Rocket Ship to the Moon

I didn’t make it through the entire Cosmos series when it was on television, but there was something in the first coupe of episodes I watched that stuck with me. The concept of the observable universe is something I’ve known, but the thought that there could be things beyond that had never crossed my mind. To imagine that the universe could be older than the oldest light we have measured simply because that light has not yet arrived was a mind blower. It’s a simple yet powerful thought that reminds me of the limits of human observation.

The concept of radical librarianship has come up in the online world recently, started off by a post by David Lankes and a reply by Melissa Powell. David says:

Too many see the idea of a radical librarianship as a sort of extreme political partisanship. That is wrong. Radical librarians see librarianship as a chance to make a positive difference in their community. They see their mission to not simply promote reading, or to inform a community. Instead radical librarians, the kind we need, see their mission as the improvement of society. They see their role and the instruments of their institutions as engaging a community and addressing the issues that have exploded in Ferguson. Addressing these issues not with tear gas and rubber bullets, but through pizza, magic shows, and learning.

A quote from Melissa:

Radical is NOT pink hair, crazy clothes, over the top programming.  Yes, some of the best radical librarians do have different hair styles, dress differently, and have the most amazing abilities to create the most incredible programs, however that is not “Radical” in and of itself.  Radical is the library staff member who comes up with the idea that is “outside of the library”, in that it is outside the norms we call the library paradigm.  Makes the partnership, creates a service, opens their eyes to what the community needs.  They are aware, awake, and in tune with the role of the library as organization can play in their community, beyond books, beyond programs.

In reading both concepts, I find myself leaning more towards David’s take.  I’m not trying to slight the idea of making a positive difference in a community, but I feel like he’s aiming too low. Like the edges of the observable universe, I wonder at how much further it could go beyond that.

I can appreciate the idea that small changes lay the groundwork to larger ones, the core of the common mantra of “think globally, act locally”. But I can’t help but wonder how many of my peers take the first part to heart. I wonder how many define success as getting people to think “wow, I didn’t know the library did that” versus “wow, the way I see the world around me is different”. The attitude about the library should be a byproduct, not part of the goal.

To my mind, radical librarianship is not about using the role and tools of the institution to make a positive change so much as it is using all of the resources possible. Like the booster rockets in our forsaken space program, the library is the means to push individuals, groups, people, businesses, communities, etc. beyond the bounds of our Earthly atmosphere. The fuel is a well known but little understood combination of “whatever it takes”: books, music, movies, downloadable content, community partnerships, grants, sponsorships, meeting groups, networking, politicians, and everything including the kitchen sink.

If you define issues and situations with the library as a constant factor, then all of your solutions will be constrained by the limitations of the library. It is not about what the library can or cannot do, but what the library chooses or not chooses to do.  There is always a choice and context provides the factors for any decision point. The library as an institution is a tool, not the entire toolbox.

As for those rockets, they don’t make it to space; they fall back to Earth, recovered, and re-used in the next mission. They also don’t make it to the moon, but they’ve sent a lot of people there. Perhaps the metaphor should have ended further up the page, but I wanted to point out that they were not discarded (at least as part of the Space Shuttle program).

But as soon as we treat librarianship as public transit, a means to get people from one end of town to the other, and not a space program for the mind, then there is no longer a need for librarians. The notion of radical librarianship needs to go beyond even what we think it is. It is not about leaving behind current practices, but expanding beyond them. It needs to push boundaries in places we’ve never gone before.

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.

Anonymous Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Least We Are Not Lawyers

Does this sound familiar?

[…] a number of recent or current law students are saying—or screaming—that they made a mistake. They went to law school, they say, and now they’re underemployed or jobless, in debt, and three years older. And statistics show that the evidence is more than anecdotal.

Replace the word “law” with “library” and it resembles some of the talks, blog posts, and other articles I’ve seen or heard about. In reading the whole article, there are parallels that I think you will find a bit familiar. Promises of employment (the whole ‘greying profession’ myth), salaries falling short of debt (the most recent Library Journal issue feature article), and institutions churning out a higher number of professionals versus the market need (5,192 graduates per year vs estimated average 2,820 retirements per year [pg39]).

Anyone else a bit perturbed by that?

The Master’s Degree Misperception, Ctd.

Based on some of the reaction that I have received, I think I should try to provide a better example as to the point I’m trying to make. The easiest way for me to illustrate a point is with a metaphor, so bear with me.

Imagine libraries as being like the Army. Some people (paraprofessionals) enlist in the army while others (librarians) go to West Point or Officer Candidate school. Each group is taught the same set of skill basics that are needed to carry out the core mission of the Army. Once they have graduated from their programs, they are arranged into military units in which officers and enlisted operate in the same field space. Though they are seen side by side and can perform some of the same operations, they have different backgrounds and training.

In my perspective, what is happening in libraryland would be the equivalent of the constant comingling of the duties of the officers and enlisted. For librarians like myself, it arises to the question “Why did I get an MLS for this?” (or, to continue the Army metaphor, “Why did I go to officer training when I just could have enlisted?”) It’s not a matter as to whether or not the duties or skills of the paraprofessional are valuable or not; it’s a matter of the investment of time and resources by a librarian to allow them to step into higher library organizational functions. I don’t think I’m alone (and judging from some of the notes I have received, I’m not) in being someone who believes that because I spent the time, energy, and money in getting the advanced degree that my duties within the library should reflect that.

One might easily point out that there are no guarantees in this life; that the degree does not confer a magical ascent up on the library hierarchy to where a person “believes” they should be. But I don’t think it’s an unreasonable, pompous, or elitist presumption to believe in. And why not? If I was training for long distance running for the Olympics, I would think a high school track meet is beyond my level of training. It’s not because the high school track meet is terrible or unworthy of my attention, but because my training is not on the same level.   

Yes, there are paraprofessionals who can (and have) stepped into these roles and done well; that aspect is beside my point. I’m sure each librarian of this post can point to the positive and negative aspects of their paraprofessional and support staff (and likewise with paraprofessionals thinking of librarians). This might strike some as a startling revelation, but there are a broad numbers of situations out there in libraryland. Not every staffing is going to be the same, nor the duties or levels of competence of any of those staff members.

But, to put this gently, this isn’t about the paraprofessional. This post is about the librarian. If you want to invoke the saying, “Shit rolls downhill”, then you’re right. What is discussed here and in the previous post has broader staff implications. I leave that for the other excellent paraprofessional blogs out there to discuss. But, for my blog, that’s the topic du jour.