On Semantics, Reality, Learning and Rockstars
A guest post appeared recently on a high-profile liblog, discussing a sometimes-controversial name and set of topics. The blogger dismissed a range of people and criticisms with the following sentence:
It is unfortunate that these critics concern themselves with semantics, while those who are on the so-called bandwagon are working in the spirit of creativity and communication.
Set aside that the writer appears to be saying critics are not acting in the spirit of creativity and communication. That’s such an outrageous stance it’s hard to take seriously. Critics include several who are certainly as creative and communicative as anyone on the “so-called bandwagon.”
What about the first phrase? Since there’s an implied opposition here, I can only assume that communication and semantics are somehow at odds.
The short definition of “semantics,” according to Merriam-Webster’s 10th Collegiate (and Merriam-Webster Online), is “the study of meanings.” For a more “Web 2.0” version, Wikipedia defines semantics as “the study of meaning in communication.” Those old fogeys at Britannica.com call it “the philosophical and scientific study of meaning.”
So what the blogger is actually saying is:
It is unfortunate that these critics concern themselves with the study of meaning in communication, while those who are on the so-called bandwagon are working in the spirit of creativity and communication.
What an interesting opposition. Apparently, we should not care what communication means, only that it occurs. I went to college at UC Berkeley in the ‘60s, and I’d guess some of my classmates could groove on that concept after the right doses of mind-clarifying substances: “Man, who cares what it means? Just say it!”
When someone attempts to dismiss semantics as irrelevant or somehow less than human, my back goes up. To a humanist and particularly to a former rhetoric major, them’s fighting words. Parrots can say words. People associate those words with meaning. In a real sense, semantics is a big part of what makes us human.
I know I should read the post charitably. In the same pile of source material is “Charity,” an April 23, 2008 post by Jenica Rogers-Urbanek at Attempting elegance. Rogers-Urbanek quotes Wikipedia on the philosophical concept of charity in understanding, as follows:
The four principles are:
1. The other uses words in the ordinary way;
2. The other makes true statements;
3. The other makes valid arguments;
4. The other says something interesting.
What can we say here?
Ø The ordinary meaning of “semantics” is “the study of meaning” or “the study of meaning in communications.”
Ø Given that meaning, the sentence is either oxymoronic or nonsensical. Either of which means there is no valid argument—and it’s hard to interpret that as interesting.
My own naïve interpretation of “charitable reading” doesn’t use those four principles. Instead, it could be summarized as “Assuming good intentions on the part of the writer, intentions that may be betrayed by imperfect writing.” In this case, that means assuming the writer intended to say something meaningful and constructive.
That doesn’t work either. The sentence clearly attempts to dismiss all but one view of a contentious area by trivializing criticism. I can find no way to read the sentence constructively. It’s a handwave, pure and simple—but as a handwave, it’s betrayed by a failure to understand the meaning of the word “semantics.”
If the intention is to dismiss critics by saying the name doesn’t matter, the writer should have used “terminology” rather than “semantics.” And the problem with that is that some critics object to the name because we don’t think there’s a thing that it names. Calling “it” something else—“Sam,” for example—wouldn’t help. There still wouldn’t be a there there. In fact, it is not an argument about choice of words: that part of the argument is about meaning. It is semantics—and that’s a good thing to consider, for anyone who calls themselves a librarian.
While I think charitable reading is a great idea, as long as it’s applied to all of us, not just those on one side of a discussion, I believe a big chunk of communication needs to be read uncharitably: advertising, spam, phishing, most political communications. For those communications, you need skeptical reading, with these assumptions:
1. The writer manipulates words with little regard for semantics;
2. The writer makes statements that may (or may not) be factual but may not be true;
3. The writer makes arguments that appear logical;
4. The writer says something intended to catch your attention.
None of which has anything to do with the “semantics” handwave just discussed, but might serve as the bridge to the second in this cluster of mini-perspectives (for that is what this is).
One unfortunate undercurrent in the various discussions surrounding change and continuity has to do with lifelong learning for library people. Why “unfortunate”? I’ll get to that shortly: This is really a blog post disguised as part of a Perspective to gain wider readership.
On one hand, you get people saying every librarian needs to learn A and B and C and…well, you know, into the dozens. The answer to that is generally Nonsense, for several reasons:
Ø While each library above a certain size may need to have someone familiar with each item in a list, that doesn’t mean every person or every professional in the library needs to be familiar with every item. Very few cataloging gurus assert that every reference librarian and every rural/small library director needs intimate familiarity with RDA. It’s equally reasonable to suggest that some technical services librarians don’t need to be able to install wikis.
