Archive for April 2006

The Revenge of the Geeks vs. the Nerds

Over at Library Juice, Rory Litwin recently posted “Geeks and Nerds Battle for the Soul of Librarianship.”

Really? We’re seriously doing this?

Maybe next week we can invite the jocks and the burnouts to join us…

Nicole Engard points out that she shares qualities from both lists. Good librarians tend to. I know I couldn’t fit myself comfortably into either of these categories, as outlined here. (Do I really read too much science fiction to be a good librarian?)

And yes, Rory’s trying to make a larger point about the place of technology in librarianship, which he’s mentioned before — and more eloquently. But do we have to stuff ourselves into antagonistic boxes to have this conversation? Do we have to imply that “geeks” are anti-intellectual, or that “nerds” represent librarianship at its purest?

The best geeks around share a commitment to using technology to serve the goals of their institutions, firmly settled on the foundations and principles of librarianship. I don’t see how you can read Michael Stephens talking about the importance of avoiding technolust or Michael Casey on Library 2.0 or Lori Bell and crew on Second Life Library 2.0 and come to any other conclusion.

Rory tells us:

“I think that the current advance by the geek front within librarianship is succeeding in replacing an important intellectual knowledge base – that is, a store of bibliographic knowledge combined with knowledge of the principles of librarianship – with a technical knowledge base that is already quite well-established by other professional groups, namely web designers and programmers. Thus, it seems to me that the success of the geek army in the battle against the nerds may end up being a losing battle for the profession of librarianship as a whole, once the bodies are counted, the damage assessed, and the spoils taken.”

Librarianship has always taken from and overlapped with other fields. Setting technology apart in this way makes as much sense as saying we lose the soul of our profession when we market our programs, since that knowledge base is established by marketers and PR departments… or saying that we are losing the battle for our profession when we involve ourselves in literacy programs or intellectual freedom battles or having programs for teens — because, after all, other fields are doing all of these things, and often doing them quite well.

Rather than setting up this artificial geek/nerd distinction, which only feeds into the divide Rory perceives, perhaps we can embrace both. Perhaps we can get excited about technology that allows us to serve patrons better. Perhaps we can get excited about having “geeks” on our side rather than being dependent on outside groups who aren’t necessarily building on the same knowledge base or principles.

It’s All About…?

Another thread in this whole “movers and shakers” flap highlights a seeming aversion to anything that smacks of “self promotion.” This might be funny, if we didn’t tend to be so bad at it. We spend so much energy and time promoting our institutions — our services, our programs, our collections — that we don’t usually have much left over for promoting ourselves: the very people who create and run those services, those programs, and those collections.

We somehow seem to equate self promotion with crass commercialism or ME ME MEism. A broader and gentler definition, though, sees professional activities as inherently self promoting. Of course they are! People know Jenny (and Walt and Dorothea and…) because they are out there DOING. Whether you create online resources or participate on ALA Council or speak at conferences or write for professional publication, any given professional activity to which your name is attached reflects on you. (Hopefully, it reflects positively on you!)

It doesn’t matter if you create or write or speak out of a wish to give back to the community (or to be compensated, or to have a voice in your association). If you participate in enough venues, for long enough, you are going to build a name for yourself. This is OK. People are more likely to listen to what you have to say if you have some kind of track record. If you have something to say, it’s better if people pay attention, in whatever small way. If people know your name, this translates into more opportunities to create and write and speak, which is a nice self-perpetuating cycle.

I was surprised the first time someone came up to me at a conference and said “I know you — you’re the LISjobs person!” I didn’t create the LISjobs site to promote myself; it grew out of a library school assignment 10 years ago. My classmates wanted copies of a list of library job sites I’d put together as a one-page “here’s how to practice HTML” document, so I figured I’d go ahead and put it online. (It’s grown somewhat since.) I don’t keep it up primarily to promote myself, but as my way of giving back to the library community. I don’t have the financial backing or political savvy to serve on ALA Council or committees or what have you, but I can put resources out there to help people find jobs and develop professionally and write for publication.

On the other hand, though, now that people do know about and use the site, I’d be foolish not to put information on there about my books, or not to put my resume on there so people can see what I’ve written or contact me about speaking engagements. Sure, that’s self promotion. There’s a difference between: “Hey, if you like this site, you might like my books, and here’s a link to read more about the person who created it” and a contextless: “READ MY BOOK IT IS SO COOL ME ME ME” over and over on mailing lists.

