Self-Censorship in Libraryland

When I was in Australia on a semester abroad, I remember watching some television show in the giant common room of the dorm where I was living. Imagine rows and rows of well worn red loveseat couches pointed towards a large television in a corner with college students liberally sprawled around the room, either in a seat or on top of each other. I can’t remember what we were watching, but I do remember a particular commercial that came on. I can’t remember what they were selling, but it was probably a soft drink or candy or something with an unhealthy amount of sugar in it.

In any event, the part I remember shows a boyfriend sitting in a dressing room when his girlfriend comes out of the fitting room in a very revealing skintight cocktail dress. (The Aussies don’t have the television morality police like here in the States.) The boyfriend is eating or drinking whatever product they are selling when the girlfriend asks a variation of the stereotypical question that has been getting men into trouble since the dawn of clothing: “Does this dress make my butt look big?” After a product placement moment, the boyfriend looks her up and down and says, “Yes, but it takes attention away from your face.”

Needless to say, there was a very mixed reaction to this punchline although it did not play out strictly on gender lines. In recalling this admittedly questionable anecdote that is certain to sour some of the moods of the readers, this was my very roundabout way of getting to the topic of self censorship. The ad reminds me of a instance in which the concept of keeping one’s mouth shut fails, albeit to satisfy a comic premise. However, I believe the concept enjoys a high success rate when it comes to honest dialogue in libraryland, especially in the online version of the profession. I keep wondering why this is so in a profession that is deeply invested in the ideal of freedom of speech, expression, and curiosity. Why is it that people feel the need to self censor when it comes to library discourse?

The biologist in me that has lurked there since I was an undergrad reminds that the big, beautiful organ that resides between our ears is a self-censoring machine. The body is in a constant state of information update, relaying every single update from the senses in what could only be imagined as the world’s worst news crawl. (“Feet reporting that there are still socks on them… Nose update: still no new smells yet… Teeth still touching each other…") Rather than be overwhelmed by all of these signals, the brain filters these things out to allow the important messages to make it through to the higher areas of the brain. As you can imagine, there are lots of good evolutionary reasons for this development that routinely ignores a lot of stimuli.

The amateur psychologist (sociologist? anthropologist?) in me wonders about the mental and social constructs that have developed over time that favor self censorship. The instincts that make you bite your tongue when you’re in a tense or emotional situation, the mechanisms that make people lie about positive outcomes in determinedly negative situations, and (unlike the gent in that commercial) the inward controls that make you ignore your first impulse to give an honest and possibly insensitive answer. How much do these kinds of social factors contribute to self-censorship in libraryland?

In considering external causes, the first factor that popped into my head is the librarian job market. For lack of a better term, it’s a buyer’s market; there are more librarians than there are jobs. Why jeopardize yourself by writing something in a tweet or on a blog that could hurt job prospects? The counterargument to that point would be that by writing online you are distinguishing yourself from the other applicants. But even that has its flaws because it encourages people to say things that are generally agreeable to popular opinion. A person would be less likely to take a stance about, oh, let’s say the inclusion of anti-gay children’s books in a collection if it was anything other than “Hell no”. Barring other normal collection development considerations (such as community, interest, and quality of product), a person could make a case for adding such a book to a collection under the premise of presenting differing viewpoints. But they’d need a flameproof suit in order to survive the royal drubbing they would receive at the hands of their peers. The easier action is to make a safe argument or not say anything, even if a logically valid but emotionally charged argument could be made.

Another factor that I considered is how much time and energy it takes to put something like a blog post together. In crafting a case for a controversial or unpopular opinion, do I want to be saddled with the task of defending it? This might seem like a surrender of principles, but as someone who has written things that get people snapping at me, it is a tiring process to gear up and do battle online for any longer measure of time. For myself, sometimes the choice comes down between putting forth the effort that will get people up in arms versus doing something else that’s fun like video games or spending time with family and friends. Part of this falls into the time honored tradition of “picking one’s battles”, but there have been instances in which I felt like I really should have said something at the time. The moment passes, the library news cycle moves on, and I just shrug and hope I can make up for it later. While it’s true that putting together a tweet doesn’t use the same of work, it also doesn’t say much nor allow for nuance nor work well in making the case for something. The 140 characters of Twitter simply doesn’t convey the same message or importance as a longer form of blogging.

