The Librarians Who Stare At Goats

After reading the editorial entitled “’Annoyed Strikes Again”, I feel Francine Fialkoff owes the readership of Library Journal an apology followed by an immediate correction to the situation. Of course, the issue that I am referring to is the use of “hissing cat with hackles raised” image for the blogger avatar of the Annoyed Librarian. This is a blatant case of false advertising at the basic animal representation level. Simply put, the Annoyed Librarian is not a irritated cat, ready to pounce or scratch or claw upon those things that cross its path, tearing them apart bit by bit into tiny pieces that cat owners tend to find in their shoes and/or sock drawer. If anything, they have more hiss than actual claw or fangs because that would require more effort than simply writing a commentary on a trade journal website. No, the Annoyed Librarian should not be represented by a hissing cat, Francine; the Annoyed Librarian should be represented by a goat.

The prevailing reason that a goat would be the best animal representation is due to its reputation of being able to chew on anything. That’s what the Annoyed Librarian persona does in its wide ranging topical commentary; it is subject omnivorous without regard to popularity or sentiment. That’s why Library Journal hired this blogger in the first place as roughly detailed in Francine’s editorial “Librarians Too ‘Annoyed’”, although it was as much as business decision as it was an editorial content one. (“Both critics and supporters have pointed out that AL has helped us reap more hits on our web site. Numbers count in our for-profit world, as they do in your nonprofit one.”) In establishing this relationship, Library Journal has hired the services of this metaphorical goat to write critiques on all manner of library topics, both tasteful and unsavory.

I’m disappointed in Francine’s attempt to create a barrier between Library Journal and the AL by saying, “AL is not LJ, and LJ is not AL.” If you’re willing to spend the time and money to own this proverbial goat, don’t shy away when this blogger does the things you hired it to do: generate page hits and create discussions on the website. (As to this latter point, there is a world of difference between discussion and its useless cousin known as agitation. For an individual who wishes to debate on the merits of an issue, the AL tends to have their salient points be outshined by overly distracting insults and the occasional cheap shot.) If LJ is going to pay for their prose and promote them as one of their blogger voices, then LJ should stand by their investment in one of the few online commentators that they’ve chosen to include on their website.

It should not be forgotten that while librarians are the intended audience of Library Journal they are not the shareholders in Media Source, Inc., the company that owns Library Journal. Keeping the doors open at Library Journal is a priority as a for-profit company as mentioned by Francine above; if hiring such an individual as the AL helps them do that, then LJ has made its move. On the opposite side, librarians also play a role in this equation as consumers. We have the option of taking our wallets and pageviews elsewhere; judging from some of the responses LJ has received, some of my peers have taken that option.

It’s as simple as that. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it, view it, link to it, or otherwise promote it. A letter or phone call to LJ is a courtesy to tell them your reasons for doing so, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as an unrenewed subscription card or denying them web traffic through avoidance. If you still really feel strongly, then organize a boycott or write a letter of protest and send it to Media Source executives. There are still avenues of outrage and indignation left to explore, although I don’t see this as anything more than just flipping the channel and never returning. I can understand the disappointment and disapproval, but I can’t see the continued rage over a commercial blog written by an anonymous writer that was hired to draw people in to the LJ web domain.

If there is any group that the library collective should be disappointed with, it really should be with ourselves. If the most viewed online opinion voice of a popular professional magazine is that of an anonymous satirical blogger of varied reputation, then what exactly does that say about us? If they were not getting the page views and the advertising revenues generated with it, the same business rationale that brought them to LJ would be the one to see them off the site. There is a demand for this kind of content which makes me wonder as to why. Does this blogger brings something to the library commentary world that no one else in the community is fulfilling? Can we not have open discussions on the so-called sacred cows of library science, from intellectual freedom to the greying profession myth to divergent approaches to the profession’s common problems? Is there a reliance on satire and sarcasm as a means to introduce a controversial subject? For as awful, horrible, angry, and wicked as people proclaim the Annoyed Librarian to be, its status as being the most widely read blogger at LJ says something for librarians as the intended market. In this instance, I find fault not in the writer but with the audience.