Ø For many of us, detailed learning substantially before the point of use is mostly wasted. We forget details and maybe even broad strokes. How’s your calculus these days? We need to be able to find out what we need to know when (or ideally, shortly before) we need to know it. Nothing new here either. One new thing, maybe: Some things that we’re told everybody needs to learn almost certainly will disappear or become irrelevant before many of us have the chance to put that learning to use. (How’s your understanding of Gopher navigation techniques? Updated your Orkut and Friendster profiles lately?)
Ø Most of us don’t have time to learn everything that might be useful for us, just as most of us don’t have time to keep up with as much formal and informal literature as might serve us well.
But there’s a huge caveat here. A huge caveat:
You don’t have to learn everything—but you do need to keep learning something.
Dorothea Salo objects to the comment “I don’t have time to learn all this!” She’s been writing about difficulties getting librarians to pay attention to issues that do affect them and notes this as one response. (The post is also about different learning styles—the notion that some people learn better in a “steady stream” of daily reading while others prefer the “single spray” method, attending a conference or workshop to pick up a lot of stuff at one point. I think she makes an excellent point—people needing to spread the word in some important areas may need to make more effort to reach those who primarily learn at conferences. All I have to say about the post as a whole is “I agree.” I’m expanding on one comment here.)
I can think of a way to hear that comment charitably, although I suspect it’s being a little too charitable. If a person is saying, “I don’t have time to learn all this,” that may sometimes be right: The person simply may not have room (time, focus, concentration) for a big learning agenda at the moment. But I don’t believe that’s what Salo’s objecting to, and I don’t think that’s what’s usually being said. What I hear, a bit less charitably, is “I don’t have time to learn any of this,” which translates to “I don’t think I need to keep learning.”
And that is simply not acceptable for anyone who calls themselves professional.
You don’t have to learn everything—but you do need to keep learning something.
So why did I say unfortunate? Because it’s easy to conflate two “don’t have time to learn” situations:
Ø This is too much for me to take in all at once, and some of it doesn’t apply right now or soon enough for me to retain the learning. That’s frequently valid and leaves room to find a comfort level, where learning appears more directly useful and doesn’t require loads of energy.
Ø I’ve learned enough. I don’t want to learn any more. Not acceptable. Not acceptable for professional librarians—and, I believe, not acceptable for anyone working long-term in the library field, professional or otherwise. That attitude wouldn’t be acceptable for doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers or accountants. Why should it be acceptable for library people?
Maybe this does loop back to the first discussion, which was (of course) about “Library 2.0.” Consider the very first paragraph of the very first page of Balanced Libraries: Thoughts on Continuity and Change:
A library system that stands still is unbalanced and headed for trouble. A library staff obsessed with Hot New Things and aiming for new users at the expense of familiar services and existing patrons is unbalanced and headed for trouble. Very few libraries fall into either extreme, but sometimes it seems as though we’re urged toward one extreme.
Maybe I’m naïve here as well. I doubt that there are any significant numbers of libraries that look like the second strawman—but I wonder how many libraries (that is, library staffs) really do, to all intents and purposes, appear to be standing still? Let’s set this out as an opposition as well:
Ø I don’t want to sign up for the whole set of stuff called Library 2.0. You get no argument from me. Maybe your library shouldn’t be gaming. Maybe your patrons wouldn’t respond to social networking initiatives. Maybe you don’t have the staff to maintain a blog and don’t have any problem for which a wiki is a solution.
Ø I don’t want any of this Library 2.0 stuff. Our library’s fine, just fine. We don’t need to examine our operations, find better ways to stay in touch with our community or consider new technologies to support our routines. Now you get a big argument from me. I’m all for continuity, but continuity without awareness and change isn’t continuity: It’s rigidity—easily confused with rigor mortis. Even the smallest library staff needs to step back from time to time to look at how things are going, whether the library’s serving and effectively involving its community, and whether new tools could improve situations. Think you’re too small? The Wetmore Public Library (Kansas) and Seldovia Public Library (Alaska) serve communities of 362 people and 286 people respectively. Both libraries use blogs to good effect—to create an online presence they almost certainly couldn’t provide otherwise.
