On Disagreement and Discussion
Are librarians willing to disagree with one another?
What a silly question. Of course we are (I’m counting myself as a librarian for this discussion). Consider some disagreements I’ve chronicled and taken part in here and in my blog, just for starters.
Steven Bell’s been interpreted as saying that we don’t disagree when it counts, or that we don’t disagree enough—and maybe there’s a point there. Are librarians sufficiently forthright in their discussions and disagreements? Can we disagree without being disagreeable? Can we—do we—debate and discuss positions without viciousness, toxicity, ad hominem and attempts to foreclose effective disagreement?
I think the answer is still yes, at least some of the time, but it’s a more complicated answer.
This essay has been brewing for a long time, perhaps two years or more. It began heating up in the last few months, boiling over in a “pre-essay” that appeared May 17, 2007 on Walt at Random (quoted in its entirety below). I may be wrong about my general conclusions and some of the details—but in this case, I really don’t think so.
Let’s start with “Silence in the stacks,” a June 9, 2005 article by Scott McLemee in Inside higher ed that quotes Steven Bell on the paucity of academic librarians blogging about academic library issues (insidehighered.com/ views/2005/06/09/mclemee). Full disclosure: Steven Bell is a friend and has been one for quite a few years. We disagree on a number of issues—and do so agreeably. Bell is an academic librarian. I am obviously not.
McLemee wondered how an outsider “can keep up with what academic librarians are thinking about…issues.” He notes Bell’s Kept-up academic librarian (keptup.typepad.com/academic/) as one source and says Bell “for the most part avoids the kind of reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays one associates with blogdom.” Looking for other academic librarian blogs, he asked Bell directly: “Could he please name a few interesting blogs by academic librarians?”
His answer came as a surprise: “When you ask specifically about blogs maintained by academic librarians,” Bell wrote earlier this week, “the list would be short or non-existent.”
Bell goes on to qualify that comment, noting some early blogs by academic librarians and that most of these weren’t about academic library issues. McLemee had something fairly specific in mind: “public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics such as the much-vaunted ‘crisis in academic publishing.’ It was a puzzling silence.” To that, Bell responded:
“I can’t say any individual has developed a blog that has emerged as the ‘voice of academic librarianship,’ ” noted Bell in response to my query. “Why? If I had to advance a theory I’d say that as academic librarians we are still geared towards traditional, journal publishing as the way to express ourselves. I know that if I have something on my mind that I’d like to write about to share my thoughts and opinions, I’m more likely to write something for formal publication (e.g., see this piece.) Perhaps that is why we don’t have a ‘juicy’ academic librarian out there who is taking on the issues of the day with vocal opinions.”
And he added something that makes a lot of sense: “To have a really great blog you have to be able to consistently speak to the issues of the day and have great (or even good) insights into them — and it just doesn’t seem like any academic librarian out there is capable of doing that. I think there are some folks in our profession who might be capable of doing it. But if so they haven’t figured out yet that they ought to be blogging, or maybe they just don’t have the time or interest.”
McLemee saw a possible “solution”:
The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians—some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.
A number of comments followed the piece, including Bell’s own defense of the point McLemee was specifically trying to make.
In fact, the article had overlooked well-established blogs that dealt with academic library issues in 2005, if perhaps from specialized perspectives, such as scitech library question (STLQ), The ten thousand year blog, Scholarly electronic publishing blog and Confessions of a science librarian.
McLemee’s “solution” is problematic for a blog, in my opinion, even as it was partly realized in ACRLog. What appears to be needed are many voices in a range of blogs offering the kind of lively discussion we see within library blogs in general.
Over the past couple of years, more blogs by academic librarians have emerged, although relatively few of these bloggers feel constrained to write nothing but Serious Essays about Academic Library Issues. There’s a tendency among bloggers to mix personal and professional. It’s a tendency I share and applaud. Does that disqualify the professional entries from consideration? I can’t imagine why it should—but it does make it easier to dismiss those entries.
I didn’t comment on McLemee’s article at the time. Actually, I’d forgotten it entirely—until Iris Jastram, an academic librarian who began her blog after McLemee’s article appeared, commented on it in an April 27, 2007 post at Pegasus librarian (pegasuslibrarian.blogspot.com). That post serves as a bridge from 2005 to 2007. Most of the post follows.
