they definitely have their place and charm.

    • I understand why people can be uncomfortable about a portrayal. But that’s what it is: portrayal. No one really thinks that cops constantly go rogue in bringing the bad guys in because they see it in the movies. Nor any number of professions for that matter. The hand wringing that goes with it is astounding since the stereotype remains intact.

  2. I’m friends with Sarah Wachter, the creator of the famous Lady Gaga UW iSchool librarian parody, and several of the students and faculty that appeared in the video. Many of the students received job offers based on their appearances in that video, a testament to their creativity. The AL got it wrong this time. Big time.

    Coloring inside the lines kills the library. Coloring outside the lines makes it stronger.

    • I don’t see a problem with coloring inside the lines per se. There is value to being orderly when it comes to organizing the collection and managing it. However, this doesn’t apply to everything in the library and yet people want to maintain this sort of order, this ‘one size fits all’ mantra, when it really doesn’t work.

  3. My beef with library videos is that they seem mostly geared towards other librarians. Most seem like emotional support to others in libraryland, and that is good, but too often they are created under the pretense of marketing the library. The lesson of your post Andy is that we need make BETTER VIDEOS. We should be as creative as possible.

    • I see your point, Bryan. But I don’t have an issue towards that sort of targeting for a final product; it’s a kind of internal marketing that works to bolster morale within the profession. But in terms of external marketing, I think that’s a hit or miss affair. I think that it is a subject that needs to be addressed at the library school level as a bundled ‘advocacy’ package for library types.

      Of course, yes, better videos! I think that these videos lead to others that improve over time. It’s not like those first Edison movies were completely spectacular, but over time they improved.

  4. As I said on Karen’s blog…my one hope with the recession is that it weeds out those toxic people from libraries. Life is too short to work in a profession where you are not happy. Don’t like it? Change something or leave. Don’t just complain about the same crap year after year.

    I get that it is a persona and not a “real person” but why not try to solve problems instead of complaining. AL is really just like the other employee rant and rave sites that do nothing but make the organization and profession look bad: http://community.livejournal.com/iworkatborders or http://www.ihatestarbucks.com/bb/

    In the end it’s a vessel for venting which is never really productive. It wastes precious time and resources.

  5. I can’t say I’m a fan of videos that feature librarians lip-syncing to a pop tune, but I also see them as a progression of our skill in creating video that is imaginative and provides a powerful yet sticky message (you’ll notice the AL column said nothing about BYU’s parody of the Old Spice Man commercial – which is perhaps the best video to come out of a library yet – although it took an enormous amount of effort to create).

    The good news is that as a profession we are recognizing the advantages of video as a medium for distributing our message. Now we just need to keep experimenting and improving our skill with video. More on this at: http://bit.ly/haDMK4

    I don’t quite see things on the creativity and risk-taking front being quite as bleak as you see it Andy. Is there a “vocal risk adverse minority” you can identify other than a few anonymous bloggers that we probably shouldn’t waste our time paying attention to anyway? Despite complaints about the quality of our journals and conference presentations, I continue to see some pretty imaginative work out there (like the article I just read about the library that held an innovation boot camp for its staff). I think you are more likely to confront opposition to your ideas in your own backyard. We have to be careful to differentiate sensible discourse from senseless criticism.

    BTW, here’s another good Godin post on the topic of critics:
    http://bit.ly/jd6to

    • I remember your presentation regarding the use of video in presentations at Pres4Lib. It was my favorite presentation of the event. I know the power of video for driving home a message.

      I may have stepped in it by using the phrase ‘vocal risk adverse minority’. I really don’t have anything I can link to because in crafting the phrase I was drawing on anecdotes from peers as well as my own professional experience. I wish I could just tick off a list of stories or blog posts that I could just simply point to and go, “Here is what I mean”. I have hearsay which doesn’t hold muster in academic and legal settings. It may not hold up as evidence either, but it is the basis of forming a lasting impression. However, I don’t think I’d have to go very far to find a librarian with a story about a risk adverse coworker, manager, director, provost, vice president, etc. I think if I was to solicit such stories anonymously I would get a pretty good response. (If an MLS student reading this wants to do that as a project, please include me on the results.)

      “We have to be careful to differentiate sensible discourse from senseless criticism.”

      I wanted to highlight this line because that’s what I’m aiming for here as well.

      • On that point – that we all have anecdotes to share about risk-adverse co-workers – I agree. But I expect that the number of risk-adverse individuals in library workplaces is not all that different than it is at retail stores, accounting firms, law offices, etc. People just tend to really dislike change, trying new things and unleashing creativity. So I don’t doubt we could compile a book’s worth of “why the hell are library workers so resistant to change and trying something new” but it still wouldn’t necessarily provide evidence of a conspiracy (Ok, I’m putting a different word in your “mouth” here) in our profession to kill innovation.