A third factor that arises revolves around gender; as in, this is a female dominated profession and (speaking in the most generic tropes) woman are less likely to speak up or draw attention to themselves in a professional forum. I’m not going to trod down that road simply because I think there are other people who have written better blog posts on the topic.[1] (I’ve linked to them at the end.) I don’t think gender is the whole explanation for self censorship in libraryland writing and debate, but I do think it is a contributing factor.

Personally, I think the profession is tipped toward hiring “safely”, meaning employing people who won’t rock the boat, initiate any bold and scary projects, or stir any sort of controversy. As a manager, I can understand and respect that; you really don’t want to enlarge your daily challenges by adding staff challenges into the equation. The library members can be hard enough as it is to deal with on a regular basis, but having someone internally who is looking to make moves or change things can throw off the mojo for the entire staff. Who wants to make a bet adding an iconoclast when there is a safe choice who can ensure better workflow and dynamics? It’s better to hire a ‘book lover’ than a ‘book fighter’, the preference being for the person who will display their love for the book as an object rather than fighting for the important underlying aspects that the books represents.

But such practices come at a high cost in terms of experimentation and innovation. The profession seems to cry out for leadership and innovation but then hires followers and ‘best fits’ for the current work paradigm. It is the ironic shock of hiring someone who is (for lack of a better term) boring and then being surprised when they don’t step outside the role that they have been chosen. To be fair, not every position is one that is invested in creating ideas and change, but I believe too often the majority end up that way. It’s a cyclical arrangement in which the similarities trump the differences.

Even in writing that previous paragraph, I go back and forth on whether I’m barking up the wrong tree. But I’m putting it out there to test the response and get some feedback. Why do you think librarians hold back in discussions, articles, and blog posts? What’s keeping us from putting ourselves out there to our peers? If you agree that it is an issue, what can be done about it?

It feels very odd and wrong that a profession so deeply invested in the spectrum of intellectual freedoms has its own issue with punishing those who take advantage of it within the field, but that’s what it seems to be.

 

[1] If you want to read more on gender in this discussion, The Library Loon has been writing on similar vein with “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: what is silencing?” and “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: who can break The Rules?”. You should check those out.

How to Answer “So You Need a Degree to Do That?”

“You need a Master’s degree to be a librarian?”

This oft encountered, teeth grinding question is something of a rite of passage for every one who joins the librarian field and was part of Tumblr post that came across my feed. I’ll even admit it makes my eye twitch as I summon up the willpower to provide a rationale and polite answer to this query. Hell, you can’t even get out of the profession without it being a source of contention as librarians themselves wonder why an advanced degree (as opposed to a bachelors) is a requirement. Beyond that, it spirals into a conversation about what MLS/MLIS programs teach and their standards, but I want to get back to examining the original question.

To wit, I am thinking that the question itself is not necessarily an indictment of the profession, but an indication as to how much literature and information access is taken for granted in our modern society. The United States (as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK for my international readers) boasts a literacy rate of 99% for citizens over the age of 15.  Books are a short drive or a click away, depending on your preference of medium, and are relatively cheap. The same case could be made for movies and television shows, another lending staple of the public library, as people are able to get them on different formats, On Demand and premium channels, or by subscription (NetFlix or Amazon Prime). The internet killed the encyclopedia (and, in my opinion, your average reference collection) by creating a platform for people to be able to both search and share information on any topic that you can possibly imagine. Wi-Fi (specifically, the free kind) is rapidly becoming a staple of the retail experience, creating an consumer expectation and by proxy creating even more internet connection points. With their rapid technology cycles, cell phones now provide the instant access to both the internet and personal contacts to access information. You’d have to take yourself into some pretty rural areas to not be able to pick up any signal at all, be it Wi-Fi or cellular.

You get the picture.

That’s why I’m considering that the question is less about being a librarian and more about how much literature and information exists in the lives of people these days. It’s the kind of thing that librarians of the last century only dreamed about; being able to provide quick and accurate answers wherever the people happen to be. Even the computer novices that I teach are infected with this concept as they wait only a few seconds before re-clicking on a website link. (“Have some patience,” I tell them. “You do realize that the signal to the website is possibly traveling hundreds of miles if not thousands of miles on your behalf in only a few seconds, right?”) Information has become fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. Why would it take an advanced degree to curate, manage, and disseminate?