Scott McLemee, with the help of Steven Bell, declared quite some time ago that there’s too much silence in the stacks. Apparently he couldn’t find blogs that were specifically “maintained by academic librarians” and focused specifically on issues important to academic librarianship…
McLemee is not, apparently, saying that there aren’t blogs out there that are both maintained by academic librarians and focused on academic librarianship… Instead, he maintains that his argument centers on two points. First, he is not aware of any blogs that have stepped up and become the “voice of academic librarianship.” And second, the lack of such a voice is sapping the profession of its cultural capital…
I’ve already written that good, clear writing is essential to our profession. So on that point, I believe McLemee and I agree. Without clear and insightful writing we librarians can’t hope to excel in academic environments because these environments eat, drink, and breathe scholarly writing. Scholarly writing is the lingua franca of our environments, and if we don’t speak it, we essentially exclude ourselves from the societies in which we live and work.
I do not believe, however, that a blog—any blog—no matter how consistently insightful, would prove to our chosen culture that we are fluent in its language. In order to be seen as “full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life,” we would have to publish in vehicles that are understood to be prestigious by our audiences (in our profession, academia, and the wider intellectual community). Currently, these only rarely include blogs or any other self-published vehicles.
And if what McLemee wants is “public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics” that are important specifically to academic librarians, and yet doesn’t want “reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays,” then blogs may never be the appropriate vehicle as blog posts, by their very format, lend themselves primarily to an op-ed style, much like McLemee’s own essay.
So I would argue that yes, good and focused writing is essential to our profession. Librarians with the gift of insight and eloquence should be encouraged to pursue their talents for the good of the profession. And these writers should also contribute to the professional discussions that happen online, the visible “thinking out loud” that will in turn inform their thinking and writing. Blogging is very important, but it cannot be all things. Not yet. Not when we’ve set up our lives in the midst of academia.
And when I reference the online “discussions,” I use the plural quite deliberately… There are myriad issues, and most can be approached in multiple ways. Because of this, no single person can become the voice of the profession. And this is not a characteristic exclusive to academic librarianship… People can usually identify a handful of voices of Dickensian criticism or the theory of Universal Grammar, but it is impossible to identify the “voice of literary criticism” or “voice of linguistic analysis.” What is more, nobody thinks of this as a lack in either of those fields. Nobody calls this a “puzzling silence.”
What we do find are journals and publishing houses that take the lead in publishing the cream of the scholarly thought in those fields. In this way, McLemee’s idea of a group blog devoted to topics in academic librarianship makes sense. I would gladly subscribe to such a blog, and there are a few out there that I think contend for the title of academic blog for academic librarians, by academic librarians.
But even these blogs might fail to meet his expectations because issues that are important to academic librarians are also important to other types of librarians. Librarians in public and special libraries are just as engaged in “questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom” as academic librarians are. I would argue that the different types of libraries are usually more the same than they are different. We may prioritize our foci differently, or emphasize certain parts of our missions differently. But for the most part, we care about the same issues and deal with the same or infinitely analogous challenges. Blogs focused on issues in academic librarianship may not, then, look very much different from blogs focused on public or special librarianship.
So perhaps there is silence in the stacks. But maybe that’s because the conversation isn’t happening in the stacks. Maybe the conversations are happening in the hallways. And maybe it’s hard to pick out the conversation because there are several, and maybe they’re happening concurrently and on multiple plains.
Jastrow makes points that deserve thought and frees me from having to make some of the same points—and those points do relate to the more current “discussion and disagreement” issue. Briefly:
Ø Academics will not take blogs by academic librarians as seriously as they take the formal literature.
Ø What’s needed is a range of discussions, not one “voice.”
Ø Most academic library issues are addressed by librarians outside academia, as they affect other types of libraries.
Mark Lindner’s thought a lot about fragmentation and attempts to separate “personal” and “professional.” Lindner’s certainly not the only one (T. Scott Plutchak and others have offered excellent posts in this area), but I find his February 7, 2007 essay particularly worth noting.
The full title is “Professionalism, fragmentation, moral minimalism and personal drama”; you’ll find it at Off the Mark (marklindner.info/blog/). I don’t want to derail this discussion, so I won’t go into great detail. Lindner favors open, honest discussion; he’s good at it. Here’s what he says near the top of the essay:
My hope is to start a conversation. Here. There. Everywhere. Privately. Publicly. In blogs. In professional journals. Wherever. Whenever. I do not want to be the moderator. I only want to be a spark. And a participant.
Just what is “professionalism,” particularly in the context of libraries? What is it as a concept and ideal? And what is it as it is embodied in practice? The second is the most important, by far. And they most certainly are not the same thing. Embodied practice rarely reaches to the level of principle or ideal, even though we ought to try.
