Banned Books Bollocks 2013

It’s that time of year again and this will be my fifth (fifth! My God!) post on Banned Books Week. While I have used another curse word in the title in previous editions, I thought I might switch it up to one of my favorite English (as in UK, not as language) curse words. My thoughts on the week have evolved as I’ve learned more about the week, how it is treated, and the circumstances around it. Eventually, I’ll tell you the whole story behind some of these thoughts, but that’s for another year day.

In seeing the pictures shared on social media of various banned book displays, I keep feeling like there is an element missing from those exhibits. There is lots of emphasis on the fact that the books have been challenged or banned and how subversive, notorious, or socially unacceptable they are, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold approach to enticing people to consider reading them. But I haven’t seen is an explanations provided as to why those books have been challenged or banned. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t one of the main reasons for the week is to talk about the controversy surrounding the content? It’s like asking about the contents of healthy meal and being told, “just eat it, it’s good for you”. Here, read this, someone else didn’t like it enough to try to get it removed somewhere for… reasons.

The only thing I’ve seen that has worked to address the underlying reasons has been Kelly Jensen’s excellent post on Bookriot. She gives a brief explanation as well as links to primary sources for some of the latest book challenges. These abstracts are short enough that I can see someone printing them out and adding them as a insert into the books on their display. The only thing I feel is missing is a closing argument as to why the person should read it anyway. “Here’s a book, here’s why people have challenged it, and here’s why you should read it.” And not one of those “make up your own mind” positions, but something more akin to reader’s advisory about the plot, characters, and the kind of story it tells. This is the kind of follow through that I believe is necessary to show the literary and artistic merits that are so commonly called upon as a defense of the work. Simply hanging a bunch of signs to denote their challenged or banned status is all style with no substance.

Beyond that, I think an important underlying principle that gets lost in the push for people to read these books is the freedom to discuss the ideas they represent. If the purpose of the event is the preservation of differing and possibly unpopular perspectives, then where is the call for dialogue? I can hear my cynical heart mocking me on this point, snickering while it says, “Oh yes, civil discourse on the internet. Good luck with that.” I concede that fact that there is a unhealthy amount of online discussions that split in the factions of “I’m right” versus “You’re an asshole”; and those that don’t start that way can very easily end up marching slowly towards Godwin territory.

Even more troubling to me is seeing some of my librarian peers who proclaim their love of intellectual freedom but react poorly when actually faced with differing viewpoints. It is not a trait unique to the library world, but it is one of believing in the freedom of expression so long as it is words of agreement. I’m not sure how people so eloquently manage such cognitive dissonance, but it’s pretty breathtaking to see in action. I’ll concede that the human mind is capable of many kinds of contradictions, but bragging how open minded you are while marginalizing those who don’t agree with you is still pretty damn amazing. To wit, it reminds of that famous quote from the television journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Even so, there should be a call for debate on the issues that get brought up related to the work. The issues that they face, the decisions the characters make, and the implications of their actions are all worthy of examination. Furthermore, when it comes to children’s, juvenile, and young adult literature, the content versus the relative maturity of the audience is also an important conversation to have. The middle ground is overshadowed by the reactions of the extremes, leaving very little room for compromise or dialogue. I know these aren’t new to anyone, but they seem to be discarded easily once the lines have been drawn.

For my part, I helped put together a national campaign to encourage people (librarians, library staff, the public, anyone) to report book challenges or removals to the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the ALA about two years ago. It’s still there, it’s still important, and I still hold out hope that people take a moment to be courageous and speak up, even if it is anonymously. Jessamyn West has a nice roundup as to what different groups are doing for Banned Books Week so take a moment to check it out.

Previous Banned Book Week posts: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

Oyster, The Netflix of Books

The latest buzz from the publishing world has been the release of an app called Oyster (aka the “Netflix of Books”). At $10 a month, this subscription service gets you (at the time of this post) access to about 100,000 titles. These titles are all from the only publisher on board right now, HarperCollins. There is no limit on the number of books that a person can view in a month. It’s more expensive than Amazon Prime but has better borrowing terms (Kindle Library allows for only 1 book per month). It’s only available for the iOS right now, but I’m sure they’ll be rolling out other platforms in the near future.