As regular blog readers here will note, this just generates deeper questions for me. Does the profession have a problem being honest with itself? Can librarians have discussions that are controversial, difficult, and otherwise unhappy as adults? For a profession that prides itself on showcasing divergent voices in the collection, have we abandoned it in our professional discourse?

Or, simply put, what’s up with all the angst?

duty_callsFor myself, I’ll still continue to read the Annoyed Librarian blog. Why? As I see it, it’s part of the job of being a librarian blogger. In striving to be informed across the vast range of the library blogosphere, it means reading lots of viewpoints from lots of sources, including Library Journal. My personal opinion is outweighed by my desire to remain widely read and knowledgeable about what people are saying in different corners of libraryland. I’m proud to say that my Google Reader reflects this ideal. While I certainly respect and encourage people to take the action that they feel works best in a situation such as this one, I’m headed in the opposite direction. For all those fleeing the flames of particular locations of internet discourse, I am headed into those fires. It’s just who I am and what I want to do.

You Told Us *Nothing*

I realize that I had put myself into blogvacation, but this latest entry from the well known pseudonymous librarian at Library Journal pulled me from my writing hibernation. If you can hold your nose and read it, do so. If not, it is basically a rehashing of a old canard in which library videos are the public image villains that will kill the library. The premise is that videos such as ‘Library 101’, ‘Kickass Librarian’, and ‘Libraries will survive’ present a clear and present danger to the image of libraries and librarians that it will result in their eventual closing wherever these videos can be viewed on the planet Earth.

The title to this post is ‘I Told You So’ and the superficial explanation offered is that these kinds of library videos are a detriment to the institution and the profession. It is imagined that those with control over the library budget were sitting on the fence about the library funding when, SUDDENLY, they saw one of these videos. That the real reason for this particular library closing is not local budget woes, a bad economy, or the decline of tax ratables, but that video. The leap of logic to connect these two items is nothing short of breathtaking in the asinine lengths one person will go to bash another.

The real underlying message of the Annoyed Librarian in this post (and perhaps the last year’s worth of blog posts) is “creativity kills libraries”. Period. Do not do anything that could be considered outside of the norm. The profession cannot possibly risk the embarrassment due to the imaginative endeavors of a few. That anyone would have the initiative to tweak the public perception of a librarian is something that should be quelled or smothered. And if you must be expressive, then there are certain strict standards that must be met; the first of these is that when viewed from any angle, it cannot possibly detract from the reputation of the library, librarians, or the field of library science.

Color within the lines, dammit.

Furthermore, in this topsy-turvy demented viewpoint, all advocacy will be seen as a joke and any expressions of humor will be considered deadly serious. Nevermind what the library does for its community. Nevermind the programs, materials, and services that are provided. Nevermind the average return of investment for every dollar spent on the library. Nevermind the importance of information access in a digital knowledge economy. It’s a comical video that made the difference in deciding to close the library. It’s akin to telling a crime victim that the reason they were assaulted and robbed is not because they were in the wrong place at the wrong place, that the assailant has a history of such attacks, or that it was a crime of opportunity, but it happened because they are a bad person.

This kind of reasoning is why we can’t have a library renaissance during the greatest revolution of communication, information, and computation in the history of mankind. In an era that has seen the rise of the knowledge economy, the expansion of educational opportunities to every corner of the planet, and when information can be beamed into a personal handheld device, there is a cornucopia of carping and self doubt that is nothing short of staggering. In an age of potential, the conversation about the library is still controlled by the hyperactive risk adverse. It is one thing to take such risks into the overall calculation; it is another to say that any risk factors are fatal errors to the computation. I think this passage from the Seth Godin blog post, Fear of Bad Ideas, sums up the underlying issue perfectly:

A few people are afraid of good ideas, ideas that make a difference or contribute in some way. Good ideas bring change, that’s frightening.

But many people are petrified of bad ideas. Ideas that make us look stupid or waste time or money or create some sort of backlash.

The problem is that you can’t have good ideas unless you’re willing to generate a lot of bad ones.

(Emphasis mine.)