There has been a lot of conversation in the biblioblogosphere lately about several topics that are highly related to this subject. Group think, over-niceness of librarians, who you represent when you write, personal behavior/ bullying, encouraging participation/ conversation and so on. There has also been much discussion of “professional experience” on the AUTOCAT discussion list lately, particularly in the area of job descriptions and also “professional” vs. paraprofessional.
The conversation on professionalism is a worthy one, but it’s not what I’m about here. But look at the first two sentences in the third paragraph. You want problems with discussion and disagreement? “Group think, over-niceness of librarians, who you represent when you write, personal behavior/bullying…” That’s a good list to start with.
Lindner mixes “so much personal and professional” in his blog. So do most of the bloggers whose writing and thoughts I admire. So does T. Scott Plutchak (mentioned by Lindner here). Unfortunately, what I said earlier is probably true: Absurd and even dangerous as it may be, it’s all too easy for Proper Scholars to dismiss serious, thoughtful blog entries about professional issues when the same blog includes personal commentary and when professional issues are discussed in a “personal voice” rather than a neutral “professional tone.” It can even seem as though no discussion is taking place—because it’s coming from people who choose not to fragment their personalities.
Lindner takes us back to his first blog in January 2005. Back then, he notes that his topics will include professional and personal issues, worries that he doesn’t have a real focus and thinks of blogging as “narcissistic.” That same day he starts to get at the problem—how he had mastered “academic writing”—“analytic and synthetic, but dispassionate, and completely divested of one’s person, and particularly of one’s being”—and how much that was bothering him.
By May 2005 (the February 7, 2007 post links to these other posts), Lindner began to think of his blog as “a sort of sewing kit for my life and my narrative”—trying to reverse fragmentation and compartmentalization. He finds such fragmentation “dangerous and unhealthy for us as individuals, our society and the world as a whole.” (He also gets into “moral minimalism,” which I’m compartmentalizing out of this essay…) In a later May post (important on its own merits and discussing an academic library issue), he offers an important comment, placing himself firmly in the “I can be wrong and am willing to be disagreed with” category that’s so essential for open disagreement and discussion:
I often say things that could have been thought out better, or are even outright stupid; we all do. But I hope and desire to be called on them. Ask me to refine my comment or my argument. Present a side I haven’t considered or have too lightly dismissed.
In October 2005 he pokes at Jakob Nielsen’s
unspoken assumption that all blogs except those that “are really just private diaries” are actively trying to “reach new readers who aren’t your mother.” Underlying this assumption though is a far more insidious one; that we are all just selling a product, a corporate identity. Along with that assumption is one of extreme danger to human beings; that we must separate the personal from the public, “corporate” identity.
In November 2005, Lindner was wondering whether he should start a second blog devoted only to professional issues. Fortunately, he chose not to fragment his blogging.
In May 2006, Lindner discussed a situation where he felt under attack for disagreeing with someone else. In that post, he offers a few sentences that speak to what I’m getting at in this Perspective:
Humans may be flawed, but we have discovered ways to resolve disagreements that fall far short of verbal or physical abuse.
Collegiality and professionalism are perfectly fine qualities. But they also often stand in the way of real dialogue and progress. That does not mean that they can be completely tossed aside. That is not what I am advocating. I am striving to find a way to be critical, as in offering critique, while remaining collegial and professional. That is a difficult balancing act, and no matter how well one succeeds many will consider any attempt to do so an abject failure. Mind you, I am not even claiming that I am succeeding, only that I am striving to get there.
After that, an incident occurred. I won’t get into the incident; I will say it involved honest disagreement and attempts to discourage such disagreement—and that it hit Lindner pretty hard at the time. Following that incident, Lindner wrote the February 7, 2007 post. One of several excellent comments on the post (from The pragmatic librarian, excerpted) may be a good way to close this section:
Since I very recently started in the biblioblogosphere, I do not want to start making enemies (especially powerful ones). More or less related, I also do not want my skepticism about certain ideas to be perceived as personal attacks against those who advocate them. Besides, I’m still trying to figure out whether my own arguments are actually valid, so I shy away from “calling out” those with whom I disagree (in some cases, very strongly).
So, yes, I am also disheartened by the self-censorship we end up having to practice. However, since I have some self-doubt about my opinions, and I shift between the professional and personal in my postings, I keep struggling with ways give my “genuine self” a presence and voice online.
Blind posts can damage honest discussion. Some of us nonetheless do blind posts at times, much as we may hate them. Self-censorship always damages honest discussion. Some of us nonetheless censor our own writing at times for reasons of self-protection or, more sinister, to go along with (or be part of) the crowd.
