Fatherhood, Libraryland, and Other Incomplete Thoughts

I managed to make it through the whole month of March without noting that it was the six year anniversary of this blog. Well, without publically noting, like I am doing right now. It’s a bit of a wild ride down memory lane to look at those blog posts in hindsight; the different styles of blogging that I was trying, the speed and sheer volume of blog posts I posted at the time, and the development of many professional and personal issues in those short years.

When I started writing here, I had only been a employed librarian for eighteen months, married to my first wife, and living in my grandmother’s house after she had passed. Now, I am the head of reference in my hometown (where I am also a resident), married to my second wife, and awaiting the arrival of our first child. The intervening years have seen awards, accolades, missteps, and recoveries, personally accepted as natural ups and downs within the rhythm of life.

In taking personal inventory, it’s undeniable that library, librarians, and library issues have been downgraded as a priority in my life. It’s not that they aren’t important, but they no longer take precedence over other aspects of my life. I can’t tell if this is simply a product of different life priorities, the change in the online librarian world, the history and experience of the past few years, or a combination of everything. I’m blinded by the bias of being in the center of my own personal world, making all measurements as they relate to myself. So I can just try to speak as plainly as possible and muddle through all of the things going through my head.

Fatherhood, so far, has been exciting. Yes, an astute observer may note that I am not the one carrying the child, a biology impossibility that was determined a long time ago by evolution. But, for me, the sentimental emotions I have been experiencing towards this tiny unborn person are ones that I haven’t had in a very long time. I feel hopeful without the looming specter of depression, excited without antagonizing my anxiety, and just (for lack of a better expression) a more complete person. I don’t lay awake at night anymore, pondering my mortality in the company of philosophical demons prodding me with insecurity. It’s a peace of mind that I have not had in a very long time.

I wouldn’t say that I don’t have concerns and fears, but I feel like I have some perspective on them. It’s hard to torment oneself with questions like “what kind of man will he become?” when the most immediate developmental benchmark will be when he is able to hold up his own head. I can worry about the former, but the latter is the more pressing concern. I can’t let myself get drawn into questions that are much further down the path when (a) the present requires more of my immediate attention and (b) there is an entire lifelong journey towards that overarching question, one that will not be answered within my lifetime.

Right now, I can say that my fatherhood is limited to hunter/gatherer mode with a side of personal maid. I get things, whether it is the phone charger from upstairs or a bag of a particular kind of chips from the local convenience store no matter what time of day. As The Wife heads into the last eight weeks, I’ve taken over most of the chores that require physical activity: vacuuming, shopping, washing dishes, etc. Since I can’t physically contribute to the growth process of our child, this is how I help out. I’ve been told this is an exception to other people’s experiences with their partner, which makes me both confused and sad to this kind of antiquated behavior. I’m sharing this not so much as a pat on my own back, but as a statement to be shown by others to get their partners more active via example and/or shaming.

Seriously, get your shit together.

In my librarylife, I’m just trying to get things completed, parked, or set on auto-pilot in preparation for Baby Woodworth. I have a couple of projects going on with NJLA that I’d like to get squared away before May; I’d like to get at least one author working on an article for the Journal of Creative Library Practice; and I have some projects at the library that will need to hit their benchmarks before the first of May. It’s fair to say that there is a lot of my plate as it is, which leaves blogging on the furthest back burner. (For the mildly curious, I’m only able to write this because I am off today and I got the time between chores.)

From my perspective, there doesn’t really seem to be same level of interest in any form of public intellectual kinds of blogs, articles, or columns anymore. It has become very niche, addressing one area of librarianship very well (such as the Storytime Underground and various book blogs). This is not a bad thing but represents the beauty of internet diversity which connects people to their specific needs. It’s only a bad thing for me, a person who likes to address broader issues that span across the professional realm. Based on my changing priorities, even that bad part happens to be convenient.

Perhaps, as my cynical heart tells me, there is a boredom factor to what appears to be the inherent cycle of libraryland topics. The value of the degree, the condition of the job market, the apparent inability to act on basic principles and fundamental values, and other issues operate on a biblio-celestial calendar. They zoom into sight, remarked upon at length, then slingshot their way back into the depths of rhetoric space, doomed to their eventual return trajectory. Even antagonists like Kleinman follow a Mobius strip of stale accusations, attempting to build mountains out of molehills anthills in a vain attempt for an iota of legitimacy. I just can’t keeping repeating the same discussions, arguments, and interactions without feeling like I’m in a constant state of moving old bones to new graves even before the grass has grown on the current one. It’s worse than insanity, it’s a Sisyphean hell of our own making and choosing. I’d like to think I’m making a difference in moving those conversations along, but it feels more like a reinforcement of the status quo.

But, then again, maybe I’m wrong.

