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.

42 thoughts on “Waiting for Batgirl

  1. I agree with Will. On behalf of all of us who would rather talk serious things than the trite (you know, like hooking up at a conference ;-)), we need – no, crave – more people like you (and me, I guess). I hope more people realize this sooner rather than later.

    On another and slightly related note, are you taking the New Librarianship Master Class MOOC? I think it might provide some inspiration for writing.

    You better get yourself to Phila and Midwinter because I’ll be next in line after Jenica to buy you a beer.

    • I’ll be at Midwinter! I’m not taking the MOOC but I’m interested to hear how people fare. To be honest, I’ve always wanted to write about conference love lives, but I can never find the right voice for it.

  2. Sigh. Your post is going to have me hitting publish on a couple of drafts I’ve been sitting on for many of the reasons you cite. Beer yourself on me.

  3. I’ve been thinking a lot of the same things lately. I’m glad to hear you say them. So often I feel like we can’t get things done, or done well, because no one wants to speak up and change the way we’re doing things, in case someone else is insulted. Maddening!

    • Yeah, sometimes there is a difference between “being sure not to offend” and “picking your battles”. But not fighting a battle just because someone may get offended is not a great way to navigate subjects around here.

  4. Andy, I think your comments are shameful and repugnant. How dare you suggest that librarians become the center of the the profession! And to even THINK that some people might be better spokespersons, better leaders, better writers or better thinkers…well, I have _certainly_ never had long discussions about this with friends at conferences and online. Would never dream of thinking such thoughts.


  5. 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.

    A lot of what you had to say struck me as not dissimilar to articles read in library school, about the ‘renegade’ librarian writers who were/are presented as ‘radicals’…but *this* remark brought to mind a discussion with a friend not long ago, that may or may not be of use in clarifying the prevailing attitudes fr you now:

    “Whistleblowing” vs “treason” is a lot like one comic’s definition of “comedy” vs “tragedy”.

    Said the comic: “If you fall into an open manhole and break your leg, it’s comedy. If I fall into an open manhole and break my leg, it’s tragedy.” It’s much the same with whistleblowing vs professional treason. If it’s in someone else’s field/company/country it’s “whistleblowing”. If it’s in yours, it’s “treason”.

    Honestly, I doubt the shift in terms makes the action any less necessary or relevant, and the consequences of either action appear to be similar.

  6. Andy, I must admit that reading this was a breath of fresh air. It made me sit back and think about our profession in a way that I haven’t yet done. I am fairly new to the profession and share many of the same thoughts and feelings that you’ve passionately described.

    Sometimes I feel like our profession dictates that we need to be as politically correct (from a policy, or policies, standpoint). However, I feel like this does a great disservice to our overarching goals because it never adequately tackles the important issues that you have stated. Sometimes feathers need ruffled!

    • I believe our profession dictates quite the opposite: that the collection should not be politically correct or inoffensive. It should put forth ideas and expressions and thoughts, even heinous ones, because it is commonly forgotten that one can consider an idea without accepting it. I may not agree with some positions stances out there, but I shouldn’t silence them nor be rendered unable to consider them, examine, and think upon. I don’t believe that people remember that ‘offended’ is not the same as ‘offensive’ and that protecting speech in all its forms is not always the best and safest political position. But it is the right thing to do.

      • I think Andy is right that our profession dictates that our collections should not be politically correct or inoffensive, I just don’t know that these ideas are applied when it comes to library staff and their professional codes of conduct (for lack of a better term).

  7. I just want to say that I love, love, love, this post. It’s frustrating being both (1) a librarian who wants to talk about the profession and (2) a librarian who doesn’t give a shit about rockstars, dresscodes, and the Huffington Post. Thanks for hinting at a third way. I look forward to serving under you in the Goddammned Armed Forces of Information.

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  9. It’s kind of different to what you’re talking about, and I still feel like I can’t go into too much detail, but this post reminds me of one of my least proudest moments when I agreed to be silent on an issue-in effect accepting a gag order-in order for something to be resolved by a 3rd party at an institution. My most shameful moment professionally. A moment when Batgirl definitely would have been welcomed.

  10. Andy, I hear what you’re saying. Not to be entirely self-serving, but some colleagues and I have been writing about race and anti-racism and librarianship over at http://www.thebookaneers.com. I think we still struggle with how direct we can/should be vis a vis our places of employment, but we surely sign our names to everything we write. I’d love to see this conversation be taken up more widely in the field.

  11. I have noticed that I hit “next” a lot more often than I read posts in my “Library” folder on Feedly. I thought it was me; I’m somewhat disengaged, lately, so perhaps things are less interesting.

    I’ve also desperately wanted to write some posts about library organizations, how to deal with certain bad behaviors, etc., but I have stopped myself, knowing a couple of my coworkers read my blog. Some of the posts I have written (AND published) were very honest, but I still hesitate to cross lines, I guess. I’ll think on this and continue to work on my bravery.

    One concern I have — and it’s not disagreeing with anything you say in this post, per se, but it’s a problem I’ve noticed — is that we actually DO allow some people to be leaders and firebrands, but those people are disproportionately male. As you say, I think our profession needs an attitude adjustment around honesty and transparency, but I would add that we also need to fix the way we deal with gender. We (and I am speaking primarily about female librarians) need to stop gender-policing female librarians and allow the same behaviors we [sometimes] allow from male librarians.

    Just for instance: if a woman had written this post (as opposed to some of the great response posts, which all link to this post), I don’t think the comments would have been so overwhelmingly positive. (Back to your original point: I’m still surprised how positive they have been! Wow!)

