• A Short Distance Correctly: 13 Ways of (Not) Writing (Contrarian) Librarianship

    May 18, 2011
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    “It’s one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” –Edward Albee, The Zoo Story


    It’s all fun and games until somebody gets locked in her office. By “somebody” I mean “me,” and by “locked in” I mean the deadbolt committed suicide so quietly that until I tried to take my dinner break, nobody realized what had happened.

    As captivities went, it was a cushy one: landline, cell phone, computer with T-1 connection, snacks, water, something to read. On top of that, the walls of my office stop about three feet short of the ceiling, an architectural development that guarantees I will be shushed at least once a week by a patron who does not find my indoor voice charming. Barring the threat of fire or incontinence, I was sitting pretty. So I did what any sensible information professional would do: called for help, then logged into Facebook to leave a witty status update about my predicament.

    After I reassured my supervisor several hundred times that I had not simply locked myself in, the security and custodial staff were summoned to jailbreak me like an iPhone. It must have been a slow day in Reference, for they were soon joined by a clucking, fussing cluster of librarians, some of whom were wringing their hands and muttering dire imprecations about my impending doom.1  It is possible, however, that they were slightly less concerned about my health and well-being as they were about their purses and wallets, which I silently vowed to fling over the wall if need be. Ladders were brought and a repairman nimbly climbed down to begin work on the broken doorknob. After silently panicking over the length of my skirt—professional, but sub-optimal should climbing become necessary—I realized two things:

    1) This would make a hilarious episode of the library-based HBO2 dramedy I fully intend to write someday, and

    2) I could probably blog about it, but nobody would pay attention because I wasn’t singing the praises of ebooks or Twitter.

    Or would they?


    In David Auburn’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, Proof, Catherine, a brilliant mathematician, writes the play’s titular document despite having very little formal education. The possibility that Catherine has inherited her father’s mental illness makes her struggle to be heard and believed even more poignant, for the odds are against her: who would believe that a comparatively unschooled, possibly fragile young woman in her mid-twenties could produce, on her own, a scholarly document to humble the nation’s brightest mathematicians?

    I ponder Catherine’s dilemma as I scroll through my newsreader. Print is dying. Ebooks are the future. QR codes will save us all. Fire the librarians, hire the geeks. Drink the Kool-Aid, brothers and sisters, for our time is short! For the first time since I earned my MLIS I wonder, with a touch of dread, if the other voices I hear in the library profession are not simply figments of my imagination, as opposed to the soulful songs in which I have always sincerely believed, the ones that sing of ethics, social justice, intellectual freedom, physical artifacts, access to government information. Perhaps, like Catherine, I have inherited a madness that will only consume me if I dare to pursue it.

    Every day I feel a little more uncertain about my professional identity, a little bit more of an outsider, an imposter because I, for one, do not welcome our new digital overlords. Perhaps, instead of struggling to make myself heard, I should quietly extend my arm, accept a shot of Thorazine, and go gently into that good night, so that some young Mover and Shaker can take my place at the reference desk.3 I wonder if all the silken, shining threads that led me to the library profession in the first place—print books, high ideals, enduring values, the best of Western culture, the notion of the public good—have meaning and value in a professional discourse seemingly hell-bent on stripping every ounce of soul out of our careers.

    An evil voice in my head chuckles, “Silly girl. Should’ve joined the YALSA set while you could. But now it’s…..too late.” Soul, it would seem, is the province of Youth Services librarians, who still booktalk print novels and pass out bookmarks in the schools, with the understanding that when their patrons become men and women, they will set aside childish things.


    Elsewhere in matters theatrical, I spent the forty days of Lent 2011 writing one-page plays, one per day through Holy Saturday. Although I left the Catholic church long ago, she has never really left me, much in the same way that grapevines never grow far from their trellis, no matter how frequently the grapes themselves fall to the ground.

    I got the idea from Suzan-Lori Parks’s collection, 365 Days, 365 Plays, a collection of one-page plays written over the course of a year. Because the glamorous lifestyle of a “famous” librarian is exhausting, I decide forty will be more than enough, and draft two writer-theatrical friends to play along with me. We gather a list of scene suggestions from our friends and relatives and use a random number generator to select the daily scenario. By virtue of the fact that my co-writers are not librarians, this is, technically, non-library writing.

    I find, however, as I write through the days—stubbornly, with notebook and pen, transcribing to Facebook notes only later, during the editing process—that the library is in every word of dialogue I write, regardless of who my characters are or where the scene takes place. I have learned much about the human condition while sitting behind the reference desk, observed people at their best and worst, been exposed to a hundred different gestures, postures, speech patterns, situations, relationships. Like a Parisian café, the reference room is a never-ending stream of color and sound, mirth and madness, anger and wonder, mystery and discovery.