You don’t have to do it all (just as you may not be able to have it all). But you do have to do something—or at least make sure that you’re doing the best you can. That involves lifelong learning. That’s one of many things good public libraries support, and it’s an essential aspect of being a good library person.
I’m preaching to the choir—but maybe you can pass this particular sermon along to those who might think that old traditionalist Crawford is saying it’s OK for them to do nothing at all. They’re wrong.
If you’ve never heard of the Annals of Improbable Research, you should. The slogan: “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.” Or maybe it’s “The journal of record for inflated research and personalities.” AIR is home of the Ig Nobel prizes and the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. Publications include the magazine and the mini-AIR newsletter. The primary site is http://improbable.com, which is also the address of AIR’s blog, Improbable research.
All of which is preface to some items that appeared on that blog regarding the world’s most prolific author, Philip M. Parker. He’s written more than 85,000 books—or maybe it’s more than 200,000. Except that one could reasonably raise two objections, the second maybe more interesting than the first:
Ø The process Parker invented (and, naturally, patented) to create these books can only be called authorship by an extremely broad definition. A book-writing machine writes the books, and even “writing” may not be the proper term for what appears to be an assembly process.
Ø It’s not clear how many of these books exist, since they’re not actually assembled—much less printed—until there’s an order. In other words, there may be more than 200,000 titles, but it’s not clear how many of those titles have ever resulted in printed pages bound in book form (or final PDFs purchased as downloads).
The magazine is now open access (it wasn’t always), although you don’t get high-res images in what AIR calls the “free, cheesy low-res PDF format” or the “low-res images and minimal formatting” HTML versions. (This isn’t a traditional scholarly journal, and in any case the subscription price for the bimonthly is only $25 a year for PDF, $35 for mailed print.) The March-April 2008 issue, a special issue on writing research, runs 36 pages in PDF form. That includes four related articles on the remarkable work of Dr. Parker: “How to write 85,000 books,” “Dr. Parker’s latent library and the death of the author,” “Dr. Parker’s bird books,” and “May we recommend: Parker titles.” (Two of the four articles are by Ig Nobel winners—generally serious scholars who don’t take themselves too seriously.)
You should read the whole section and think about the reality of latent books and machine “authorship.” (What the heck, you can continue on to a more, um, typical article: “How to write an interdisciplinary research paper: planning for retirement by solving time travel paradoxes using open book management in nearby disk galaxies,” by Eric Schulman, Eric Schulman, Eric Schulman and Eric Schulman—an odd article written (or assembled?) by four authors with the same name.
But I digress—which happens a lot when you start messing with AIR. Back to Philip M. Parker. He’s only been “writing” these books for about five years. The books can be extremely short or very long—e.g., The 2007-2012 Outlook for Bathroom Toilet Brushes and Holders is 677 pages, but it also sells for $495, while The 2007 Import and Export Market for Electrical Relays Used with Circuits of Up to 1,000 Volts in Ireland—apparently Parker’s best seller on Amazon on May 1, 2008—sells for a mere $66 (but it’s only 34 pages).
Parker wrote three books the “old-fashioned way,” but that’s so slow. Meanwhile, as the first of the four articles notes, he’s “written” 188 books on shoes, 10 on ships, 219 on wax... and he apparently plans to use his “writing” system to create video programs and video games by the hundreds or thousands. He makes a case for the social benefit of his writing machine (basically a set of algorithms and a whole bunch of databases):
If I am lucky, this will allow the creation of content (educational material, books, software, etc.) for languages (or for subject areas) that simply do not have enough speakers, or economies that can support traditional publishing or content creation. For example, in health care, some diseases have fewer than 1,000 people who get the disease worldwide per year. Of those, only 1 or 2 might want a reference book. Using this method, the break even for a book is 1 copy, with no inventory cost (all books are either printed on demand, or distributed via ebook).
Parker says it costs about $0.23 to “write” each book.
The second article in the cluster on Parker is the most impressive. Chris McManus’ philosophical inquiry goes way beyond boring old pomo literary criticism:
The really interesting question about someone who has been described as “the most prolific author in history” now concerns the trickier question of whether, in any meaningful sense, this author—or what Barthes would call a “scriptor”—has ever actually been alive.
Not whether there is a person named Philip M. Parker, but whether there is an author for these books—and whether you can call most of them books:
In most or perhaps even nearly all cases these books seem never to have been printed, seen by their ostensible publisher, or seen by a single reader. Maybe there are even titles that have never been clicked upon on Amazon.com. Now that really is post-modern.