That is where the ignorance of the origin of information begins. Those Wikipedia articles? Someone had to write them. The internet browser and connection protocols? Someone had to program them. The transmission lines that carry information packets around the country and the world? Someone had to place them there. The modern ease of access gives rise to the false sense of ease of creation when nothing could be further from the truth. The generations of multi-disciplinary efforts have created this connected world where the benefits are so taken for granted that a lack of access is seen as unlikely, odd, and almost unrealistic. It belies the enormous effort to keep all of these things running, from server farms to metadata management to IT infrastructure. As anyone who has put together a project or performed knows, the time and effort it takes to make it look easy is tremendous.

In looking at the question again, I’m seeing it as less of an attack and more of a chance to demonstrate how the library comes together. Everything has been selected for the community, be it the materials, the services, or even the furniture. These selections have been made by educated professionals who have familiarity with the items in question. It’s an institute built around providing the best answers, not the fastest. The sheer volume of information that is being generated on a daily basis is staggering, nevermind the assortment of mediums that it comes in. Would you really want someone without an advanced degree sifting, sorting, curating, and maintaining it? Especially on your behalf for your benefit and future generations?

I don’t think so.

To Be Or Not To Be A Library Director

About two weeks ago, there was a thread on the Library Society of the World group whether or not people were interested in becoming a director (or for those are directors, why they chose it). At the time, my answer was that I wasn’t interested in the position, but I’d prefer to be a higher-up-but-not-apex position. That is, I’d want to be in administrative position of some kind, but I don’t want to be where the buck stops.

Currently, I enjoy being the second-in-charge at my branch. I get to be to the chief when my boss is out of the building, enjoy a certain level of autonomy, and don’t carry the bulk of the responsibility that would come with being the branch manager. My underlying rationale was that I like and enjoy working on the public desk and being able to interact with the library members. I love teaching classes, working on programming, engaged in outreach, and doing publicity, all those ‘librarian’ things that are most closely associated with the profession. In a library system like mine, taking steps up the administration ladder means less public interaction, more budget and behind-the-scenes-paperwork, and more of the political/diplomacy that is needed to keep the system going. It’s not that I can’t do those things, but it doesn’t appeal to me. The thought, at the time, was that I wanted to still be in touch with people and change their lives.

But, over time, that logic slowly eroded away.

Me: “I want to make a difference in people’s lives! I do that by helping out, one person at a time! I can do that in my current position!”

Brain: “But if you’re a director, then you can do things that will effect more people.”

Me: “Explain how.”

Brain: “Directors can develop and set practices and policies that affect entire communities, states, regions, and even be a model at the national level.”

Me: “Woohoo!”

Even with that Simpsons-esque inspired turnaround thinking, I still have some hesitance. The first is pretty basic: I don’t have much experience working with a budget or supervising a staff. (Or, in the case of the latter, supervising a library staff.) I know these are things I can learn with some help and experience, but it still hovers in the realm of unfamiliar territory for me. It doesn’t hold me back, but it does impact my resume in this tight library job market.

The second is less of my qualifications and more of the ones that I see in some of job postings for director positions. They aren’t so much looking for a director as they are looking for a unicorn (a phrase I really wish I could take credit for but someone smarter than me said it). I’m constantly amazed that none of these positions include “must be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”. The kicker usually arrives at the salary listed, a constant reminder about how much or little our job skills are valued. I’ve seen them range all over the place, marvelously unattached to the cost of living around the state. I understand that towns and boards want to find the best candidate, but at some point it just creates unreasonable expectations. That wouldn’t stop me from applying, though.

The third is something that arises out of my impending marriage to The Fiancee. Simply put, she is the breadwinner in the relationship. As such, this creates a geographic limit as to where I can look for a position, director or otherwise, within the Burlington or Camden county area. (Translation for people who don’t know the area: that area roughly across from Philadelphia and areas extending north along the river.) There are two county systems (one of which I work for already) and maybe almost a dozen town libraries in that area. This isn’t exactly the biggest area to pick from, but it does have some great libraries in it. Basically, I suffer from the same problem that some unemployed librarians deal with: moving is not an option for employment prospects. So I’m locked into this area so long as The Fiancee is still posted here. (This is not a gripe, just an observation.)