    I write the library. The library writes me. It is difficult to determine where one process ends and the other begins, if, indeed, said processes can ever be separated. I am a better writer because I am a librarian, and I am a better librarian because I am a writer. Never make me choose.


    “This is Leigh Anne,” my colleague says, introducing me to her latest intern. “She’s our famous librarian. She writes for library blogs.”

    Instantly I recoil, as if kicked. “No. No I’m not. I just…have opinions. And sometimes I share them.” Ah, what a silver-tongued devil am I. No wonder I’m constantly asked to give presentations at my alma mater.

    And of course I am mentally kicking myself for the double fail: insulting a co-worker who was trying to be nice, and dropping the ball on Next-Gen mentoring. But I can also feel my hackles rising, the knee-jerk inner rebellion at the notion that I might be somebody worth emulating. For God’s sake, can’t they see that I’m making it up as I go along? That I’m frightened, every day, about where the profession is going and whether or not I can keep up with it? That I worry about one of our patrons snapping, coming in here with a bazooka, and blowing us all to smithereens? That the only wisdom I could possibly give would sound ridiculous if I said it out loud?

    Breathe. Maintain a joyful mind and an open heart. Be compassionate with everyone who crosses your path. Live in this moment. All you need is now. But most importantly, don’t try to be a librarian like me, or—heaven help us—any “famous” librarian. Figure out what kind of librarian you are, and then be her as best you can, for she is all you ever can be.

    I take a deep breath and smile. “Welcome to the team. I’m sure you’ll learn a lot while you’re here.”


    The scheme was brilliant in its simplicity: assemble a team of library workers and hit the Pittsburgh bar trivia circuit. In a plot twist worthy of a John Hughes movie, said caper resulted in a road trip to Atlantic City and $2,000 in cold, hard cash.4

    Truth being stranger than fiction, it doesn’t surprise me at all that we were able to profit from our storehouse of useless knowledge. What astonishes me, however, is that everyone else in the bar hasn’t quit or tried to beat us up by now. Where is the pleasure for the non-library person in being defeated week after week by people who organize, classify and retrieve knowledge for a living? Perhaps it is the hope of one day beating the know-it-alls, or maybe it’s as simple as this: we define ourselves by those things against which we struggle. In a world where information is both cheap and plentiful, the value of said information rises in direct proportion to its difficulty to organize, classify, and retrieve.


    Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way offers a plethora of exercises for getting unstuck and enhancing creativity. One exercise suggests you compose a list of ten alternate careers you would like to have. I find this both delightful and, considering the current state of the library job market, quite practical.

    In the event that I really am too old and unhip to be an effective librarian anymore, I have crafted a plan B in which I set myself up as a library consultant, or, as I prefer to think of it, a Tough-Love Library Life Coach. My franchise, “Oh Honey, NO,” will be available to other disillusioned library workers, with special discount pricing for anyone who has successfully coped with a patron’s heroin overdose in a public library restroom. Under my expert tutelage, Tough-Love Library Life Coaches will learn how to call shenanigans once a committee meeting has dragged on to its third hour and stage “Girlfriend, PLEASE” interventions with colleagues who refuse to learn how to use a flash drive. Much like Mary Kay, there will be a structured series of incentives, so that you, too may, someday, finally earn that goat farm in Montana as a reward for your willingness to speak truth to power.5


    Another way in which I’m professionally strange is that I would much rather fetch my own reference books than have a clerk go to the stacks for me. Given that reference librarianship involves a great deal of sitting, and sitting kills, is it any wonder I seize any opportunity to scamper about the stacks like a hoyden? With my skirts swooshing about as I dance up and down the stairs, I feel like Atalanta chasing golden apples, or perhaps Artemis, running wild and free in the forest of books and papers that is my home.


    “You helped me one time.”

    I’m washing my hands, and at first I don’t realize that the woman is actually talking to me and not to herself. Do not judge.

    Quietly, stubbornly, she repeats herself. “You helped me. One time.”

    Irritated, I turn my head, customer service smile pasted to my lips. “I’m sorry? I didn’t hear you.”

    Her answering smile is beatific. “You helped me this one time, and now I’m gonna graduate. I got a good job, too. Thank you.”