The other point that Mr. Godin makes in his post is that it takes a lot of bad ideas before a good one will emerge. That an idea may go through many generations, refined and rethought, before it emerges through the development process. Should people be allowed to examine these ideas or concepts and offer their critiques? Absolutely. But where it crosses the line is when this criticism is not given in good faith nor acts as a partner in the process.

The Annoyed Librarian is destructive hyperbole masquerading around as dissent. That’s not the tragedy in this instance. The tragedy is that this person is just one of many in the profession who engage in this sort of discourse. So enamored by their own self righteous banality, they seek to tear down the concepts and ideas of others long before they prove their worth or merit. They are the bane of innovation, the scourge of experimentation, and a foe of creation. They are not the voices of well reasoned doubt or Devil’s advocate; they are schadenfreude parasites on any meaningful discourse.

They tell us nothing for they offer nothing.

If parts of this entry sounds familiar, it is because it goes back to my second lesson learned in 2010. The balance between caution and risk has swung too far in the direction of the former. The vocal risk adverse minority are squeezing out the thinkers, creators, explorers, and adventurers within the profession on the basis of their biases and fears. The profession will not meet the challenges of this new century when any attempts at progress are smothered in the cradle. It simply won’t. The time has come to stand up to these bullies and announce them for what they offer the profession: nothing.

In closing, I want to share a quote by Dr. David Lankes that I think really nails the main issue for the profession:

“What will kill this profession is not ebooks, amazon, or Google. It will be a lack of imagination. An inability to see not what is, but what could be. To see only how we are viewed now, but not how that is only a platform for greatness… It [librarianship] only survives if we, librarians and the communities we serve, take it up, renew, refresh it, and constantly engage in what is next.”

(Excerpted from here.)

(I must give credit for some inspiration for this post to Karen Schneider and her post, The Devil Needs No Advocate. In my opinion, it’s a ‘must read’ post.)

Librarianship Under The Big Tent

My BackTalk article, “We Need Big Tent Librarianship”, is available on the Library Journal website now and will be in print shortly. Before I get into it more, I’d like to thank Josh Hadro and Rebecca Miller at Library Journal for their editing and sounding board support for this piece. I really couldn’t have done it without them.

I really mean that last sentence. For me, this article was the most personal thing I’ve written regarding the profession. It’s one of the closest things to a This I Believe sort of statement, loaded with the hopes and dreams that I have. It might seem odd to some, but it was emotional at times to write it for I was dumping out my heart’s contents onto the page for all of my peers to see. It’s hard to be that vulnerable, but the opportunity to share it on such a platform made the reward worth the risk. So, now you know what lays at my very core when it comes to librarianship.

I’ve said it before on here and in person, but I will repeat it once more. The buildings, technology, services, and materials of the library are all transitional. What interests me, what compels me to write in this blog, and what intrigues me the most when I query my peers about their beliefs and philosophies is what lays at the soul of the profession. We can add video games, Kindles, garden tools, computers, funny t-shirts, video instruction, chat/text, and whatever else is being added to collections all over the world, but it means nothing without our basic dogma and principles. It is the fundamental concept, the basic idea, the primitive notion of the library in an information age that is the most important element; that we are for literacy, we are for all who seek assistance, and that we are information experts in an age of exponential data growth.

I can see from the first comment on the site that someone has asked the next logical question:

If learning more about each other is the first step, what comes next? When comes the step where we act collectively for the sake of endangered libraries and librarians and the people who depend on them?

My gut instinct is to say “soon”, but my brain is saying that this idea has to gain a foothold (grow some roots, one would say) before it can grow. It’s a matter of finding like minded people to build the bridges over the current lacunas that exist. It’s the baby steps of establishing that the underlying concepts of big tent librarianship are a good and worthy ideal. This is not an idea that will march in the streets by next July at the ALA conference, but will need to grow at the person-to-person level. That’s where it needs to be, opening up the mind of one librarian at a time. It’s a matter of not letting chances slide by, but taking them up as a collective challenge to the profession and (more importantly) to the institution of the library itself.

I will have to ruminate on this some more, but for now, I’m just trying to reach one librarian at a time.

