Reconsidering the Think Tank

(Note: This post was originally written when the group had been changed to Closed, meaning it could be not viewed except by members. That has been reversed as of the moment of publication, but I still wanted to post this as is. –A)

With a click of a button, the ALA Think Tank is gone. Well, gone is a relative term here since it still exists but as a closed Facebook group. The days of drama voyeurism are not necessarily gone, but now you have to join the group in order to see what the fuss is about. I’m sure it won’t be a loss to the lives of many librarians (provided they have even heard about the group, whether through direct contact or rumor), but this sudden move and the online reaction to it has made me waxing philosophical about the group and what it means.

I remember being asked if I wanted to be part of the first group that would become the Think Tank, a collection of individuals looking to find a better, cheaper way to attend an ALA conference. It was the summer of 2010 and the annual professional get-together was being held in alarmingly steamy Washington DC. I was attending because it was the year of my Mover & Shaker award as well as being a conference within easy travel distance. I declined the offer for mostly personal reasons that I won’t go into here, but I do recall a number of stories told afterward. To vastly oversimplify it, I missed a hell of a party.

When the Facebook incarnation came along, I was eager to be a part of it. These were my creative peers, people who look at the librarian world with just enough tilt to skew the perspective. Being slightly less cynical and more idealistic, this brand of professional iconoclasm drew me right in. I was less drawn to the “party hard” side and more to the “make it happen”, an unflappable belief that the system cannot keep good ideas and concepts down forever. I don’t have any specific memories from that time, only good feelings about the group and the topics.

Skipping to the present, I can say I’ve left the group twice now. Both times were out of a sense of frustration from message threads with individuals that I will very generously refer to as “intractable”. I don’t think I’ll be looking to join again unless it’s an important enough cause or purpose that I feel should get the attention of the group. But as I sit here and think about the group, there are some observations I want to make.

First, for all the fuss, the group is rather tame, even dull at times. Between the giant threads that fuel the librarian drama engine, there is a lot of pretty normal posts. People asking about summer reading, applying for MLS programs, talking about news articles, library memes, and other mundane material are the general daily output for the group. It reads like any message board online: people post something, some comment, others like, and eventually it slides down the page into Facebook oblivion. Not exactly a den of scum and villainy that should be burned to the ground.

Second, when there is controversy, it reads nearly exactly like the comments for your average internet story. The original issue (whatever it may be) eventually turns into a full spectrum analysis of all potential tangential issue. In its most infamous example, the question of “Should I hook up with other librarian at a conference?” became a commentary on society, gender, professionalism, sexuality, and power structures. It escalated well beyond the original question itself and became a bloody arena for clashing personal beliefs. While there are excellent arguments for the inclusion of such topics in the thread as it does flesh out related elements in coming to an answer, it took the thread into enough tangential areas to make nearly any answer completely moot. It was less of a struggle between “consensual adults doing what they want to do versus professionalism within a relatively small community” (a personal puzzle requiring extensive context) and more of a personal conflict of “I’m right, you’re wrong” (or, worse, “you shouldn’t be allowed to say or think those things”). Thus, the Think Tank’s reputation was made not for the debate of ideas, but the conflict of individuals. Taken in the larger context, it is simply not so.

Third, for a profession that is a proclaimed defender of free speech, it certainly doesn’t seem to recognize it when it sees it in the wild. One of the main “faults” that is commonly cited is that use of real names in discussions, generally summed up as “how can that person put their name those words?” Literally, this is the principle of free speech being exercised and it is seen as a complete detriment. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be social consequences to such expression (there should be, naturally), but to leery when someone actually acts on it is rather troublesome. We fight for people to speak their minds openly but balk at the actual practice. Given our aversion to anonymous speech through the general contempt for bloggers like The Annoyed Librarian, there seems to be no acceptable answer.

Personally, I see it as a symptom of how the profession can’t handle the many conflicts that freedom of speech raises. To me, free of speech is not beautiful like a butterfly or a sunset, but tied tightly to the fringes of popular ideas, thoughts, and concepts. It is hate and fear, offensive and awful, troublesome and anxious, an act that arises from speaking out against governments and societal institutions to the offensive, vulgar, and profane writings and utterances of individuals. In reality, it’s a daily fight and, unlike the simplistic affection associated with Banned Books Week, there is no romance to it.

