Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Not Enough Criticism

Steven Bell has an interesting essay at Inside Higher Education entitled "Good at Reviewing Books But Not Each Other." He claims that academic librarians are too nice, and that, for example, "In the world of library blogging the sky is always sunny, and nary is a dissenting or argumentative thought expressed." Obviously he doesn't read the AL.

However, despite writing one of the more critical library blogs around, I can only agree. Though niceness isn't necessarily the issue. The failure to engage in rigorous intellectual discourse is the issue, as Bell observes: "But perhaps we have become too welcoming, too complacent to remember that we share a responsibility to take our profession forward through intellectual discourse. Maybe a good place to start is with a well thought out response to this article." Okay.

First, we're constantly bombarded by librarians who have only contempt for the virtue of niceness. Plenty of librarians aren't nice. Consider the regressive librarians, who are about as nice as an unpleasant rash and who share the political idealogue's typical willingness to sacrifice civility and truth for political victory. Sure they're not nice, but on the other hand a barrage of ad hominem attacks and logical fallacies doesn't do much for intellectual debate. The regressives confuse rudeness with criticism.

Plenty of non-political criticism exists as well. There are the numerous anonymous blogs that detail the degrading working conditions of a lot of librarians, especially public service staff in public libraries. These often aren't by academics, and so escape Bell's criticism, but they do provide a critical perspective on working conditions relevant to all librarians and managers, and always missing from the library literature. Managers like to talk about motivation and communication and human resources, but rarely seem to be interested in the problems of the actual human beings on their staffs. These blogs seem for the most part to be by nice people put upon by others.

This is a serious practical and ethical issue that, for example, doesn't resonate much with the regressives, whose only concern seems to be to unionize so that the poorly treated and disgruntled librarians don't get fired, and get their guaranteed step raises regardless of their quality. Improving civility, cooperation, caring, and consensus isn't sexy when you're trying to revolutionize the world. And since most of these blogs are anonymous, they wouldn't be taken seriously by the regressives anyway. Unless librarians are willing to come out in public and detail for the world the failings of their library administrations, then there isn't really a problem, at least according to Snipey Fellow Traveling Dude and his Fellow Travelers.

There does seem to be very little criticism of the technological and business faddishness that seems to impress so many librarians, but I've done a little bit in that direction. It would be nice to have more literature criticizing the notion that libraries are like businesses, or that "Library 2.0" is going to create a brave new world, presumably called Twopointopia. (I thought I'd made that one up, but I Googled it and someone beat me to it.)

The problem isn't a lack of criticism, but a lack of intellectual rigor and a lack of concern for intellectual rigor. Librarians, including academic librarians, in general don't seem to have developed the critical and reflective habit typical of academics. It makes sense. They're not people who make their livings by making arguments. They don't sit in classrooms several hours a week articulating their subjects of study. True, some of them publish, but they often publish case studies and how-i-dunit-good articles that don't engage the arguments of others in a meaningful way, and that's usually because there aren't any arguments to engage. Even if they have advanced degrees and in general a critical habit of mind, their work isn't such that it requires the sort of intellectual debate common to academics.

Even the most critical among the bloggers are often reacting to a real or perceived injustice rather than developing larger systemic criticisms. And most of the problems librarians face qua librarians may resist intellectualizing, because they're not intellectual problems in the same sense as understanding a field of study is an intellectual problem. Librarians may be nice because most disputes don't affect their jobs, and because they really have nothing to say and they don't care about intellectual debate.

The truth seems to be that even most academic librarians are more like office clerks, technical trainers, and technology repair persons than intellectuals. I don't see how this can ever change, given the workaday nature of most library jobs.

35 comments:

Nathan said...

AL: Librarians may be nice because most disputes don't affect their jobs, and because they really have nothing to say and they don't care about intellectual debate.

Kind of random here, but I always thought libraries should be in the forefront in promoting lively debate and discussion.

They could invite academics with opposing views to participate in "Friday night fights" right in the library. There would even be free food.

At the end of the debate, the library would display all the relevant books they had on the topic for people to check out.

This would dispell the "Shh!" stereotype once and for all.

Alex Grigg said...