I’ll concede that I don’t have a complete picture as to what a director actually does. I have friends who are directors that I talk with on a regular basis; I get a good idea of what their work lives are like. But there is a vast difference between someone who is the director of a small rural operation that draws its budget from a foundation versus a large urban operation that is just another cog in the city wheel. Even in holding these two public library examples aloft, there are so many factors that morph the picture of the position. The demographics, the communities, the legacy of previous directors, the relationship with the purse string holders, and the public opinion of the library can shape it into a widely supported community asset or a begrudgingly funded specter of the institution. In listing these kinds of factors, I would hope that you don’t see them as ways that public libraries are different but as ways in which they are unique.

My reasoning for not seeking a director position was initially steeped in the public interaction that I enjoy, but I cannot deny the possibility of greater beneficial projects and efforts if I found myself in the position. So, setting aside the limitations for a moment, I find myself asking, “Can you get both?” I would imagine that you can and that is certainly something I will be looking out for in the future. (Although I have to yet to determine the wisdom of such a desire.)

To repeat the question that Martha asked: “[W]ho either is a library director (or dean) or desires to become one? Why? What draws you towards this work? What do you love about it?”

Housekeeping

Call it “spring cleaning in the summer”, but I recently went through my social media stuff and took the time to figure out what I wanted to keep or delete. I’ve gotten bloated in the sheer number of social media accounts I have and I took a hard look at where I’ve signed up, what I still use, and how I want these sites in my life. The divide for how I use these sites is somewhere in the middle between personal and professional; while I maintain good contacts with friends and family, I also use it to promote my blog (read: myself). So, with some of those factors in mind, here’s how it went down.

Gone: My accounts on Google Plus and Pinterest as well as my Facebook author page. The first two I never checked ever unless I was at the brink of web boredom death. I never really saw much traffic from Google Plus to my blog and it turned into yet-another-place to dump a link. Even then, there wasn’t much interaction from my links and more often than not the notices were telling me how people I don’t know had added me to their circles. Or worse, that they have invited me to an event that I couldn’t give two damns about attending. Google Plus was the large annoying fly in the room and I finally just had to swat it.

I liked Pinterest, but beyond uploading the funny pictures I made, it didn’t hold much interest for me. I never remembered to pin things to it nor did I ever want to do so. I mean, isn’t that what Tumblr is for? (More on Tumblr later.)

As for my Facebook Author page, the apps were starting to get on my nerve. I had something that would import Tumblr and WordPress posts, but it was asking and re-asking permission every few weeks. When I realized that it had not posted in a few weeks, I was just plain frustrated. It didn’t bring much traffic either, but I will miss posting pictures with all the sharing ease it possessed. But, after all the other Facebook crap of the last couple of weeks, I just let it go.

On The Fence: Oh, LinkedIn. You’re like that person from high school who thinks that after graduation we should all stay in contact with each other. I keep getting emails from them so every now and then I go clear out all my messages and invitations. There are some people I know who really know how to work that site in terms of getting consulting and speaking gigs. God bless them, but it looks more exhausting to me than I care to do. I updated my profile and added my TechSoup writing to my experience, but I don’t know what else to do. Sure, I’d like more writing and speaking gigs and be able to help out libraries create social media strategies, but I’m still not entirely converted to the value professed to exist (nor am I willing to pay for the upgrade). I’ll keep it for now, but only because it’s a good passive billboard.

Keeping: Twitter is by far one of my strongest online presences professionally, so that’s certainly going to stay. I have lots of good contacts on Facebook so that will remain as part of my online “personal” life (yes, even if it is being supervised by the NSA). I’m enjoying being on Imgur, but I still have my toes in the water on that one. There is another social media website that I’m keeping, but it’s my last bastion of online privacy (I know, har har) so I have to defend it by keeping it secret.

I’m going to take another shot at Tumblr. All those Tumbrarian/Tumblrarian posts have made me take another look at the service. I enjoyed using it for the New Jersey Library Roadshow back in the fall since it can handle any kind of post, but I’ve had a harder time getting into the habit of using/checking it. The shame for me is that I really like how easy it is, how many formats I can post in, and how the new interface has moved along. I’ve used it in the past for "A View from Your Desk” (a collection of pictures taken from people’s library workspaces) and “LOLbrarian” (homemade memes). Right now, with it being connected to Twitter, it has worked well for things I want to post that are longer than a tweet. I’ll have to get better at tagging posts and adding content on a regular basis.