In the past, I was someone who said that they would never hire someone who posted in the ALA Think Tank. That’s only a partial truth; it would really depend on what they had to say. It would have to be something so detrimental, so completely outrageous that I would have to question the inherent character of the poster. Otherwise, I don’t really care. 

Finally, while ALA Think Tank welcomes everyone, it is not a community for everyone. Like listservs, committees, and bad dates, it will not fit everyone’s interests, time, and/or purpose. This is neither a good or bad, it just is. Imagining that it would be better with you (or conversely without someone else) is a fruitless exercise. If it’s not your cup of tea, then it’s best to simply move on.

One aspect that can’t be denied is the potential influence that the group can exert in the coming years. In taking their membership numbers at face value against the total number of library jobs in the US (148,000 jobs and 11,400 ALATT members), it’s roughly 7% of the  total librarian population. Granted, the use of those numbers is based on pretty speculative presumptions but I don’t think that that reality is more than 2% lower. For comparison, ALA membership is around 55,000 members (37%) and it is one of the largest (if not THE largest) librarian organizations in the world.

We can fiddle around with the numbers all we want, but it can’t be ignored that it has broad representation (including leadership positions) within the ALA organization as well as the clout to bring ALA presidential candidates to the forum to court votes. It has influential members who can act on both a national and state level in terms of actions and initiatives, nevermind the countless state association positions that ALATT members hold. It has all the mechanisms to influence the current and next generation of librarians, regardless as to how people feel about it.

This tail can wag the dog.

I hope this post gives people an objective look at the Think Tank as a whole. I’m not here to simply praise it nor bury it in its problems, but to give it a frank look once more. From that rental house in hot Washington DC summer, they have built something… sprawling. It’s easy to dismiss, but it would be foolish to ignore. There is much potential, a commodity that should not be squandered these days. I’m still curious to see how it unfolds. 

Two Thumbs Down

Over the weekend, this image found its way into my social media streams:

that other ugly ass sign

Because no minor librarian outrage can go unchecked, this image appeared on the ALA Think Tank:

that ugly ass sign

My gut reaction has been mostly focused on the word “stupid” with a variety of adjectives dancing around, but after a few hours of consideration I think it’s worse than that. Just as two wrongs do not make a right, two stupids do not make a smart.

From what I know, the top image is hanging in a high school library, which we all know is a natural destination for adult erotic books. The perceived slam against public libraries in the bottom paragraph raises two questions for me:

First, does the library only collect well written versions of mentally and physically abusive sexual relationships? I suppose it would so that students who are or have experienced either form of abuse would find refuge in literature, so if you could just point me to the eloquent abusive relationship collection, I would love to see what makes the cut.

Second, does the library own the Twilight series? That series gets some of the same charges as Fifty Shades but without the BDSM component (unless you factor in the reader’s experience).

I say it’s a perceived slam because I know how much educators in my area rely on the public library to supplement their class materials, meet with students for tutoring, and otherwise avail themselves of the public library facility since the public education funding has become a political point to make for a contingency that breathes exclusively through their mouths.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that school libraries need their local public libraries more than the other way around. In my estimation, this is an unfortunate consequence when the majority of library advocacy resources are aimed at supporting public libraries rather than school librarians. Public libraries have more or less held their ground overall while the very presence of school librarians has been curtailed or eliminated in places like Chicago and Philadelphia. A sign like this isn’t so much bridge burning as cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. It’s a cheap shot over a crappy book; how smart is that?

As for the bottom image, it’s a feel good intellectual freedom rah-rah bullshit sentiment. It sets the basic measuring stick of a good collection as the inclusion of Fifty Shades, hardly a standard by any means. It also wholly feeds into the “we-need-to-give-them-what-they-want-or-else-they-will-leave-us” mentality that turns rational people into fearful ones, chasing every trend, fad, and dream in the hopes of satisfying the multitudes of whims and lusts of the service community. At my former place of work, there were signs begging people to donate their copies of Fifty Shades so as to put a dent into the extensive hold lists for both the physical and the hyper expensive $50 a copy eBook. Writing quality or content be damned, the library NEEDED the book to survive.