We may never free ourselves from those obstacles to honest, open discussion and disagreement. We should be able to free ourselves from arbitrary distinctions between professional and personal. We should be able to speak in our own voices rather than neutral scholarly tones without having our thoughts dismissed as mere blogblather.
Daniel Cornwall posted “We need to talk to each other, not at each other” at Alaskan librarian on March 7, 2007 (alaskanlibrarian.blogspot.com). He quotes Mark Sanborn on the ways people talk at each other (labeling, name calling, provocations, accusations, belittling) and argues for civility: “We need to treat each other with dignity and respect if we are to make progress.” Sanborn says, “You must respect [others] enough to understand them even if you don’t agree with them,” certainly sound advice. Cornwall:
If you are getting a posting ready that opposes someone’s point of view, I beg you keep Mr. Sanborn’s words in mind… You don’t have to change your point of view. Just talk to us like you would a loved one you were trying to persuade and not as a vicious/ignorant dog who must be put down for the good of all. Everyone will win!
While I agree that it makes little sense to try to convince people by beating up on them, I would also say there’s a huge gap between loved ones and vicious/ignorant dogs—it’s too easy for civility to be used as an excuse to avoid clear disagreement. I don’t believe Cornwall’s advocating that, but it’s an issue.
On April 4, 2007, Ryan Deschamps posted “What the Library 2.0 crowd is trying to say about technology” at The other librarian (otherlibrarian.wordpress.com). At the heart of that post:
Technology has reached a stage that any idea to implement a technology ought to begin with a “yes.”
I mean it. Begin with a “yes,” then work through the barriers or fit the idea into a list of priorities after. No, that does not mean “implement new technology NOW!” It means “give us techies the benefit of the doubt and then determine if something is not sustainable, too resource-intensive or whatnot after we have had the opportunity to show you it can be successful.”
Say “yes” and then say “let me see the model or plan” and then criticize it on its merits. Then do a 5-minute Google or Wikipedia search to find out what we are trying to do. Say “yes” first, then ask the hard questions and when the idea falls off the rails say “ok — let’s look at this for another time.”
Jennifer Macaulay commented on Deschamps’ post in an April 11, 2007 post at Life as I know it (scruffynerf.wordpress.com), “Just say yes to technology?” Wildly oversimplifying Macaulay’s post, she says:
I’m not convinced that just saying yes to ideas that involve technology is going to help resolve organizational issues… Technology is only a tool to try and accomplish something. I think that simply saying yes to technology doesn’t take into account the human aspect, the human resistance to change and to technology, and/or the human fear of the unknown. I don’t think it should be about the technology.
In comments, Mark Lindner noted Macaulay’s “kindness and…detail,” where his own critique would have been “saying Yes before even asking any questions is stupid; not good way to start a conversation.” He found it “extremely simplistic and also ill-advised from a managerial perspective. Does anyone want a manager who immediately says yes to things and then after asking a few questions retracts that yes? Does anyone want to be that manager?”
Deschamps felt his remarks were being taken out of context. On April 27, 2007 he posted “Yes, I will Learn with you…” in which he says “my intention was to highlight a dialectic between those who want to fight the so-called ‘culture of no’ and those who want to emphasize the need for planning and sustainability.” He calls Lindner his “harshest critic” on the original post (citing the words from Lindner’s comment I quoted above) and says that he does want to be “that manager” and believes the new generation of librarians “want precisely that kind of manager.” There’s more to the April 27 post, much of it concerned with the claim that “tech” solutions are less welcome than “traditional” ideas within libraries. Of course, two of his “non-tech” things are “renewing online resources” and “scheduling a whole slate of ‘how to use a database’ classes”—I guess the definition of “tech” changes over the years.
The next day, Lindner posted “Me? Harsh? OK.” He notes to Deschamps: “If I was your ‘harshest critic’ then you were lucky. And, if you also mean that I was harsh then you have a lot of living to do.” And here we’re in the muddy waters of civility in real life. Lindner’s comment was critical, honest and blunt—the way comments on blog posts tend to be. Was it harsh? You be the judge. Lindner does note that—just as I did—Deschamps chose not to include the beginning of Lindner’s comment: “Well said, Jennifer. I, too, enjoyed Ryan’s post and only had a problem with the same thing as you.”
I’m ignoring all sorts of context. Given Lindner’s full post, Deschamps came back and apologized for calling him harsh—clarifying that he was Deschamps’ harshest critic, not necessarily harsh. (Maybe “toughest critic” would have been better?)