    Her eyes blaze like coals. She is queenly, serene. She came back to say thank you. I am simultaneously overjoyed and profoundly ashamed of myself. Be kind to everyone you meet, for you may be entertaining angels unawares.  And never forget that you, too, are an angel, perhaps especially when you least feel like one.


    You cannot write the library without writing the librarian. Because the personal is political, we carry our whole selves to work with us every day. Although we repress certain portions of our psyche and call this “professional behavior,” we are, no matter what kind of librarian we are or what sort of institution we work for, a seething mass of contradictions: joyful, angry, frustrated, fearful, arrogant, delighted, compassionate, nerdy.

    At present, there is no room in our professional discourse for creative expression beyond a certain number of limited outlets, unless we christen ourselves Library Mofos or adopt an Annoyed pseudonymous posture of detached superiority. Bad satire and anonymous ranting aside, we have no voice for the collective library shadow. We have no vehicle for expressing that which is unacceptable, no crucible for transforming our imperfections into works of art that might heal our wounds. I deem this unwise, and declare open season on the culture of library science by inviting its poets, artists and madwomen in the attic to bring forth that which is within them, before it destroys them.


    Although I have little use for theory, it occasionally proves helpful. Jacques Derrida, for example, did the world a favor by pointing out that what is not said in a text can be as meaningful and significant as the text’s explicit content. Thanks to deconstruction, we are free to create a new librarianship by examining all that we have steadfastly refused to say, and all the ways we have not explored to say—or not say—it.

    Water finds its own level; I am here, I have decided, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. My role in librarianship is akin to the one I played in high school: to sit in the back of the metaphorical classroom and ask uncomfortable questions in the hopes of someday getting an answer. Why are we in such a hurry to embrace a clinical, digital future in which technologies become our gods instead of our tools? Why do we insist that the future lies in e-readers when census data indicate that, as of 2009, 43 million people lived in poverty?  Why do some academic librarians behave as if public librarians are brainless half-wits, and why do public librarians let them get away with it? Why on earth aren’t more of us unionized? Why does Seth Godin get to dictate what the future of the library should be? What the hell is going on in California, and why isn’t somebody doing something to protect the school librarians from hostile lawyers? Have we all collectively lost our professional minds?

    I don’t expect answers. Just don’t expect me to stop asking questions. I hereby declare library science a deconstruction party, and you are all invited.


    Exhibit A: unlike those in my office, the walls of the Telephone Reference Room go all the way up the ceiling, and are further safeguarded by a sturdy, locked door.  Ergo, anything that happens in the Telephone Reference Room generally stays in the Telephone Reference Room.

    The rest is silence.


    The greatest joy of librarianship is this: after all these years, print books still sing to me.

    E-books do not sing, or, if they do, sing at a pitch I cannot hear, much like the high-frequency whistles that appeal only to dogs. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the digital shadow, I fear no evil. My peers may regard me with horror, much as Prospero and his visitors looked upon Caliban with disgust and disdain. And yet, as I travel through the stacks on my daily rounds:

    Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

    Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

    That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

    Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

    The clouds methought would open and show riches

    Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

    I cried to dream again.

    William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act III, Scene ii. 125-131

    Who, then, is monstrous? Think carefully before you answer.


    At the end of the day, what I really want to do is run through the streets, bellowing, a la Charlton Heston in Soylent Green, “Librarianship is made out of PEOPLE!” Given that public displays of strong emotion frequently prove unsettling to one’s peers–to say nothing of the poor, unsuspecting Muggles outside library walls–I have so far refrained. I do not know, however, how much longer I can hold out.

    Librarianship has, as far as I’m concerned, walked a long way out of its way in a sad, desperate attempt to become something else, something hip, edgy, and shiny that will, ultimately, appeal only to the privileged few who can afford to enjoy it when the for-profit model prevails. It is long past time to come back a short distance correctly, to become, once again, the repository of myth and magic, the sacred shrine of story, the domain of democracy, the labyrinth of legend.

    Who’s with me?

    Suggested Readings For Your Contrarian Journey


    1 The rest were too busy “liking” and commenting on the aforementioned Facebook status update.
    2 It has to be HBO, or another premium channel, due to the language choices and sexual content.
    3 Or, as Hilary pointed out during the editing process, eliminate it altogether
    4 Don’t hate us because we thought of it first. Go thou and do likewise.
    5 Oh, quit that laughing. You’re just jealous because you didn’t think of it first. But fret not: if you hurry, you can get in on the ground floor of my next brilliant idea, Library Job-hunting Boot Camp.

    Leigh Anne would like to thank Renée Alberts, Don Wentworth and Sally Rosen Kindred for their continued support of her creative writing and librarianship.  She would also like to thank Hilary and Eric for serving as lead editors on this piece.