So Nathan, it appears that you are saying we should invite other people into the libraries to debate and then put out a bunch of books with other people's arguments in them.

Um, yeah . . . that will definitely make librarians more critical/argumentative.

Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately), one of the few arguments that librarians get really involved in is the right for other people to argue. You can probably only harp on that point for a couple of hundred years or so before it becomes mostly played out.

AL said...

I assumed Nathan's suggestion was a joke, an intellectual debate with librarians in the middle providing food and books on every subject.

Anonymous said...

As a librarian who appreciates critical appraisals of our profession I have always thought that the "niceness" comes not from actually being nice but from some bizarre sense that we need to be super PC and exceedingly tolerant of others - even when it means that we "accept" that our co-workers are lazy slackers and couldn't ever possibly get a job in the real world or that the sociopath cataloger is indeed creepy or that the homeless man who urinates in the stacks is just "unfortunate"

Anonymous said...

In consdering library school and in the interest of developing a "mentor" I've developed an aquaintance with a longtime academic librarian. After meeting with him a few times he has done his best to warn me away from the profession. In fact this is a portion of the email he sent me recently:

"Over the years I have come to some conclusions...based upon my experience. They may not be true for the profession as a whole but
in my experience Librarians:

are not Scholars
do not appreciate technical skills
are intimidated by scholars
have low self esteem
have no business/organizational skills
are nurturers
do not generally have high IQs
do not have good social skills
think inside of the box
are inefficient
are limited to linear thinking
do not value innovation
are reactive
make mountains out of mole hills
are introverted
are underachievers
focus easily on detail without seeing beyond
never question authority
avoid confrontation at all costs
do not value history
are clueless
complain alot about lack of money instead of addressing their inefficiency
are mindlessly bound to outmoded modalities of dealing with information
never look at the world around them
design systems that serve librarians and not the public
have difficulty making decisions
fear and resist change
don't think well on their feet"

Damn! And this from a man who I thought had one of the "cool jobs" that I totally coveted. Needless to say, between conversations with him and reading this blog (and a million others) I am rapidly concluding that this is a dead-end job and dead-end profession. Somebody please provide some compelling evidence to the contrary.

AL said...

A damning list indeed. Perhaps I should bring it up to the top page to see if anyone has any responses. For the most part, this seems accurate to me.

Brent said...

Maybe I am in denial, but this does not apply to me. Though I am trying to be inefficient. Though to do that, I have to be efficient on being inefficient.

Well, let me think of the ones that do:
-introverted
-avoid confrontation at all costs (well, ... I avoid only when it makes my life easier)

Well, that's about it. But, yeah. I agree with the list, nonetheless.

Privateer6 said...

A few comments.
In reference to intellectual debate, if my former colleagues in library school are any example, only those who have another post graduate degree seem to have the intellectual curiosity and gumption for debate. Most of the students in my library classes would not question the prof in any way shape or form. they would just parrot the prof.

Secondly, I don't think all of the profs are interested in debate, rather they want the students to parrot them. One example that comes to mind is my questioning a prof's concept of customer service, stating that her theory was no big deal and that a sales clerk at Macy's can comprehend the concept without going to grad school. Needless to say the prof was not happy about that.

About the "research" in the library field, AL you hit it on the head; it's either case studies, or how to do its. I remember having to read one "research" article written by a library prof and it appeared as if it was written from her diary about her experiences doing research. Not one bit of information of her "research" was included except what she wanted to do and what federal agency she was working with. If I was to turn in something like that for my MA, I would have failed.

In reference to politeness among librarians, apparently they haven't been reading some of the library blogs I have. While some people I've met are overly PC, the ones in SRRT definitely are not nice if you disagree with them.

Lastly while anon 7:03 post describing librarians is right on for the most part, not all fit those descriptions, and they are usually the better librarians

janitorx said...

I would like to add to that list. Many librarians...
--suffer from various degrees of passive/aggressive personality disorder.
--do not have hobbies outside of work.
--have unhealthy relationships with food.
--are intimidated by anyone reasonably physically attractive.

tailgunner said...

janitorx said "Many librarians
--have unhealthy relationships with food."

I noticed this while working my student internship. Anything in the vending machines with super high saturated fat content was wiped out in two days after the machine was replenished.