By the end of the comments on Lindner’s post, it appears that Lindner and Deschamps agree a lot more than they disagree. Having discussed issues (and agreed and disagreed!) with both of them, that doesn’t surprise me. The moral here—and the best reason to include this discussion—is that it shows part of the growing circle of library bloggers explicitly encouraging truly open discussion and disagreement. Despite some difficult language, this is a success story. Lindner and Deschamps and Macaulay felt free to disagree, sometimes subtly and at length (typically in posts), sometimes quickly and perhaps too bluntly (typically in comments). Nobody tried to beat down anyone else. Nobody took personal offense. Was the whole discussion civil? That depends on your definition of civility. By my standards, it was lively and effective.
Which takes us back to April 27 and another essay in Inside Higher Ed...
That’s the title. The essay (insidehighered.com/ views/2007/04/27/bell), four print pages plus more than twice that much in comments, starts with a bang-up paragraph and a final sentence that dumbfounds me:
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. [Emphasis added.]
Say what? Maybe Bell reads entirely different liblogs than I do, but I sure seem to remember the occasional dissent and argument, sometimes fairly heated. In the next paragraph Bell drops back to the traditional library literature, where he says “one rarely sees an article that takes issue with the research or perspectives of a particular author.” Depending on your definition of “traditional library literature,” that may be true. Scholarly journals operate with such extended lead times (and typically such requirements for format) that brisk discussions and disagreements may be muted by attenuation—by the time a scholarly, refereed response to a scholarly, refereed article appears, the issue in question has probably moved on.
Then Bell returns to library blogs: “It soon becomes apparent that the rules of disengagement dominate the landscape,” claiming that instead we see a “repetitious flood” of me-too posts and “most comment is no better. It’s mostly gratuitous back patting.” He does think ACRLog may be an exception—but I don’t see all that much brisk discussion and disagreement there.
Bell doesn’t let up. Nobody defended Gorman in 2005 because people feared “underserved [sic] and irrational reprisal.” [Inside Higher Ed should be copyedited, so I play by stricter rules.] He believes “a speech chill has descended on the library blogosphere.” He claims “more bloggers refuse to allow [comments] these days”—and few readers bother to read comments anyway. And he offers this analysis of the situation with Library 2.0 in 2006:
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.
Here’s a relevant quote: “Most ‘Library 2.0’-related discussion over the past few months has been real discussion—that is, discussion of issues, possibilities, philosophies, problems—rather than rallying cries to jump on a bandwagon or disputation over a name and its novelty. This is, I believe, a good thing.” I believed that in June 2006 (the quote’s from Perspective: Finding a Balance: Libraries and Librarians in C&I 6:9, July 2006) and I believe it now. As one who probably took as much heat as anyone for “just not getting it.” I believe Bell’s summary is just plain wrong. There was thoughtful examination. We did come to understand the topic better.
There’s more to Bell’s essay, much of which I agree with. For example:
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 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.
I can’t agree with this sentence: “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.” The conversation began long ago and continues to this day. That conversation involves hundreds of people at blogs, in this ejournal, on lists and in library magazines. And, of course, in email, face-to-face, conference programs and other venues.
The comments are interesting. John Meier noted one real ongoing discussion (and set of disagreements) within library blogs, which I’ve recounted in previous issues. Laurence Creider noted the FRBR/RDA debates. Bill Drew agreed that there are problems with discourse—and Blake Carver noted that there is rigorous discourse, “but you have to seek it out.” (He also notes, correctly, that there were bloggers who came to Gorman’s defense.) Ryan Deschamps admits that he’s more focused on making it work than on controversy, but notes some strong blogger disagreements about some aspects of social software. “Librarians may not be on the verge of a hockey fight, but we certainly don’t agree on everything”—as Deschamps knows from personal experience. Matthew Thomas distinguishes between rigorous professional literature (which he admits is lacking) and dissension as such. “Martin” provided the mandatory Old Fogey’s View, dismissing blogs as “little more than someone’s diary” and clarifying that “I have no desire to read your insipid maunderings or plow through your gripe lists or roll my eyes at your meaningless rants,” expressing his preference for a “well-thought-out, well-written academic article, please.” Interesting to find that as a comment on an op-ed piece, and even more interesting that one who explicitly ignores the gray literature can so readily find that it’s entirely worthless.
I commented as well—also ducking issues of academic rigor and the scholarly literature:
But I do have reasonable knowledge of library blogs, and I can’t entirely agree that dissent is either absent or smacked down.