    I’m not blaming you for being a guy, or being library-famous. You should rock on. But I guess I am asking you to use your voice, which is heard so much more clearly than many other librarians’ voices, to promote your female colleagues’ voices and ideas at least as hard as–harder than–you promote your male ones, to help even things out.

    • You make some excellent points. I have been feeling similarly constrained, especially in online communication. I think it’s part of the larger viscous economic predicament, we’re told repeatedly we’re lucky to have a job (or an association, even), so we just need to live with its limitations, which can morph into cruelty in our current straits. Thanks for being brave.

      • Yeah, there is a component of self preservation as I note in my post. With all actions, there are consequences to them (not all consequences are bad, but still are consequences). I’m not asking for blanket immunity from reprecussions, but immunity from economic reprecussions; there are always social consequences to be had. Survival doesn’t always allow us to make the choices we want, that’s for certain. But it shouldn’t be a constant threat.

    • Thanks for your comment, Coral. I know I have a nice platform and I try to use it as prudently as possible, both for myself and soliciting guest posts (like Chealsye’s last month). I should look for more guest posts from other people to get a rounder audience. I will tweet or RT links to people’s blogs when I see other good ideas, concepts, or points. It’s a tired line and some people won’t buy it or like it, but I am attracted to the best ideas. I don’t really give a crap about the source unless something doesn’t seem right (in making up an example, something like an academic library cataloger making suggestions about public library children’s storytime). Even then, I’m not looking at someone for the gender, race, sexual orientation, or physical attributes, but as to whether the credentials make sense. I’m not always the best in this, but I try to be as blind as I can to such factors. Part of it is based in the utilitarian in me, part is how I want to role model it eventually for my own children, and part of me wouldn’t want me being judged on the basis of skin color, my Y chromosome, or anything else I didn’t really get a choice in.

  12. Well… at this point in my career if I’m at a job that Doesn’t Suck, I am delighted, and I mean that sincerely. It means I can be resonant and do great things and occasionally screw up or be wrong and yet largely move forward. Sort of like — as you will discover, though not right away — marriage. I know a lot of people who are where I’m at, though you don’t hear from them one way or the other. I guess I’m feeling mixed about this post, especially with all the “go Andy” comments that make me feel uncomfortable to disagree. But if this blog post has any integrity to its central essay, it’s open to other perspectives. I’ve worked for the Library [or Organization] From Hell and after that, what I can say is that many institutions are full of fallible people bumbling around trying to do right. And quite often we do that, sometimes in spite of ourselves, sometimes because of it. As for people feeling muzzled, wellllllll, sometimes what I’d like to say is come back in 20 years and tell me if you’d still want to say that (regardless of whether you were right). And the gender comments are also spot on. I appreciate the fierceness of your position and how strongly you state what you have to say, but I can recall more than once being equally forceful and being, quite frankly, scolded for my lack of docility. That’s not your fault, and I also don’t let the scoldings get me down, but it’s something to keep in mind. I have a very long blog post about MOOCs being largely Potemkin villages (from my own immersive experience btw) but my blogging has been a bit muted while I pursue a PhD. I’d be happy to buy you a beer, btw.

    • Thank you for your comment, Karen. And while I am not always the best person in the world about it, I do like discussions, arguments, and the back-and-forth that comes with it. I blame my one year in law school for this since the first year they teach you to argue all points and from both sides. Apparently, they teach you when to stop the second year and I never got that lesson. I’ve always approached this blog with the idea, “I’d rather speak out and be corrected than silent and wrong.” I have the blog posts to prove it and I didn’t expect so many people to think this was a great post. (Especially after my hatchet job regarding current librarian blogs and their quality, but I’m still happy it made other people happy.) My other thought is that this is the time to be wrong, when I’m young and dumb so that I learn the lessons I need now rather than later. My interest lies in examining these topics, ideas, and concepts, although some times people see it as a personal attack. I believe that there can be strength in being contrary since it tends to set aside weak supports and makes for tighter stronger arguments.

      In considering your comment, I think you imply a good point as well: does everything need to be discussed? I wouldn’t want people to read my blog post and think to themselves, “Time for me to air out every single slight I’ve ever experienced, no matter how trivial.” It’s why I left the Librarians Who Say Motherfucker on LiveJournal and one of many reasons I stopped following on Twitter or reading certain librarian blogs. The measurement for things that are important because rather objective, but I think there are things we as a profession could agree need to see the light of day. (For the sake of example, how some materials can simply and silently disappear because of its ‘offensive’ content; I found that out through a survey that I did with Sarah Houghton several years back.)

      Over my tenure in libraryland, I’m no stranger to the gender gap. I’ve seen it written time and again about how women get the short straw when it comes to keynotes, articles, columns, and postings. I would hope my generation does its part to push it aside, but I know that there is work to be done. I also know it takes women (like yourself) to step out and be that role model for others. Not that you aren’t as it is, but figures of public prominence (be it local or internet famous or otherwise) who are in the spotlight. I can help as much as I can, but it’s also a risk; I recall Roy Tennant experiencing an internet riot when he called for supporting women in tech positions. I can stick my neck out, but it has the danger of getting the Ned Stark treatment.

      I look forward to reading your MOOC post!

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  16. Having retired 2 years ago from my 25-year career as a reference librarian, I must say I would greatly prefer to have read this post maybe 10 years ago or so. Regardless, I’m very glad to see that it is starting a long overdue and well-needed discussion among today’s librarians. Thank you for expressing yourself so thoughtfully. Your blog in general is a diamond in the rough.

    Greater San Francisco Bay Area

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