When I told the librarians there I ran 3 miles/day for exercise, they looked at me as if I were from another planet.

Nothing like having a wealth of information at your disposal and then not using it (health, nutrition, exercise information etc.)

AL said...

Running 3 miles a day--what, was someone chasing you? Excuse me while I return to my box of donuts.

janitorx said...

When I told the librarians there I ran 3 miles/day for exercise, they looked at me as if I were from another planet.

Oh, tailgunner, where are you when I attend conferences?

This has been my experience as well. I think it also points to the patent disapproval of having a life outside of work far removed from librarianship. Endurance sports are my hobby and it is important for my physical and mental well-being to partake in such activities on a daily basis. Because I can decompress in this way, I am more effective in the workplace. The culture of overwork is marring our personal and professional lives. It is even more appalling when the stakes are so low like in our field.

tailgunner said...

AL: You forgot to mention the flask of Vodka you use to wash the trans fat from the donuts down the old hatch and your siesta on your leather sofa after consuming such products! LOL

janitorx: I first ran because I could not land a professional library job. Now that I finally have and after reading this blog, looks like I will be driven to run a marathon to counter stress and burn out.

Thanks a lot AL, your blog just shattered the rose colored tint on my contact lenses!

janitorx said...

tailgunner: I began running while in library school!

Now that I finally have and after reading this blog, looks like I will be driven to run a marathon to counter stress and burn out.

Go for it. Tapering for long events is hard though, because you have to be pretty much sedentary for 3 weeks. Never cede your free time for this profession.

Bunny Watson said...

janitorx said Never cede your free time for this profession.

Hell, I became a librarian for the free time. Who cares about having summers off as a professor if you spend the rest of your year constantly working? True, I choose to spend it reading and playing an instrument, not running, but it's the same idea.

Pete Smith said...

Ah, the Stereotype Cavalcade. I've met many librarians who aren't all the things in these lists, yet cos that view just isn't fun, what can it matter? Really, why not just get a bigger stick to beat ourselves with.
Also, a lot of the 'critique' of academic librarians could easily be applied to the 'scholars' we apparently wish to emulate.
I dunno. A lot of librarians are all these things, but then a lot of people are, so...

janitorx said...

True, I choose to spend it reading and playing an instrument, not running, but it's the same idea.

Any flow activities are fine! (I wish I could learn to play bass guitar, but I am musically inept.)

I am sure that many of you know librarians who work more than 40 hours a week and pop in on weekends to "get caught up".

I've met many librarians who aren't all the things in these lists..

I haven't. Maybe I need to go to more conferences.

Lilly said...

I am in library school at the moment. I also work as an academic librarian. Sometimes, I am appalled at the level of intelligence of my co-workers, and my school peers.

Sometimes I feel isolated at work, because many of my co-workers do not have hobbies to discuss- or, they do not communicate well.

My husband is in law school- I showed him some of the "masters" level papers from one of my MLIS classes, and he burst out laughing! I'm not just talking grammatical errors- but seriously failed thinking.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my job. I actually do... But sometimes I feel out of place. (I also, run 3-4 miles a day)- while my co-workers have to take the elevator up 3 flights to their offices.

AL said...

I only take the elevator up one flight when I'm carrying a particularly heavy box of donuts. As for the list, obviously I don't think that I fit many of the characteristics or I wouldn't see them as criticisms. I am very introverted but I hide it well.

Anonymous said...

I am not afraid of anyone reasonably attractive. I shashay right up to them, put my hand on my donut eating hip and ask, "How can I help YOU?"

contrarian said...

I walk, not run, about 14 miles/week. Does that count? It must count for something because my bottom is one of the smallest in my library of 75 workers.

janitorx said...

I walk, not run, about 14 miles/week. Does that count?

Of course!

Sometimes I feel isolated at work, because many of my co-workers do not have hobbies to discuss- or, they do not communicate well.

Lilly, I feel this way most of the time as well. If I disclosed to any colleagues my true academic interests they'd laugh at me. That is why it is so important for me to make sure my job will allow me to have a life outside of work.

Anonymous said...