Blatantly Berry Bumbling

This morning, while I was reading through the latest issue of Library Journal online, I had the distinct displeasure of reading John Berry III’s article entitled “Don’t Muzzle Librarians”. While watching David Rothman’s reaction vlog provided some levity for my irritation (a must watch for the purposes of this post), there are some outstanding points that Mr. Rothman did not touch upon that I feel should be addressed.

First and foremost, freedom of expression does not equate to freedom from accountability. While my various forms of expression are generally protected from civil and criminal liabilities, it does not render me immune to social ones. Those seeing, hearing, or listening can hold me to account for my words and choose to continue, engage, or withdraw. While Mr. Berry wields the freedom of expression concept as if it were a hammer (in the most ironic way as noted by Mr. Rothman), it does not render null and void the accountability that the magazine has for the words of one of its blogger employees. While traditionally publications have stood with their contributors (and rightfully so), there are business and social consequences that can occur. For example, the affronted party can discontinue reading the offending publication and tell others not to buy such a magazine. This is the subtle difference between what Mr. Berry is implying and what Mr. Rothman actually said in his previous video regarding the Annoyed Librarian and Library 101. I defend the right to free expression, but I am not compelled to read or listen to such acts nor prevented from enacting my own set of social consequences.

Second, as noted in Mr. Rothman’s response, there is no one calling for the end of anonymous writing. Pseudonyms and unsigned letters have served society well in various capacities over the course of history. However, in terms of the internet, anonymous writing and commentary have presented an additional set of results. Observe this chart that precisely documents this phenomena:


(Original NSFW cartoon here.)

Thus, the fine anonymous art of “trolling” has come to exist. While the Annoyed Librarian certainly makes fine points that I can agree with (like here), the amount of vitriol displayed at times towards other professionals is pure emotional spectacle. The nature of those postings does not rise to the great anonymous writers (as touted by Mr. Berry) but becomes synonymous with the legions of unknown insensitive boorish commentators whose affection for naked cruelty is disturbing on a multitude of levels. While I certainly support anyone’s right to write anonymously for whatever personal reason, it would be folly to think that such practices (especially on the internet) do not come with its own particular set of perceptions and disadvantages when it comes to evaluating the content.

Third, after proclaiming the merits of freedom of expression in the previous paragraphs, Mr. Berry then derides the findings of the ALA New Members Round Table regarding a survey conducted which shows that “its members feel ALA should avoid expressing itself on what they call ‘nonlibrary issues.’” Again, in a bout of unnecessary quotation marks, he raises the specter that most issues can be argued as being library issues, calling thoughts to the otherwise “[a] disease of deciding what is ‘appropriate’”. (I presume this disease must be some sort of brain cloud.) I have written about this before (so I won’t rehash it here), but I’d like to add another thought.

While political activism has waxed and waned through the history of the United States, the political climate at present0 is extremely emotionally charged and divisive. In my reckoning, there is no reason to introduce resolutions that do not advance the mission of the library but work towards creating divisions within the membership. Especially in this budget climate, I would hope that the ALA Councilors would be working on measures to save and expand funding and provide morale support for librarians across the country rather than broad proclamations outside the organizational scope and purpose. A focus on unity would be prudent in this time of financial infirmity and politically charged rhetoric.

In closing, I’m reminded of a famous quote by the journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

One cannot announce a great history of the defense of free expression while attacking another for exercising it. Nor can the democracy of the ALA Council be praised in one post and be labeled with the derision of implied infirmity when the majority does not favor one’s outlook. It does no favors to question the good faith intent of those who are in opposition to one’s position simply because they contradict. The only thing being muzzled here is the legitimacy of dissent in a profession that thrives on the inclusiveness of differing viewpoints. This principle cannot be heralded at each and every library when it fails within professional circles and discussions. It must be upheld, embraced, and loved for what it is: a uniting dogma of this profession.

Mr. Berry would do well to remember that the freedom of expression he cherishes for himself and his employee also applies to Mr. Rothman and this blogger. As the saying goes, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”. We will not all agree on the issues facing the library community, but we are all patriots of the library.