Freedom of Speech (Just Watch What You Say)

The always excellent In the Library With the Lead Pipe blog had a new post today from Leigh Anne Vrabel by the title, “A Short Distance Correctly: 13 Ways of (Not) Writing (Contrarian) Librarianship”. There was one particular passage that caught my attention.

At present, there is no room in our professional discourse for creative expression beyond a certain number of limited outlets, unless we christen ourselves Library Mofos or adopt an Annoyed pseudonymous posture of detached superiority. Bad satire and anonymous ranting aside, we have no voice for the collective library shadow. We have no vehicle for expressing that which is unacceptable, no crucible for transforming our imperfections into works of art that might heal our wounds. I deem this unwise, and declare open season on the culture of library science by inviting its poets, artists and madwomen in the attic to bring forth that which is within them, before it destroys them.

I thought about it off and on over the course of a couple of hours. Is this true? And if it is, then why is it like this?

To the first question, I’d have to agree. While I don’t read every single librarian blog out there, I have about three hundred librarian blogs in my Google reader feeds. Not all of them are active, but I think they represent enough of a online cross section to be statistically significant to support such a conclusion. How many of them would I consider to be capable of talking about collective library shadow? In looking through the different feeds, I wouldn’t even need to take off my shoes to count the ones that could fall into that category. And even the ones that rise to the occasion to provoke controversy and take on some of the profession’s third rails do so rather infrequently or dilute it with so much satire or wishy-washy language that they might as well not bring up the topic in the first place.

Despite being champions of freedom of expression, the profession too often turns cowardly towards expression by peers in any manner deemed too uncomfortable, controversial, or otherwise unhappy. We will rally and march for the right of expression as a universal human right and yet abandon it at home in trade publications, professional literature, and online discourse. For a profession so deeply aligned with the value of speech, too many of my confederates seem to lose their voice even if it was to save their own skins.

So, why is it like this? I feel like I’m stretching for an explanation if I have to invoke cultural social norms, the desire for acceptance into our social groups, and other psychological and sociological based reasoning. Certainly they are scientifically valid possibilities but they feel woefully inadequate for supplying a satisfactory answer. But from what Leigh is suggesting (and I concur), the explanation is such that librarians feel the need to take on pseudonyms or be anonymous in order to raise such issues. That is a damn shame, a symptom of a professional cultural ailment that may not kill the profession but be a chronic burden.

For myself, I’ll admit that it has taken a long time to arrive at a level of comfort to be perfectly frank when writing in this blog. It was more of a struggle to conquer my own self-doubts and find my voice than feeling professionally obligated to hold back what I really felt. “Blog fearlessly,” I would think to myself every time I hit the publish button as if it was a protective ward against potentially negative reactions to what I had written. I have the standard disclaimer in the “About Me” section that says that my words and opinions do not represent my employer, but I would be a fool to think that it grants some sort of immunity. I have purposefully avoided discussing certain subjects and topics, though I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything either by not writing about them either.

However, it has impressed upon me the importance of bringing my own voice and authenticity to the topics, ideas, and concepts I do write about. As part of that bargain, it means saying or writing things without regard to whether it is polite, correct, or otherwise kosher. I would hope that more of my peers would feel the same and invest themselves unreservedly into the ongoing professional conversations. The dividends of drama are worth far more than the savings of silence.

Bring on the open season. I can’t wait to see what it brings.

4 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech (Just Watch What You Say)

  1. Institutional hypocrisy.

    The library, as an institution, values freedom of speech / right to access information for our “patrons” (customers, or whatever your preferred term). I’ve seen very little evidence that it values the same for it’s employees (librarians, etc.). In fact, quite the contrary. IMO, employees are to work (be seen) and not to be heard (unless you are parroting whatever the current institutional dogma happens to be).

    So, even if you get as far as wanting to bring up “uncomfortable, controversial, or otherwise unhappy” subjects, then it is a lot safer to do so with a pseudonym or anonymously. Or face the mouse trap.

    Mildly squeak I.

  2. Great thoughts, Andy. I’ve been thinking about similar things in my own little library world (made even smaller by the fact that I’m a solo librarian in a library closed to the public). My piddly little blog is nothing compared to what you’ve built, but I also didn’t start it until I left my former institution, a place that very much cared what you said and would dole out consequences if they didn’t agree. I’ve never been one to keep my mouth shut, though.

  3. Pingback: A word about why now. | bringyournoise

  4. For some of us, it’s the big brother syndrom. I waited until I could reply from home, so that this wouldn’t be traced to me. At the state level, all computers belong to the state, and can be monitored at any time. I know, sounds paranoid, and it has stopped me from responding a time or two. People have been caught doing blatantly dumb things on state computers, like watching basketball playoffs, or selling things on EBay.

    Working at a state library doesn’t let you see the best of the political world, either, and many libraries have to cope with some form of politics. Whether it’s the city government trying to take away the public library’s endowment (because, of course, it’s public money,), to budget time at the state level, one is careful of what one says. One wants to keep a job, in this climate. And some groups are more likely to take what one says in print, whether digital or paper, very seriously. Especially in conservative areas. And then there’s our own small, library world. Does the director really want to hire a trouble maker, or the nice, quiet new librarian from library school? It makes those of us who aren’t a name brand think twice.

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