In going through various boxes to find things to hang in my office walls, I found the picture of myself that hung at the Mover & Shaker luncheon reception back in 2010. My friend Mo had saved it and mailed it to me since I had split before the end of that social event for some reason or another. Looking at it on the eve of the New Year, I had to take time to pause and reflect on that moment and everything afterward.
Even though the passage of time has been only half a decade, it felt like a lifetime ago. I’ve been divorced, moved, remarried, moved again, found a new job, bought a house (and, of course, moved again), and am now an expectant father. It’s not that the Andy of 2010 wouldn’t have predicted some of those events, but back then I was very much focused on my librarian career. I wanted to speak at conferences, meet my peers across the country, and put my mark on the profession. I can readily admit that I was naïve; I hadn’t really done much at that point so I really didn’t have much to say. But if it worked as a ticket to travel and meet people, then I was going to use it.
At the time, it was also an escape. Back then, the library administration wasn’t interested in professional development, staff morale, or properly managing any of the talent individuals (and there were many) who worked at the library system. Promotions were put on hold for years and there were little to no advancement opportunities. Moving for a position isn’t just for the new graduates; it’s very true when it comes to career options down the line. At least I loved the people I worked with at my branch, even if the work lacked challenge I really wanted. Later that same year, my involvement in the public embarrassment of the Revolutionary Voices book removals netted me the somewhat deserved blame for the embarrassment to the administration and the library system, which turned me into persona non grata. I wouldn’t get out of that dog house until they retired two years later; needless to say, it was a very long time to be in exile.
I feel very different about the librarian part of the social media world these days. It feels more contentious, jaded, and trivial. In the last few years, I was more reluctant to interact for fear of being labeled the ‘worst person in the world’ on the basis of a single tweet that might offend someone. It directly conflicted with my passionate beliefs in the freedom of speech and expression, even in the ugly, awful, and distasteful. I got a few slaps on the wrist in that time period, a strange and sick paradox of a profession that professes to defend the vulgar and profane.
I have no interest in re-fighting those battles for even the thought of them makes me emotionally exhausted. I am just left with a heavy heart, sad and disappointed. It would be easy to be mean, to deliver a comeuppance to those I find intolerable. I have the energy for it, but I lack the will and interest to do so. Maybe this is what maturity looks like, but I try to remember that there are human beings on the other end of the screen. Move on, I think, just move on.
But for all these negatives, I can still find energy in those principles and issues that I hold close to my heart. I’ve taken steps into shifting that energy towards other, less conspicuous projects. As the Reference and Adult Services Supervisor at my new place of work, I’ve got ideas and plans that I will finally be able to try out. I am happy to have joined the editorial board of the Journal of Creative Library Practice, working with people I admire as well as important principles such as the use of Creative Commons and open access journal publications. I’m very happy to have been selected for the Intellectual Freedom Subcommittee for NJLA; we have some projects underway that will resonate further than our state boundaries. These are the kinds of things that put a smile on my face.
While a good number of New Year’s posts offer a vision of the future, my sight is cloudy these days. My brain just sees too many variables in play; as I acquire more experience, the filtering for these factors seems to go a bit wonky. I just wish that for all the talk about understaffing and underfunding we wouldn’t take those limited budgets and spend them on materials, products, and services that further undermine our principles. A lack of financial security should not translate into throwing money at vendors who collect and sell patron information, or crush us under intrusive licensing agreements, or impose digital scarcity as a business plan.
All the worry about the destruction and deprofessonalization of librarianship revolves around the size of the staff and the paycheck, but we do it to ourselves when we turn away on our principles and beliefs. Any knucklehead can sign a contract, but librarians should be the ones saying no to those that have privacy intrusion, burdensome restrictions on information access, and other onerous gatekeeping clauses. Our budgets are our power; if enough of the library world demands certain changes, we can change the market to fit our needs. But unity within the field is our Achilles heel; the belief that we need to give patrons everything or else they will bail is the hole in our armor. Libraries enjoy unprecedented public support and we squander it every damn day with the fear that the moment we stop hugging our patrons tightly is the moment they slip away and never return.
That is the anxiety that will wear us down to dust with nothing to show for it. (I happen to know a few things about anxiety, so you can take my word on that.) I can’t tell you what the next big trend in libraries will be, but I feel confident enough to say that what will matter just as much is how we do those things as it reflects our principles and beliefs. We are fiercely admired when we take a stand on those principles whether it is a material challenge or a National Security Letter or using Tor browsers to protect patron privacy. Librarians will remain not because we have advanced into the future, but because we retreated back to who we are and what we represent in the world of knowledge and information.
Happy New Year. Let’s go do this.