For what it’s worth, this cleaning has been very cathartic for me. In deleting some accounts and out of date blogs, I’ve removed some of the internet debris I’ve left lying around. I highly suggest taking a close look at your online footprint and taking action where needed.

It’s good to do a little housekeeping.

Pride and Publicity Prejudice

In the Philadelphia radio market, there is a news station that has been on the air as long as I can remember. On this station, there is an advertisement for a marketing firm that has been playing for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall it completely without the prompts, but it goes something like this:

“A man wakes up and gets out of his advertised bed. He eats a breakfast of advertised coffee and advertised bread, toasted in an advertised toaster. He puts on advertised clothes, looks at his advertised watch, gets in his advertised car, and drives to work. But he refuses to advertise for his business because he says advertising doesn’t pay.”

You get the picture; this is the tale of someone who is bombarded by images, messages, and branding everyday yet doesn’t see it in his own life. It’s the advertisement equivalent of the cerulean belt in which we think we make independent decisions when it comes to product selection. But, in reality, we’re more likely to pick up a brand that we’ve heard something about (anything, really) because we have had some sort of encounter with its advertising. Familiarity, even in passing, is a higher favorable factor versus the unknown or when all other factors seem to be the same.

I’ve been thinking about advertising, publicity, and marketing in the library world since last week after viewing this TED talk by Dan Pallotta about the way we think about charities and non-profits. My enthusiasm for TED talks has cooled over the years, a result of seeing how much the events tend to be the focus rather than actually supporting (as the TED motto goes) ideas worth spreading. But I digress.

For those who want to skip to the chase here, one of the excellent points Dan makes is in regard to our misguided notion of how overhead should work in charities and non-profits.  In essence, spending money on the cause is good and spending any money on non-cause related things is bad (even if it raises more money/awareness). Overhead and administration are considered the anathema of the noble purpose and good deeds that these organizations are set up to do. But, in putting such restrictions and pressures on these groups, it ignores two important points.

First, in keeping administration costs as low as possible, it makes it hard (if not impossible) to attract the talent that would take the organization further into the future. Even if the organization is raising millions of dollars a year, six figure executive pay is considered outrageous even in a multi-million dollar charitable operation. The Stanford MBA isn’t going to join such an organization when he can work a regular job at his market rate salary and then donate generously.  This goes across the board with other organization talent (accountants, lawyers, marketing, etc.) because these groups don’t have the salary to make them attractive.

Second, the pressure to keep overhead low makes getting the message out harder. Spending $40,000 for a full page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times is considered an extravagant expense despite the fact that it brings in donations that cover the cost many times over. Publicity campaigns are considered wasteful when in fact getting the message out and finding more people to support the cause is vital to an organization’s survival. But, in the topsy turvy logic that is applied to charities and non-profits, that kind of spending is thought as a fraud of the donor’s intent when they gave to the organization.

I’ve experienced something like that first hand at my library a few years back. A gentleman came in and wanted to donate a bag of books. When they were shown to me by the circulation person, they were nothing new or popular and in so-so condition. So I took them out and put them on our ongoing book sale.

You would have thought I had run over the guy’s dog. He left muttering about how AWFUL it was that the library had put HIS donation out on the book sale. Those books were meant to improve the collection and he wasn’t ever going to donate to the library ever AGAIN. I would say that he clearly didn’t understand the functional definition of “donation” and what it entails, but my tale isn’t anything unusual in the public library world. I could write a treatise on the matter since people will donate (or attempt to donate, if we can stop them in time) the damned things that they would otherwise be embarrassed to put out at a yard sale. From that point forward, anyone who has offered a donation to me has been given the long version of the fine print about how we can do whatever we want with the donation and the many possible outcomes.

In thinking about that incident as it relates to the Pollotta TED talk, the expectations of donations and the perception of public libraries neatly dovetail together. Would people still donate materials and money to the public library if they were told that the money would be used to publicize programs, advertise services, or branding? To double down on this question: would be taxpayers be as supportive knowing that their tax money was going spent in the same way? I believe public libraries are caught in that Catch-22: we need to spend money in order to maximize our reach into the community, but every dollar not spent on materials is perceived as wasteful, unwarranted, or even unethical.