Library folks are pretty savvy, and can figure out the difference between blatant and contentless advertising and self promotion in the context of professional activity and providing useful content. It would be a shame if Walt Crawford decided to give up producing Cites & Insights for fear people found it self promoting. It’s professional, it has useful content, and, if people know his name because of it, more power to him! “Keeping on keeping on” is self promotional in itself — where else does name recognition come from?

Our professional contributions and activities make this a profession, rather than a field in which we all happen to work. I, for one, am happy to give credit to people’s individual contributions.

Shaking the Tree

Last week, Jenny Levine was kind enough to post about this blog and a couple of things I said re: the importance of libraries keeping their best people. (Yes, I can get a little fangirly, too… Jenny likes my blog — yay!). Her original post here, and followup here. So, because we librarians can apparently argue about anything, the comments on her take on the issue got a little heated, leading first Walt Crawford (comments galore here as well), then Dorothea Salo to post about the flap. Terms like “movers and shakers” and “drudges” got everyone’s dander up on one side or the other.

We certainly do get hung up on language; which, given our profession, is somewhat understandable. When you deal with words every day, you get a certain sense of their importance.

I don’t think anyone’s arguing that libraries shouldn’t keep their “best people” (at least, I hope not). We’re just arguing about who those “best people” might be — again, trying to fit things into tidy little boxes when this is so situation- and library-dependent. (And, any institution not trying to keep a Jenny or a Walt or a Dorothea should think again…)

But then poor Library Journal gets dragged into the mix, since obviously “movers and shakers” is somehow equivalent to their “MOVERS & SHAKERS.” (Disclosure: I was on their 2002 list, and wrote a number of the profiles in this year’s issue.) I think the fact that LJ is recognizing some of the good work that librarians and library workers do each year is a Good Thing. We have enough articles and special issues talking about library buildings, library programs, and library collections, so any effort to recognize the people behind all these accomplishments should be applauded.

Part of the objections seem to boil down to “why not me” from other people doing Good Things who don’t make it on the list, and part to boil down to the simple fact that we’re never going to agree on the top 10 or 20 or 50 of anything, from US News library school rankings to Booker prize winners. That doesn’t mean that the people on the list haven’t done good work, nor does it mean that thousands of other librarians aren’t doing good work every day. I’ve talked privately with some of the people who have been named LJ “Movers & Shakers” who were taken aback by the reactions in their own workplaces — ranging from total indifference to outright jealousy. Why can’t we be happy for each other? Why can’t we see how very cool it is that librarians who may not have run across Meredith Farkas’ wiki, or visited the AADL web site to see what John Blyberg has been up to, or read about Bart Birdsall’s activism have now had the chance to do so? Why can’t we let their work inspire us?

And I think it’s telling that the conversation got so far off track from Jenny’s original post. Why aren’t more of the comments addressing what libraries can do to keep people? If she’d used different terminology, would we even be having this discussion?

(I’m going to tackle the “self promoting” part of this argument in a separate post; I think it deserves its own discussion.)

On Books and Blogs

Last summer, I became a consulting editor with ITI’s Book Publishing Division. This is one of the coolest gigs ever — I get to bring good people, whose words deserve to be seen, together with a good company, that has been fantastic to publish with. What’s not to like?

So then one of the first people I talked to asked: “Why would I write a book and wait a year or more to see my writing in print, when I can blog and get my words out there immediately?” We had a nice conversation about it, and I put the question out of my mind. Then, someone else asked…

The book vs. blog idea seems kind of self-evident to me — and, I’m guessing, to all the bloggers whose online presence somehow leads to book contracts. But, I’m the kind of person who, without intervention, would probably at some point turn into one of those little old ladies you read about whose survivors are faced with the daunting tasks of cleaning out a house filled floor-to-ceiling with piles of newspaper, magazines and books. (True confession: The main reason I still bother belonging to ALA is that I like getting the print magazine every month, even though they seem to think no one notices it’s getting skimpier all the time…)

Blogs and books scratch a different itch. (Although I’m not going to get into the whole “sustained reading of complex texts” business, never fear!) I wouldn’t like doing without either, but online and print publication complement each other — we don’t need to make everything into a fight. So here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts on this question:

Blogs are a huge plus in marketing your book. If people like what you blog, they are likely to want to read more, and a book gives them a nice big chunk of your work. If your blog is complementary to your book, you can use it to update the printed work when new developments emerge.

Form follows content. Some topics lend themselves to blogging; some could benefit from a more extended examination. If you have a lot to say on a particular topic, you can blog it as you think it, or you can think about building it into a longer, coherent whole. Writing a book lets you go more in depth and to include content that might be overkill on a blog.