To take the Library 2.0 example, it’s not that there weren’t bloggers who couldn’t see the point. There were. It’s that there was such a spectrum of Library 2.0 definitions and oppositions that it was difficult to carry on a coherent debate. I think I helped in that area by synthesizing much of what had been said, and I believe that discussions moved from somewhat meaningless debates to more meaningful, if perhaps “smaller” issues of appropriateness, diversity and the like.
I see a fair amount of healthy discussion within library blogs (most of which are signed). I also see occasional attempts to gang up on dissenters—but I see that happening less often and being ignored (or stood up to) more often.
One thing tends to warp perceptions on this and it’s not limited to library blogs: If there’s a debate, most commenters on a given post will tend to be on whatever side the post is on. Maybe that’s a good thing: I, for one, would rather see a reasoned refutation of my bad ideas appear on someone else’s blog (with a link) than buried in the comments on my own blog.
I’ll stress that last paragraph. Realistically, RSS assures that most blog readers will not encounter every comment—and, unlike some political, technology and media blogs, most library blogs tend to have relatively few comments. Good discussions take place among different posts more often than within a comment conversation—although I’m delighted to note that Walt at Random and some other blogs offer occasional exceptions to that norm.
Mark Lindner offered “Not disagreeable enough?” on April 28, 2007. Along with a real talent for careful thought, Lindner also has an occasional talent for bluntness, which Bell seems to covet. In this case, Lindner quotes the last sentence of Bell’s first paragraph (also quoted above) and responds:
You want dissent, Steven? Clearly that is complete bullshit! Dissent enough for you, Mr. Bell? I don’t know what parts of the biblioblogosphere you have been following, but you have clearly missed large parts. Unfortunately, much of the dissent has not been over substantial issues. Thus, I fully agree with Mr. Bell’s contention that the level of discourse needs to be raised.
Lindner doesn’t find the rosy picture of general agreement that Bell suggests. He is also visibly unhappy with the op-ed appearing as it did; he doesn’t think “willingness to disagree” is one of the librarianship issues that needs to reach a larger audience…or that raising it externally will encourage more dissent or disagreement, or raise the level of discourse. In comments following that post, I agreed “Some of us who could and should be disagreeing on issues feel less inclined than before to do so, because of the heat we’ve received.” That’s true, and it’s a problem, but at this point I don’t believe it chills discussion in general. Maybe my Candide nature has returned.
Academic librarian Angel Rivera posted “On library discourse?” May 2, 2007 at The gypsy librarian (gypsylibrarian.blogspot.com). Rivera reads the sunny, non-argumentative picture of blogging painted by Bell and wonders “just what corner of the library sector was Mr. Bell hanging out at.” He notes “Gormangate,” ongoing discussions over the value of ALA membership, the conference speaker compensation debate and “the whole 2.0 thing.” Rivera’s view of the level of discussion is less charitable than mine, but we agree that discussion and disagreement are taking place.
Then there’s the library literature, “and maybe there Mr. Bell has a good point. The fact is you can tell pretty much right away that a lot of LIS articles are just librarians writing something for their tenure dossiers. Substance is not always present in the LIS literature...” Whatever battles should be fought “certainly are not getting fought in the library literature.”
The point is that if any controversy does happen in our field, you see it in the blogs. It's the nature of the beast. Blogs are swift and easy to publish. You can get the ball rolling on the controversy du jour fast. And once the A-listers of our profession cover the issue or gripe du jour, it goes down the list like an avalanche, ACRLog included. Sometimes it's polite; sometimes it is not so polite. Academic journals simply do not lend themselves to fast and controversial discussions. If the topic has already visited the library sector of the blogosphere, by the time it gets on a journal, it's pretty much old news.
Then there are lists, where Rivera finds that civility sometimes “gets tossed out the window” as a topic “gets beaten to death.” I subscribe to very few library lists, but I certainly know whereof Rivera speaks.
At this point, it makes sense to include this post, which appeared May 17, 2007 on Walt at Random. Since I’m quoting myself, I’ll incorporate it as text. I’m also including most of most comments, excluding one pseudonymous comment. The “on Monday” comment refers to my “Post-ALA, post-OCLC: What’s next?” post of May 21, 2007, announcing my availability for other work starting October 1, 2007 (an availability that still stands as of this writing). I thought that was relevant since one of the points I make here is that it’s easier to disagree when your economic future is assured—which, realistically, means you’re independently wealthy or have tenure. I was reminded this year that many (most?) of us aren’t in that position, no matter how long we’ve worked somewhere or how much we believe we’ve contributed. Here’s the post:
Deschamps’ post also set off an interesting, sometimes heated discussion–and I may deal with that as part of a cluster about librarians’ willingness to disagree with one another. But not in this installment!