It’s also a crap sentiment because it conflates judging a person on the basis of their reading material (which ideally we don’t do) with the notion that we don’t judge the materials themselves (which we do every damn day). Everything that graces our shelves and websites has been judged to be worthy of selection on a variety of criteria. Hell, we even have committees who give awards to the “best” books, graphic novels, and other library material. Fifty Shades is not magically above that decision making process and there are good, honest reasons for not buying the book for one’s library and community. We are non-judgmental in many ways, but buying library materials is not remotely one of them. (And from some of the behavior I’ve seen on social media, neither is our interactions with each other on all sorts of sensitive topics.)

This sentiment belies to the basic tensions that exist within collection development: is our role to be tastemakers, the cultural connoisseurs, using our expertise in literature and reading to pick the best and exclude the rest? Is our role that of a public service, providing people with the materials that they want when they want no matter what that is? What of our ideals of intellectual freedom and the freedom to read when it comes up against the limitations of budget, space, and our own human biases? It’s the theories of the profession against the realities of the practice, something that can’t be reduced to a simple sign.

Ultimately, each of these images leaves me with a sense of profound disappointment. It’s thoughtlessness on a very public scale, visceral reactions to a book and movie that will be pop culture trivia game questions in the future before fading into footnotes on collegiate papers for our grandchildren. It’s a distraction as well as a waste of time and energy for a profession that certainly has other more pressing fundamental issues.


I’ve had a hard time bringing fingers to the keyboard in any sort of blog entry lately. It’s not that I haven’t had any thoughts or things I’ve wanted to write about, but I feel like I’m stuck in a manner of speaking. Since I don’t get it out and onto the screen, they just start to pile up like the old McDonald styrofoam food packaging: discarded but not going to degrade on any short time scale.

On one hand, my thoughts towards libraryland feel like they are building a callus of cynicism. It’s hard to get terribly excited about anything, even the pet issues that I’ve come to champion over time. While it would be convenient to blame it on a social media culture that foments persistent outrage, I take some of the blame for basic naivety as a person who is still relatively new to the profession (new being less than ten years in). It’s hard not to think that there will be more rapid action, but the library innovation cycle doesn’t follow the much more highly visible technology version that has brought us so many within the last decade. It’s only so glaring because our fortunes seem to be linked so closely with this technology as part of our information access and education mission.

On a similar train of thought, I’m not sure what library disruption looks like. One of my first blog posts on LISNews was about finding the next big thing in libraries; now, about five years later, I feel like I’d have a hard time identifying it. eBooks are hardly disruptive given how much we have to treat them identically like their print counterparts. Makerspaces are just the arts and crafts programs that libraries have had for years but for adults and more costly equipment. Social media profiles are just the heir apparent to email and the grandchild of telephone reference. What does truly disruptive library innovation look like? Because I’m guessing we haven’t really seen it if one simply takes existing offerings and just adds expensive tech to it.

On the other hand, I feel my cynicism melt away every time I look at the sonogram printout of my in utero son. It’s so very cliche, but I simply can’t help it. I now have new facet of understanding to some of the feelings and emotions that I have heard from new parents, something that is impossible to quantify outside of experience. I feel young again, alive in the moment, and full of curiosity and hope and wonder. I want to hold onto that moment for when I’m up in the middle of the night with a sick kid or changing a diaper that qualifies for Superfund designation or a pain in the ass teenager. I know I have a lot to learn and that there will be moments of frustration, but I want that kernel to always be with me in my journey into parenthood. I don’t know if it will or how it will change, but I’m just hopeful in ways that I haven’t been in a very long time.

That could be some of the tension I am feeling as I turn away from some library interests and towards this new step in life that is parenthood. It’s not that I don’t think I could do both at the same time (a choice that is certainly easier as a man in society), it’s that I am choosing one over another. In imagining my post-childbirth life, I’d much rather be the best father I can than the next big leader or pundit or consultant in libraryland. The library world has been my life for so long and through great personal and emotional adversity; and now something is coming that will usurp that from the peak of my personal priorities. It may end up being my saving grace, for it really sharpens a lens onto which issues are true concerns and which are just babbling bullshit. Or perhaps, like all things, the relationship between my life and my work will just be… different.

If you were to ask me what the most pressing issue has been in the last month, I’d have to say looking at different stroller models. Seriously, these things are the types of engineering-based punishments that would have made the Greek gods says, “Shit, you are screwed, bro.” I’d have to think about a library issue that has really caught my attention in that same time period. It’s not that I don’t care deep down, but that my focus has changed. I don’t think of this as good or bad, it just is. And it’s where I want to be.