I don’t see this as a broad spectrum problem in the public library world, but an issue for medium to small sized libraries and library systems. Larger urban libraries tend to have their own marketing and publicity departments. But even those lucky organizations seem to focus on larger scope image and branding campaigns, not the nitty-gritty of your average monthly program cycle of storytimes and book talks at a local branch. I know that there are smaller libraries out there that have the kind of publicity staff that I’m describing here, but those arrangements are more of an exception to the rule.

Based on current funding trends, it’s hard to imagine that any sort of non-MLS staff will be added to the library payroll. Combined with depressed salaries, what reasonable marketing expert is going to accept such a position when they can be do much better in the private sector? In trying to keep such overhead low so as to minimize impact to collection budget lines, there isn’t any room to make to add that kind of talent to the staff.

But, with these factors in mind, here’s the bind I see: how are public libraries going to re-brand themselves for the digital age when the funding and the talent don’t exist? And for the people who want to argue as to whether the public library really needs a re-branding, I’m sorry to inform you that that ship has sailed. It left port once the line, “We are more than just books”, became a cliché within the field. (As I recall from Stephen Abram’s keynote at NJLA this year, we seem to say that line a lot and then quote circulation numbers to show how busy we are. What kind of stupid cognitive dissonance is that?) Hell, I still get people walking through the door who didn’t know we had internet access.

In looking at some of these lofty strategic plans that talk about providing services, creating community spaces, and all kinds of future babble, where are the points and plans for letting people actually know that these things exist? Who hasn’t worked a public desk and heard a library member exclaim, “I didn’t know you offered that!” Even now, after a year of lending museum passes, I regularly get calls from people who are just discovering it. I guess I should be happy that my current publicity efforts (which are also free) of press releases to the local papers, postings to the local Facebook group, and flyers all around the library (but not in town or anywhere outside the library) are slowly trickling through and find their way to people’s attention. Perhaps, in the days before I retire, my publicity messages will reach everyone in the community.

If those “libraries are in danger of not being relevant!” Chicken Littles want a new slogan to shout, it’s not that the public library will become irrelevant because we don’t offer the latest and greatest of bestsellers, technology, or 3D printing, it’s that people don’t know the extent of what we offered in the first place. Serendipitous discovery may be the allure of the physical bookshelf, but it should not be the primary method that the public learns about some of the lesser known aspects that their library offers. Doing a great job and hoping to God that we get noticed is not a strategy that will win the hearts and minds of our community in this cluttered, attention deficit driven world.

I have some solutions in mind, but I think that would be putting the horse in front of the cart. It has to be made a priority of the public library, not an afterthought or something that would fall into “other duties as assigned” on a job description. As much as I get compliments on the publicity stuff that I do, I know I don’t hold a candle to the real professionals. It can’t just be something that is assigned to a staff member who needs something to do on the desk; it has to be given to someone who knowledgeable in the field. If this means hiring outside the library or pooling money with other libraries to do it, then it needs to happen. Any solution I can think of will die on the vine if there isn’t the motivation to make it a prerogative.

So, with all this preamble, what remains to me is this hypothetical question for you, the reader:

Would you spend a $1,000 on items for the collection or would you take that money to reach 100 people who didn’t know that the library had a notary, offered training or computer classes, makerspaces, knitting groups, or other services, programs, and materials?

If you want to nitpick about the numbers, then cast them aside and break it down to its elemental components: money for collection stuff or money for letting people know about what is at the library? If we are an organization attending to the people of the community, then why don’t we make better efforts to communicate and educate what we offer to them? Even some of the most recognized brands in the world (Coca-Cola, Apple, Google, and BMW) advertise and the majority of people in the industrialized world know what they do without prompting. There might be more library locations than McDonalds in the United States, but I’m willing to bet that people could name more items off the their menu than tell me about the variety of materials and services are offered at their local library.

I’m sure there are parallels to be drawn to other library types, specifically whether students, faculty, teachers, parents, and administration are aware of what the library to offer. There are unique publicity challenges to be faced on those fronts as well, to be certain, as it should be made a priority as well. For what does it matter how much money is spent on a collection, resources, services, and materials if people don’t know it even exists?

