(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.
Thank you for writing this. I’ve always found the controversy puzzling. For instance, you state that you said in the past that you would never hire someone who posted in ALATT, but clarify that it’s only partial true, that it depends on the content. That’s fair, but it seems (and i could be very wrong) that would apply to comments made anywhere online or in person, but it seems that there still is something about a comment coming from ALATT that is different than, say, Twitter.
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