Please read the comment policy before posting: 52 Comments

  • Cathy says:

    My walls are about 10′ from the ceiling-we have an open/industrial floor plan. It’s nice to know I’m not the only librarian who’s had patrons shush her in her own office.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Cathy, I think it’s more common than we know. Library architecture had some interesting moments; price we pay for those high ceilings, I suppose…


  • […] blog post that inspired this was written here (section X is especially good). I started this blog knowing that I would write about libraries, […]

  • Julie says:

    Beautifully put in every way. My favorite sections were VIII and XII.

  • joe grobelny says:

    section X kills it. fight the good fight.

  • Steve Lawson says:

    I deem this unwise, and declare open season on the culture of library science by inviting its poets, artists and madwomen in the attic to bring forth that which is within them, before it destroys them.

    Wonderful–I suggest a visit to the Library Society of the World. I have even used your Soylent Green reference before: LSW is people!

    Regardless, thanks for the thougtful, inspirational post.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Yeah, verily, there is nothing new under the sun! Thanks, Steve – I will definitely stop by. :)


  • Barbara Fister says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you. (And yeah, I’m with you.)

  • Shana says:

    Lovely. I’m with you. (Section X “kills it” for me as well.)

  • Marianne says:


    I loved this. I always love what you write.


    Some of the things that irritate you because of their hip/shiny/privileged aspects are things I care about because I don’t want the value in them to belong only to the hip, shiny, and privileged. I was a poor kid, by several measures, and once the Internet came along, it was as much a sanctuary and exploratorium for me as libraries were. Coded things sing to me much as codices do; I don’t believe ebooks are the (only) future, but I do believe in a future where anyone can read any ebook. If we don’t want libraries to become puppets, we have to make a stand in the places where large multinationals are threatening to turn them into just that.


    When you asked “Who’s with me?” my impulsive answer was “Most librarians.”

    To which I expect your response would be “See section X.”

    Duly noted.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Marianne, thank you for such an eloquent comment. Let me see if I can do it justice…

      I love part II here – it’s amazing to me how we can all respond so differently to the same situations – as one former poor kid to another (and I sometimes forget I am not poor anymore), let me give you mad props for finding a song that could elevate you.

      And thank you for being the first ebook person, EVER, to respond to my frustrations with something compassionate and reasonable. I think part of the reason I get so strident sometimes is that the e-discourse has devolved into “anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.” I find this maddening, but I think we can do both differently and better. :)

      I would love a future where anybody could read any ebook and not have to pay $100 for an ereader (which, in some cases, might force a decision between buying food / paying some bills that month, or entertainment). Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong on that point, believe me…I just don’t like where it’s going…

      This is good. This is getting us somewhere. Thank you again for commenting!!

  • Dan says:

    As someone who loves print, and is hoping to join the profession (while wondering if he will find a position in the same), I thoroughly enjoyed this.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Thank you, Dan! Librarianship is well worth all the effort, if you are willing to fight hard for your pov and carve out your own niche. And we need more people like that, I’m thinking…best of luck to you!


  • Rebekah says:

    Well said. Let’s go get ’em! Every voice is important.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Thank you Rebekah! Here’s hoping more and more voices will come to the table. We need all of us, and all of our gifts, if we are to survive and thrive…

  • Alyssa says:

    As an MLS student about to round the corner on her first year, this post had me screaming “yes! YES!” at my computer. There are many times where I wonder why we’re blindly rushing toward our entirely digital future and cursing ourselves along the way for not getting there sooner. Bad, behind-the-times librarians! Thank you for writing this and reminding me that e-books and social media aren’t our only professional saviors.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      You’re quite welcome, Alyssa – I’m glad you found it encouraging/helpful! Best of luck wtih the rest of your MLS.


  • Penny says:

    Beautiful. I almost cried. Even while I welcome digital stuff, what you’re saying resonates with me.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Penny, thank you. It’s not even so much that I hate digital stuff – I really don’t, and I know how to use it, and teach the patrons who want it how to use it.

      What I’m fed up with is the notion that librarianship must be all one way, and that there’s no room for dissenting voices or viewpoints. I’m sick of having “technology 4EVA!” shoved down my throat. I’m sick of hearing that everything I love doesn’t matter in our brave new digital world. It’s time to bring some soul and humanity back to the library.

      Oh, and dance parties. We need more dance parties. Can’t do that in a virtual library, that’s for sure…

      • “What I’m fed up with is the notion that librarianship must be all one way, and that there’s no room for dissenting voices or viewpoints.”