Most Lulu authors order their own copy before approving a book for sale. CreateSpace appears to require that you do so. Parker’s Icon Publishing is doing something else: The many titles appear mostly to consist of books that don’t yet exist, that will come into being—not only the print pages within a cover, but the sequence of words that could be called the text—only after they’ve been ordered. McManus takes one “book” at random, the $56 28-page paperback, The 2007 Import and Export Market for Wool Grease, Fatty Substances Derived from Wool Grease, and Lanolin Excluding Crude Wool Grease in Brazil. McManus couldn’t find it in any library and there’s no indication that anyone’s ever purchased it.
There lurks a philosophical conundrum. As with the tree that falls to the ground in a lonely forest, unheard by any sentient being, can it be said to make a sound? Or in the koan’s 21th century form, if such a title evokes from Google the response ‘did not match any documents,” does it exist?
There’s more to the utterly charming story. And, of course, there are ever more books from Parker.
You’re on your own for the last two articles—one focusing on Parker’s bird-related books and one offering a few highlights and noting Amazon reviews for a handful of Parker books. I should note that some of the co”authored” books on medical conditions have sold hundreds or thousands of copies. They may very well offer good value to those who buy them. So, for that matter, might thousands of books that are never purchased by more than one entity. And, after all, who can resist a title like The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Hip-Hop Ringtones? (235 pages, $795, no sales information at Amazon, “two new and used copies”—but they’re both from divisions of Amazon.
You’re waiting for me to relate this to the first two mini-perspectives? For that, you’ll have to buy 2008-2012 Regional Outlook for Misleading Connections between Libraries and Innovative Publishing in North America. It costs $795. Let me know if you’d like to order it.
Now that we’re dealing with matters of high import, why not take a quick look at a conversation of sorts that took place in five posts on five liblogs over four days—except that I see an interesting precursor two months earlier on a sixth liblog (and I’m sure there are related branches elsewhere). To encourage charitable reading, I’m going to add a couple of notes up front:
Ø Although I don’t believe I’ve met all of them in person, I regard all six of these libloggers as friends—and the best kind of friends: Those who don’t always agree with me (or vice-versa) and who make me think, sometimes causing me to change my mind. They’re all articulate, they all have things to say that are worth saying, I try to read all of them carefully.
Ø I’m not a library rockstar by any plausible definition, although I’m also far from invisible. There have been times when I felt bad about the first half of that sentence. I was wrong.
Let’s skim through these notes with just a little added commentary.
Here’s how Jenica Rogers-Urbanek put it in this February 3, 2008 post at Attempting elegance (rogersurbanek.wordpress.com):
Once upon a time when I was a baby librarian, my first boss made noises about how I could publish things to get tenure, or I could do local and regional committee work instead. The implication in her encouragement of the regional path was that serious publishing was out of the range of a technical services librarian at an institution of our size, and thus I thought that getting published in The Literature was the pinnacle of awesomeness.
Now? Her complimentary copies of portal with her latest article arrive—and she’s proud, but it’s not a life-changing event. And she’s not just writing articles:
I’m also working with the fantastic Amanda Etches-Johnson, Jason Griffey, Chad Boeninger, and Meredith Farkas on the Academic Library 2.0 preconference at Computers in Libraries. While small, it’s still a national conference, presenting with people I respect a great deal, about fascinating and cool stuff. That version of me who didn’t know how to look beyond running regional training sessions on using Innovative’s serials module and chairing the local cataloging standards committee… she’d be stunned by where I stand now, and the things I’m doing. She’d think it was outstanding.
It feels normal… In one sense, it’s just who I am and who I’ve grown into as I’ve moved through my professional life—I can present with ease, I think I have something useful to say, and my professional writing skills continue to improve. My confidence in my abilities, knowledge, and perspective has increased, and thus I’ve learned to value my opinions and want to offer them to others to consider and dissect as a contribution to the field. On the other hand, I’ve also become utterly jaded in the knowledge that we’re all just winging it—those people I hold up as ‘experts,’ ‘rock stars’ and ‘leaders’? I know now that they’re all making it up as they go along, too, just drawing on their own self-confidence in their learning, knowing, and doing to share with others as they’re able. [Emphasis added.]
So here I am. Contributing to the field, writing for publication, jumping through hoops and fighting the good fight. It feels less important than it did with my star-spangled newbie eyes…but it’s still pretty satisfying.