Books reach a different audience. I’m not going to rehash recent rumblings about the insular nature of the biblioblogosphere, because it’s been overdone and overblown. Still, a large cross-section of the library community is more comfortable picking up a book rather than turning to a blog when they want to know more on a given topic. Others might do some reading online, yet still want print material for backup or for future reference. If you want to reach a different and larger audience, writing a book is one way to do it.

You get paid for writing books. Most people, aside from the very few who somehow land corporate sponsorship, don’t get paid for blogging. I’m not saying that you — or anyone else! — is going to get rich writing for librarians, but royalty checks are nothing to complain about.

Seeing your name on a book is just darn cool. I’ve written seven books now, and I still get a little rush every time I see my name on a new book cover. Maybe other authors are more jaded than I, but I’d be willing to bet that most get a secret thrill out of it.

Writing a book offers a certain permanence. People get tired of blogging, move on, change URLs, change interests, take their writing offline. You’ll still be able to pick up your book and flip through it in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, as will future librarians and colleagues.

Writing a book looks good to others. Others, in this case, being a tenure committee, potential employers, your mom, your colleagues, conference organizers, what have you.

Writing a book lets you work with nice people.
Such as myself :) . In all seriousness, writing a book, if you pick your publisher well, lets you take advantage of the best qualities of “gatekeepers” — gives you people to bounce your ideas off of, edit your work, encourage you when the going gets tough, and help make your writing stronger.

Writing a book helps you write anything else. Once you have made it through an entire book manuscript, writing an article, blog post, or presentation seems simpler in comparison.

Writing a book helps the profession. If part of our function as librarians is to collect and organize the literature of various fields, shouldn’t our own field be well-represented? The body of print literature that helps underpin librarianship also represents the field to others — to outsiders, to other professions, to potential librarians. When people look at our field, I, for one, want them to see a robust body of professional literature.

You can do both. The question as originally framed brings us back to either/or — either I blog my ideas, or I write them down in book form. Well, anyone who thinks seriously about the issues facing this profession has enough ideas to do both, and to benefit from the synergy of writing in multiple formats. It’s interesting to watch the genesis of blogs that are growing out of ongoing book projects and created to support books post-publication.

I’d love to hear what the rest of you think.

And, as for any of you that have been quietly kicking book ideas around in your head, why not let me know about them? Or ask me anything about writing for ITI — I’ll answer honestly and have fun kicking those ideas around with you. E-mail or AIM rachelsgordon.

Stupid Online Tricks

Just because my brain’s tired and we can’t always take ourselves too seriously, here are a couple of things that amuse me today. They have nothing to do with librarianship, per se:

(Back to our regularly scheduled Deep Thoughts next time…)

A LA Peanut Butter Sandwiches

One measure of my extreme goofy tiredness is my tendency to read ALA as “a la…” but we’ll leave that alone.

I just received an e-mail asking me what I thought about ALA’s recent RFP for someone to do “a feasibility study on a proposal to establish a “Library Corps”” to “recruit retired librarians to provide assistance to libraries that need help.” (If you somehow managed to avoid the fray, catch up on, on the ALA Council list (the “Interesting Ideas” thread), or at Library Dust.)

The short answer is: I don’t think much. I’m more cynical when I’m tired, but I don’t feel particularly threatened by “an RFP for a study on a proposal,” which I don’t see going anywhere anytime soon. (Maybe we’ll get an actual project going around the time that we’re supposed to see this projected wave of retirements.)

Appearances being what they are, though, it seems a rather clueless move on ALA’s part to release this without giving the backstory that’s later shown up on the Council list — that they actually apparently discussed and rejected the idea that retirees should replace new librarians. But that’s nothing new, nor is the fact that retired librarians come back to volunteer in libraries. (Read for regular heartwarming stories in that vein.)

At least now, though, I know where my proposed dues increase is going… for studies on proposals on… Perhaps ALA would like to pay me $15k to write them a report about how they could avoid similar brouhahas in the future. I’m not too proud to take it, if anyone there is listening!

The Witching Hour: Or, Parenting, Librarianship, and Generations, all in one 3AM Witch’s Brew

While up last night — again — at 3:00 AM with a sick preschooler, many things crossed my mind. Most at the time seemed more inspired and more pertinent to librarianship and more connected than they now seem in the light of day. So bear with me. I’m focused a bit more on parenting than on librarianship today, but a sick and unhappy kid will do that to you.

I have been thinking about recent discussions on the librarian stay-at-home-parents group and with librarian mom friends who have felt marginalized or driven out of their positions after giving birth. (One of my former library school classmates — one of the most dynamic and committed librarians I know — was planning to go back part-time after maternity leave. She had a schedule worked out with her supervisor, had childcare worked out, and then received a call the week before her return telling her she had to work more and different hours than originally discussed. Rather than scrambling to find and spend her whole salary on new daycare arrangements, she quit.)