In closing, I can say that after six years, I may have the least amount of certainty where this blog is going. I do want to write about fatherhood as it develops for me. I’m coming up on one year in my position and I have many reflections about becoming a supervisor. So there is content ahead, but who knows when it will appear. In the meantime, I thank everyone for their support, comments, and their readership.

I’ll see you around.

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. 

In Transition

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.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

A couple of days ago, there was another attempt to move the minute hand of the Library Doomsday Clocktm towards midnight. I really couldn’t say that I was outraged since it was a basic recycling of “who needs a library when you have the internet lol” argument. What pushed superficial response aside was a contempt at the effort; not that someone would dare utter the words, but more of a “Really? Is that the best you can do?” I mean, come on! Simply supporting the thesis of end of libraries with “isn’t it obvious?” is either lazy trolling or just link bait. Initially, I just made a series of replies on Twitter of which Jacob Berg embedded the highlight reel in his post on the topic. But really, folks, these kinds of posts don’t merit our limited time, effort, or sanity.

Hell, if you want an idea of how old and tired this “heresy” is, it’s old enough to drive, vote, and most likely not get carded at bars. From the journal The Electronic Library back in 1983, this “end of libraries” article has the most wonderful abstract:

In terms of size, arrangement and catalogues, the conventional library has reached an organisational and financial impasse. Coincidentally there has emerged a pre-emptive new technology for the storage, handling and transmission of information, potentially better suited to the convenience of users. Libraries may disappear like the dinosaurs; or they may, by returning to first principles, be able to adapt and successfully survive.

You hear that? Even by 1983 standards, we were in danger of extinction. The Commodore 64 was going to put libraries out to pasture. Now I have word document files that are bigger than the entire memory of those old machines.

“Death by internet” gets some play in this New York Times article from 2002:

And contrary to predictions about the death of libraries in the Internet age, in the last decade local libraries have grown more essential than ever to social life in the county. They have become community centers, the beating heart of Westchester’s towns and villages and cities.

There are probably a ton more examples of this kind of artistic license in which the library is either saved or damned by the internet, but you get my point. It’s overplayed and makes a nice headline, but it really lacks that pesky thing known as evidence.

For myself, my reasons for writing this post are not to show how weak that argument is, but that librarians are made of tougher stuff. In peering through the history of the profession, the profession has been on the forefront of important societal issues such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay rights. The ALA had called for women’s right to vote, the end of racial segregation, and the recognition of homosexuality as a acceptable sexual orientation long before there was popular support. These pursuits are part and parcel to our belief in intellectual freedom and equality of information access. And, even in this grand age of the internet, the challenges of fulfilling these ideals remain.

In my perspective, what has changed is the battleground. Copyright, net neutrality, and intellectual property are the next major societal conflicts which will require different tactics and solutions in order to resolve. For certain these are hard issues, ones that will require great minds and greater efforts to change. But so was a woman’s right to vote. As was ending segregation and enacting civil rights. And supporting gay rights from the early days to present victories.

Librarians were on the right side of those issues and we continue to be on the right side when it comes to the present challenges. We can and will overcome. We are heirs to dedicated women and men who changed the world. Never forget our legacy. And most importantly, never let anyone take it away from you.

Our future depends on it.

Hurtling Towards Relevance

In the last few years, the navel gazing around the question of the library’s relevance in modern life makes an regular appearance. There isn’t anything in particular right now that made me think of the topic, but it crossed my mind towards the end of last week. In running errands last weekend, the thought occurred to me that the library isn’t pulling away from the information trends of contemporary society, but rather we are squarely in the path. It’s all in a matter of how you measure it.

In essence, I see it under the umbrella perspective as to how information is treated and managed. Copyright and intellectual property are the elephant in the room for the economic vitality of not only the United States, but the world. It’s a simple idea (the benefits of the creator versus the general public) that has become a deeply complicated global problem subject to the sway of money, politics, and power. It’s part of the emergence of the knowledge economy, one that is based on services that essentially collect, process, analyze, and package information. Manufacturing is never going to be what it once was in the United States, not when Chinese and Bangladeshi companies will do the same job cheaper. But the products of creativity and intellect are ones generally do not need geography, so rights and ownership are the hotly contested principles that should easily fall into the library realm. This is a chance for librarians to make the case on behalf of the public for laws and regulations that make sense in the digital world, both in rewarding the creator and in making their creation available as widely as possible.

This connects into the academic world with announcements such as the University of California faculty adopting an open access mandate. The elemental nature of this part and parcel to the librarian ideal of information access. The tide of Open Access (in its various incarnations) represents a breaking of the knowledge silos that keep knowledge within the confines of paywalls and embargos. It’s an exciting prospect in which researchers and academics have the possibility of getting new discoveries faster. It’s an opportunity for librarians to make new and better connections between research areas and data sets as well as the latest results.

