Sunday, April 16, 2006


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.)

I point out only that I, for one, wear words like "drudge" and "peasant" as badges of honor. :)
I also found it interesting how the conversation shifted away from what I saw as the original and really interesting issue: why aren't libraries doing more to keep highly skilled and enthusiastic people.

We had a brief discussion about this on the NexGenlibrarians list and it too went in a different direction. Folks kept writing about how having lots of tech skills made them over qualified and kept them from getting library jobs. Another thing that was brought up was somethinig to the effect of "everybody knows that you won't get appreciated and a good salary in libraries so what are you complaining about?"

I'm personally more interested in what library administrators are doing to keep high quality staff instead of having them move on to more lucrative professions and contributing to librarianship outside of libraries, e.g., working for vendors.
Much of the kerfuffle started because I sensed--perhaps wrongly--a shift from "why aren't libraries working to keep skilled and enthusiastic people" to "why aren't libraries focusing on The Stars?"

I felt then, and still feel, that there's another ongoing problem that may in the long run be more important: The supporting cast, those who don't get as much public acclaim but who make sure that things actually get finished, actually work, and actually keep working. I jokingly called them--us, since I've always been one of them in my career--"drudges," only to contrast them with the high-profile Movers & Shakers. (I've been high profile in the library field, but not generally in my job. Being a peasant at work has worked out fairly well, all things considered. Yes, Dorothea, so do I...)

And I absolutely wrongly conflated The Stars (one circle), the identified M&S group (an overlapping circle), and The True Self-Promoters (a third ovelapping circle, overlapping more with The Stars than with the M&S). I apologized for that conflation.

There are other sets of issues here that may or may not get addressed. Meanwhile, my error has generated a whole bunch of otherwise useful commentary; out of the mud grows the lotus.

[With regard to some of the notes, though, I'd say that sometimes the field as a whole may benefit from certain individuals leaving a library and moving to a role that benefits librarianship as a whole. Someone I've known very well for a very long time did just that, trading a moderately powerful position in a single library to one where they work to benefit dozens or hundreds of libraries. Vendors, after all, are part of the library field too.]
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