We tend to assume much more flexibility in female-dominated professions than really exists. And yes, I do read, and I do understand the trends, and I’ve seen the tendency for women to be more competitive with each other, the less there is at stake. I’ll revisit this again when I’m more awake — maybe when the boy turns 30 — but, for now, let’s just add this to the list of things that frustrate me about the profession, and add telecommuting and job sharing and better benefits for part-timers and better attitudes towards working parents to part of what I’d like to add, should I ever run the zoo.

Oh yeah, and an office with a real door that shuts, for me… as long as we’re dreaming!

So, because these sorts of things are on my mind, I tend to take up some light reading like Rhona Mahoney’s Kidding Ourselves: Breadwinning, Babies, and Bargaining Power. This makes me even more tired, but then I run across this quote:

“When people believe that the fact that Gerry is a woman conveys some information about her, they believe that, on average, women behave, think, and feel in ways that are distinctive and roughly predictable. They use everything they’ve ever seen or heard about women to build a picture in their minds about women on average. That picture influences their expectations about particular women (22).”

A ha! thinks my tired brain. This also sums up one part of what I’ve been trying to say about generational issues: that the stereotypes people hold of given generations in themselves make generational issues worth looking at. If an employer or a colleague makes assumptions about what I know and what I can do and how I am going to behave based solely on my age, that’s going to affect their interactions with me and the projects I am given and whether or not I’m hired in the first place.

Again, something to revisit later. But I’ve run across a lot of librarians who think any discussion of generational issues is somehow either ageist or irrelevant — the above summarizes one reason why I do believe it’s important to have these discussions, and why I think we can have them without resorting to unproductive “my generation is cooler than yours” statements.

Neither Fish nor Fowl nor…

Am I still a librarian?

When people ask what I do, I can’t say I’m a librarian, because the next natural question is: “So, what library do you work at?” The conversation only devolves from there. I can tell people I’m a consulting editor with ITI Books, and they nod: “Oh, so you’re in publishing.” I can tell people I write for library-related publications, and they say: “Oh, so you’re a freelance writer.”

So, does my MLS make me a librarian? Does the fact that I worked in libraries for 10+ years make me a librarian? Does the fact that I write for the library literature and acquire manuscripts for an LIS publisher and speak at library conferences make me a librarian?

I was talking with Meredith at the CIL conference a couple of weeks ago, and she mentioned several people (me, Michael Stephens, Jessamyn West) who no longer work in any particular library, yet still do work related to libraries. A few examples don’t make a trend, but this is somewhat interesting. It’s also interesting in terms of all the talk about upcoming retirements. Were I a library administrator, I’d start thinking pretty hard about what I could do to retain good people, attract good people, and prepare them to take over the zoo at some point. (Although, the fact that I’m not a library administrator says something in itself!)

On Introductions and Liminality

All the “cool kids” have had blogs for months, if not years, and I’m coming to the party a bit late. So, why start one now?

If blogs had been around when I graduated 10 years ago, I may have started one then rather than putting up my web site. Honestly, I’m kind of glad they weren’t; I would have had a very different career without But, I’m surely glad they’re around now! I look to the biblioblogosphere for ideas, for inspiration, to renew my excitement about the field — and it’s time I became part of the conversation. Maybe I’ll never be a cool kid, but I do want to play.

I’m mindful of the temptation to start a blog, then all but abandon it for lack of time, energy, or “something to say” — one reason I’ve held off this long. I’m not likely to post every day, but I’m not planning on going away anytime soon.

So what’s this “liminal librarian” bit about, anyway?

I wrote a column on “The Bridge Generation” for Library Journal a few months back, talking about the ways in which GenX librarians sometimes feel “in between” the larger and more vocal Boomer and Millennial generations. Well, I have a lot more to say about being a bridge, about being in between, than can successfully be conveyed in a single page.

This blog will be devoted to the “in between” — about avoiding the temptation to view hot button issues in black-and-white, about thinking about whether I can still call myself a librarian, even though I’m no longer working in a library, about generational issues and Library 2.0 issues and about our profession itself as being in a liminal state.

Liminality is unsettling, but conveys a sense of possibility and potential — summing up how I feel about both our field and my own place in it.

Thanks for letting me play, and I’m looking forward to the conversation!

Edited to add: I just ran across an older post by Liz Lawley that talks about liminal spaces as “the fancy academic term for those in-between spaces where contexts overlap and new ways of thinking and acting often emerge” — summing it up much more elegantly than I!