I remember one time in library school, in a government documents class, the professor mentioned the speaker of the house of representatives, and as an aside asked if anyone in the class could name him/her. Noone could. At the time it was Tom Foley, whose name I blurted in astonishment. The professor gave me a stiff smile of begrudged recognition, as I was by far the poorest performer in the class, mainly because I was astonished a graduate level course existed to learn clerical work and was bored by the subject matter.

I direct a small public library in a large consortia where Harry Potter is considered the pinnacle of greatness, Stephen King novels are hoarded, and circulation numbers–pumped up by DVD lending–are the measure of success. The professionals are mostly large rear ended complainers without a speck of intellectual curiosity, and the non pros range from incompetent political appointees, to sometimes normal well adjusted people who thought it would be “nice to work in a library.” The patrons are mostly DVD borrowers and internet addicts, and range from rude to scary and insane.

My fellow directors run the gamut, but a distressingly large number fall into the aggressive entrepreneurial category—they insist of calling library patrons customers, and write articles about how a modern librarian must wear many hats, and so on.

Ah me, what a load of nonsense all this is. Consider. Running a Walgreens or Shop Rite is easily as complicated as running a library. Do managers of those institutions need graduate degrees? Do they all blog about the state of their “profession?” I don’t know for certain, but am doubtful.

And I run about three miles a day, and also do extensive weight work. Afraid I seldom attend any library conferences though.

Anonymous said...

I do hope intellectual, bright, energetic soon to be librarians out there are not reading particular thread of commentary. I enjoy this blog, and I agree with some of the lack of written output in critical thinking in the profession but as an almost graduated Library student and full time academic library employee I am truly disheartened by the list of "librarian characteristics". This is not to say that I haven't encountered some librarians who fit the mold everyone is so quick to embrace but in my experience I have worked with and met incredibly engaged, intellectual and criticaly thinking librarians. I attended ACRL this year and while I am already fully committed to the profession (with hopes of obtaining academic library position) but being amongst such an incredibly diverse, exciting group of professionals energized me more and made me incredibly excited about my continuing career.
I do have a subject masters but I do not assume that those without are incapable of critical inquiry. I do happen to work with a number of people who have additional graduate degrees and we all bring our expertise to the job despite the fact that we do not work in the most rigorously academic institution.
I can't say anything about public libraries but those of you out there who feel so devoid of intellectual intercourse, why don't you peruse a different area of librarianship? I myself fell into academic because of my interests in research, and I often do take my work home with me (though more often in thought as opposed to actual work) because I related to my personal interests. I do have a multitude of hobbies and a social life outside of work, but I love my work and bring all of myself to it, I consider myself lucky that I don't have to vehemently shake it off when I leave for the day in order to enjoy the rest of my life. It is part of it.
Please do not call this a dead profession, it is only dead if you contribute to its demise.

Anonymous said...

One of the pages at my branch is one of the few staff members who is well read or has any intellectual curiousity. He has an English BA and is now shelving books full-time. I discussed library school with him, but he was uninterested. He compared being head librarian at at public branch like ours to being a convenience-store manager!

I fail to understand why a graduate degree is required for most library jobs. Seems like a juco or technical school certification would be wholly adequate. Of course, then we'd probably be flooded with an even greater number of uninspired and unemployed librarians...

AL said...

"I do hope intellectual, bright, energetic soon to be librarians out there are not reading particular thread of commentary.... Please do not call this a dead profession, it is only dead if you contribute to its demise."

I understand the desire here, but I don't think I'm contributing to any problems by a lot of people saying what they observe around them. I don't think the AL attracts the deadwood. They know who they are and they know when they're being criticized. But I think it's fair for people, even prospective librarians to get a dose of the truth, or at least a different perspective from the sunny holiday presented by a lot of the library propaganda.

There are lots of bright, interesting, educated librarians. I know a lot of them. But they hardly constitute a majority, even in academic libraries where one might hope to find them. I have several great colleagues that I like and respect, but they're still the minority.

Bright prospective librarians might be reading this. But are library school admissions people reading it. Are people thinking about the ridiculously low standards for library school, and the unprofessional nature of a lot of library jobs? And if lots of bright people go to library school, where will they work once they get out?