There are other connections to make here, especially in the physical sense. Broadband access to rural locations are part of our information access ideals as well as essential in the aforementioned knowledge economy. This physical end of the digital divide plays a real role in the education and economics of the areas that are beyond the fiber lines. The triumphs of digital education are lost in the slower signal of the DSL or modem squeal. Libraries are common community focal points for those looking to reach the online world; this is our chance to push for them to meet this most basic of needs.

I’m certain there are others, but I think this illustrates my point. If we look to our old metrics for determining relevance, we are going to lose. But if we look at the issues that are pressing right now, we could not possibly be more relevant. A information professional in an information world; it really doesn’t get any more front-and-center than this. The only thing irrelevant here is doubt.

The Long Suffering Librarian

Beyond the intellectual freedom, information access, and other lovely sounding principles, I’m thinking that one of the common bonds between librarians is a masochism streak. I’ll take some liberties with this notion and accept one of the Merriam-Webster non-sexual definition entries that uses a great phrase, “a taste for suffering”. While we as a profession find common cause in working towards justice in its social, economic, and educational forms, it is our nature at enduring suffering that build the bonds between us faster than an open bar at a vendor social event.

Right now, you don’t have to travel very far to get antagonized. To the general public, the Internet is frontrunner for putting the library out of business as all that is needed to replicate the form and function of a library is an internet connection and Kindle. It’s a world that conflates information for knowledge, as if the prerequisite for performing open heart surgery is finding a video of it on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a strong contender as a reference desk killer for general and trivia kinds of inquiries like who won the 1958 Best Picture Oscar. But it has a long way still to climb in transitioning as an academic support model to full blown education program (MOOCs are a transitional state for this ideal, in my estimation). Even then, we know internet access is not universal whether we are looking at computer labs in urban areas or waiting for broadband in rural ones. Nevermind how the Kindle and eBooks in general are not panning out to be the paper killer, something an email account could have told them in the story of the paperless office. The information access haves seem to be perpetually surprised by the have-nots, even though the haves possess access to the resources that would tell them all about the have-nots.

Wrap your head around that enigma.

But the animosity doesn’t stop here. Public librarians get caught up in the loop of anti-government anti-tax sentiments that ignore the basic cost/benefit analysis that would reveal that their tax money is actually working. They are the soft targets of governmental budget crunches, a place where money can be borrowed or taken to pay off other outstanding expenses. School librarians get the unique disrespect of not being considered educators just like teachers, as if learning was dependent on the existence of a classroom setting. They are swept into the category of administration, the fancy term for overhead, and given their walking papers in lean times despite evidence about how they impact student achievement scores. Academic librarians face pressures for various angles, whether it is the deprofessionalization of their positions or static budgets with increasing journal subscription costs while publishers tangle with thoughts of print embargoes and open access. I thought I read an article relating how faculty have lowered the importance of the library as a higher education research, but I can’t find it. I don’t know what to say for special librarians, but I would guess it falls somewhere between funding issues and probably some prick out there who thinks that whatever they are curating and collecting isn’t worth it.

While we are at it, toss in the suffering at the hands of publishers and industry vendors. The strange and strained relationship with publishers is one in which they need us for promotion and purchasing but quietly lobby against our underlying principles: First Sale doctrine, copyright, and fair use. eBooks is just a quagmire of rights and licenses, wrapped up in schemes at both taking the most amount of money and control away from libraries. In terms of vendors, the vast amount of anguish comes through their concept of interfaces. If the ILS systems are the eyes into the window of the library’s catalog soul, they are the gaze of the damned, doomed to needlessly consume the user’s time. If I work there and I have problems finding things in the catalog, what chance does the regular person have? Why does this continue to play out this way?

The topper to this litany of disrespect are the well played out stereotypes and typical questions that come with being a librarian. The public image sways between a ribald sex kitten and bun headed shushing methuselah, readers who can’t tolerate any noise above a whisper. The men are gay or unusually effeminate, the women are secret whores, but hey, at least people think librarians are smart. Then the questions or jokes play out: Do you know the Dewey Decimal system? So, you like to read? And the king of these unmindful questions: Librarian is still a career? (Runner up: You need a degree to do that?) The astonishing, mind numbing part is that people think that it is a perfectly valid query and not the rude, obnoxious loaded question that it actually is. Are the rules of decorum suspended because one doesn’t think a career is real, despite strong evidence to the contrary?

But, personally, I think this kind of anguish pales in comparison to what the profession can do to its members and itself. This is well trod territory for this blog over the years and a recurring theme when I talk to librarians about the profession. These days, I don’t which is worse: the stuff that is said out loud or the stuff that people remain silent on. I was going to recount some of the behaviors that are poisonous, but I’d be cannibalizing my previous material. Needless to say, it is an extension of the suffering we endure.

I’ll concede that the whole job isn’t just suffering or that we take pleasure in suffering. But I think that there is a vast amount of suffering the profession will and currently does endure and I’m not sure how much of it is needless. Do we languish in our own agony? Is it easier to suffer than to stand up and make a change? And, if so, why is that?

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.