        Haven’t been back to read the comments, but what you said–not just about librarianship, but about the future, about media, about…

      • “Oh, and dance parties. We need more dance parties. Can’t do that in a virtual library, that’s for sure…”

        Actually you can have a dance party in a virtual library. I have been to dance parties in our Second Life Library.

        While I am one to which code sings, I can emphathize with those who feel technology is being shoved down their throat. At the same time, please don’t yank me by the chain and choke me when I try to delve into it.

  • Leigh Anne,

    Thank you for writing this beautiful post. I hope I do not seem churlish by this response to Section X:

    1) We cannot “create a new librarianship by examining all that all that we have steadfastly refused to say”, nor can we do it simply be asking uncomfortable questions, though each of these actions can be valuable in its own right. We create a new librarianship by learning, reflecting, sharing, experimenting, and then, finally and essentially, DOING. Only that last step truly creates. The new librarianship that we imagine in our minds is but a wisp in the wind until we convert it into effective action.

    2) I embrace a clinical, digital future to the extent to which it is superior to the messy, analog past. In those ways in which it is superior–and in other ways it is inferior!–can we expect our patrons to accept a lesser good because we happen to be fond of it?

    3) Poor people often do have cell phones. They need them for survival. The percentage of cell phones able to double as an e-reader (I am reading Boswell’s _Life of Johnson_ on my iPhone) is only increasing. There might come a time — maybe that time has already come — when we would be providing better service to poor people by allowing them to read library books on their cell phones rather than making them have to protect and return a physical object as they lead their often chaotic lives.

    4) Academic librarians treat public librarians as academic faculty and administrators treat academic librarians. I feel sad for many of them.

    5) Seth Godin does not get to dictate the future of libraries. But his ideas–many of which are excellent–do get to enter the debate. People who disagree with his ideas also get to enter the debate.

    The world that will be is not the world that has been. Librarianship has its technical foundations (the DDC, the LCSH, MARC) and much of the thinking built on those foundations firmly anchored in a world that is now gone and will never return: The world of card catalogs, print-only resources, mainframe computers, and patrons expecting to have to come to the library for service. We do have to re-think from the ground up, we do have to change. The challenge our generation faces is to keep the best of librarianship with us as we adapt ourselves and our libraries to technologies and patron expectations vastly different than those of 1876 (DDC), 1902 (LCSH), and 1968 (MARC). And the path there is to learn, reflect, share, experiment, and then DO.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Steve – thank you for taking the time to write such a deatiled response, and for giving me time to think about what I wanted to say before I answered it.

      1) I disagree that only the doing truly creates. You seem to imply that all the thinking that should take place beforehand has no value. I would argue that far too many librarians thesse days blindly leap into the next shiny trend without thinking about the long-term implications. Thinking and doing should both be valuable parts of the process. Obviously one cannot think forever – eventually, one must act. However, I’m a little dismayed by what I perceive as the blind rush to throw away everything from the past and leap forward into the future without much thought.

      2. Humanity is messy. Period. Full stop. If you are rushing toward the digital future in the hopes that it will somehow tame humankind from its messy state into a more manageable one, you may have a long wait. Gadgets won’t stop people from being people. They are tools only. In fact, there are plenty of ways in which they create more mess and drama:


      So, good luck with that.

      3. Nobody NEEDS a cell phone. Ever. What did we do before cell phones? We used land lines. Just because everybody’s doing something doesn’t make it a need. And I shudder to think about needy families droping a bundle on an iPhone and a data plan, just to keep up with the digital Jonses, when their moneys could be spent far more effectively. I would argue that we have built ourselves a culture of white privilege luxury where wants have suddently morphed into needs simply because “everybody’s doing it.” I frequently go on social media fasts to remind myself that I survived before this period of our lives, and I’ll handle it much better than mos people once the zombie apocalypse / rapture / great power failure kicks in, too.

      4. What you seem to be saying here is that everybody suffers, so I should stay silent about the suffering of public librarians. I would respectfully disagree. You can’t measure pain, and the fact that academic librarians are themselves poorly treated does not give them license to pick on their public peers. That’s like asking for pity for the bully because s/he comes from a broken home. Sad, surely, but doesn’t excuse her/his actions. That being said, the academic librarians who speak poorly of their public peers are in the minority, and I’m proud to know many fine academic librarians. All the bullies are anonymous/pseudonymous anyway…

      5. Seth’s ideas certainly have a place at the table. The problem is, his ideas are taking up too much room at the table because certain flocks of self-designated hip librarians hear a new Godin idea and scream “This is the way it must be!” Anyone with an opposing / alternative viewpoint is looked down on, pitied, or written off as regressive. We have become a discourse of one shiny voice only: be part of the technorati, or you’re useless. If I sound a little bitter, it’s because I resent being treated like a child who doesn’t know what’s good for her, especially when every day I have experiences that belie the notion that you are are right and I am wrong…and based on much of the feedback I’m getting on this post, I’ve touched a nerve with a fair number of people.

