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.

13 thoughts on “Self-Censorship in Libraryland

  1. Pingback: Libraries | Pearltrees

  2. I think you’ve touched an important topic here. Though you didn’t say it out right, you pretty much implied that silence = safety. Conversely, putting ourselves out there = risky, therefore making us vulnerable. You also touched on something else important. As an amateur sociologist myself, I think taking risks involves expending important social and political capital for views/opinions that may not give us the return we seek. Self-censorship is one way we manage our image among peers and colleagues and uphold our reputations. As reputation is a significant, though little acknowledged, element to get things done and relationship building, doing and saying things that can sully rep is risky. I don’t really think we grow out of our years in middle school. The stakes just get higher and the game gets more elaborate.

  3. Two lines of thinking:

    1) It’s just possible that a service-driven profession overvalues niceness, you know? And leans away from controversy. That the same values and qualities of temperament that make us inclined to serve, and good at serving, the public, with all its variety of personality, make us hesitant to offend anyone we might need to serve — which means, hesitant to offend *anyone*, because we have to work within the intersection of all those different personality types. And that’s not the sort of hat you can put on for the public and take off internally.

    2) I keep seeing there’s a continuum that runs roughly thus:

    Obnoxious Pollyannaism – positivity – skepticism – constructive criticism – destructive negativity

    The thing is, the boundaries on this continuum are tremendously subjective. And my impression is that librarians tend to draw, in particular, the line between “constructive criticism” and “destructive negativity” well to the left of where I would — in fact, well to the left of where most people with a STEM or philosophy background would (here’s lookin’ at you, Andy). I think the “skepticism” and “constructive criticism” line may be skewed leftward from my STEM-driven instincts as well. I think of myself as basically conflict-avoidant, yet there are all sorts of conversations I clearly don’t parse as “conflict” that I get the sense many librarians do.

    So this makes it easy to say something that you think is skeptical or constructive, and have fire rained down on you for being a total bitch. (Use of gendered language sadly intentional.) And this in turn makes it easy to overcorrect where the lines must be. Just in case.

    I’ve gone out of my way to avoid most things that could be construed negatively in my public persona, at first because, yes, I was unemployed and I wished not to be, and later out of habit. And I’ve certainly had conversations where it became clear that we weren’t drawing the lines in the same place.

    I reserve the right to polemic. But I’ll be thoughtful and strategic in how I pull that out.

  4. Well said Andy. I will add just one more point–the empathy, compassion, diplomacy, and politics of being honest and speaking out are very high level skill sets. Unfortunately, Library Land does not provide much in the way of leadership training that helps to develop these skills (as a function of budget cuts, short staffing, etc. – I suspect they would provide it if they could).

    It is very common in America that the best employee is promoted into positions of leadership and management without the this skill set needed to do those jobs well. It is often an entirely different skill set that makes an employee good. Without on-going support and training, higher level intangible skills are often never developed. Without these skills, being outspoken carries an enormous risk that many just are unwilling to bear.

  5. I agree that gender is a different discussion. Classicists would insist the proper term sex but, mais oui, we shy away from that word. Fear is the mind killer. Safety is an illusion and a delusion. Balance your book lovers with your intellectual safety warriors. We need both to survive.

  6. To all of the other wonderful points so far, I would add that sometimes what you call self-censorship isn’t so much about “picking your battles” as it is about timing your battles and finessing them into something that doesn’t even look like a battle. Sometimes when you say what’s on your mind, you alienate listeners, and they become defensive, stop listening, or co-opt the conversation into a different one of their own. Then what can you accomplish?

    As a manager, I find that difficult subjects have to be managed. If one of our goals is to be innovative and risk-taking, staff members have to feel safe. At our library, new ideas are introduced in small groups where reception is more likely to gain traction, then as an idea is accepted, the introduction is spread to a wider audience (so an idea may start out with the programming team, then be introduced to the whole of the reference team, then the rest of public services, and then the rest of staff and finally volunteers).

    Blogging is like any other art form – there is the art that the artist thinks they have made and there is the art as it is received. The purpose of art-making is the reception of it (you would likely not continue to blog if no one was reading and responding). As a blogger, when you raise a controversial subject, you have to be conscious of its reception. If you have a goal in mind (to draw attention to an issue), and the reception you are likely to get is counterproductive to that goal (people will get riled up and the conversation transmutes into something unintended), then you may have to shift your approach (what you call self-censoring) in order to improve your chances of a positive or at least open reception. This is diplomacy, a trait I expect from the folks on our team.

    Thank you, Andy, for a new topic.

  7. I think it’s worth pointing out that case law on the 1st Amendment rights of government employees is far from consistent, but much of it points towards government employees having less 1st Amendment protection that people who work for private firms. It’s likely this also poses a chilling effect (I know *I’m* much more careful about what I post about work online than a lot of people are).

  8. “I keep wondering why this is so in a profession that is deeply invested in the ideal of freedom of speech, expression, and curiosity.”

    We value this as an ideal, but I think there is quite a difference between that and actual practice. And we seem to do much better applying it to patrons / members / (whatever your preferred term) than we do applying it to staff / librarians.

    Another factor is along the lines of cost / benefit. You’ve brought a good topic ; others have added some good comments. I seldom have anything to add to the conversation(s). So, why spend the time / energy?

  9. So many good points. To those I would just like to add that maybe the problem is that many of us have associated argumentation with winning and losing. When argumentation is a game between clearly defined sides the objective is not only to win, but to make sure someone else loses. It doesn’t have to be that way at all. When I think of argumentation, I think of two or more people, coming together with difficult to reconcile positions, in the spirit of finding the best solution to reconcile those positions, The dialectic process can be contentious, but ultimately it’s collaborative. From this perspective, the wider the distance between positions, the broader the range of possible points of agreement. Civil arguing with someone is not a sign of contempt, but of respect, a recognition of the humanity of your argument partner. Self-censorship just impoverishes the dialectic. I know this is a optimistic take on things, but bully for optimism! It seems healthier to start out operating the way you want things ideally to be, and then adjust towards the pragmatic as the situation demands rather than start off hunkered down with the pragmatic.

    • Great point. Thanks for adding it here! Yeah, some people think that my counterpoint (or others) is an attack when it is simply a probing. I like to imagine that such probing results in better defense of people’s points or at least a reexamination. Too bad offering a divergent viewpoint can get swept up in the feeling of being trolled, even when it is not.

      • Well said. Probes are only dangerous if one is over-inflated to begin with! Life would be kind of dreadful if our sense of worth was based on always being right. If my conclusions are routinely wrong but meaningfully advance understanding, at the end of the day I’ve done pretty well. (As long as my tenure review committee feels the same way that is.)

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