Anonymous said...

A non librarian just wants to point out that most of these characteristics apply to most workers in most jobs. Most people in this country are fat, stupid, and average (maybe a little less).

Spouse of an annoyed librarian.

AL said...

That may be true, but we're not ordinary people--we're librarians! We're information professionals in the information age! We give people ACCESS TO INFORMATION! And ACCESS TO DVDs! We revolutionize the world one library card at a time! We're special! And don't you forget it.

janitorx said...

Years ago I dated a law student and often hung out with his law school friends. I was surprised to discover they were intellectually bankrupt. Most of them were careerist types and couldn't talk about much else besides their budding legal careers.

Anonymous said...

The two most pressing issues of my day so far:

1. How many copies of the new Harry Potter to order. By the way, I have to submit a signed affadavit to our book distributor stating,nay swearing I won't make any copies available before the official release date. Whew, what if we do let one go? Will the FBI be at the library door within minutes? Will we be sent to federal prison? Can you imagine? "Stay away from that guy, he let the Potter book out a day early."

2. The great 2001 David Spade classic Joe Dirt on DVD has gone missing. Should I allocate a portion of our precious DVD budget to buy a replacement? Or should I write it off and put the money into new and future classics? Indepth analysis of circulation figures ahead. I'll start with a graph, then proceed to a flow chart, then creat a computer statistical model.

Tough choices. Thank goodness I have that MLS to enable me to see the "big picture" and lead my staff through this minefield of difficult decisions!!!!!

Anonymous said...

"The patrons are mostly DVD borrowers and internet addicts, and range from rude to scary and insane."

Do you work in my library? Do I know you? You just described 95% of my library's clientele. They make the job miserable.

janitorx said...

Do not underestimate the power of "I dun it gud" articles. One of these masterpieces saved my library 25k. I am not kidding. Useful, yes. Scholarship, of course not.

"The patrons are mostly DVD borrowers and internet addicts, and range from rude to scary and insane."

They aren't much better at the ol' CC, either. We mostly get internet addicts and can't seem to be shed of one wierdo who likes to play solitare. Fortunately, I am not in public services, but my assistant epitomizes dysfunctional and non-hygienic. Mid-June cannot come soon enough!

Anonymous said...

Even though I cannot run three miles per day, ( I get water on my knee when I run) I do encounter odd looks when I tell others I workout. Then when I tell them I bench press 355lbs and deadlift 500lbs, the clinching of the eyes begin. I would do heavy squats, but the knee is keeping me back. Maybe I could register as a minority in the field of Library "Science" since I am indeed an oddity in the "profession"

janitorx said...

Then when I tell them I bench press 355lbs and deadlift 500lbs, the clinching of the eyes begin.

Damn! That's impressive. I can only bench my weight.

Mary Page said...

Well, some of Experienced Librarian's Damning List of Traits apply to me, and probably to most people. Most everyone I know can be a jerk sometimes, even moi. But the thing is: do you revel in your jerkness? That's the kind of librarian (and person in general) to avoid. There ARE those kind of librarians around, but I think they came to the field with the misperception that librarianship would offer a solitary, shushing kind of life, and they're bitter because it's not like that.

However, we also have some brilliant (Clifford Lynch), innovative (Jessamyn West, Jenny Levine, Andrew Pace), courageous (the many librarians who have stood up to the Patriot Act), articulate (Karen Hyman, Jean Hirons, Leslie Burger), among us too. These librarians are my heroes and role models, and there are so many others out there doing great things.

So Librarian-To-Be, don't be discouraged, especially if most of the Damning List of Traits don't apply to you right now. If you mostly don't see yourself as inefficient, fearful of technology, or clueless, you're not one of them, you're one of us. The do-ers, thinkers, socially aware and involved who are passionate about our work.

There are plenty of days that my job makes me crazy, but most of the time, I love my job. I have learned so much in more than 20 years in this field, and I have colleagues and friends across the country who I would never have met otherwise. Most important, I have never, ever been bored. Annoyed, frustrated, pissed off, yes. But mostly, those situations motivate me to DO SOMETHING. The Damned Librarians give up. If you're not the type who gives up in the face of a challenge, you will love being a librarian.