Good at Reviewing Books But Not Each Other

Steven J. Bell critiques his fellow librarians on the state of their profession's debates (or lack thereof).

April 27, 2007

Academic librarians are the nice guys of higher education. We dwell in neutral territory; the library belongs to no one and everyone. So do we. Our reputation is mostly one of being excruciatingly helpful. We give service with a smile. Our academic roost is a peaceful haven, and we welcome all. As an academic librarian who regularly navigates the library blogosphere, I find that the librarian’s penchant for pleasantry extends to our own virtual nest. In the world of library blogging the sky is always sunny, and nary is a dissenting or argumentative thought expressed.

Why is it that “flatlined” may be the best term to describe the state of discourse in librarianship? In the traditional library literature one rarely sees an article that takes issue with the research or perspectives of a particular author. There may be a dissenting letter to the editor every so often, but one would be hard pressed to identify a juicy back-and-forth between two camps engaged in academic discourse about a controversial issue. Maybe we’re just too nice to take an intellectual sledgehammer to a colleague’s work, even if it was well deserved. Some librarians might point to any number of the profession’s electronic discussion lists as the virtual ground where real debates between librarians are happening, but I would argue that what debate takes place on these lists often occurs between the same small crew of librarians who simply have an axe to grind with each other’s positions. The vast majority of list members never get involved, and what transpires might be more accurately described as bickering than intellectual discourse.

As one explores and delves into the world of library blogs it soon becomes apparent that the rules of disengagement dominate the landscape. There one is likely to see a repetitious flood of posts exclaiming “What a great post by so-and-so” or “She’s got a must read post today”. Rarely does one see a post that starts with “I have to disagree” or “Boy, does he have it wrong.” Most commenting is no better. It’s mostly gratuitous back patting. But why bother anyway? Comments are secondary to actual posts and they reach a much smaller audience. One exception might be ACRLog, a blog for which I write. Geared specifically to academic librarians it still allows fairly unrestrictive commenting, and on occasion comments may offer brilliant opposing views. But these are few and far between; the overall dearth of comments, even for posts that make controversial statements, is shockingly surprising for this profession.

Other areas of academia have fostered some excellent exchanges between dissenting parties -- in blogs, journal back and forths, and at scholarly meetings -- in fact many professors worry that some fields are too contentious. That’s hardly a concern the library profession must address. If anything our professional meetings are exceptionally notable for the atmosphere of courtesy and collegiality. On those unusual occasions when parties do disagree it’s typically handled in a jovial manner so that neither side perceives any offense. On those occasions when the gauntlet of disagreement is thrown down, rarely is it taken up by the opposition. At the recent ACRL conference in Baltimore, in response to a participant comment, a speaker said “that was passionate but you are completely wrong”. It ended there. I wonder how that exchange would play out at a faculty conference. The outcome, I think, would be quite different.

It’s not that librarianship lacks controversies worth getting worked up. Remember the virtual firestorm created by Michael Gorman? Gorman’s critical essay about bloggers in a 2005 Library Journal column set off an explosion of anger in the library blogosphere. How, bloggers asked, could an American Library Association president be so out of touch with a communication medium so important to his own profession? How dare he attack bloggers and even the blog as a form of expression! Even non-librarians got in on the action. But the action was all one way. There was hardly a defense of Gorman. It appeared no one wanted to step forward and take on the hoards of critics. And what he said and why he said wasn’t completely indefensible. Bloggers had attacked Gorman over comments he published in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times ("Google and God's Mind," December 17, 2004) that were critical of Google’s plan to digitize books. So Gorman responded in kind. After the assault Gorman claimed his words to be hardly serious, but from the reaction you would have thought he said that the blogosphere was an evil plague that needed to be eradicated. Did any library bloggers come to Gorman’s defense? None that I could detect. And I know why. Fear of underserved and irrational reprisal.

Although many library pundits and A-list library bloggers would be quick to deny it, it seems increasingly the case that a speech chill has descended on the library blogosphere. On the few occasions when a dissenting comment is attached to a post in the spirit of discourse, the commenter is likely to find him or herself the target of an unpleasant post in which the blogger uses his or her bully pulpit to lash out against someone who’s dared to take an opposing view. Even if the commenter responds with a follow-up comment (and more bloggers refuse to allow them these days), few readers take the time to look at them. Posts on the other hand can be quite memorable. The blogger has the upper hand. Ultimately, those who make an attempt at discourse are discouraged and the next time simply ask, “Why bother?”