Waiting for Batgirl

It’s the middle of another summer heat wave here in New Jersey, one that has been on an extended stay for the last week or so. It’s the kind of weather that makes me into a nocturnal cave dweller, hiding from the sunlight and trying only to move around at night. It’s a life of air conditioning and video games with forays to The Fiancée’s place and (of course) country dancing on Wednesday. Inevitably, the hours of solitude lead to extended introspection.

I haven’t been writing much on this blog as of late, something that I know in the past has been a cyclical thing. I partially blame the anxiety medication over the last couple of months that I’ve been taking which has sapped my concentration, raising the interest bar I have to maintain in order to write anything. I now have to feel very strongly about something in order to put fingers to keys; the words have to hound and haunt me over several days before I muster up the focus to type them. While it makes for better posts in the end (or at least I think so), there is less overall output as a result.

But, to be honest, I haven’t been reading much either in terms of library and librarian articles, columns, and blogs. I let the clock run out of Google Reader while transferring my subscriptions to Feedly on a just-in-case basis. In the last several months, I haven’t been able to bring myself to check it with any frequency. I blame myself partially for lack of curation in how I collected all those blogs (~200 feeds if I recall correctly), but the quality of writing has been lackluster for the past year or so. I mean, quite frankly, it’s terrible. And by terrible, I mean awful, boorish, and trite word slop that was vomited into a pre-packaged blog theme bucket.  I know my early stuff wasn’t great either, but it never sucked that badly. I just gave up because I got tired of picking the gems out of the turd pile.

It’s not that there aren’t any good writers out there in libraryland. I have ones that I subscribe to directly or check on frequently. It’s that a decent number of them stopped writing or reduced their output as well. Not that I blame them since this is a time and mind intensive exercise (as it bloody well should be), but I miss them between posts. Some of them are columnists for LJ and ALM so I know that posts are inevitable, if not always as frequent as I would want to them to be. Basically, there’s a drought of quality content.

Another part of my disinterest in blogging is a lack of compelling subjects. I don’t write about work because, well, people from my library system read this blog. While I have written about work in the past, it’s mostly been either puppies-and-rainbows positive or uncontroversial benign kinds of things. But I can’t write about some of the subjects I really want to talk about. Part of this is simple “do not bite the hand that feeds you” self preservation, part of this is to ensure continued future employment options (a different end of the self preservation spectrum), but I also believe that the library world doesn’t handle honest portrayals of the work place very well. Public dissent is considered gauche in a profession that proudly supports the societal provocateurs, miscreants, and iconoclasts but wants to keep discontent in-house. I could easily write a thousand entries about helping people on a daily basis, but the whole library façade will collapse and burn if I was write about my frustrations regarding a policy, decision, or the work environment. I could easily chalk this up to life not being fair or employment expectations of a government employee, but when it is reinforced across the profession rather than abhorred, things are fucked up.

The writing on the workplace that does happen tends to appear under pseudonyms, a mind boggling librarian blogging faux pas in which anonymity is wielded like a dagger against the content.  It’s the Catch-22 of libraryland: damned if you won’t reveal yourself to be evaluated as a source, damned if you put your name to your words since you’ll never work in this town again. Are people not clear on the anonymous forms of freedom of expression, something that (in theory) librarians support? Or is personal accountability so damn important that it overrides one’s rational ability to judge the words as they appear that it demands examination above all other traits?

Does the library world really support those who want to write frankly about their experiences? Edward Snowden gets a resolution of support of whistleblowers at the most recent ALA conference, but telling it like it is in libraryland gets you labeled as a malcontent, an attention whore, and/or a traitor to the cause. What is so poisonous about boldly writing about one’s work environment that it should become career hemlock? Is that even remotely right?

In my rational non-rant infested mind, I know there are hot button topics out there that should and do receive attention. These topics are lucky enough to have people who are better suited to bringing attention to them, sharing updates, and bringing their expertise and perspective to the conversation. I’m talking about topics like copyright, information access, the digital divide, the school librarian in the education system, the library as an collegiate asset, the changing role of public libraries in their communities, and changing value and perception of information in present day life. This isn’t a complete list, but it sure doesn’t include some of the breathless bullshit that people stroke themselves into a self-righteous lather over. “Hey everyone, here’s a list put together by an website intern about how being a librarian is a terrible occupation!” “Look, another news article that makes a Dewey joke!” “This librarian stereotype makes us look old and stupid!”

