Noise in the Stacks

This summer, Scott McLemee hoped academic librarians would blog more about their work. Voila! Introducing ACRLog.

October 18, 2005

In June, Intellectual Affairs offered a modest proposal for the general improvement of academic culture. The idea was simple. It was that academic librarians ought to have a group blog -- and that, furthermore, it would be a good thing if people other than librarians were to read it. After all, many of the problems they face, and the decisions they come to, affect anyone who does research in a library. Which is to say, most of us.

By amplifying the voices of an important but largely overlooked sector of the scholarly workforce, such a blog might do its part to benefit the common good of everyone. That, in brief, was the point made by the column called "Silence in the Stacks." And for making it, I got no little grief.

More on that in a moment. But for now, it is a pleasure to note that the call was heard. The Association of College and Research Libraries -- which has 12,000 members working in the various sectors of secondary education -- has now launched a group site called ACRLog. Actually it has been running since mid-September, but only in warm-up mode. Its existence was officially announced yesterday, following what sounds like a rather thorough and protracted round of bureaucratic vetting.

It all started in June, when Steven Bell, the director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University, and Mary Jane Petrowski, the assistant executive director or ACRL, worked up a proposal for a group blog on academic-librarianship issues. The idea was discussed and approved during a meeting of the ACRL board during the annual conference of the American Library Association, held this year in Chicago.

"For the next two months or so," as Steve Bell told me by e-mail, "we concentrated on (1) getting a domain name and host for the blog (2) getting a software package to run the blog  (3) assembling a team of bloggers, and (4) getting the blog up and running." They then spent a few weeks fine tuning aspects of the site.

It is, in short, an authorized and official project of a professional organization. And in mentioning this, there is, once again -- ping! -- the bitter sting of spitballs at the back of my neck.

You see, in June, I mentioned that it had been difficult to find blogs that discussed the work of academic librarians in a way that treated this as a matter of general concern. It was not for want of trying. Of course, there were plenty of blogs out there by maintained by librarians, academic and otherwise. They were a good way to learn about people's hobbies, cats, sex lives, favorite television shows, political opinions, insights into various personnel decisions, and amusing or irritating encounters with patrons.

But sites where they thought out loud about the relationship between their professional expertise and the rest of the university, for example? Sure, that happened, sometimes, in passing. But not as a primary emphasis.

Saying this was, let's say, not popular. According to some of what later transpired, I had proven myself guilty of malice, myopia, abject stupidity, and willful intention to insult. To the naked eye, the column had actually been a sort of paean to librarians as overlooked wizards of the information age -- combined with a plea that others in academic life give them their due.

But perhaps that was part of my nefarious plan? For I am a snake. And as the Bible tells us, the snake is the most subtle of the beasts.

What had really happened only became clear much later: I had wandered, blithely enough, into a minefield. Doubtless you have heard about the heated exchanges between pro- and anti-blogging factions of academe. And there have been similar contretemps within the profession of journalism: Some see blogging as a legitimate dimension of mass media, and some regard it as the death of all standards and accountability. Well, the same polarization has occurred among librarians.

The anger touched off by "Silence in the Stacks" in June was actually a continuation of the furor over a notorious (well, in some circles, anyway) statement by Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, earlier this year. In the pages of [ital]Library Journal[ital], he lashed out at "the Blog People" in his own profession -- attributing to them sundry lapses of taste, judgment, and intelligence.

It was as if he were conducting an experiment to see if they could carry a grudge. Guess what? They can.

It would be good to think that the new group blog started by the Association of College and Research Libraries will rise above the old hostilities. So far, four academic librarians are involved in running it. I asked Steven Bell if there were plans to involve more people.

"I hope we can add two bloggers in the next few months," he wrote in reply. "....I should add that we are open to guest posts from colleagues, and perhaps if we find someone who shows some talent for this sort of thing he or she will be invited to join the blogging team."

One of the current participants is, by his own account, a latecomer to the format. Scott Walter is assistant dean of libraries for information and instructional services at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. "I was not an early adopter of the blog as a means of disseminating information or personal views," he told me, instead preferring "more familiar formats such as public presentation and publication in traditional journals. Nor have I been particularly active on the older electronic medium of the discussion list in recent years."

So why go digital now? "What sold me on the idea," as he put it, "was the notion of a public forum for discussion of academic library issues that inhabits the middle ground between the  quickly composed reply to a discussion list and the formal (and often long-delayed) publication of one's ideas in a peer-reviewed journal.... It struck me that, despite the variety of library blogs already available, we still had a need for this in the world of academic librarianship."

Another member of the ACRLog group is Barbara Fister, coordinator of the instruction program at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

"Blogging is an emerging narrative genre that interests me both as a librarian and as someone interested in popular literacy generally," Fister told me. "It's part news, part opinion, part humor, part passion, part contact sport -- and of course it's a way to get conversations going."

That reference to "conversation" turns out to be an allusion to a library-science article published almost 20 years ago: Joan Bechtel's "Conversation, a New Paradigm for Librarianship?" It's an oft-cited text. Here's a passage from it: "The primary task, then, of the academic library is to introduce students to the world of scholarly dialogue that spans both space and time and to provide students with the knowledge and skills they need to tap into conversations on an infinite variety of topics, and to participate in the critical inquiry and debate on those issues."

In other words: Academic librarians were cultivating the blogosphere even before there was one....


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