Even more remote is the possibility of discourse between opposing bloggers, particularly in an attempt to bring to the table an observation of groupthink. In those circumstances the woeful dissenter is subject to swift condemnation that quite quickly quashes any chance of thoughtful dialogue. The essential trend of 2006 was Library 2.0. But exactly what it meant became the subject of some promising back and forth exchange among bloggers. As a far less heated issue than Gorman’s blogger incident, a few librarians felt encouraged to wade in against the tide to voice opinions that Library 2.0 was little more than old wine in a new bottle, a new fad for those who seek out new technology solutions before they’ve identified a legitimate problem. Library 2.0 advocates were quick to band together in a “they just don’t get it” response. Ultimately groupthink won out over efforts to help all those interested in the topic to better understand it through thoughtful examination. Is it any surprise that few oppose the majority? And in the end the nice thing to do is just go along with the crowd.

What makes this situation all the worse is that the library profession has long nursed a debilitating inferiority complex when we compare ourselves to other disciplines. It’s supposed to be library science, not library “let’s all just be nice and agree to think the same way." What seems to define many other disciplines is the discourse that occurs. When academics challenge each other’s thoughts their understanding of the issues evolves, and as a result the entire profession’s body of knowledge moves to a higher plane of discovery. Instead library science is the Rodney Dangerfield of the social sciences; it gets no respect. Lack of discourse is not the sole reason, but it points to the profession’s lack of interest in engaging each other in discourse. It’s just easier to agree – or better yet share no thoughts at all.

Perhaps what the library profession needs to do, if it wants to be taken seriously as a science, is to realize that we need to be accepting of rigorous discourse. We need to learn that there’s something special about it, and that we do a disservice to ourselves and our profession when we fail to do all we can to encourage it. Despite the chill factor that has descended on the library profession there may be some hope. We need to look at how other disciplines stimulate and support discourse. At our conferences and through online communities we need to engage in discussions about how to encourage discourse and appropriate ways in which to engage. We need to hear from scholars in other disciplines with experience in discourse so that we can better understand how to inspire ourselves and our colleagues to be both constructively critical and accepting of criticism. We need to focus on the content, and resist the temptation to make it about personalities.

Library educators should begin to integrate into the curriculum more opportunities for verbal and written discourse, as well as present students with case studies that serve as good examples of discourse and how it advances professional knowledge. What contemporary issues are deserving of discourse that might provide good examples? The role of reference services and the future of the reference desk are topics that emerge every few years, but that issue is now re-energized as new technologies make the need for traditional desks less important. Arguing the values of face-to-face interaction versus the immediacy of delivering services virtually is certainly fertile ground for debate. As future professionals, students would undoubtedly find challenges in discussing the qualifications required of academic librarians. As new professionals without library degrees, such as Web programmers and Ph.D. bibliographers, increasingly join the ranks of MLS degreed librarians, there is opportunity to debate the relative merits of an evolving new class of non-MLS professionals in the academic library. What academic librarianship shares with other disciplines is a seemingly never ending parade of controversial issues and challenges that invite the sharing of multiple, strong perspectives. If our future professionals can learn to appreciate and be inspired by the collegial expression of disagreement, it would serve well the future value of scholarly discourse in librarianship.

Another encouraging factor is a recent library blog thread about there being too much politeness in the library blogosphere. This originated in a post by a public librarian, Rachel Hartman, at the Tinfoil + Raccoon blog. The gist of the blog correctly noted that when everyone is too polite to say what is really on their mind we construct a rather boring echo chamber in which all we do is exchange pleasantries. Others responded with observations concerning the need for librarians to engage each other with more constructive criticism. Finally this small segment of the profession began to awake to the possibilities of improving the quality of our discourse, and how that would provide a serious blow to the groupthink that was bringing a slow death to any serious conversations. Of course, the challenge is to simultaneously eliminate the atmosphere of personal repercussions, real and perceived, when expressing opinions while stressing to colleagues that their polite act of suppressing opinions is actually a disservice to our professional advancement. Only time will tell if the profession moves beyond this initial attempt at creating more rigorous discourse.

Whatever we may think about the Web 2.0 phenomenon, whether you love or hate the concept, it is clear that at its core is the creation of conversations between those who build the web and those who use it. The latter seeks to participate by adding their voice, in whatever medium that may occur, and by virtue of doing so helps to build new layers of content. It is ironic that a profession dedicated to community building and embracing Web 2.0 has so miserably failed to create a conversation among it own members. But one thing I greatly admire about my librarian colleagues is how vastly open minded a group they are. They are widely accepting of new ideas, and welcome into the discussion anyone who is willing to share their thoughts. 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. It offers great opportunity for argument. Who wants to take the first shot?


Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple University.


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