        In any case, don’t waste your time focusing on the l risk adverse minority or majority. How about soliciting for anecdotes about innovative and creative coworkers, managers, directors – and let’s not dwell on the ones who are risk adverse. Let’s find out who the risk takers and game changers are and promote the good work they do. That’s the message of the Heath Brothers book “Switch”. You find the good examples of change – and use them to create even more change. Look at what they’re doing at the Anythink Library in Colorado.

        And thanks for the kind words about the video presentation. More on that here: http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/jul10/Bell.shtml

  6. This is what the AL said:

    “The library system is probably out of money, but this video isn’t much of an incentive to support it.”

    And this is what you said:

    “The title to this post is ‘I Told You So’ and the superficial explanation offered is that these kinds of library videos are a detriment to the institution and the profession. It is imagined that those with control over the library budget were sitting on the fence about the library funding when, SUDDENLY, they saw one of these videos. That the real reason for this particular library closing is not local budget woes, a bad economy, or the decline of tax ratables, but that video. The leap of logic to connect these two items is nothing short of breathtaking in the asinine lengths one person will go to bash another.”

    “They tell us nothing for they offer nothing.”

    I’ve been reading both blogs for a while now. Perhaps hyperbole is an issue on both sides? Not to mention self-righteousness (both by the bloggers and commenters on both sites).

    I don’t always agree with AL, but he/she often makes some good points. Same for you. I think the more important issue is the inability of either side to see the potential validity of the points made by the other.

    • Really, I don’t have a problem seeing the other side of things here. I have the ability to stand in another vantage point and consider an issue (a side effect of my year of law school). If you go through my posts, you will see that I will acknowledges weaknesses in my own arguments and offer additional explanations.

      The rest of the AL quote you mention is this:

      “I can just imagine some hapless librarian going up before a library board or city council and arguing for more money using this video as a reason to fund. Fat chance of more funding.

      Were I a library board member or a library patron and some librarian spoke to me the way she spoke to some of those patrons, I’d definitely not vote to fund the library more, though I might suggest some training in public relations or customer service. This video does for the image of librarians what Jaws did for the image of sharks.

      Though obviously this video didn’t kill the library it was filmed in, just as obviously it didn’t save the library.”

      This is followed by a plea to stop making videos. These three videos are the held high as examples as to why librarians should not be made. It puts three videos above the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of videos that librarians make in the course of a year and declares that the practice should be ceased.

      “Therefore, I propose that all librarians – cool, hip, kickass, tattooed, and otherwise – do themselves and the profession a favor. They should make one of their new year’s resolutions to NOT make any more videos about librarians.”

      How is that not a sweeping indictment?

      Furthermore, I give credit where credit is due. I link to blogs and sites that I would not otherwise wish to give more page views. (Or opt not to write about it since I would feel compelled to link to it.) I believe in the best ideas, no matter where they come from. Sometimes that means I agree with the AL and I’m not hesitant to admit it.

  7. Great post, Andy. The only minor thing I would add is that while many people in the field are afraid of new ideas, I don’t think the AL is one of them. The AL isn’t afraid of new ideas, merely dismissive and contemptuous of them. Because the AL hates that anyone besides the AL might receive any kind of attention.

    And while fear of good ideas may hinder a library renaissance, you can’t throw too much blame at the feet of the AL, because truthfully, very few people actually give a shit what the AL thinks.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I would not heap the blame entirely on the AL; there is a good amount of it that can go around to people (like myself) who get swept up in the outrage over the AL. Shame on me for letting it get under my skin.

      For myself, the AL is just a personification of the problem. Maybe people care, maybe they don’t, but this gives me an actual target. I just feel like it’s the biggest bully in the schoolyard. It’s that old 1950′s era kind of advice on how to deal a bully: punch them square in the face. This post was that kind of in that advice vein. Perhaps not the best, but there is a certain level of satisfaction to it.

      (It should also be noted that the other anti-bullying advice they give out is to walk away from the bully and deny them an audience. Perhaps that should be the better of the remedies.)

  8. I agree with Josh completely, but I want to add something: we need to remember that the American Library Association is PAYING that writer to be a big, pissy, punch in the gut, destructive voice regarding librarianship. Perhaps it is to spur people to action and provoke conversation, but are librarians as a group so stupid and sheeplike that we can’t have a rousing discussion without being taunted like we’re in the junior high cafeteria? The Annoyed Librarian reminds me why I am not a paying member of ALA.

    • While I have no interest in defending AL–never did, don’t now, usually don’t even read it, agree that it’s generally destructive as well as being puerile, but:

      Julie, you’re simply wrong. ALA does not pay AL to be anything. ALA does not publish the Library Journal. ALA publishes American Libraries. Library Journal is privately owned. You can no more blame ALA for the Annoyed Librarian than you can blame ALA for Glenn Beck.

      Andy: As for the “one of many” issue, I’ll stay away from it, if only because I wonder whether you’re including me in that group.