To a certain extent, the app was inevitable; if people can rent movies, then why not books? It was a matter of getting the content providers (namely, publishers) on board with the idea. A few years ago, this notion would have been unthinkable and seen as an impediment to the development of the eBook market. The push was to buy the books, not to borrow (or even rent) them. So what has changed?

I believe the factor that has changed is the value of user data; specifically, the collection of data related to reading habits. Amazon doesn’t hide the fact that it tracks the reader from how much of a book or article is read to how long people read to what parts of a book slow people down. But their numbers are proprietary, their giant industry trump card, and the fuel that is helping them make decisions about their own foray in the publishing world. This is the industry intelligence that the publishers who are not Amazon are lagging behind on.

In the past, there have been signals from the publishing world that they would look more favorably upon libraries if we allowed them to collect the same information about readers from eBook borrowers. They have been resoundingly turned down for a good number of reasons, the first and foremost being that of patron privacy. Amazon skirts this principle by having the transaction go through their website and making the person subject to their terms and conditions. The Nook is in unstable territory as its fate rests with Barnes & Noble and their storefronts. Apple isn’t as much of an option as their bookstore has gone soft. So, what kind of options are left for them?

I think that Oyster has great potential for the consumer by filling a desired niche, but I think that one of the main compelling reasons for publishers to provide their material is to collect their own data about readers. What can be learned about their audiences represents a gold mine for future business decisions, marketing forecasts, and targeted advertising that will help keep the publishing industry afloat in the coming years. It’s not that the titles aren’t worth trying to sell anymore, it’s that the reader information has become more valuable. The new economy isn’t so much about the product, but about how much you know about the people who use it.

EDIT: I originally wrote that it was cheaper than Amazon Prime. It’s not. I corrected that line. Thanks to Frank for pointing out my simple math error.  

National Badass Library Card Sign-Up Month, Reloaded

Two years ago, I got sidetracked on a blog post and made up something I called “National Badass Library Card Signup Month”. I created a bunch of images instead of writing a blog post that I had in my head since the inspiration for the images came easy and the words for the post were proving to be difficult. Some of the images reflect the memes of the day (Chuck Testa) while some have aged much better (animated library card Nyan Cat). I wanted to do something last year, but I ran out of mental energy. But, as you can probably guess where this post is going, I’m getting back on the saddle.

30 memes, 30 days.

That’s what I’m calling it. I made an image for each day of the month all related in some way to National Library Card Sign-up Month. Each day at noon (US Eastern Standard Time) starting on September 1st, an image will be posted to my Tumblr. They cover a vast array of meme themes from the classics to the contemporary with all manner of pop culture thrown between. It’s been fun bringing my love of libraries together with my love of memes.

Special thanks to my brother Pete for helping me refine jokes and pick memes. When the Woodworth brothers get together on something, it’s always a great time. Pete is a writer as well so be sure to check out his published works.

Don’t miss this!

The Eternal Clouds of the Anxious Mind

I have anxiety.

It may seem strange to some, but I labored over the wording of that first sentence. Other phrases like “live with”, “suffer from”, and “have been diagnosed with” didn’t seem to quite capture the nuance I was seeking. It’s not an unwanted roommate on equal footing with the rest of my mind and all I have to do is find a way to evict it. While there are times when I suffer from the symptoms that relate to anxiety, I don’t feel it warrants a term that is more aptly used to describe people in pain, torture, or other greater forms of physical or psychological duress. The diagnosis angle seems too impersonal and clinical for my preferences in approaching this topic as a blog post. While I won’t deny other people the right to use these terms for their own anxiety, I’m not a fan.

In combating the symptoms, I’ve been taking a low dose of anti-anxiety medication for the last few months. Prior to that, I had not been a big fan of the SSRI drug family. My first experience with these kinds of drugs was not the product of anxiety or depression, but as a migraine preventative. Where previous migraine bouts were limited to a couple of headaches over a couple of months then years apart, the migraines I experienced in my late 20’s decided to go full time. I was getting them every day or every other day which, combined with a visual aura followed by extreme light and noise sensitivity, puts a giant crimp on daily life. The SSRI I took then stopped them cold within a day and brought a scary health episode to a close. The downside while I was taking them was a lack of moods and insomnia, a combination that lead to lying awake in bed to think about why I didn’t have much emotional range. These aren’t exactly the best thoughts for lulling yourself to sleep each night. In later years, I took another drug from the SSRI group on a short term basis to deal with depression associated with my divorce. I had to switch medications because of the side effects which included those really bad thoughts they warn you about. While I would prefer not to be on medication, I can’t argue with the positive results with another drug from the same group this time. 