Perhaps the problem isn’t that these things exist, it’s that there are no alternatives to them. The energy used to create a rebuttal is the same stuff that could help forge a new image, message, or prerogative. But the masturbatory allure that accompanies the satisfaction of low boiling point outrage proves to be too much for some people. Sure, we could talk about the price of graduate school, the public image of the profession, integration of public administration, public policy, and marketing principles into the field, but who gives a shit when it’s so much easier to pitch a toddler-like temper tantrum at someone who doesn’t see the point of libraries, get in a snit about someone wondering if hooking up at a library conference is a good idea, chide others over their personal appearance at work and professional forums, or have an aneurysm of the mere notion that someone is using the term “rockstar librarian”. I know that every single library conversation can’t be about such lofty topics (and God knows how much I have lent my voice to some truly banal ones), but when these kinds of bullshit topics become the most common catalyst for any sort of animated professional discussion, things are fucked up. 

These days, I find myself in a version of The Waiting Place from the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! On one hand, the kinds of projects that I want to be involved with are in one form or another where I’m not in a position to act on them. They live on my idea board, waiting to be awakened from their slumber. I’m waiting for things to happen, people to come around, and the timing to be better. (To be fair, the wedding has taken over a good portion of my life at this point.) On the other hand, being in a spotlight is really tiring. It’s not that I don’t like talking about library advocacy, about some of the projects and causes I’ve been involved with over the years to bring attention to the profession, or being able to use my soapbox to push issues or ideas, but it’s my professional peers that drag me down.

This is well tread territory on this blog and in the field itself, but I still can’t understand what compels such petty and self loathing behavior. Nothing is more suspect than having an ego and nothing is worse than self promotion. It’s backward ass thinking that imagines that the library is first, the collection second, and the staff last. That kind of Byzantine logic would suggest that teenagers when I was growing up had their bedroom wall decorations all wrong: they should have had a poster of a basketball, then possibly a poster of the Chicago Bulls logo, but never a poster of Michael Jordan. Yes, Jordan was part of a team whose efforts helped him post those career record stats, but he was also a draw to the game, a role model to both youth and adults, and a prominent figure within the sport. If basketball was like librarianship, Jordan’s teammates would have yelled at him for scoring too damn much and to knock off those “take off at the free throw line” slam dunks.

At present, there is no one who would universally accepted as a public figure representing the library world. People are waiting for Batgirl, a combination of librarian and superhero in which the good deeds of the latter will never be directly attributed to the former. In one respect, she is the mild mannered professional who goes to work and does her job without much fanfare. But this is in contrast to the amazing and extraordinary things for the community, saving lives in the most literal of comic book ways. But these actions exist as part of a secret identity, known only to (for the most appropriate term here) “the right people”. And so it goes in the librarian field: do great things, but do them as anonymously as possible.

Instead of this bleak vision, I’d like to imagine that librarianship is the goddamn armed forces of information. Each library type and position has its place in the greater context of a team effort. Some are part of the infantry or sailors, some are part of special forces or task forces, and others work to keep all the parts running. No one is fit for every role possible, but there is no reason to deny others that niche. Our collective function is to get timely and accurate information to those who seek, information access for those who need it, and become the “third place” of importance for our communities. As egalitarian as we like to believe we are, there still has to be leaders and followers, everyday heroes, and extraordinary men and women who put themselves out there for their library and the profession. And that’s not a bad thing.

In a way, this blog post has been a long time coming. Some of the angst and vitriol of the last couple of months has been simmering and just writing it out has been quite cathartic. As my writing has been progressing on here, I have been trying to bring myself around to being more open, honest, and vulnerable. It’s been tough at times, but I’ve found the most reward in the feedback I’ve gotten from the personal posts where I’ve talked from my heart.

I had a funny moment as I was reading previous passages where I thought, “Should I actually say some of these things?”, then realized that the words would come tumbling out of their own accord if you bought me two drinks and asked me what I thought of the library world. It was the difference of saying them versus writing them, airing them online versus anyone who would listen at a library conference bar. If I’ve played my cards right, this post be a self fulfilling prophesy for the people who read it; the ones who don’t like me already will think how much of an ass I am for saying such things (clutch those pearls tightly, children) and the ones who do like me will love it for its tone and message (another round for my dear friends).  Will this post change anything other than people’s perceptions of me? I can hope, but they do shoot messengers around here.