As I commented at the time, specifically referring to the last three sentences in the next-to-last paragraph: “Ah, grasshopper, you have learned the essential lesson and stated it nicely.”
Maybe that’s all there is to be said. If you have things to offer, you should try offering them—and realize that, to some extent, we’re all making it up as we go along. But that isn’t all there is to be said, which brings us two months forward to:
By most library standards, Meredith Farkas is a rockstar, or close to it. Some of what she has to say about all this, from her April 20, 2008 post at Information wants to be free (meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/), with [interpolations] to save space and with great examples omitted (the original’s much better reading):
Every few months, I get an email from someone in library school or a new librarian basically asking me how I’ve accomplished all that I have [outside of work] in this profession in three years and how they can do the same. It’s an awkward question to answer, because there are always so many factors that come into play to create success, and a lot of them (the luck, the right place/right time, and the knowing the right people elements) are difficult to replicate… Frankly, I can’t explain how it all happened myself… [But I’ll try.]
I may be wrong, but I think that most of the people who end up “movers and shakers” in the profession…didn’t explicitly try to become movers and shakers. I started blogging because I had strong opinions and a lot of ideas about the profession, and I wasn’t having the sort of discussions I’d hoped for in library school. Blogging helped me process my own ideas and, eventually, got discussions started between me and other people interested in the same things. I think when you do something out of a passion for it, it shows. When you do something because you want to get noticed or you want accolades, there’s a very strong possibility it won’t happen… My experiences with these people tells me that most of them are extremely genuine and committed to contributing to the profession.
[Some cases] also point to something else: seeing an unfilled need and filling it…I created the ALA Chicago Wiki in 2005 because I was frustrated by the lack of information about the conference other than what ALA was putting out.. I would have been tickled if just a few librarians had added their two cents (better than me just putting in what I know), but the wiki received thousands and thousands of edits by hundreds of librarians. It ended up becoming this incredibly rich guide to the conference because of the efforts of so many people. It exceeded my wildest dreams. That wiki (and the Library Success Wiki) led to my being noticed by a number of influential bloggers and folks at WebJunction… [and resulted in various other opportunities]… There are still so many unfilled needs in the profession. It just takes someone who notices a need and is willing to put in the time.
And time is what all this takes… We spend our free time writing, speaking, and networking online with folks who have similar professional interests. We often spend our own money to go to conferences in our areas of interest. ..
So I guess my advice is to focus on what you are passionate about and have the guts to put yourself out there… Most of all, be great at your job. While I’m happy with all the things I’ve done outside of work, I’m most proud of the things I’ve accomplished at my 9 to 5 job… Being great at what you do and balancing that with other contributions to the profession is what will make you advance…
Skipping over the comments that, one way or another, agree with Farkas, it’s worth quoting part of Steven Bell’s comment: “Passion is important but you also need a good idea and the ability to communicate it to others in a ‘sticky’ way—so it’s memorable.”
I’m not going to poke holes in Farkas’ discussion, partly because I agree with most of it. I wrote my first (and, for a long time, my most important) book because there was a need that nobody else seemed ready to fill. I wasn’t ready to spend my own money on conferences (still don’t), which doubtless limited opportunities—but I did spend my own time and money on this ejournal, and that’s had interesting and surprising results.
But still…there’s a little more to it.
That’s Greg Schwartz’ title for this April 20, 2008 Open stacks post (openstacks.net/os/). He extracts an indirect question from Farkas’ post and responds in part:
The ultimate question from the post: “What advice would you offer a new librarian looking to start speaking, writing and networking on a national level?”
There’s a part of me that says they have the wrong goal in mind (excepting the networking part). As Meredith said, most people who are seen as movers and shakers didn’t set out to be movers and shakers.
But there’s the other part of me that says there aren’t any barriers to writing on a national or global level, so what’s the issue? Just do it. That’s how I got started. There are so very few impediments to self-publishing online that it’s unfathomable that anyone who wants to be writing isn’t doing it.
But as I said, I’m not sure I can recommend focusing on speaking and writing as a goal in and of itself for the new librarian. Following the sage wisdom of Walt Crawford, first have something to say. Figure out what gets you excited in the profession (or outside of it!) and write about it. Get that blog started. Share your passion. Share your experiences. But remember that the writing, while immensely valuable, is not the experience itself, at least not for most newbies…
If I can be said to be on the right path to “making a name for myself” in library land, I attribute it to two things: good timing and, exactly as Meredith said, “seeing an unfilled need and filling it.”…
[Schwartz recounts his good timing in making liblogs known and in being an early library podcaster.]