      The world will be what we decide it is. I vote for the compassionate, humane, messy world where people use, but are not slaves to, their gadgets. For the record, I use our digital library quite well, and frequently walk people through borrowing ebooks and using online services. That’s a part of my job now, and I’m more than happy to learn. But to say that this is where the future lies only, that there is no need for books, or anything else except gadgets and technology…that is, I fear, where I simply cannot abide.

      One final point – not ALL our patrons will demand these things. A small, privileged group of them will. Not, however, I suspect, the poor and underserved, the persons with disabilities and other special challenges, the small children and their parents (baby’s first e-reader? Quelle horreur!), the current crop of senior citizens (who are decidedly not dead yet), or the thousands upon thousands of people who like gadgets, but don’t want to be forced to give up print either.

      If we could find some middle path where both of us could get what we want without negating the other, that would be awesome. The problem is, I see precious little of that in the library discourse these days. I’m tired of being told that people like me are backwards, wrong and regressive. I will learn and grow, certainly, but I will constantly question and fight for the interests of ALL patrons – not just the digerati.

      • Leigh Anne,

        Your reply leads me to think that you are confusing me with someone else. I hold none of the extreme positions you attribute to me, and am baffled as to how you arrived at most of those conclusions based on what I wrote.

        Because I don’t know where (or why) to start, my only response is to note that a major part of the white privilege you reference is that a white middle-class professional can go through life oblivious to the fact that poor people of color have their own societies, their own ways of thinking, and their own perceptions of the best uses for the money they have. Our white privilege allows us to imagine that we can extrapolate from our own experiences and our own values to understand their lives, their choices, and how they deal with daily challenges that we have never and will never face ourselves; and allows us to in some ways *determine their choices for them* based on how that extrapolation tells us that they should behave, without our having to know or understand that certain signifiers can differ in what they signify and that we would do well to defer judgment about the meaning or worth of a sign until we see it subjected to other interpretations.

        • Leigh Anne says:

          I find it interesting, Steve, that instead of responding to what I actually said, you make the assumption that I must have misunderstood, and that my views must be extreme. If that is your perception, well, you are certainly enttiled to it. I stand by everything I said, however.

          As for white privilege: while it is entirely possible to mistakenly extrapolate, as you say, middle-class professionals who were, at one point in their lives, blue-collar children have a decided advantage in this regard. The intersection of race and class is a funny thing, especially since we Americans aren’t all that keen on admitting we HAVE a class system, or that it still matters…but we do, and it does. It is not perfect, but it is a place from which to begin understanding privilege.

          • Leigh Anne,

            I did not write that your views must be extreme. I wrote that you attributed *to me* views that are extreme, and that there was little or no basis in what I wrote for those attributions.

          • Leigh Anne says:

            Clearly Steve and I will just have to agree to disagree…

  • Lisa says:

    I did find this beautiful, and I did cry. I just started classes for my MLIS two weeks ago, and I feel like a ping-pong ball between despair for the future of physical libraries and books, and exhilaration at the possibilities of the new digital information world.

    For me, it’s about the words and language, whether I read them on a printed page or on my laptop. The written (typed?) word transcends its container and leaps from the page (screen?) and into my soul when it moves me, the same as words always have. E-readers can’t steal their power, and neither will the digital overlords.

    If you were writing this twenty years ago, how many people would read it versus how many people can read it now? You say, “We have no vehicle for expressing that which is unacceptable, no crucible for transforming our imperfections into works of art that might heal our wounds”, yet here you are, creating children of your ideas of which you know naught.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is thanks.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Lisa, what a lovely comment, thank you. And you’re right – we do have more vehicles for expression now. I suppose the difference would be, twenty years ago, nobody except my close friends would have to listen to me rant. I’m very grateful for what technology CAN do. I just don’t think it can save us…

      I started reading Michael Gorman’s The Enduring Library yesterday, and it’s got me feeling a LITTLE bit better…if you haven’t seen it, take a peek. He reminds us, right out of the gate, that all the confusion and frustration some of us are feeling right now have all happened before, and will happen again. Perspective is always a good thing…

