Rock Star Librarian Redux

The latest round of the cyclical discussion regarding the concept of the ‘rock star librarian’ has been sticking in my blogging craw for awhile. Yes, I can read a calendar and notice that the publication of this post is about a month late (or roughly two Annoyed Librarian blogging cycles, based on the timeliness of their posts regarding current events). The term itself has shifted towards an ironic pejorative in which, unlike the many years of work, time, and effort typically spent by musicians to rise in their craft, the library version has slowly shifted to a second definition as a person who has name recognition in the field but no discernable or useful talent, content, or point. It now sits between a compliment and a slur, discernable only through the accompanying context.

There were certainly plenty of strongly worded opinions about how terrible a term it was, how terrible the people who are called it are, and how terrible its terribleness is. As much as I’d like to jump into that pit of rhetoric quicksand, it’s not what was keeping the topic on my brain’s backburner. What I noticed is what was missing out of the topic: what a role model in librarianship should embody.

Perhaps I’ve traded one quagmire for another, but there was much column space dedicated to saying what it was not without indicating what it should entail. Granted, some of the ideals could be inferred from the inverse of the discussed undesirable traits, actions, and other characteristics on display. But if the question was posed, “What should a role model (aka rock star librarian) be?”, there wouldn’t be enough words or terms discerned to satisfy a game of Mad Libs.

It’s a loaded question as well, threaded with all of the nuance that comes with human beings and their personality. Should a role model librarian be assertive, but not overbearing? Be outspoken, but not self-aggrandizing? Be confident, but not arrogant? And so forth and so on, a never-ending recitation of positive traits and their malignant cousins.

For myself, this intermittent topic seems like the symptoms of a deeper professional issue: the identification, nurturing, and enabling of librarian leadership. To oversimplify what I have observed in the last half decade, there is a distinct call for leaders in the profession that is counter balanced by suspicion for those who are put or place themselves in that spotlight. It’s pure cognitive dissonance to believe that a library should be in the heart of the community it serves but the librarians should act purely as background characters to the overall entity. That’s nuts. It’s untenable, undesirable, and now irresponsible when it comes to proving the value of the institution to our constituents.

In going back to the question as to what a role model librarian should look like, I don’t have an answer either. What I do know is that we eliminate any individual who isn’t a paragon of professional ideals and personal virtue, then the answer will be “no one”. I’m not saying this to advocate for anyone, but to encourage you the reader to consider what it means to be a role model to other librarians. Rather than just treating it as simply something we know when we see, take a moment to articulate it.

7 thoughts on “Rock Star Librarian Redux

  1. “Why do I want to be a leader?”

    Is it because I have a passion to create beautiful gifts and give to people?

    Or is it because I have a hole in myself that I hope to fill by taking from people–taking their attention, their acclaim, their deference, their time, their money, their bodies?

    Is it about other people? Or is it about me?

    A librarian who gives more often than taking– and, as Andy notes, none of us is a paragon of virtue–has a good chance of being a role model.

  2. About resenting rock star librarians:

    How does it matter that some librarians become friends, support each other, and become visible in the process? Does it prevent the rest of us from making our own gifts and giving them to others? Does it prevent the rest of us from making our own friends and providing and receiving mutual support?

    Does what “rock star librarians” do really affect the rest of us? If so, how?

  3. “all of the nuance that comes with human beings and their personality. Should a role model librarian be assertive, but not overbearing? Be outspoken, but not self-aggrandizing? Be confident, but not arrogant?”

    To me, these are questions that can’t be addressed without also addressing their gendered and racial overtones. You and I doing exactly the same thing – you might get read as “assertive” (a masculine virtue bespeaking leadership), whereas I might get read as “aggressive” or even “bitchy”. And when I hear our black colleagues talk about how they’re read doing that same thing, it’s “bitchy” or “angry” or even “scary”.

    All of those questions you ask carry additional “but not” adjectives that narrow, or even close, the space of the possible, for some people.

    • First, those are just a sampling of questions. I used them because they were easy on contrast without going on at length. I could carry my points on their backs without breaking the pace and tone of the piece.

      Second, there is a certain amount of talking about desirable role model traits in a vacuum. These traits are rooted in the ideal; I know reality is a separate monster. I feel there are better people suited to talk about it in the framework of society and I will leave it to them to do it. I wanted to keep this blog post in the “why” and avoid the “why not”. I didn’t want to hit all the possible hangups.

      • These are great things to think about, but I do think Andromeda’s points warrant greater focus. There can’t really be an “ideal” with ongoing systems of societal oppression. We could say an assertive and highly motivated person could be an example of what a good role model would look like, but if a number of our colleagues are judged differently when exhibiting those traits, then the way we think about leaders in the profession has to be nuanced and understood within the greater context of society. Likewise, when white, cis-het men wind up being the majority of keynotes or those who are most visible, that can dictate certain expectations for leaders that seem normal and neutral but are highly skewed.

      • There are many rock star academics who advance their fields. That is the definition of rawk star academic. I’m not sure what that has to do with “the ideal” or rolemodelling.

        You have your Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, maybe a Neil Degrasse Tyson to a lesser extent. They’ve done much in their fields. I wish we had a librarian version, but we don’t. Never had. Probably never will. *Sometimes* I feel like librarians are too stupid to even grasp the concept. Whooo, some suppressed frustration there, apologies!

  4. Here I go throwing in a semi-related spanner into the works! This blog post got me thinkin & here’s my Tweet to Andy:

    Do public librarians respect school librarians? When our worlds collide, are we valued by ya? #JustWondering!

    Because….I fangirl worship & follow a LOT of public librarians (non school – like you, Andy!) and though I’ve also been a named a Mover & Shaker, very few of them seem to have conversations with us. At the ALA conference years ago, a public librarian upon meeting me when they heard I was a teacher librarian actually said “Oh, how cute!” (Non ironically, really!)

    Are teacher librarians the red headed step children of libraryland or are we whiny needy librarians who want to just play with the super cool kids? Little of both?

    As for the convo about Rock Star librarians (overused IMHO) I have to agree w/ Steve
    “A librarian who gives more often than taking” I believe we should practice shameless sharing of our content creation & give more than we take. Whether that makes us a rock star or a role model – doesn’t matter – it’s just good karma.

    My 2¢!
    ~Gwyneth Jones – The Daring Librarian

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