…In the end, I agree with Meredith: Writing and speaking have been benefits of being passionate, curious, motivated and willing to put myself out there. I didn’t set out to be a writer/speaker. I still don’t think of myself that way. In fact, one of the main draws of librarianship was the opportunity to “do the research and not write the paper.” But that’s a different blog post for another day.
Schwartz identifies timing as an issue. It’s not always straightforward, but it is significant. While this post is, to some extent, an extended comment on Farkas’ post, it’s worth reading on its own—as are the two comments. The second, from Connie Crosby raises an interesting point, one with which I’m acutely familiar:
The blogging and the speaking and the writing on a national level do not translate into success or reward on the job [with rare exceptions]. The job success is its own separate pursuit that requires just as much care and attention.
Crosby isn’t wild about this reality: “If you are seen as having expertise in the profession by most of you colleagues, it should translate into expertise on the job. You’d think.” Wouldn’t you?
Dorothea Salo’s April 22, 2008 post at Caveat lector (cavlec.yarinareth.net) adds more to the story Farkas tells. Excerpts:
I am not a rock star in librarianship. Meredith and I both have second master’s, graduated at the same time, got jobs at the same time, blogged about getting jobs at the same time, got interested in social software at the same time (well, okay, I started blogging first, but that’s irrelevant)—and she’s a rock star and I’m not. Let’s pick through that a moment.
First of all, everything in Meredith’s post is absolutely true… Second of all, I don’t think Meredith and I are all that far apart in raw talent…. Third of all, I’ve done nearly everything Meredith mentions. (Including spend money, gah. Like water sometimes.) Nobody’s ever accused me of a lack of passion!
But for me, that didn’t turn out to be enough. Hmmmm.
Let’s be frank. Some of it is right-place-right-time-right-topic caprice. The spotlight hit wikis just as Meredith did. She didn’t plan that; she couldn’t have… As for me, institutional repositories don’t have a spotlight, and very likely never will. So I could make all the right moves…. and still never be a rockstar. Nota bene, this is not an argument about who “deserves” rockstardom, not least because I find such arguments virulently poisonous; it’s an argument about who gets it, and a plea to people not to beat themselves up if they don’t. Sometimes it’s really, truly not you.
[A discussion of appearance, ethnicity and sex follows. I don’t deny any of it, but I’m skipping it.]
Certain demeanor expectations also operate in the rockstar realm. Library rockstars are, logically enough, what we think librarians ought to be: genial, fun, optimistic, helpful, gregarious, pleasant people—but not too in-your-face about anything…[and not deeply anti-establishment]. Think about the library rockstars you know, and see if I’m not mostly right. Now me, I violate these norms regularly onblog, on-mailing-list, and in my speaking and writing. I don’t see how there can be any doubt in this world that it’s made me an unlikely candidate for rockstardom.
I’m not alone. I have good friends in librarianship who are just that leetle bit too iconoclastic to be rockstars… They find their places, most of them, as I’ve found mine; sometimes very high places... More power to ’em; sometimes a damn good hole-poking skeptic is worth a dozen rockstars. But sometimes they chafe. Sometimes I chafe. Rockstars tend to keep their chafing to themselves, or to a tight circle of friends…
Look, folks, rockstardom isn’t the only face of success… In spite of everything, I am quite as successful as I need or want to be. I found work in my heart’s home. When I need to say something serious about what I do, I can get it said and hearkened to, here or even (to my own surprise) in The Literature… In spite of the people I’ve alienated (and they are not few), I have my own network of well-loved colleagues and friends; I’ve never been lonely in this marvelous profession…
Most of all, I have the luxury of defining success for myself. I fully and freely acknowledge that non-tenure-track academic librarianship has its discontents, but they pale to insignificance beside the phenomenal freedom of picking my own goalposts…
Maybe I should quote the entire post, noting that I’m not ready to argue against any of it. At one point, I thought she might be referring to me in a parenthetical comment, but I don’t think that’s true. As to what I did include, I believe it adds to Farkas’ story in a way that’s worth hearing.
I regard Salo as important in the subfield of open access related to library-governed institutional repositories, and in open access as a whole. That may not make her a rockstar. It does make her nationally and internationally significant. She’s already accomplished much, and I expect her to accomplish more. But rockstar? Probably not.