      I would still like to see a more organized vehicle of dissent for those of us who don’t want the singularity to happen. I wonder how we could do that? Hmm…

  • Sue says:

    As a newly minted public librarian I just want to thank you so much for writing this. I agree with a lot of it and it’s finely stated guidance :)

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Thanks kindly Sue! Good luck to you on your public library journey – it’s never boring, that’s for certain. ;)

  • David Matthews says:

    Leigh Anne,

    I hadn’t read any long essays from you until this one. I’d made the right choice: “A Short Distance Correctly” amazed me with its thoroughness, its honesty, its humanity, and its footnotes (but then, footnotes always amaze me–DFW lives!). You wrote that print media sing to you; in my case, they caress me. Ever since childhood, when I would visit the library just to read in peace, away from the intellectual dullness of my neighborhood, I have liked the tactile feel of books; they have a solidity that flash drives and CD-ROMs will never have. Books, due to their size and materials, make you aware of their existence, thus making you aware of their content (or their lack of content–e.g., Bill O’Reilly). Even the worst books, the most obscure books, will survive long after the shiny digital toys you write about have disappeared.

    And I definitely agree with your assertion that the technological industry wants to foist shiny digital toys (such as iPhones) upon us, no matter what damage they do to people’s finances or intellects. The tech industry, consciously or not, serves the interest of the Republicratic status quo by distracting society, by moving citizens away from a respect for the written word, and for thinking, in favor of digital brainwashing. Who needs the past with its annoying literary history?

    I bought a cell phone last fall due to certain bureaucratic matters, but I very rarely use it, and when I do, I feel embarrassed, due to the lousy reception (does ANY American cell phone have good reception?)and due to my having to shout in public over the electronic crackle to make myself heard. Cell phones have made people used to not having any privacy, making them more susceptible to governmental intrusions, particularly in the First-Amendment area.

  • Leigh Anne says:

    David, thank you for your kind words and thoughtful comments on the magic of print. While I don’t think formats are necessarily aligned with a particular political party, it’s nice to know that there are people who still feel as I do. In fact, I think there are more of us than one might think.

    Case in point: Amazon was all up in the crowing over the weekend about selling “more” ebooks than print now. In reality, what happened is that, starting in April 2011, they sold 105 digital books for every 100 print books. Hardly a landslide, that. And yet they were trumpeting it to the world as if it were a significant victory. Of course, they are out to make money with their products, so there you go.

    I love technology, but let us use it wisely and well. And hell yes to your privacy reminder, something else technology can strip us of, if we do not use it wisely and well…

  • Ashlee says:

    First off – Leigh Anne – I love your writing style.

    I am fascinated by the start of a discourse between Steve and Leigh Anne, and must admit that I am disappointed that it stopped there. Because I think some interesting things could come out of this. What appears to have happened to me, as an outside reader, is that Steve decided to respond to a few points of the post with alternate ways of seeing things and his seems to come from a place of frustration. And Leigh Anne responds with her own frustration. So now Steve and Leigh Anne are frustrated and can’t hear anything the other is saying. So they stop talking.

    I think because blog posts are so personal and there are personal feelings attached to them, when the least bit of conflict arises on a post, all hell breaks loose. It happens with our famous librarian bloggers all the time. And then others write blog posts on it then it is just exhausting. How about when you read comment threads and the poster hasn’t done anything for 8 hours because they keep responding, getting more and more convinced that they are right and clutching tightly to that notion? Why not just step back and think it through a bit more?

    Leigh Anne, I’ve been reading you in some form or another for a long time now, and I very much believe that you have a much better, graceful, insightful response. Hopefully you’ve realized that you just need to get there and will respond in due time. And Steve, even though I think you missed the point of Leigh Anne’s blog post a bit, I would invite you to come on back and do the same. Continue this dialog and see where it gets us. Because if librarianship is about service and people, it continues to amaze me how not-so-nice us librarians can be to one another.

    • Leigh Anne says:

      On the bright side, at least we’re all using our real names…

      Gallows humor. Gotta love it. Thank you for your comment, Ashlee, which is both perceptive and gracious.

      I think, on a practical level, there comes a time when you just have to walk away. I know I do. I have a feeling Steve and I will never share a worldview. And you know what? That’s okay. It would be an awfully boring world if we all felt the same, or looked at things the same way. We took a stab at it, and weren’t able to speak each other’s languages. Sometimes the point of having an argument isn’t to reach consensus, but simply to be heard. I learned a lot from this conversation too. Some of it validates what I already believed, and some of it has given me fodder for further thought.