As I commented on Mark’s post, it was on my list–but maybe not with the emphasis Mark is interested in.
The essay, if and when it gets written, would deal with three issues (naturally beginning with Steven Bell’s assertion that librarians don’t disagree enough–a grotesque oversimplification of what he wrote, but hey, this is a pre-essay):
Ø A partial disagreement with the premise, since I do see a fair degree of principled, thoughtful, non-vitriolic, non-ad hominem disagreement within discussions on library issues, here among libloggers at least. But…
Ø It is tough to disagree with some people, either because you perceive them as so powerful that they can do you harm or because they have a tendency to take disagreement badly and have cliques ready to jump on you for disagreeing. I see good, vigorous disagreement within “trusted circles” where we’ve all pretty much agreed that disagreement is OK. I see good, vigorous disagreement with people so remote from the field that they’re unlikely to notice or care. Then there’s that tricky middle section…
Ø It’s also difficult to take issue with popular positions or people when you’re not in a tenured position or independently wealthy or retired or otherwise immune to economic realities.
I’ve become more aware of that third issue recently. “Speaking truth to power” is great fun, when power isn’t likely to make or break your own future. Having the courage of your convictions is wonderful–but, you know, courage doesn’t pay the bills.
I hate even saying that. I might not have been willing to say it, oh, a year ago. And if the issues are important enough, I’d like to believe I wouldn’t say it now. But I’m a little less certain.
I was just going to comment on a near-cliche about situations where heated discussion is common because nothing important is at stake…and I didn’t write the full thing because, well, just because.
When I was putting together the current Cites & Insights it started at 31 pages and I got it down to a nice, neat 28 pages. And then printed it out so I could look at it a day later and see whether I could catch a few of the typos that seem to haunt every issue. (I did–there are five fewer problems in the final issue than there were at the 28-page level.)
But as I was reading it, I got to one full-page section of Making it Work, sharply critical of a particular initiative (not the results so much as the process). Went past it. And stopped. And went back again. Reread it. Thought about the people who might take offense, rightly or wrongly. Thought about the importance of my comments in the overall scheme of things (pretty close to zero, fortunately).
And pulled the page. Then found enough other stuff to pull to bring the issue down to 26 pages.
Much as I hate to admit it, I muted my own disagreement–admittedly, on a relatively trivial issue–because right at the moment I didn’t want to peeve a few dozen people. I saved the content; it’s possible it will emerge in a later issue. It’s more likely that it won’t, either because the thing I was discussing will be of no current interest–or because I still don’t feel ready to “speak truth to power” in this case.
I’m not sure where this is heading. I am sure of this. No matter how long you’ve worked somewhere, no matter how effective you’ve been, you can find yourself jobless for a variety of reasons. And if you’re jobless or think you might become jobless, you may have a different perspective on the necessity for open disagreement on all issues. That may not be noble, it may not even be right, but it’s reality. Particularly for someone who lives from paycheck to paycheck (which is not my case at all–there’s no pity party going on here–but neither are we independently wealthy: funny how that works for two library people with no significant inherited wealth).
So here it is–and this really is just one badly-written piece of what should be a longer essay on disagreement. Mark, it’s a damn shame if people are jumping on for taking an informed stance–and I note that the person you actually disagreed with is not one of those jumping on you. Steven B., first we need to have tenured librarians honestly and articulately disagreeing–and I think we need to recognize that, ahem (oh great, here I go getting into trouble again), much of the informed discussion and disagreement on library issues these days takes place in the relatively informal world of liblogs rather than the formal world of scholarly publications and other periodicals.
I’d love to pledge that I would never back off a position because I thought it might hurt me down the road. But to make that pledge would be dishonest. And that’s a shame.
I do pledge to say what I mean and mean what I say: If I don’t feel I can write honestly and openly about a situation, I’ll try to avoid writing about it at all.
Ø Dorothea Salo: Another protective factor can be working in a weird niche of librarianship that nobody actually cares enough about to disagree violently with. I can “speak truth to power” about OA, insofar as I do, because OA is a small enough, weird enough niche that it’d be hard to put together a posse to shut me up… I learned from my first-job interview process to keep workplace issues off-blog. That, on the whole, I believe was a smart and even healthy choice. I have also learned to moderate my tone somewhat when discussing OA issues, because the [censored] blog keeps getting quoted! I’m still ambivalent about that; my voice in those posts feels less human and less like me, but I also can’t deny that the change creates greater reach and more impact for the blog and for me.