The mental health history of my family tree reads like the lineage of European nobility, for it is long and illustrious and apparently a tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next. I have three family members with paranoid schizophrenia diagnoses (a great uncle and two second cousins once removed). Beyond that, I’d have to take off my shoes to count the number of family members who have dealt with anxiety, depression, addiction, OCD, and other mental conditions over the course of their lives. Needless to say, family reunions are never dull.

There are times when I wonder how much (if at all) these mental illnesses influence my own mind. Do I have those occasional disturbing, haunting thoughts because I have an overactive imagination or it is the product of a dissociative condition? The realistic answer is former but the anxious mind doesn’t completely agree which is enough to put the splinter of doubt at the periphery. It shouldn’t be that way since I had an MRI of my brain done a couple years back when I was experiencing visual distortions every now and again. My neurologist went over the results and told me that my brain was structurally normal which also rules out other conditions. (Me, after finding out the results: “Good, I can now tell me I have a normal brain.” Neurologist, without missing a beat: “The structure is normal. This doesn’t cover function.”) 

I’ve wanted to write about anxiety for awhile because talking about it has always been helpful to me. The reality of acknowledgment always edges out any horrible possibilities that my mind can conjure while some obstacles just evaporate or become clearer by simply articulating them. The mental isolation, that all too often feeling that I am the only one in the world who can understand what it is like, melts away as others open up about their experiences. Sunshine, as they say, is the ultimate disinfectant and it has held true for me when it comes to anxiety. It’s not a silver bullet but it curtails the influence that anxiety can exert over me.

During his lifetime, Winston Chruchill referred to bouts of his depression as visits from his “black dog”. I wouldn’t call my anxiety that (mainly because I like dogs), but I can appreciate the frame of reference: something that comes and goes without much indication as to duration or frequency. Since my massive panic attack back in February, I’ve been on the march back towards the (relatively) normal life that I had before that time period. I’m much better than I was and continue to improve as time slowly marches that event further into my past and, yes, I still have a ways to go.

When and how it will make itself known in the future, I can’t possibly guess. But I will try to stick to that little phrase I picked up during my semester abroad in Australia so many years ago:

“No worries.”

Programming Unconference Northeast 2013

I’m proud to say that I’m one of the unconference unorganizers (as we have dubbed ourselves) for Programming Unconference Northeast on September 27th at the Darien Public Library in Darien, Connecticut. It should be a great day of meeting and discussing programming topics and issues with my fellow librarians as well as hearing Lisa Carlucci Thomas give the keynote. Since I helped organize a school librarian conference a year and a half back, I’ve grown to love the format. It really helps to connect with other librarian and learn from their experience as well as provide your own knowledge to them.

My partner in crime is Erin Shea from Darien PL who has been gracious enough to put up with my pestering over the last couple of months. The original idea for a programming unconference originated from her and my friend Janie Hermann from Princeton PL. With any luck, there is going to be a Jersey one in early 2014 , but this was a good way to give it a trial run. I’m really looking forward to it and I know it’s going to be a blast!

For those interested, there is more information (including registration) on the website. This is a free conference which will also be providing a lunch for attendees. Yeah, it’s full of lots of win!

Hope to see you there!

Guns, Porn, and Library Makerspaces

A few months back, the story that a 3D printer created a working (albeit fragile and limited) plastic gun shot around the news in libraryland. As I recall, the reaction in my social circles was swift and decidedly against allowing library 3D printers for such a purpose, despite the fine print about the economics and viability of the guns. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of how some librarians can be in love with the First Amendment and abandon the Second as if the Bill of Rights was a buffet. The argument could made that words and ideas are far more dangerous than guns, but this post isn’t about that.