      None of it, however, comes attached to any ill will. There’s a price for speaking one’s mind, and part of that price is upsetting people, and being misunderstood. I’m more than happy to pay it. I’m hoping it will encourage other people to say what’s on their minds, too, now that we know nobody dies and nothing catches fire…

      At any rate, thank you for trying to foster peace in our time. You are a class act, and I’m sure your peers and patrons appreciate that. :)

  • […] I’m still kind of tired. And everything coherent I had to say I’ve already said at Lead Pipe this […]

  • Ashlee says:

    Ah, Leigh Anne, you wonderful thing you. Thanks. Your last comment was much needed. All is right in my world now :)

    • Leigh Anne says:

      Oh good! Glad I could facilitate that. ;)

      Seriously. Life’s too short. And besides, I need all my energies for the random flame war I seem to have been drawn into on Goodreads. Sigh. An information maven’s work is never done…;)

  • Shush! says:

    I’m afraid someone in Australia already beat you to the punch in writing a dramedy about Librarianship. It’s called, interestingly enough, “The Librarians” and it airs on ABC (the Aussie version of HBO).


    • LAV says:

      Heard of it – thanks! I think there’s room on tv for another show, esp. one with an American slant. I’m thinking something like Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, with more cussing and sex.

  • RT says:

    The best thing I’ve read in librarianship in a long time. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to read Walt Crawford’s articles “Writing about Reading” in the April and May issues of Cites & Insights. He writes about the mix of print and e-books and the either-or thinking that dominates library writing these days. He critiques that thinking on practical/sensible grounds — which is a helpful antidote. Your essay, on the other hand, injects a needed dose of compassion and political consciousness (that sounds so old fashioned, but I don’t know what else to call it right now).

  • ellie says:

    First, I want to say that this is a beautiful post.

    Most of my thoughts on it are not direct replies to your content, but more to your experience of the overall feelings of the profession, in particular because they do not match mine and I’m interested in that difference in experience.

    I was discussing it with my partner on our drive to dinner before having read the comments. I was saying how I felt that the technology fervor had died down some and that I wondered how much of that was an actual change in the field as a whole and how much of it was a broadening (or maybe narrowing) of my reading and my social circle. I feel in my personal news stream (Facebook, RSS, etc.) I encounter primarily more reasoned, “here is this neat new thing and some of the ways you could use it if you are so inclined” and far less, “oh my God, we must all immediately do X!” Whereas when I was new to the field I felt very much that the latter sentiment is primarily what I encountered and combated (and sometimes admittedly, joined in). I also wonder how much influence there is in the fact that people who are stronger proponents of technology are more likely to use technology to spread their views. Thus the blogs all say X, not because most people think X, but because people who think Y are less likely to blog (or tweet, or friendfeed, or whathaveyou).

    Another thought occurs to me – I have thoroughly ensconced myself in academic librarianship, and more specifically community colleges. I wonder how much that is skewing my perception about what librarians believe. Have academic libraries embraced the idea of admitting publicly when their technologies have failed them in a way that hasn’t caught on with public libraries? Or is my head just buried in one corner of the academic world and the prevailing rhetoric is still, ‘jump on the new shiny’ if I would just look up long enough to notice?

    I like to call myself a technophile luddite. I’ll admit that physical books don’t call or sing to me the way that hypertext does. But I’m not interested in doing away with books either. I worked at a community college where students primarily rejected my offerings of ebooks and online articles, preferring a physical book they could take home. Sometimes it was because they didn’t have a computer at home, sometimes they just didn’t want to stare at a screen any longer, sometimes they were uncomfortable with the technology, sometimes they had already found most of the information they needed, but still had to fill the teacher’s requirement of x number of print resources. Regardless of their reasons, it pushed me to remain a heel dragger against moving too much of our content online. At the same time, we did a user study and found 96% of our respondents had cell phones and a generally high interest in access to a mobile library website. So overall, I’m interested in providing what my users want as opposed to what an outsider says I need to be doing.

    While I don’t always personally turn to paper, I think I hear the same music as you, “singing of ethics, social justice, intellectual freedom, physical artifacts, access to government information” and the importance of people.

  • […] another library link that’s worth a look.  In the Library with the Lead Pipe had this beautiful piece by Leigh Anne Vrabel about writing and […]

  • […] is the authors’ emphasis on fostering constructive criticism and exploration of ideas. One post in particular caught my eye, by Leigh Anne Vrabel. A witty and eloquent writer, Vrabel shares her thoughts on the […]

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