Ø My response: You, of course, are part of that growing circle of “people I know I can disagree with.” And OA seems to have an interesting tradition of people being unwilling to be shut up, no matter how hard (cough SH cough) others might insist that they should shut up and go away. I think I’ve heard of security through obscurity before. Maybe I should try that…or maybe it’s a little late.
Ø Jennifer Macaulay: It may be a shame that you can’t pledge not to back off of something in order to protect yourself, but I would be willing to bet that there are a good number of us with similar sentiments out there. I tend to be overly concerned about how things that I say might impact my livelihood—and censor myself much more than I would like to admit. Additionally, I’m not a confrontational sort of person. I very rarely argue with people who seem to take it poorly—since it seems to be a waste of time and doesn’t produce constructive discourse. There are so many reasons why we so often think twice about what we say and feel compelled to not openly disagree with others. Life teaches hard lessons sometimes. [I responded briefly…]
Ø Mark Lindner: …I hope that you (and everyone, or at least my friends) know that I am in the same boat as to having to throttle back and even outright avoid some discussions. As you say, “I hate even saying that.” But the truth is the truth. My avoidances generally fall into the 2nd issue, which should be fairly evident since all of my blog “heroes” were due to their allowing me into a “trusted circle” of discourse. But the 3rd wanders into my mind on occasion as I learn to adjust to the “realities” of the world and (very) soon to be on the market…. Great point on the tenured librarians showing the way. Not necessarily how, but that it might even be allowed, much less accepted as a part of discourse is the important point.
Ø Pete Smith: I’m careful not to directly discuss my present work situation. I have commented on and disagreed with a prominent commentator on UK public libraries, but I can’t see that harming me—I don’t think he’s that sort of person. I don’t think my future job prospects would be damaged by disagreement with “prominent” libloggers, US based as many are. Circles always form. If you disagree with one part, you disagree with all, and I’ve seen that in various online discussions. Also, our times seem to be marked by a weird sort of non-absolute absolutism—those who are not with us totally are totally against us.
Ø My response: Great statement there–something I’ve talked about but rarely so concisely: “Also, our times seem to be marked by a weird sort of non-absolute absolutism- those who are not with us totally are totally against us.” I’ve run into that time and time again, on topics as diverse as ebooks, the One True Path for Open Access, and copyright–the last from both ends of the spectrum. And, at times, on the Library 2.0/social software area, although less so there as time goes on. In practice, there are lots of powerful and prominent people who I will disagree with openly and without qualms, either because I know them or have a pretty good idea of their character. It’s the slightly less prominent, slightly less powerful people who occasionally worry me. There are at least two kinds of circles. The circle that pleases me is the circle of mutual respect that doesn’t require mutual agreement–which means it’s true mutual respect rather than clique-formation. It’s a big circle and one I’ll try to keep doing my part to make bigger and even more inclusive.
Ø Pete Smith: I think there are circles that form, break and reform as people negotiate. Then there are those made up of people who fear that if any part of the circle goes, it all goes. Maybe geometry isn’t the best source for metaphors A party is better; groups form, break up, reform—but there’s a sense that we’re all at the same party. But some parties are rather more exclusive than others.
I thought that post was a pre-essay. With comments attached, it comes pretty close to being the concluding portion of this essay. Maybe I should leave it at that, but just to reiterate a few points:
Ø Serious disagreement does take place within the library literature, if you include the gray literature of blogs, lists and nonscholarly ejournals like this one. I think you need to include those sources.
Ø Some forces discourage disagreement, including groupthink, excess civility, open hostility to disagreement—and our natural nervousness about finding or keeping jobs. Given that last, it’s only reasonable to suggest that tenured academic librarians should be the first to carry on open, frank discussions that include disagreement: They have less to lose. Yes, I know that’s oversimplified: Even tenure doesn’t mean you’re set for life.
Ø Some forces explicitly encourage civil disagreement, specifically the “circle of frankness” I see growing within the community of library bloggers. We do our best to separate the argument from the person. We know we can be wrong, and we’re willing to hear evidence that we are wrong (or, perhaps more frequently, that there’s more than one “right”). We may pop off from time to time, but we aim for civility combined with frankness. We are among friends, even though some of us may never actually meet.
Ø I haven’t addressed some issues that Mark Lindner and others were hoping I would address. This essay is too long as it stands, and I suspect eliminating significant portions of the quoted material will reduce context enough to result in legitimate claims that I’m quoting out of context. I had to stop somewhere.
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