In thinking about 3D printers and what kind of limits should be imposed on them, I started wondering about the other big makerspace setup in libraries: digital media labs. While I can see weapons being restricted or banned on library 3D printers (whether it is reasonable or not is another matter), what kinds of limits would librarians place on media creation? What kinds of limits exist already? Could a person record a music track that has violent and/or sexual content? What about visual art with the same content? Granted, some of these examples are well within the boundaries of the librarian free speech ideals, but here’s the question I’m leading up to:

Could someone use a library digital media lab to create and/or edit a pornographic movie?

On one hand, limitations against this kind of material are already established. Most public libraries don’t have a subscription to Playboy (the gold standard of pornography in libraries) and have generally avoided sexual materials due to theft and vandalism. Another rationale is that it would be more trouble than its worth, a case in which the public policy trumps the First Amendment and freedom of expression. There’s nothing wrong with picking your battles, especially in the long game of public relations and budgeting.

On the other hand, there have been steps taken to allow people to view pornography on the computers at the library. Why would the creation of it be any different? This might be some of my libertarian roots showing, but what consenting adults do is their business. (I’m sure this point can be bogged down by a million ‘what ifs’, so I’ll concede that it’s not a blanket pass on all content.) If we allow people to put sexual content in their music and visual art, why not be able to make an amateur adult film in our digital media labs?

Like many grey areas in libraryland, I’m sure there is going to be a diverse reaction to this end of freedom of expression. Just like some libraries ban guns and others welcome them, I’m sure there will be a similar dichotomy when it comes to restrictions (or lack thereof) on creating adult content, be it music, art, or film.

My hope is that that libraries will side on the less restrictive side, favoring the freedoms (expression, intellectual) that we hold so dear. Libraries should be the organization that gives people permission to be themselves, no matter what the prevailing societal and cultural winds dictate. It’s in our very nature to collect and protect material that which is deemed unsavory; this ideal should be extended to the individual.

Hurtling Towards Relevance

In the last few years, the navel gazing around the question of the library’s relevance in modern life makes an regular appearance. There isn’t anything in particular right now that made me think of the topic, but it crossed my mind towards the end of last week. In running errands last weekend, the thought occurred to me that the library isn’t pulling away from the information trends of contemporary society, but rather we are squarely in the path. It’s all in a matter of how you measure it.

In essence, I see it under the umbrella perspective as to how information is treated and managed. Copyright and intellectual property are the elephant in the room for the economic vitality of not only the United States, but the world. It’s a simple idea (the benefits of the creator versus the general public) that has become a deeply complicated global problem subject to the sway of money, politics, and power. It’s part of the emergence of the knowledge economy, one that is based on services that essentially collect, process, analyze, and package information. Manufacturing is never going to be what it once was in the United States, not when Chinese and Bangladeshi companies will do the same job cheaper. But the products of creativity and intellect are ones generally do not need geography, so rights and ownership are the hotly contested principles that should easily fall into the library realm. This is a chance for librarians to make the case on behalf of the public for laws and regulations that make sense in the digital world, both in rewarding the creator and in making their creation available as widely as possible.

This connects into the academic world with announcements such as the University of California faculty adopting an open access mandate. The elemental nature of this part and parcel to the librarian ideal of information access. The tide of Open Access (in its various incarnations) represents a breaking of the knowledge silos that keep knowledge within the confines of paywalls and embargos. It’s an exciting prospect in which researchers and academics have the possibility of getting new discoveries faster. It’s an opportunity for librarians to make new and better connections between research areas and data sets as well as the latest results.

There are other connections to make here, especially in the physical sense. Broadband access to rural locations are part of our information access ideals as well as essential in the aforementioned knowledge economy. This physical end of the digital divide plays a real role in the education and economics of the areas that are beyond the fiber lines. The triumphs of digital education are lost in the slower signal of the DSL or modem squeal. Libraries are common community focal points for those looking to reach the online world; this is our chance to push for them to meet this most basic of needs.

I’m certain there are others, but I think this illustrates my point. If we look to our old metrics for determining relevance, we are going to lose. But if we look at the issues that are pressing right now, we could not possibly be more relevant. A information professional in an information world; it really doesn’t get any more front-and-center than this. The only thing irrelevant here is doubt.