So says Laura Crossett in an April 24, 2008 post at lis.dom (www.newrambler.net/lisdom/). She comments on Farkas’ post (which mentions Crossett, in section I omitted) and Salo (who, Crossett says, “says things that are so true they hurt—though I mean that as a compliment”). And what of Crossett herself?
I do not generally get questions about how to become a rock star (in fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve never gotten one). Since I’m not particularly a rock star, this doesn’t bother me, although I will add, for the benefit of anyone hoping to glean such information from this little ditty, that moving to a town of 351 people is not really the best way to go about rockstardom…
In the course of thinking about all these things, though, it has occurred to me that perhaps the way I go about things is a little peculiar. I am the branch manager of a tiny public/school library… There’s really very little call for me to know much about open access, or link resolvers, or college-level bibliographic instruction, or any of the other things that I spend time reading about almost every day.
There’s no call for me to know all of that as the Meeteetse librarian, it’s true, but I feel there’s plenty of call for me to know it simply as a librarian. I can’t advocate for net neutrality or open access as a member of my profession if I don’t know what they are or how they affect it. And, quite frankly, like Dorothea, I can’t imagine going through day by day without at least trying to learn something.
I omitted a list of what it is a very-small-library head really does. In Crossett’s case, if you’re a library person and have ever heard of “Meeteetse,” there’s a pretty good chance it’s because of Crossett. She’s one of several proofs that being in small and fairly obscure place doesn’t prevent you from being known and heard around the nation and around the world. Particularly if you have something to say and are willing to say it.
John Dupuis brings together three related but non-synonymous terms in this April 24, 2008 post at Confessions of a science librarian (jupuis.blogspot.com). Indulging in a bit of preliminary egotism here, I’ll claim to have influence and, sometimes, a touch of notoriety, even though I’ll never be a rockstar. Similarly, I think Crossett and Salo both have influence. Dupuis bases this post partly on Farkas’ post (which he labels “how to become an important person”) and says, in part:
In a reputation economy, our personal levels of fame and influence are extremely important. It's what gets us jobs, in the front of the line for plum speaking gigs, interesting/influential committee appointments and the best freebies and perqs. It's how you know who the opinion leaders and gatekeepers are. In other words, it opens doors that wouldn't otherwise be open to us…
It seems that a lot of people are thinking about what it means to be an Important Person these days…
Dupuis quotes Farkas and Salo—and goes on to note some problems:
But clearly, a reputation economy also has potential for inequalities just like any other. What if people who deserve to get fame and influence are denied it just because of their gender? What if you were a physicist and all the men were given the plum assignments when they clearly don't deserve it? It seems that the gatekeepers of a community can use their influence unfairly.
He cites a study related to particle physics (and the people who research it), suggesting strongly that “the awarding of conference presentations was grossly gender biased” relative to actual research productivity—and conference presentations loom large in terms of reputation.
For himself, Dupuis says he’s fine with a small core audience and a “modest level of fame” split between the science and library domains, “which I actually think is pretty cool and which suits my interests just fine.”
Not many and not certain. Yes, there are rockstars in our field. We might differ as to our specific lists, but they exist. I’m inclined to believe most of them didn’t set out to become rockstars, although I suspect there are exceptions (I’ve long since apologized for “shameless self-promotion”: It’s the kind of phrase used by an introvert who’s lousy at self-promotion). I’ve known for a long time that life wasn’t fair, and I suspect I’ve benefitted from that unfairness at times.
I always used to say that, in America (by which I mean the United States), if what you wanted more than anything else in life was to be wealthy, you could probably manage it. That may be less true now than in the past, but there’s still some truth to it: If money matters more to you than friends, ethics, morality, legality, health and everything else, there’s a good chance you can pull in a big bunch o’ bucks. Is it worth it? For most of us, no.
Similarly, if what you want more than anything else is to be famous (at least within a specialized field), you can probably manage that—at least for a while. I’d like to think none of libraryland’s rockstars fall into that sad category.
Otherwise, you probably are better off doing the things you care about—and finding the self-confidence to put them out there for inspection, even if your inclination is to keep that light firmly hidden under a basket. Lightning might strike and you might become a rockstar; you might or might not get singed by that lightning. More often, you won’t be in wild demand on the speaking circuit, you won’t have loads of Dedicated Followers—but there’s a good chance you’ll make a name for what you do well. And can be proud of doing so. There are worse fates.
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