      • Walt, I wouldn’t put you in that minority. In my eyes, you keep the hits above the belt. Your treatment is not the nicest, but this isn’t elementary school either. There is a measure of respect that is employed that comes through when I read it.

        (I’ll comment on ‘risk adverse minority’ above in replying to Steven.)

      • Mistake noted. Thanks for being so pleasant about it! Speaks highly of ALA as well that I really have no idea what they publish and what they don’t.

  9. Andy, wow, talk about hyperbole. There are several levels of irony to your attack on the Annoyed Librarian. First, the more you attack her, the more you bring attention to her, which is exactly why she strikes the tone that she does. You’ve played right into her hands. Second, because of your post I went to the AL’s post and didn’t find it particularly tendentious at all. She gave what I thought was a fair and honest assessment of her view that the snarky portrayal of the librarian in the video discussed is of very questionable pr value. I tend to agree with her. Third, what the AL is doing in her blog is precisely what you say she is against – painting outside the lines. She’s probably the biggest risk taker in the profession right now. Believe me, the library profession is a very tight and normative group of people who are not at all supportive of folks who get outside the lines as the AL does on a regular basis. She’s exercising her intellectual freedom to the fullest extent, and in the process is giving us points of view we ordinarily wouldn’t get. I say 3 cheers for diversity of opinion. We need the Annoyed Librarian giving her view and we need you giving you view of her view. Andy, it’s all good. Keep up the good stuff.

    • Will, I’ve never understood the Voldemorte sort of treatment that is given to the AL. This Person-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named plays so well in the hands of a profession that is cozy with its passive-aggressive tendencies. Here’s my question for you: what if that page view someone makes from this post is their last one on that blog? Is it worth it then?

      I don’t see the risk taking aspect in the writing. When one does not put anything on the line, then there is no risk. Indulge me, tell me where the risk is being taken.

      It’s not an intellectual freedom issue and we both know that. I’m not advocating for the firing of the AL or the ceasing of the blog or anything like that. I’m just calling a spade a spade, so to speak.

  10. Andy: 3 points: 1) I don’t think AL is Voldemorte, and I don’t have to hold my nose to read her. She is way outside of the LIS mainstream. This is a profession that has been dominated for too long by a certain tight set of norms. AL challenges those norms, and she does it with flair…humor, snark, and, yes, hyperbole. She’s fun to read even when she’s wrong because she’s never boring like 95% of the things written for and by our profession. She’s provocative. She obviously provoked you. 2) She is a risk taker. If she were ever outed she would be ostracized by the profession. That’s a huge risk, and anonymous writers often get outed…ask Joe Klein. Also kudos for the editors at LJ who are taking the risk to provide a platform for her in order to legitimatize her views. They have endured a lot of poisonous venom for practicing the intellectual freedom that our profession professes to advocate but which it rarely practices when it comes to library commentators who get outside the normative lines. 3) I totally agree with AL’s assessment of the Kickass Librarian video. Its poor production values, off tone attempt at humor, and very unflattering portrayal of the librarian character hurts library advocacy. So does that make me part of your self destructive risk adverse group? Come on, Andy, lighten up. AL’s not the devil or even the devil’s advocate. She’s a satirical thinker who makes some librarians angry. But then again I suppose folks in the 18th century called Swift a devil too.

    • (1) I should have been a little clearer. By Voldemort, I mean people refuse to refer to them by their name or link to them in discussions or posts about the AL. There is a strange avoidance to this person; rather than confront them, they just mutter to themselves or speak in hush tones. By not engaging, the dialogue and conversation stops. Nothing moves forward when the echo chamber is enforced, especially the online one.

      (2) I take your points on risk taking. And I agree with your assessment of intellectual freedom within the profession. It seems foreign that librarians will fight TO. THE. DEATH. for books that are challenged, but then ridicule the hell out of people who are prominent speakers within the profession. It’s quite the double standard and a terribly ironic one at that.

      (3) The Kickass Librarian video was done by a comedy troupe. The one thing that bugs me about it is when people look at it and go, “So how does it help libraries?” It doesn’t. It’s a video made for fun. Does everything have to help libraries? No. It can be a lark. If there are people who take it seriously, then I think there are other issues at stake.

  11. I followed your link to Karen Schneider’s “must read” post, and was puzzled to find her faulting – or “loathing”, actually – the AL for her bad form (preemptive negativism and nasty worldview). To my mind, the AL and FRL are very similar; opinionated, stridently self-righteous, overtly political, dismissive and contemptuous of dissenters and political adversaries, occasionally pompous, and generally written with flair, wit, intelligence and humor. You don’t go to either of those blogs for balance or – that vastly underrated quality – uncertainty. Their parishioners are uncannily similar too; most commenters are content to simply say “Thanks for expressing so well what so many of us are thinking, Karen/AL”. Certainly there are substantive differences between the FRL and AL, but style is not one of them.

  12. Pingback: >Keeping the Creativity Alive | My Blog

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