The Long Suffering Librarian

Beyond the intellectual freedom, information access, and other lovely sounding principles, I’m thinking that one of the common bonds between librarians is a masochism streak. I’ll take some liberties with this notion and accept one of the Merriam-Webster non-sexual definition entries that uses a great phrase, “a taste for suffering”. While we as a profession find common cause in working towards justice in its social, economic, and educational forms, it is our nature at enduring suffering that build the bonds between us faster than an open bar at a vendor social event.

Right now, you don’t have to travel very far to get antagonized. To the general public, the Internet is frontrunner for putting the library out of business as all that is needed to replicate the form and function of a library is an internet connection and Kindle. It’s a world that conflates information for knowledge, as if the prerequisite for performing open heart surgery is finding a video of it on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a strong contender as a reference desk killer for general and trivia kinds of inquiries like who won the 1958 Best Picture Oscar. But it has a long way still to climb in transitioning as an academic support model to full blown education program (MOOCs are a transitional state for this ideal, in my estimation). Even then, we know internet access is not universal whether we are looking at computer labs in urban areas or waiting for broadband in rural ones. Nevermind how the Kindle and eBooks in general are not panning out to be the paper killer, something an email account could have told them in the story of the paperless office. The information access haves seem to be perpetually surprised by the have-nots, even though the haves possess access to the resources that would tell them all about the have-nots.

Wrap your head around that enigma.

But the animosity doesn’t stop here. Public librarians get caught up in the loop of anti-government anti-tax sentiments that ignore the basic cost/benefit analysis that would reveal that their tax money is actually working. They are the soft targets of governmental budget crunches, a place where money can be borrowed or taken to pay off other outstanding expenses. School librarians get the unique disrespect of not being considered educators just like teachers, as if learning was dependent on the existence of a classroom setting. They are swept into the category of administration, the fancy term for overhead, and given their walking papers in lean times despite evidence about how they impact student achievement scores. Academic librarians face pressures for various angles, whether it is the deprofessionalization of their positions or static budgets with increasing journal subscription costs while publishers tangle with thoughts of print embargoes and open access. I thought I read an article relating how faculty have lowered the importance of the library as a higher education research, but I can’t find it. I don’t know what to say for special librarians, but I would guess it falls somewhere between funding issues and probably some prick out there who thinks that whatever they are curating and collecting isn’t worth it.

While we are at it, toss in the suffering at the hands of publishers and industry vendors. The strange and strained relationship with publishers is one in which they need us for promotion and purchasing but quietly lobby against our underlying principles: First Sale doctrine, copyright, and fair use. eBooks is just a quagmire of rights and licenses, wrapped up in schemes at both taking the most amount of money and control away from libraries. In terms of vendors, the vast amount of anguish comes through their concept of interfaces. If the ILS systems are the eyes into the window of the library’s catalog soul, they are the gaze of the damned, doomed to needlessly consume the user’s time. If I work there and I have problems finding things in the catalog, what chance does the regular person have? Why does this continue to play out this way?

The topper to this litany of disrespect are the well played out stereotypes and typical questions that come with being a librarian. The public image sways between a ribald sex kitten and bun headed shushing methuselah, readers who can’t tolerate any noise above a whisper. The men are gay or unusually effeminate, the women are secret whores, but hey, at least people think librarians are smart. Then the questions or jokes play out: Do you know the Dewey Decimal system? So, you like to read? And the king of these unmindful questions: Librarian is still a career? (Runner up: You need a degree to do that?) The astonishing, mind numbing part is that people think that it is a perfectly valid query and not the rude, obnoxious loaded question that it actually is. Are the rules of decorum suspended because one doesn’t think a career is real, despite strong evidence to the contrary?

But, personally, I think this kind of anguish pales in comparison to what the profession can do to its members and itself. This is well trod territory for this blog over the years and a recurring theme when I talk to librarians about the profession. These days, I don’t which is worse: the stuff that is said out loud or the stuff that people remain silent on. I was going to recount some of the behaviors that are poisonous, but I’d be cannibalizing my previous material. Needless to say, it is an extension of the suffering we endure.

I’ll concede that the whole job isn’t just suffering or that we take pleasure in suffering. But I think that there is a vast amount of suffering the profession will and currently does endure and I’m not sure how much of it is needless. Do we languish in our own agony? Is it easier to suffer than to stand up and make a change? And, if so, why is that?

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.